Category: Fiction

Deadly Little Scandals (Debutantes #2)

Cover image for Deadly Little Scandals by Jennifer Lynn Barnesby Jennifer Lynn Barnes

ISBN 978-1-3680-1517-2

 “I couldn’t forgive my mom for deceiving me, but every day, I got up and let Aunt Olivia and Lily and John David go about life like normal. It was hard not to feel like the apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree.”

Last year, Sawyer Taft became a debutante, infiltrating the high society world her mother left behind, for the sole purpose of finding her biological father, the man who was responsible for the teen pregnancy that got Ellie Taft disowned. Of course, it didn’t hurt that her grandmother Lillian Taft was also offering Sawyer a trust fund that would more than pay her college tuition. But the family secrets she uncovered ended up being more than Sawyer bargained for, and the revelation of her birth father’s true identity threatens to destroy the family she has only just regained. So when her cousin Lily convinces her to participate in the pledge process of an elusive secret society composed solely of women, known as the White Gloves, Sawyer throws herself into the distraction. After all, these well connected women from her mother’s world might just have the answers to the unsolved half of Sawyer’s mystery—what happened to the other girl who got pregnant at the same time as Ellie, and where is her baby now?

After the events of Little White Lies, Sawyer is still grappling with the revelation that her Uncle JD, Aunt Olivia’s husband, and Lily’s dad, is her dad, too. Her mother had long led her to suspect that Senator Ames was her real father, but the events surrounding his downfall and arrest led to the awful truth. Sawyer can’t bring herself to tell Lily and Aunt Olivia what she knows, but the fact that her then twenty-three-year-old uncle slept with her then eighteen-year-old mother, who was deliberately trying to get pregnant as part of a pact with two other girls, has threatened to bring Sawyer’s world crashing down around her, and challenged everything she thought she knew about herself and her family. To be honest, the revelation of the pregnancy pact from book one continued to squick me out in book two, and the fact that Ellie was technically of age didn’t make the situation feel any less icky. Sawyer is similarly disturbed, and becomes increasingly desperate to find the one other child in the world who came into existence the same way, and might be able to relate to her plight. But her mother’s friend Ana proves elusive, and her child even more so.

Like the previous volume, the main part of the story is intercut with flash forwards, which feature Sawyer and Sadie-Grace trapped at the bottom of a hole, waiting for the drugs that are immobilizing them to wear off. The main part of the action takes place over the course of a summer, which the Taft family spends at their summer home on Regal Lake. Lily, Sawyer, Sadie-Grace and Campbell are all trying to pledge the White Gloves, but only eight new girls will be chosen. However, Deadly Little Scandals incorporates a third timeline as well. Set twenty-five years earlier, it features the parents of many of the main characters, in the summer after Edward Taft’s death, and before their senior year of high school. Jennifer Lynn Barnes carefully balances the three intertwining parts to a twisty conclusion, as old secrets finally come to light.

After spending Little White Lies carefully building up Sawyer’s friendships, and rebuilding her extended family, Barnes threatens to tear it all down in Deadly Little Scandals. The “perfect” family that Sawyer found a place in against all the odds isn’t so perfect after all, but Sawyer is afraid to be the one who causes it to implode, even as her secret festers. She despises her mother for keeping the secret for so long, but somehow ends up joining in keeping it from the people it will affect most. It is challenging to top the revelations of the first volume, but Barnes delivers, even as the plot twists often stretch credulity. Nothing can be taken for granted, but at the same time Deadly Little Scandals remains a great romp through the world of debutantes and secret societies.

You might also like The Naturals by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

On the Come Up

Cover image for On the Come Up by Angie Thomasby Angie Thomas

ISBN 9780-06249856-4

 “Ever since that boy got killed, my heart races whenever I see a cop. I could’ve been him, he could’ve been me. Luck’s the only thing that separated us.”

Bri Jackson is Garden Heights royalty, thanks to her father, the late great rapper Law, whose star was rising when was gunned down when she was four. Bri dreams of being a rapper, but she wants to stand on her own feet. After all, her dead father didn’t teach her anything about rapping; he’s dead. But when Bri’s Aunt Pooh finally gets her in the Ring for her first rap battle, she finds herself facing off against Milez, the son of her father’s former manager, Supreme, with whom he had a falling out before his death. Bri wants to rap on her own terms, but the neighbourhood, and the world, have their own preconceived ideas about who she is, and she will have to face up to family history in order to fulfill her dream.

On the Come Up is Angie Thomas’s sophomore novel, following The Hate U Give, which has become a perennial presence on the YA bestseller list. Originally scheduled for publication in June 2018, On the Come Up was pushed back and released on February 5, 2019. In the meantime, Thomas was caught up in the whirlwind of having her debut novel adapted for the big screen. However, the wait was well worth it, as Thomas has delivered a solid follow-on that is set in the same world, and even the same neighbourhood, as The Hate U Give, but with a distinct protagonist and narrative voice.

One the Come Up takes place in the aftermath of the riots occasioned by Khalil’s murder in The Hate U Give. Bri is from the same neighbourhood, though she is bussed out to a magnet school for the arts in a middle-class neighbourhood. She and her other black and brown classmates are often targeted by the school’s security guards, a situation they have become less tolerant of as the protests resulting from Khalil’s death raise their social awareness and cause them to consider taking action. Bri lights a spark when she writes a song about a violent encounter with the guards, and how she is perceived by the world for being a black girl.

As in The Hate U Give, On the Come Up highlights a complex family dynamic that strengthens the surrounding story. Bri’s mother is a recovering addict studying to be a social worker. Her older brother Trey has finished his degree, and wants to go to grad school, but he is working in a local pizza shop to help his mom make ends meet, and get Bri through school. With an entrepreneurial spirit, Bri decides to sell candy out of her bag at school, a situation which leads to a rumour that she is a drug dealer, like her Aunt Pooh, a member of the Garden Disciples gang. Although Bri has always wanted to rap, her urgency is heightened by the knowledge that if she could just make it in the music industry, her mother wouldn’t have to choose between keeping the lights on and putting food in the fridge. She also has to struggle with her relationship with Pooh her aunt, and Pooh the drug dealer, a woman who is her number one supporter when she is around, but who disappears for days on end when “business” arises. And when Pooh disappears, Supreme comes knocking.

On the Come Up is largely told in prose, but contains a number of Bri’s raps and rhymes, including the full song that catapults her to infamy when the public chooses to take her verses and interpret them in the worst way possible. However, she rhymes almost instinctively, turning her daily experiences into little bits of verse that she jots down in her notebook for later use. Thomas strikes a nice balance between the two, and shows off her solid grasp of both in the process. The result is an immersive story that will drag you head first back into Starr and Bri’s world, even though their paths never cross.

The Everlasting Rose (The Belles #2)

Cover image for The Everlasting Rose by Dhonielle Clayton by Dhonielle Clayton

ISBN 978-1-4847-2848-2

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“What is the truth in Orléans?… You and your sisters spent your entire existence altering appearances, shifting reality, catering to the most shallow whims. The birth of this world came out of a rotten, poisonous seed—and now, the framework is laced with it. Everyone spends all their time trying to look like something else. The masses will believe what is presented to them, as long as it is compelling and beautiful. Thanks to you, they no longer have any idea what’s real—what’s true.”

Camille, Edel, and Rémy are on the run from the tyrannical Princess Sophia, soon to be crowned Queen of Orléans, unless they can find the rightful heir, the recently awakened Princess Charlotte. Sophia claims her sister is dead, and that she will present her body to the court before her coronation, but Camille has to believe that she is still alive, and she knows that the dead Queen Celeste would not want her cruel younger daughter to inherit the crown. But it seems impossible that they will find Charlotte before Sophia’s ascension, and the scheming Princess is already hard at work ensuring that new imperial decrees will make it almost impossible to unseat her once she is crowned. A resistance movement is afoot in Orléans, but can the Belles really make common cause with the Iron Ladies, a group of women who reject beauty treatments altogether in favour of living with the gris?

I was excited to return to Orléans, but reading The Everlasting Rose reminded me that while I mostly enjoyed the world of The Belles, I was still upset about Claudine’s fate, as she was by far my favourite character in the first volume. Claudine’s lover, Violetta, reappears here, and it did seem at first as if Clayton was going to cast her as the grieving avenger with a grudge against Camille. Fortunately she does not significantly pursue that tired angle. However, there were a couple more deaths that felt engineered for heavy-handed melodrama, in ways that seemed merely intended to traumatize Camille. I was more interested in the parts of the book that explored the origin of the Belles, the calcifying control over their traditions, and the possibilities for a different future. In short, the society, rather than the plot, grabbed my attention.

With the remaining Belles either captured or on the run, The Everlasting Rose relies heavily on interjected new snippets to convey what is going on elsewhere in Orléans, and keep both the reader and the rebels apprised of Sophia’s machinations. Of course, the news nets are not entirely to be trusted, as Sophia manipulates certain outlets to her own ends. Only the underground newspapers can fully defy her censorship. While the first book was set mostly at court, the second volume is free to range over Clayton’s world, to explore the other cities and teahouses, and the shadowy corners no regular Belle would ever have a chance to see. This tour also incorporates a few fun nods to Clayton’s colleagues, including a peacock named after her Tiny Pretty Things coauthor, and a millinery named for Justine Larbalestier.

I expected the Iron Ladies to play a more significant role in the story based on the plot description, but they do not feature in the early parts of the book. It is only later that they form an uneasy alliance to depose Sophia, and set Charlotte in her place. But ultimately, the Belles and the Iron Ladies have different goals, and different visions for the future of Orléans, and I expect we will get to see this dynamic play out further if this series gets another installment. Currently, no third book has been announced.

You might also like Tiny Pretty Things by Dhonielle Clayton and Sona Charaipotra

American Duchess

Cover image for American Duchess by Karen Harperby Karen Harper

ISBN 978-0-06-274833-1

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“Funny, but in the midst of all this, I thought how very regal was dear, blind Mrs. Prattley in the almshouse with her black shawl pulled over her shoulders and her graceful, blue-veined hands folded in her lap while I read to her. She, too, had lost her husband years ago, and there was such an inherent, silent nobility about her. God forgive me, but I would have preferred to be spending time with her.”

In 1895, Consuelo Vanderbilt, eldest child and only daughter of railroad heir William K. Vanderbilt, became one of the most famous of the wealthy American heiresses to trade money for title, when she married the 9th Duke of Marlborough in a lavish ceremony at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Manhattan. The marriage, however, had been masterminded by Consuelo’s mother Alva, a determined social climber who arranged the engagement, planned the wedding, and carefully leaked choice information to the press to whip up a stir in advance of the ceremony. American Duchess follows Consuelo’s life in a mismatched mercenary marriage, her scandalous, much publicized divorce, and her efforts to chart her own course and find happiness in the second part of her life, even as Europe was torn apart by the second great war of her lifetime.

American Duchess is narrated in the first person by Consuelo, beginning around the time of her social debut in 1893, but somehow manages to fail to achieve the intimacy usually created by being inside a character’s head. Rather, the way Consuelo depicts herself feels measured and carefully constructed, as if she is presenting herself for public scrutiny, and wishes to put her best foot forward. As a result, while I felt I learned interesting details about her unusual life, I didn’t feel much in the way of emotional attachment to her character. In fact, Harper seems to be trying a bit too hard to hit the notable public highlights of Consuelo’s life, even when they figure little in the emotional arc of the story she has chosen to tell, which is more focused on the contrast between her two marriages.

A similar problem exists with another figure who pops up regularly, but does not actually play a prominent role. Harper frequently name drops Winston Churchill, who was cousin to Consuelo’s husband, heir to Blenheim Palace before the birth of their son, and a good friend of the Duchess. However, this quickly becomes tiresome since he is more of a novel historical reference than a fleshed out character. Perhaps Harper was worried that a more substantial presence would take over the story, but in that case, less would have been more. As it stands, he is an often referenced, but otherwise underdeveloped figure.

Unfortunately I think this is a case where I would have been better served by a biography, since I was more interested in the period and subject matter than the story Harper was trying to tell. I kept finding myself stepping away from the text to go look up historical details, contemporary newspaper accounts, photographs, etc., rather than wanting to read the book itself. So if you have a good non-fiction account of the life of Consuelo Vanderbilt, or the other Million Dollar American Princesses to recommend, let me know in the comments!

You might also like Mistress of the Ritz by Melanie Benjamin

Slayer

Cover image for Slayer by Kiersten White by Kiersten White

ISBN 978-1-53440495-3

 “And that’s my struggle, the truth of my life among the Watchers, growing up and aiding a society that exists because of Slayers: I hate them. What they are, what they do. And I hate none of them as much as I hate Buffy.”

When Buffy destroyed the Seed of Wonder, magic went out of the world. The hell mouths were sealed, cutting Earth off from the infernal realms. But the demons who were on Earth when the portals closed are now trapped here forever. Some latent magic still remains; vampires have not stopped existing, though they can no longer properly sire new vampires, and all of the Potentials who became Slayers still have their powers. Nina is the last Slayer, her powers activated in the final moments before magic left the world forever. And as the daughter of Watchers, this is the last thing she ever could have wanted. Because Nina hates Slayers, and Buffy in particular. Her father died serving as Buffy’s first Watcher, after all. Buffy is the Slayer who rejected the Watcher tradition Nina was raised to respect and uphold. And Buffy is responsible for destroying magic, taking away what little power the remaining Watchers had to protect themselves in this brave new world.

The group of young Watchers that form the cast of Slayer are among the last survivors of the ancient organization that has watched over the Chosen One for generations. There are a handful of older Watchers, forming what is left of the Council, and a few very young children, but teens Nina, Artemis, and Rhys, along with the slightly older Honora, Leo, and Imogen make up the bulk of the survivors. Together, they form the Watcher version of the Scooby Gang, figuring out how to fight evil and stay safe in a world that is somehow no less dangerous for magic’s passing. The once-warded Irish castle they now call home has been stripped of its protections, vengeful demons might be lurking anywhere, eager for a bit of revenge, and the end the Watcher line forever.

I think some people will probably find Nina’s hatred of Buffy off-putting, because it is an intense and ill-founded dislike of the character at the heart of this universe. However, it felt like a genuine and honest motivation for someone who has never actually met the Slayer in person, but has suffered for her choices nevertheless. Buffy and other characters from the original canon do not appear directly, but do make various cameos by way of mention, as well as dream sequences. Wesley’s status as a fallen Watcher working for a vampire detective, for example, is the butt of many jokes. Nina also has her own characterization and backstory beyond hating the Slayer. She has carved out a place for herself as healer, since she has never been deemed strong enough for proper Watcher training, while her twin sister Artemis is more of the warrior. Her relationship with her mother is fraught, but she is tight with her sister, and her best friend Rhys

The tone of the book is very much in keeping with the middle seasons of the show, where Buffy was about the same age as Slayer’s protagonists. Kiersten White is on point with the quippy dialogue and off-beat humour in the face of danger that characterized the show’s writing style. The camp and melodrama counter-points the typical teen angst of the Buffyverse, making for a familiar return to a beloved world, even if the characters are different.

Watch Us Rise

Cover image for Watch Us Rise by Renee Watson and Ellen Haganby Renée Watson and Ellen Hagan

ISBN 978-1-5476-008-3

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“This has to be about bringing women’s voices to the forefront. This has to be about speaking up and not allowing your voices to be silenced… It has to be bigger than your anger or disappointment at one or two people. This isn’t only personal. It’s about every girl everywhere. And if you only make it about your school, your club, you make it small.”

Jasmine and Chelsea are best friends who attend a progressive, social justice oriented high school in Washington Heights. But despite their school’s liberal ideology, the girls still face sexism and racism on a regular basis, from the casting of school plays, to the limited selection of poets they are assigned to read.  Every student is required to be in a club, but when they become fed up with the microagressions they face in their current after school activities, Jasmine and Chelsea decide to start their own group, focusing on women’s rights and voices. But when their blog becomes unexpectedly popular, they face pushback from some of their peers, as well as the school administration, and they will have to find the courage to keep raising their voices and fight for change.

Although this book started slow, and could be a bit didactic at times, the two best friends are full of a righteous, youthful fury that felt familiar and authentic. Jasmine is thoughtful, and good at strategically positioning their ideas in a way that makes adults listen to them, while Chelsea is a little bit more unbridled and forthright about her dissatisfaction. Together they make a good balance. Jasmine is also struggling with her father’s slow decline from cancer, while Chelsea is facing the reality that the personal is political when she has to figure out how to deal with a crush on a boy who has a girlfriend, yet seems to return her feelings. Can she be a feminist, and like someone who is unavailable, or is she betraying her values?

The two best friends have one another’s backs, and are strong allies, but their friendship is not without some of its own turmoil. Jasmine is caught in the crux of feeling simultaneously invisible and hypervisible. Her blackness is often noted or remarked upon, yet somehow, her fatness is used to render her invisible, and ignored. Even her best friend doesn’t consider it when they go out shopping together, and Jasmine can’t try anything on in the stores Chelsea likes, or when they order t-shirts for a protest they are planning, and Chelsea fails to consider that the shirts she has chosen doesn’t come in a large enough women’s size for Jasmine to wear. However, I appreciated the fact that their differences weren’t played for petty drama, but rather were something for them to work through in order to become closer, and understand one another better.

I think I related to this book quite strongly because when I was in high school, a group of friends and I tried to start a gay-straight alliance. This would have been the early 2000s, and gay marriage was recently legalized in my home province of British Columbia, but was still the subject of national debate. Nation-wide legalization was still a year or two away. The school told us that a GSA was too specific, and not inclusive enough. Not knowing any better at the time, we agreed to a “Diversity Club” instead. I wish we’d had a fraction of the knowledge or resources these girls have in their community, from supportive parents, to understanding teachers, to a local anarchist feminist book store. We didn’t know that we should have pushed back harder, much less how to go about it. Watch Us Rise specifically shows teens not just figuring out what they believe in, but how to live it, and fight for it.

The chapters in Watch Us Rise are told from alternating points of view, and often end with essays, blog posts, and poems. Sometimes only one or two, but sometimes several pages, including reproducing the likes, shares, comments, and reblogs of the post. I think this is the element of the book where people will probably differ in their level of enjoyment or connection. I enjoyed the occasional selection, but struggled when it went on for too long, as I wanted to get back to the plot. Honestly, I might also have struggled with the earnestness of this story when I was a teen, having been strongly prone to sarcasm and cynicism, but there are elements of this book I could have used then nevertheless, and find valuable now.

You might also like Juliet Takes a Breath  by Gabby Rivera

Sorcery of Thorns

Cover image for Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson by Margaret Rogerson

ISBN 9781481497619

“She would never dare give voice to such a thought aloud. The sentiment verged on betraying her oaths to the Great Library. But a part of her rebelled against the idea that in order to be a good apprentice, she should close her eyes and pretend she hadn’t seen. How could a warden defend against something they didn’t understand? Surely it was better to face evil than cower from its presence, learning nothing.”

As a child of the Great Libraries of Austermeer, orphaned Elisabeth Scrivener has been raised surrounded by the magical grimoires that house the arcane secrets of the kingdom. Since sorcery is only possible via demonic bargain, magic users are necessary to the security of the kingdom, but also suspect, and never to be trusted. Librarians and their apprentices, like Elisabeth, tightly control access to magical knowledge, and are responsible for containing and protecting the most dangerous books. Worse, if a grimoire is a damaged, it can transform into a violent Malefict, wreaking havoc until it is bound or destroyed. When a disaster at the Great Library of Summershall forces Elisabeth to ally with the taciturn young sorcerer Nathaniel Thorn, and his demonic servant, the precepts of the Great Libraries are called into question, with the fate of Austermeer hanging in the balance.

In Sorcery of Thorns, Margaret Rogerson has created a tantalizing world, both filled with magic, and where magical knowledge is forbidden, with the practice of sorcery tightly controlled by law. But while sorcerers are dangerous, they are also powerful, and the checks and balances of power in such a world make for intriguing politics. Who gets access to knowledge, and who gets to decide? What have the old magical families kept in reserve, even after the Reforms that stripped them of the right to practice their craft freely? Elisabeth does not come from one of the old sorcery families; in fact, she has no family at all save for the Warden who chose to raise her in the Great Library. As a young, non-magical woman, she has very little power, and even less credibility, making her quest to discover what really happened at Summershall all the more difficult.

Fortunately, of course, Nathaniel Thorn has the power and prestige that Elisabeth lacks, though he has tried his best to remain aloof from the politics of Austermeer’s magical elite. With all his relatives dead, he has largely cut himself off from society as much as he can get away with while still serving his duty as a sorcerer to the crown. Elisabeth’s problem is to convince him to let down his walls, and forge an alliance with her, even as she is uncertain whether or not she should be trusting any sorcerer. Her circumstances leave her with little choice, but it is a constant tension that defines the course of the narrative. Keeping company with Nathaniel changes not only her idea of the world they live in, but her conception of herself and what she imagines for her future.

The third point of the triad at the heart of Sorcery of Thorns is Silas, the hereditary demon of the Thorn clan. The names of high demons are passed down from father to son, and when the father inevitably pays the price for his bargain, it is the duty of the son to recall the demon, and continue the family’s legacy and duty to the kingdom, whatever the personal cost. Demons are to be trusted even less than sorcerers, but something about Silas seems different from the other high demons Elisabeth encounters after she travels to the capital. However, the more time she spends with Nathaniel and Silas, the more she learns about the terrible price the Thorns have paid to keep him bound into their service over the centuries.

Sorcery of Thorns has not been billed as a series, and it contains a strong standalone plot that is concluded within the volume. The magical setting results in a thoroughly immersive reading experience, and Elisabeth’s stubbornness and curiosity make for a heroine who is inevitably going to push boundaries and ask hard questions as she outgrows the world of her childhood. Mix in some romance, action, and intrigue, and you have the recipe for a fascinating read.

You might also like Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Flamebringer (Heartstone #3)

Cover image for Flamebringer by Elle Katharine White by Elle Katharine White

ISBN 978-0-06-274798-3

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

 “You humans with your saints and heroes. Learn the truth as I did, both you and your husband: they will always disappoint you. If Alastair returns to Pendragon a wiser man for my honesty, then I will have done some good. It is all I have left to offer House Daired.”

Weary and disenchanted by their adventures in the north of Arle, Aliza, Alastair, and Akarra return south bearing a dire warning. Their old enemy Wydrick lives, ghast-ridden and merely the harbinger of a greater evil yet to come. Old things are stirring in Arle and abroad, and war is coming. The Silent King of Els is coming to Edonarle, even as the Tekari range ever further southward, terrorizing the towns and villages in their path. But will either the dragons or the human rulers of Arle listen to their warnings, or it will it be up to the Daireds to mount a lonely defense against the old grudges that are finally being called to account?

While Heartstone began as a Pride and Prejudice adaptation, by the third volume that scaffolding has largely fallen away, as Flamebringer is well beyond the bounds of that plot, leaving only the characters to hint at the origins of the tale. The story becomes about grappling with history and tradition, both for Aliza and Alastair personally, and the Kingdom of Arle as a whole. The return of Tristan Wydrick forces both Aliza and Alistair to face up to their previous relationship to him, and the social disparities that led him down his current path. As the plot develops, it becomes evident that Wydrick’s fate ties back to old Daired secrets, which House Pendragon has wilfully forgotten, but other still remember, and do not forgive. House Daired is an old power in Arle, but on what foundation was that power built?

After setting Dragonshadow in the north of Arle, and separating Aliza and Alistair from their family and friends, Flamebringer returns south, catching up with the Bentaine sisters, as well as Julienna Daired and Cedric Brysney. Bearing dire news about the war to come, Aliza hesitates to share all of her misadventures in the north with her sister, even though she is delighted to be reunited with Anjey. Their reunion sparks doubt in Aliza, as she realizes that Anjey has embraced the identity of Rider as her own, training and fighting alongside her husband. Still more healer than warrior, and attuned to the fact that Rider culture will never fully accept her, Aliza has a harder time leaving her old life behind as she tries to settle into the new one. Together the two form an interesting contrast in adapting to a new culture, and new life circumstances. The complex relationships depicted between the sisters remain one of my favourite aspects of the series.