Source: eARC via NetGalley

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Review: Love Letters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer

March 17, 2017 Diversity 1, Reviews 1 ★★★★

Review: Love Letters to the Lost by Brigid KemmererLetters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer
Published by Bloomsbury USA Childrens on April 4, 2017
Genres: YA, YA Contemporary
Pages: 400
Format: eARC
Source: eARC via NetGalley
Goodreads
four-stars
Juliet Young always writes letters to her mother, a world-traveling photojournalist. Even after her mother's death, she leaves letters at her grave. It's the only way Juliet can cope.

Declan Murphy isn't the sort of guy you want to cross. In the midst of his court-ordered community service at the local cemetery, he's trying to escape the demons of his past.

When Declan reads a haunting letter left beside a grave, he can't resist writing back. Soon, he's opening up to a perfect stranger, and their connection is immediate. But neither Declan nor Juliet knows that they're not actually strangers. When life at school interferes with their secret life of letters, sparks will fly as Juliet and Declan discover truths that might tear them apart.

Diversity: 1 – Tokenism

Racial-Ethnic: 1 (Declan’s best friend Rev was adopted by black parents; Declan’s community service supervisor is Hispanic; Juliet’s friend/photography rival has the surname Cho, presumably marking him as Asian)
QUILTBAG: 0
Disability: 0
Intersectionality: 0 (Juliet’s thoughts on the refugees her mom photographed are… ew)

Brigid Kemmerer made her name and developed a cult with her YA paranormal Elementals series, but I still haven’t gotten around to reading my copy of that series’s first book Storm. Funny how I end up reading her foray into YA contemporary first thanks to the TBR jar! Maybe it’s setting me up for disappointment to read an author’s most recent work first and then go backwards, but Letters to the Lost was pretty darn good.

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Review: Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson

February 6, 2017 Diversity 4, Reviews 0 ★★★★★

Review: Piecing Me Together by Renee WatsonPiecing Me Together by Renee Watson
Published by Bloomsbury USA Childrens on February 14, 2017
Genres: YA, YA Contemporary
Pages: 272
Format: eARC
Source: eARC via NetGalley
Goodreads
five-stars
A timely and powerful story about a teen girl from a poor neighborhood striving for success, from acclaimed author Renée Watson.

Jade believes she must get out of her neighborhood if she’s ever going to succeed. Her mother says she has to take every opportunity. She has. She accepted a scholarship to a mostly-white private school and even Saturday morning test prep opportunities. But some opportunities feel more demeaning than helpful. Like an invitation to join Women to Women, a mentorship program for “at-risk” girls. Except really, it’s for black girls. From “bad” neighborhoods.

But Jade doesn’t need support. And just because her mentor is black doesn’t mean she understands Jade. And maybe there are some things Jade could show these successful women about the real world and finding ways to make a real difference.

Friendships, race, privilege, identity—this compelling and thoughtful story explores the issues young women face.

Diversity Rating: 4 – This Is Our World

Racial-Ethnic: 5 (the vast majority of the cast is black)
QUILTBAG: 0
Disability: 0
Intersectionality: 5 (the book is 100% focused on the realities of black girlhood; Jade’s family is also extremely poor to the point of barely getting by)

To a class of creative writing students, half of whom were Those Guys and cited Hemingway as one of their favorite writers, I described Renee Watson’s 2016 novel This Side of Home as “a punch in the face–in a good way.” Saying I’m a big fan of what Watson writes? THAT WOULD BE AN UNDERSTATEMENT. But as much as I loved Watson’s debut, I think I love Piecing Me Together even more. Read more »

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Review: Underwater by Marisa Reichardt

April 29, 2016 Diversity 1, Reviews 0 ★★

Review: Underwater by Marisa ReichardtUnderwater by Marisa Reichardt
Published by Farrar Straus & Giroux on January 12, 2016
Genres: YA, YA Contemporary
Pages: 288
Format: eARC
Source: eARC via NetGalley
Goodreads
two-stars
“Forgiving you will allow me to forgive myself.”

Morgan didn’t mean to do anything wrong that day. Actually, she meant to do something right. But her kind act inadvertently played a role in a deadly tragedy. In order to move on, Morgan must learn to forgive—first someone who did something that might be unforgivable, and then herself.

But Morgan can’t move on. She can’t even move beyond the front door of the apartment she shares with her mother and little brother. Morgan feels like she’s underwater, unable to surface. Unable to see her friends. Unable to go to school.

When it seems Morgan can’t hold her breath any longer, a new boy moves in next door. Evan reminds her of the salty ocean air and the rush she used to get from swimming. He might be just what she needs to help her reconnect with the world outside.

Diversity Rating: 1 – Tokenism

Racial-Ethnic: 1 (Evan is Native Hawaiian)
QUILTBAG: 0
Disability: 2 (Morgan is deeply agoraphobic; her father is an alcoholic)
Intersectionality: 0

Contemporary YA has somehow become My Thing despite my preference for the paranormal. It took looking through my reading of the past 2-3 years to realize it, honestly! It can run the gamut from formulaic to genuine to everything in between and beyond and it generally has an easier time than genre fiction (paranormal, sci-fi, etc.) Underwater is the kind of contemp YA that puts me in a reading funk. It just doesn’t feel real. Read more »

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Review: The Darkest Corners by Kara Thomas

April 7, 2016 Diversity 0, Reviews 0 ★★★½

Review: The Darkest Corners by Kara ThomasThe Darkest Corners by Kara Taylor, Kara Thomas
Published by Delacorte Press on April 19, 2016
Genres: Mystery, YA, YA Thriller
Pages: 336
Format: eARC
Source: eARC via NetGalley
Goodreads
three-half-stars
The Darkest Corners is a psychological thriller about the lies little girls tell, and the deadly truths those lies become.

There are ghosts around every corner in Fayette, Pennsylvania. Tessa left when she was nine and has been trying ever since not to think about it after what happened there that last summer. Memories of things so dark will burn themselves into your mind if you let them.

Callie never left. She moved to another house, so she doesn’t have to walk those same halls, but then Callie always was the stronger one. She can handle staring into the faces of her demons—and if she parties hard enough, maybe one day they’ll disappear for good.

Tessa and Callie have never talked about what they saw that night. After the trial, Callie drifted and Tessa moved, and childhood friends just have a way of losing touch.

But ever since she left, Tessa has had questions. Things have never quite added up. And now she has to go back to Fayette—to Wyatt Stokes, sitting on death row; to Lori Cawley, Callie’s dead cousin; and to the one other person who may be hiding the truth.

Only the closer Tessa gets to the truth, the closer she gets to a killer—and this time, it won’t be so easy to run away.

Diversity Rating: 0 – What Diversity?

Racial-Ethnic: 0
QUILTBAG: 0
Disability: 0
Intersectionality: 0

In my spare time, I read about things like the OJ Simpson case or general unsolved mysteries while crime documentaries and docudramas play in the background. Maybe Forensic Files will be on instead if I can’t find a program or documentary to my liking at the time. In other words, I’m a massive true crime junkie. The author proved herself to me with her Prep School Confidential series (written as Kara Taylor), so combined with the premise, of course I was going to read The Darkest Corners. It is a fantastic read, but I’m a bit disappointed as well.

Fellow true crime junkie will find catnip and callbacks to infamous cases on every page. A clear West Memphis Three inspiration, a Serial and Making a Murderer-esque national obsession with finding the truth behind the Ohio River Monster’s identity, a major plot point I can’t discuss because SPOILERS,… Were the Ohio River Monster and the associated murders real, I have no doubt whatsoever that the nation and our central characters would be exactly as obsessed as Taylor writes them. She nails the small-town vibe perfectly and makes Fayette, Pennsylvania one of the most vivid settings I’ve read in a while.

Tessa and Callie’s dynamic as former friends, decisive co-witnesses in the Monster’s conviction, and two girls badly hurt by their part in the case is utterly fantastic as they run into red herring after red herring and try to get comfortable with one another again. The lack of romance is refreshing too! I’d like to headcanon Tessa as aromantic asexual like me because she comes off as more disinterested than simply not thinking about it, but I don’t like to do that. Imagining my identity on other characters just hurts me and obscures how much representation I actually have.

ANYWAY. Here begins the criticism.

Tessa is a very bland narrator from the very start. Her one standout trait is that she’s so obsessed with the Ohio River Monster case that you wonder if she’s hiding something more than “I didn’t actually see his face, the police badgered me into saying I did.” Spoiler alert that’s not actually a spoiler: she’s not. She’s written right along the lines of an unreliable narrator but isn’t one. If it gets in your head early on that she’s unreliable, throw it out because you’re thinking too hard from reading more expertly crafted thrillers. I fell in that trap too.

The novel is full of twists and turns to keep readers wondering what the truth is alongside Tessa and Callie, but a mix of my experience and overly clear clues led to me calling quite a few twists I wasn’t supposed to. An incredibly weak ending didn’t make me feel much better.

The last chapter or two are exposition-heavy and spent solely on wrapping up every single loose end in one of the most unsubtle ways I’ve ever seen. At the end of a thriller, we’re all going to get stuck with a little bit of boring exposition to explain what happened afterward. Still, I’ve seen it done much better than this. Even in a book, not every plot thread will be wrapped up because life doesn’t work that way. There’s a character we’ll never learn the truth about, for instance. One event that can’t quite be explained. The Darkest Corners answers every possible question, leaving nothing for readers’ brains to stick to. As quickly as someone finishes reading, the book will already be out of mind and on its way to be forgotten.

Don’t get me wrong, this is still an deeply absorbing novel. I read it in a single day with my feet propped up on pillows with a view of the Las Vegas Strip from my hotel room window. But I’ve read mystery-riddled thrillers with much more honed craft–and two I can think of came from Thomas herself when she wrote as Kara Taylor. I know she can writer much tighter works, so I’m a bit disappointed. Oh well! I still recommend The Darkest Corners as well as her Prep School Confidential series if you haven’t read those books. For real, read that series. It’s great!

Spring Bingo 8 The Darkest Corners

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Review: The Trouble with Destiny by Lauren Morrill

November 16, 2015 Diversity 0, Reviews 0 ★★

Review: The Trouble with Destiny by Lauren MorrillThe Trouble with Destiny by Lauren Morrill
Published by Delacorte Press on December 8, 2015
Genres: YA, YA Contemporary
Pages: 272
Format: eARC
Source: eARC via NetGalley
Goodreads
two-stars
It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey...

With her trusty baton and six insanely organized clipboards, drum major Liza Sanders is about to take Destiny by storm—the boat, that is. When Liza discovered that her beloved band was losing funding, she found Destiny, a luxury cruise ship complete with pools, midnight chocolate buffets, and a $25,000 spring break talent show prize.

Liza can’t imagine senior year without the band, and nothing will distract her from achieving victory. She’s therefore not interested when her old camp crush, Lenny, shows up on board, looking shockingly hipster-hot. And she’s especially not interested in Russ, the probably-as-dumb-as-he-is-cute prankster jock whose ex, Demi, happens be Liza’s ex–best friend and leader of the Athenas, a show choir that’s the band’s greatest competition.

But it’s not going to be smooth sailing. After the Destiny breaks down, all of Liza’s best-laid plans start to go awry. Liza likes to think of herself as an expert at almost everything, but when it comes to love, she’s about to find herself lost at sea.

Diversity Rating: 0 – What Diversity?

Racial-Ethnic: 0 (Hispanic best friend)
QUILTBAG: 0 (Hispanic best friend is stereotype gay)
Disability: 0
Intersectionality: 0 (stereotypical Hispanic gay friend is not diversity)

If you’ve been fortunate enough to go on a cruise, you know what can happen. If you haven’t been on a cruise, you’ll really be amazed what can happen when you’re on a boat for 2-7 days. My brother met his first love on one and he holds the song “My Heart Will Go On” as sacred because of it; y dad got violent food poisoning on a second; and I was unwillingly the center of a love triangle on a third. I still remember all three vividly even though the first cruise happened when I was eight and I count the cruises among my best experiences. Lauren Morrill really captures the overall experience of a cruise, but there’s a lot here that isn’t quite right.

Read more »

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Review: Daughter Unto Devils by Amy Lukavics

November 2, 2015 Diversity 0, Reviews 1 ★★★★

Review: Daughter Unto Devils by Amy LukavicsDaughter Unto Devils by Amy Lukavics
Published by Harlequin Teen on September 29, 2015
Genres: Historical, YA, YA Historical, YA Horror
Pages: 240
Format: eARC
Source: eARC via NetGalley
Goodreads
four-stars
When sixteen-year-old Amanda Verner's family decides to move from their small mountain cabin to the vast prairie, she hopes it is her chance for a fresh start. She can leave behind the memory of the past winter; of her sickly ma giving birth to a baby sister who cries endlessly; of the terrifying visions she saw as her sanity began to slip, the victim of cabin fever; and most of all, the memories of the boy she has been secretly meeting with as a distraction from her pain. The boy whose baby she now carries.

When the Verners arrive at their new home, a large cabin abandoned by its previous owners, they discover the inside covered in blood. And as the days pass, it is obvious to Amanda that something isn't right on the prairie. She's heard stories of lands being tainted by evil, of men losing their minds and killing their families, and there is something strange about the doctor and his son who live in the woods on the edge of the prairie. But with the guilt and shame of her sins weighing on her, Amanda can't be sure if the true evil lies in the land, or deep within her soul.

Diversity Rating: 0 – What Diversity?

Racial-Ethnic: 0
QUILTBAG: 0
Disability: 0
Intersectionality: 0

YA is in need of some good horror novels and Daughter Unto Devils is ready to answer that call and scare your clothes off this fall in a very nonromantic way. Also good for Thanksgiving if you’re especially angry at crimes committed against Native Americans over the last six centuries or so. ANYWAY. This is far from what I expected from Harlequin Teen as someone familiar with the kind of work they publish, but Daughter Unto Devils is among their best novels by far.

From the very first page, Lukavics is hard at work creating the eerie, open-yet-claustrophobic atmosphere that really makes this novel. Whether the Verner family is trapped on their mountain and in their home by snow or in their new home in the middle of an open prairie, the devil Amanda is certain she saw the winter before always seems to be on her heels. Surprisingly few spooky things actually happen, but once the gore and action really kick in at the end of the novel, the sparseness of events before makes everything that much more frightening.

The characters aren’t great, especially Amanda’s cardboard-like younger siblings Joanna and Charles, but pregnancy’s effect on Amanda and her relationship with her next-closest sister Emily are effective and well-written. Horror fans used to seeing characterization replaced by scares won’t be too surprised by the lacking characterization. Almost the entirety of the novel is about the Verner family leaving the mountain and settling in their new, mysteriously-blood-drenched new home, not the spooky things happening to them. This is a novel about atmosphere, not happenings, so if Amanda’s voice doesn’t immediately grab you or sell you on the spooky, you’re probably gonna have a bad time.

As satisfying as Daughter Unto Devils is, it leaves you wanting too. How much of the evil followed the Verners from the mountain and how much was waiting for them on the prairie? What brought the evil to the prairie in the first place if the massacre previously committed in the new home was a result of the evil, not the cause? Did someone–like Native Americans who aren’t in the novel at all but are the go-to cause of curses and the paranormal in horror–do something to make the white people kicking them off their own land suffer or did evil always live there? So many questions are left unanswered and the trademark final punch might leave you angry this is such a short little standalone.

Someone give Lukavics more book deals because she’s a one-of-a-kind voice in horror and I love what she does. Subtle horror beats out-and-out gore for me every time. In case your Halloween season consists of munching on candy and reading spooky books, Daughter Unto Devils is a necessary addition to the tower of terrifying lit.

BINGO 9 Daughter Unto Devils

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Review: Delicate Monsters by Stephanie Kuehn

July 2, 2015 Diversity 3, Reviews 2 ★★★½

Review: Delicate Monsters by Stephanie KuehnDelicate Monsters by Stephanie Kuehn
Published by St. Martin's Griffin on June 9, 2015
Genres: YA, YA Contemporary, YA Thriller
Pages: 240
Format: Hardcover
Source: eARC via NetGalley
three-half-stars
From the Morris-Award winning author of Charm & Strange, comes a twisted and haunting tale about three teens uncovering dark secrets and even darker truths about themselves.

When nearly killing a classmate gets seventeen-year-old Sadie Su kicked out of her third boarding school in four years, she returns to her family’s California vineyard estate. Here, she’s meant to stay out of trouble. Here, she’s meant to do a lot of things. But it’s hard. She’s bored. And when Sadie’s bored, the only thing she likes is trouble.

Emerson Tate’s a poor boy living in a rich town, with his widowed mother and strange, haunted little brother. All he wants his senior year is to play basketball and make something happen with the girl of his dreams. That’s why Emerson’s not happy Sadie’s back. An old childhood friend, she knows his worst secrets. The things he longs to forget. The things she won’t ever let him.

Haunted is a good word for fifteen-year-old Miles Tate. Miles can see the future, after all. And he knows his vision of tragic violence at his school will come true, because his visions always do. That’s what he tells the new girl in town. The one who listens to him. The one who recognizes the darkness in his past.

But can Miles stop the violence? Or has the future already been written? Maybe tragedy is his destiny. Maybe it’s all of theirs.

Diversity Rating: 3 – Closer to Reality

Racial-Ethnic: 4 (Sadie is half-Chinese, Emerson’s crush May is unspecified POC)
QUILTBAG: 0 (may be someone, but not a main character; my memory is fuzzy)
Disability: 1 (off-screen character has Tourette’s, two characters are sociopaths)
Intersectionality: 3 (Emerson and Miles’s family is not too well off)

MAJOR WARNING for anyone triggered by cat death/animal death: you’re not going to like this novel because there are a LOT of dead animals. Also sexual abuse.

Stephanie Kuehn’s novels are so smart they might make even the most intelligent men and women of the world feel a little dumb. I have faith in my own intellect and still questioned if I really got this novel. That happened some with her sophomore novel Complicit too and also in her debut Charm & Strange in spades, so I knew what I was in for. Still, wow. Delicate Monsters is a novel both unlike Kuehn’s previous work and unlike any other YA novel out there right now as we dive into the heads of two sociopaths and a sickly young boy who has suffered from torment by both of them. Read more »

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