Dark and Shallow Lies by Ginny Myers Sain

Dark and Shallow Lies book cover

Information

Goodreads: Dark and Shallow Lies
Series: None
Published: August 31, 2021

Official Summary

A teen girl disappears from her small town deep in the bayou, where magic festers beneath the surface of the swamp like water rot, in this chilling debut supernatural thriller for fans of Natasha Preston, Karen McManus, and Rory Power.

La Cachette, Louisiana, is the worst place to be if you have something to hide.

This tiny town, where seventeen-year-old Grey spends her summers, is the self-proclaimed Psychic Capital of the World–and the place where Elora Pellerin, Grey’s best friend, disappeared six months earlier.

Grey can’t believe that Elora vanished into thin air any more than she can believe that nobody in a town full of psychics knows what happened. But as she digs into the night that Elora went missing, she begins to realize that everybody in town is hiding something – her grandmother Honey; her childhood crush Hart; and even her late mother, whose secrets continue to call to Grey from beyond the grave.

When a mysterious stranger emerges from the bayou – a stormy-eyed boy with links to Elora and the town’s bloody history – Grey realizes that La Cachette’s past is far more present and dangerous than she’d ever understood. Suddenly, she doesn’t know who she can trust. In a town where secrets lurk just below the surface, and where a murderer is on the loose, nobody can be presumed innocent–and La Cachette’s dark and shallow lies may just rip the town apart.

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Review

Dark and Shallow Lies is a riveting thriller that brings readers to the heart of bayou, where secrets abound even though half the residents of La Cachette are psychic. Ginny Myers Sain brings her setting and her story alive with a strong voice and a twisty plot that will have readers second guessing everything.

While I was initially uncertain about the psychic angle of the book and how it would tie in with the dark and gritty problems of a dead girl and her friend who deeply wants answers, everything ultimately comes together. The psychic powers seem real, but the holders aren’t omniscient, and protagonist Grey starts to wonder how often they’re a blessing and how often they’re a curse. There’s also tons of space for Grey to get in some real world investigation, talking to people want happened, exploring the area, etc. as she tries to figure how her best friend died.

The investigation itself is absorbing, as readers go along with Grey to find and sort through any available clues. It’s also refreshingly realistic. I felt as if the steps Grey takes to find her answers were ones a teenager could reasonably take. She isn’t some sort of teen Sherlock Holmes with a uniquely impressive mind, and she doesn’t do anything too wild that should probably get her killed herself or at least grounded for the next decade. She does what she can, relying on her tenacity and her deep love for her friend to guide her.

Full of heart, voice, and dark secrets, Dark and Shallow Lies engrossed me from the first page. And even though it’s a thriller, and I now know how it ends, I think it’s good enough to bear up to multiple reads.

Briana
4 stars

Brave the Page: A Young Writer’s Guide to Telling Epic Stories by National Novel Writing Month

Brave the Page by National Novel Writing Month book cover

Information

Goodreads: Brave the Page
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: August 27, 2019

Official Summary

The official NaNoWriMo handbook that inspires young people to tackle audacious goals and complete their creative projects.

Includes pep talks from today’s biggest authors!
John GreenMarissa MeyerJennifer NivenDaniel Jose OlderDanielle PaigeCelia C. Perez, and Scott Westerfeld with an introduction by Jason Reynolds!

Partly a how-to guide on the nitty-gritty of writing, partly a collection of inspiration to set (and meet) ambitious goals, Brave the Page is the go-to resource for middle-grade writers. Narrated in a fun, refreshingly kid-friendly voice, it champions NaNoWriMo’s central mission that everyone‘s stories deserve to be told. The volume includes chapters on character, plot, setting, and the like; motivating essays from popular authors; advice on how to commit to your goals; a detailed plan for writing a novel or story in a month; and more!

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Review

Brave the Page is an excellent introduction for younger readers to NaNoWriMo and to the writing process in general.  And even though the prompts, examples, and voice are geared towards middle schoolers and teens, there’s enough advice that older aspiring writers might find it interesting, as well.

I don’t think there’s much I would personally use in this book, but that’s solely because 1) I’d say I’m familiar with a lot of the advice—making time for writing, limiting distractions, observing the world for inspiration, etc. and 2) I’m not the type of person to refer to a multi-day plan in a book.  I read through the four week novel writing plan at the end and thought it had good idea, perfect for NaNoWri, but I’d be really bad at following through actually referencing this each day during November.  So knowing yourself and your strengths/weaknesses as a writer is useful here.

I do think the book’s biggest strength is driving home the idea that writing is a process and it’s something you can commit to doing and learn to do well.  As someone who taught college composition classes, I know even adults often think that good writing some innate talent that some people possess and others don’t or that they think inspiration, motivation, and time management are just going to strike from the sky.  Brave the Page emphasizes time and again, in the voices of a wide variety of published authors, that the most fundamental thing you need to do in order to write something is to…sit down and write.  And then sit down and write again.  And again.  And again.  And then revise it all because the first draft is probably mediocre.   The authors admit sometimes it’s hard, and they don’t always even enjoy writing, and they frequently have to purposely brainstorm ideas or make outlines instead of being divinely inspired with interesting plots.  Novels don’t just magically flow out of them.  And this is a really valuable lesson for young (or any) writers to learn.

So if you need a little motivation or inspiration for getting your novel started or know a young writer who might like to learn more about the craft, check out Brave the Page.  If you’ve already read a lot of writing advice, there’s probably nothing new here, but you might still want to check out the various writing prompts and exercises to see if there’s anything useful to you there.

Briana
4 stars

The Explorers: The Reckless Rescue by Adrienne Kress

The Reckless Rescue Book Cover

Information

Goodreads: The Reckless Rescue
Series: The Explorers #2
Source: Library
Published: April 24, 2018

Official Summary

More mystery, more bravery, more danger, and one amazingly reckless rescue await in the second book in the Explorers series! The perfect read for fans of The Name of This Book Is a Secret and The Mysterious Benedict Society!

Reader! Your attention is greatly needed. We have left things unresolved! What began as your average story of a boy stumbling upon a pig in a teeny hat and a secret international explorers society has turned into an adventure of epic proportions.

* The bad news: The boy (Sebastian) has been kidnapped by a trio of troublesome thugs.
* The good news: His new friend Evie has promised to rescue him!
* The bad news: Sebastian has been taken halfway around the world.
* The good news: Evie has famous explorer and former Filipendulous Five member Catherine Lind at her side!
* The bad news: There’s still the whole matter of Evie’s grandfather (and the leader of the Filipendulous Five) somewhere out there in grave danger.
* The good news: Pursuing Sebastian will lead Evie and Catherine to another member of the Filipendulous Five, who might be able to help!

This missive is a call to action and an invitation to join in mystery, bravery, and danger. There will be new people to meet, new places to see, and some dancing along the way. And one amazingly reckless rescue.

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Review

As I started The Reckless Rescue, I felt a little discouraged because I had absolutely no memory of what had happened in Book 1. I nearly DNF’ed in the first chapter, lamenting the lack of any exposition to situate me and certain I was doomed in general as a reader to just never have idea what was going on in any of the series I was reading ever again. However, I persevered, and I am immensely glad I did. The Reckless Rescue is one of those fabulous middle grade books that are exciting and funny and thoughtful and absolutely ridiculous but in the best possible way.

When I try to pitch this series to get others to read it, I’m always sure to mention the pig in the teeny hat because who wouldn’t want to read about that? Also, there are adorable illustrations of it. However, I think the winning factor of this book is that one of the characters accidentally joins a K-Pop band. You read that correctly. It’s so far-fetched that even the character wonders for a moment if it’s all real, but it is.  And it is perfect. I couldn’t put the book down.

There’s also another plot featuring sea life and volcanoes, both great things, especially for the intended audience of middle grade readers.  I love middle grade books that offer wild and imaginative adventures with zero apologies, and this is one of them.

The characters are also compelling, and I enjoyed getting to know more of them in this installment, their positives and their flaws.  It’s nice to be able to cheer for the protagonists and hope they succeed, and I certainly felt that here.

If you’re looking for a fun middle grade series with both creativity and heart, The Explorers series might be right for you.

Briana
4 stars

The Guinevere Deception by Kiersten White

Information

Goodreads: The Guinevere Deception
Series: Camelot Rising #1
Source: Library
Published: November 5, 2019

Official Summary

There was nothing in the world as magical and terrifying as a girl.

Princess Guinevere has come to Camelot to wed a stranger: the charismatic King Arthur. With magic clawing at the kingdom’s borders, the great wizard Merlin conjured a solution–send in Guinevere to be Arthur’s wife . . . and his protector from those who want to see the young king’s idyllic city fail. The catch? Guinevere’s real name–and her true identity–is a secret. She is a changeling, a girl who has given up everything to protect Camelot.

To keep Arthur safe, Guinevere must navigate a court in which the old–including Arthur’s own family–demand things continue as they have been, and the new–those drawn by the dream of Camelot–fight for a better way to live. And always, in the green hearts of forests and the black depths of lakes, magic lies in wait to reclaim the land. Arthur’s knights believe they are strong enough to face any threat, but Guinevere knows it will take more than swords to keep Camelot free.

Deadly jousts, duplicitous knights, and forbidden romances are nothing compared to the greatest threat of all: the girl with the long black hair, riding on horseback through the dark woods toward Arthur. Because when your whole existence is a lie, how can you trust even yourself?

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Review

The Guinevere Deception is an imaginative retelling that weaves together pieces of Arthurian legend (itself often wildly but beautifully inconsistent) to create a story about a girl who needs to find herself while protecting her new home of Camelot.  While overall I think the story is strong and well-crafted and will be satisfying to a large number of readers, personally I was not always gripped and would have liked a bit more development of the plot.

Though there are a few aspects of the book I believe were intended to be plot twists, most of it was predictable—starting with the opening of the book where there is some “secret” the protagonist holds…which in this case is mentioned on the book jacket summary.  There is also a mysterious Guinevere herself must solve, and it’s also laughable how obvious it is she is following the wrong threads and clues.  I’m not generally one to read mainly for suspense or surprise, but it was a bit wearying to feel the character was wasting her time—and to feel I was, as well, as I had to plod through the requisite pages until she finally discovered how wrong she was and started doing something more useful.  Interestingly, the elements from Arthurian legend incorporated into the plot did not feel as blandly predictable, even though I was aware where certain scenes must be heading.

Guinevere as a character is interesting, however, and it was fun to read about her.  She is someone who is not necessarily drawn in detail in a lot of Arthurian source material, which can give writers some room to play.  White has a created a character who is both powerful and vulnerable, smart but often in the dark, important but clearly still very young.  Sometimes in YA, while the characters are doing great deeds, it’s hard to remember they’re teens; I generally remembered that Guinevere was, even as she was impressing me with her talents.

I also enjoyed the characterization of most of the other players in the novel and had fun picking out where White was inspired by her sources.  In addition to the obvious characters like Mordred and Merlin, White adds ones like Tristan and Isolde and Percival and Blancheflour, who might be less familiar to some readers.  Personally, I’ve always been interested in Gawain, so it would have been fun to see him get a larger role, as well, but that’s not actually a flaw of the book.

The main premise of the new vs. the old, magic vs. order, nature vs. peace, etc. is also interesting and nuanced, and I think there’s a lot of room for this to grow in the following books.  In some sense, The Guinevere Deception has the tiniest feel of The Lord of the Rings, as characters ponder whether it’s time for dangerous magic to leave and for a world ordered by men to take over.  There’s also general medieval influence here, of course, in the sense that magic and folklore beliefs coexisted with Christianity, sometimes openly and sometimes secretly, for quite a while in the Middle Ages.

The Guinevere Deception is a strong fantasy with strong female characters that will likely please many readers. I enjoyed it myself; I just wasn’t gripped enough to want to continue reading the series.

Briana
3 Stars

Blood Heir by Amélie Wen Zhao

Information

Goodreads: Blood Heir
Series: Blood Heir Trilogy #1
Source: Gift
Published: November 19, 2019

Official Summary

This hot debut is the first book in an epic new series about a princess hiding a dark secret and the con man she must trust to clear her name for her father’s murder.

In the Cyrilian Empire, Affinites are reviled. Their varied gifts to control the world around them are unnatural—dangerous. And Anastacya Mikhailov, the crown princess, has a terrifying secret. Her deadly Affinity to blood is her curse and the reason she has lived her life hidden behind palace walls.

When Ana’s father, the emperor, is murdered, her world is shattered. Framed as his killer, Ana must flee the palace to save her life. And to clear her name, she must find her father’s murderer on her own. But the Cyrilia beyond the palace walls is far different from the one she thought she knew. Corruption rules the land, and a greater conspiracy is at work—one that threatens the very balance of her world. And there is only one person corrupt enough to help Ana get to its core: Ramson Quicktongue.

A cunning crime lord of the Cyrilian underworld, Ramson has sinister plans—though he might have met his match in Ana. Because in this story, the princess might be the most dangerous player of all.

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Review

“Dark” is an apt description for Blood Heir, a book where so many terrible things keep happening to the characters that it’s difficult to say the story is “fun” or “enjoyable” to read. However, an interesting plot and strong world building kept me turning the pages and have me excited to read the sequel when it’s released later this year.

I did struggle with the beginning because ostracization, torture, injustice, violence, and slavery are all recurring themes, and while these are obviously important topics, they can make the book feel heavy. Each time I picked it up, I wondered what awful thing was going to happen to which character next. However, as protagonist Ana and her unlikely crime lord partner begin to come into their own–their abilities and their beliefs–the story also starts to show more hope. They know things will be hard, and more things will go wrong, but they realize that they must try, that it is their choices that define them.

I do wish I could have rooted for both characters a bit more. While the author does strive to make both nuanced, I felt she missed the mark in representing what are supposed to be their fundamental characteristics. For instance, Ramson is supposed to be the best criminal in the entire country, a man who can accomplish what no else can with cunning and ruthlessness–yet he never does anything particularly impressive during the course of the book. He gets into and out of a few scrapes, but so often it seems that other people are getting the upper hand on him; I can believe he’s a skilled criminal, but I don’t believe he’s the best or unparalleled.

Ana is also a bit difficult. She struggles with having a blood Affinity, the ability to control others’ bodies with their own blood, either to toss them about or to hurt or kill them. (Possibly she could figure out how to heal with it, but she doesn’t know how.) Her brand of magic means many people think she’s a monster, while she hopes she is not. However, her struggle here is also not as nuanced as it could be. Other characters in the book repeatedly mention that Ana is good, inspirational, etc.–but all I could see is how many people she kills, viciously, violently, and occasionally with some satisfaction because they “deserve” it. She mentions repeatedly that it’s your choices that define you, but she kills dozens of people in horrendous ways over the course of the book, and I don’t think her regret or struggle to come to terms with whether it was unfortunate but “necessary” is delved into enough.

Yet I did like the book. It has a sweeping scope and takes a thoughtful look at a nation that has become corrupt and is perpetuating terrible human rights violations through legalized indentured servitude (or what we as readers would recognize as modern-day slavery). Arguably this, recognizing the slavery and then finding ways to end (revolution? politically? something else?) it is truly the premise of the book, more so than the plot line about Ana searching for the man who murdered her father, which is mentioned in the official summary. Ana grew up shut up in the palace (because of her own Affinity), but now that she is out in the world, she begins to see the signs and the effects of this slavery everywhere–in the people selling food her at a festival who have bad contracts and aren’t allowed to leave, in the back rooms of “reputable” places where work contracts are bought and sold, in the turned backs of the national guard who are supposed to protect the vulnerable but are willing to exploit them for the right amount of money. Injustice is everywhere, and she and her friends realize they cannot turn away.

Overall, this is a fascinating story that takes the basic story of Anastasia and turns it into something new. That something isn’t always pretty because the world and the characters are dark, but it’s compelling, and I think many readers will be gripped by the story if they give it a chance.

Briana
4 stars

The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green

The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green book cover

Information

Goodreads: The Smoke Thieves
Series: The Smoke Thieves #1
Source: Purchased
Published: May 1, 2018

Official Summary

A princess, a traitor, a hunter and a thief. Four teenagers with the fate of the world in their hands. Four nations destined for conflict.

In Brigant, Princess Catherine prepares for a loveless political marriage arranged by her brutal and ambitious father. In Calidor, downtrodden servant March seeks revenge on the prince who betrayed his people. In Pitoria, feckless Edyon steals cheap baubles for cheaper thrills as he drifts from town to town. And in the barren northern territories, thirteen-year-old Tash is running for her life as she plays bait for the gruff demon hunter Gravell.

As alliances shift and shatter, and old certainties are overturned, our four heroes find their past lives transformed and their futures inextricably linked by the unpredictable tides of magic and war. Who will rise and who will fall? And who will claim the ultimate prize?

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Review

The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green is an interesting high fantasy that weaves together multiple POVs of characters from a variety of walks of life: a demon hunter, a princess, a royal body guard, a trader’s son, a servant. The book will likely appeal to anyone who generally likes these types of stories, as the world-building is interesting and the plot is fairly fast-paced, but I do think the characterization was lacking and that it was difficult to actually connect with the characters.

My complete apathy towards characters is always something I find difficult to explain. In The Smoke Thieves, it isn’t that there are “too many” characters or that Green doesn’t describe them and their personalities and their motivations in some detail. On paper, everything looks done right, yet I never actually cared about any of these people. Characters die left and right in the story, some minor and some important enough I should have felt some emotion after their demise and yet…I never did. And that makes the book feel flat.

The one thing I can explain is the complete lack of romantic chemistry between the princess and her body guard. While the soldier seems like a nice guy and exhibits a remarkable amount of loyalty and willingness to sacrifice for the woman he loves…I just never had any idea of why they liked each other or how their “relationship” came about. From the descriptions in the book, it seems as if the two of them barely talked, so the idea they would risk everything to have some sort of forbidden true love affair seemed absurd to me. The solider’s over-the-top loyalty actually made me think of it a bit like a devoted puppy rather than a serious, swoon-worthy love interest.

And yet…I did enjoy the book. Plot-wise, it was interesting. I might have liked a bit more complexity, but I thought the explanation of the political systems and the relationships of the various countries were thought-through and made for good political intrigue, and I liked reading about the daily activities of most of the characters. (I admit I hated every time I saw a chapter about Edyon or March; they simply bored me. This is a risk with any story with multiple POVs, however.) Overall, I just want to know how things are going to turn out.

The element of the demon smoke is also interesting and not quite like anything I’ve read before, and I think focusing more on demons would be fascinating in book two, if that’s a route the author can take. I am very open to reading the sequel, which is always the mark of a successful series opener for me, even if the book isn’t perfect.

4 stars
Briana

Girl Gone Viral by Arvin Ahmadi (DNF Review)

Girl Gone Viral CoverInformation

GoodreadsGirl Gone Viral
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: May 21, 2019

Official Summary

For seventeen-year-old Opal Hopper, code is magic. She builds entire worlds from scratch: Mars craters, shimmering lakes, any virtual experience her heart desires.

But she can’t code her dad back into her life. When he disappeared after her tenth birthday, leaving only a cryptic note, Opal tried desperately to find him. And when he never turned up, she enrolled at a boarding school for technical prodigies and tried to forget.

Until now. Because WAVE, the world’s biggest virtual reality platform, has announced a contest where the winner gets to meet its billionaire founder. The same billionaire who worked closely with Opal’s dad. The one she always believed might know where he went. The one who maybe even murdered him.

What begins as a small data hack to win the contest spirals out of control when Opal goes viral, digging her deeper into a hole of lies, hacks, and manipulation. How far will Opal go for the answers–or is it the attention–she’s wanted for years?

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Review

I usually try to get a decent way into a book before writing a DNF review, so I freely here admit I only got a view chapters into Girl Gone Viral before giving it up, and there may be something secretly fabulous about the book that I am missing.  (Notably, I didn’t even get to the part of the book that seems to be the major plot–the protagonist looking for her missing father.)  However, I so rarely DNF books in the first place, especially YA books that barely take any time to read, that I thought it worth explaining why.

The primary reason I gave up is likely just a pet peeve of mine and won’t be a problem for many other readers: the book clearly thinks it’s incredibly clever…and it’s not.  I hate this.  The one thing I can truly think I despise about books is protagonists who think they’re smart, are acknowledged as smart by other characters and/or the narrative voice, but are glaringly, obviously not.  Now, it isn’t the case here that protagonist Opal Hopper is actually stupid, so she has that going for her, but the premise of the opening chapters is that it’s incredibly clever that Opal has figured out that people lie when they write comments online.  

If you haven’t gasped, shocked and appalled, completely taken aback by this wild and enlightening information, then you are not alone.  However, Opal (and friends) are completely convinced that if they do a video (well, more of a VR experience) where they reveal to people that they say they hate a certain celebrity but they really feel bad for her and it troubles, it will be earth-shattering.  They’re revealing that people lie online. (*gasp*)  They’re so convinced of this that they stake winning the contest mentioned in the book summary on making a video revealing this mind-blowing information.  Showing that people write trolling comments and say things they don’t mean when they’re online will totally make them go viral and win the competition because it’s just such amazingly, shocking information.  They’re geniuses for coming up with this unbelievable theory that definitely no one would have ever known or thought of before.

…I’m getting sarcastic enough that you’re probably already imagining me rolling my eyes, and that was my general experience reading the first chapters of this book.  I do admit that the trick of children’s books is that information that seems obvious to adults might actually be delightfully new and surprising to kids or teens, and maybe teens will, in fact, be taken aback by the wild information that people write things they don’t mean online, especially when it means going with what seems to be the general consensus.  (Why say you hate Ariana Grande on an online forum where her fans are going to mob you?  Just say she’s fine and move on, right?)

And maybe the book gets better from its here and goes on to have a fascinating plot and to actually say things about technology that haven’t been said before (though the general premise right now seems to be fear of privacy loss, which is relevant to many readers but not exactly a new theme for literature–See The Circle by Dave Eggers.)  However, the opening is so lackluster and so proud of its own cleverness when it’s not even clever, that I can’t keep reading.  Combine this with the fact I feel no connection to the characters, and the author seems to be fond of writing confusingly and withholding information to reveal it more “surprisingly” later on, and I’m just not interested in spending more time with this book.

Briana

The Strange Under-developed Dystopian Society in Four Dead Queens (Discussion)

The strange under-developed dystopian society in Four Dead Queens - discussion

Minor spoilers for Four Dead Queens.

I recently read Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte, a book I gave two stars in part because it tries to do too many things at once and, as a result, fails at many of them.  The main focus of the book is a mystery: the four queens of Quadara are dead, and the protagonist wants to find out who killed them.  But the book is also a romance, a fantasy, and a dystopian.  One of the quadrants (they’re kind of like provinces or states) is extremely technologically advanced, but it’s also a frozen wasteland where nothing grows, and its borders are largely closed to visitors.  The inhabitants are genetically altered to minimize disease and genetic disorders, but this also means that the quadrant government determines its citizens’ entire lives–what you do as a career, who your friends are, when you die, etc.  This is all roundly condemned by the protagonist and the tone of the book in general–there is no mistaking that readers are meant to know this is wrong–but it’s not focused on.  The existence of this dystopian society is a side point in a book focused on the protagonist’s quest to solve the mystery of the queens’ deaths and on her own personal problems related to her love life, family, career, etc.  I have mixed feelings about this that I can’t resolve.

For those who haven’t read Four Dead Queens, here’s an analogy.  Imagine that Suzanne Collins wrote a book set in the world of The Hunger Games, but the story wasn’t actually about the Games.  The main character would acknowledge the existence of these Games, would meet people who knew participants in the Games, would explicitly state the Games were terrible human rights violations and ought to be stopped–but this wouldn’t be the focus of the book.  Instead, the main plot would be that a teenage girl was trying to solve the mystery of how the leader of District 4 died.   The dystopian setting would be just that–a setting.  It wouldn’t be strongly related to the plot or the message of the book.

On one hand, I can admire this.  Books are often about “important things” or “important players” in politics, revolutions, world events, etc., but there are a lot of people in the world who are not involved with anything important, and certainly no one is involved with everything important.  I can think of myself as a good example.  There are a lot of important, historical things happening in the United States, and I have pretty much nothing to do with any of them.  Similarly, there are people who live in Panem who probably are not greatly affected by the Hunger Games, awful as they are, and who go about their lives interested in other things and experiencing other stories.  From this perspective, I think the fact that there’s a dystopian society in Four Dead Queens that the protagonist is aware of but simply not involved with is refreshingly realistic.

Yet it’s also an incredibly weird artistic choice because readers do often expect books to be focused on the important things–because those are the unusual and interesting things.  Certainly there are slice of life books and books about the Everyman, but most of them focus so strongly on the mundane that the reader doesn’t really think about the Big World Events that are probably happening outside the scope of the protagonist’s life.  If a book takes the time to mention something Big, it usually seriously impacts the character’s life, even if they aren’t intricately involved with it.  This is particularly true for dystopians, and I have never read a dystopian where the entire point of the novel was not to talk about how the dystopian society was terrible and then have the main character ultimately overthrow it (or try to).

So there’s a lot of tension here for me.  I think it’s reasonable and realistic that a character could know about terrible human rights violations going on in another country and care but not really be involved.  People in our world do this every day. (Disclaimer: Yes, it is the protagonist’s own country in Four Dead Queens, but the quadrants are essentially self-governing and have little interaction; it basically is like a foreign country to anyone who doesn’t live in that quadrant.)  However, artistic conventions lead us as readers to expect that when things, Big Things, are mentioned in a book that they are going to be developed and probably a core point of the story.  It’s bizarre for a writer to mention something Terrible happening in their invented fantasy world, note that it’s terrible, and then move on to a different plot line.  It’s bad writing.  It’s the point where authors have to write things that are unrealistic because it reads more naturally in a book than something that is actually realistic.

I think Four Dead Queens is badly written in general, but the existence of this strange dystopian quadrant on the sidelines of the novel fascinates me. My sneaking suspicion is that the author might want to deal with it more in-depth in a companion novel, but I actually have a smidgen of respect for the unusual choice not to emphasize it initially.  At least it’s different.

Briana

Park Avenue Summer by Renee Rosen (ARC Review)

Park Avenue Summer

INformation

Goodreads: Park Avenue Summer
Series: None
Source: Giveaway
Publication Date: April 30,2019

Official Summary

Mad Men meets The Devil Wears Prada as Renée Rosen draws readers into the glamour of 1965 New York City and Cosmopolitan Magazine, where a brazen new Editor-in-Chief–Helen Gurley Brown–shocks America by daring to talk to women about all things off limits…

New York City is filled with opportunities for single girls like Alice Weiss who leaves her small Midwestern town to chase her big city dreams and unexpectedly lands the job of a lifetime working for Helen Gurley Brown, the first female Editor-in-Chief of a then failing Cosmopolitan Magazine.

Nothing could have prepared Alice for the world she enters as editors and writers resign on the spot, refusing to work for the woman who wrote the scandalous bestseller, Sex and the Single Girl. While confidential memos, article ideas, and cover designs keep finding their way into the wrong hands, someone tries to pull Alice into this scheme to sabotage her boss. But Alice remains loyal and becomes all the more determined to help Helen succeed. As pressure mounts at the magazine and Alice struggles to make her way in New York, she quickly learns that in Helen Gurley Brown’s world, a woman can demand to have it all.

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Review

Park Avenue Summer is an interesting fictionalized account of the first months that Helen Gurley Brown took over a dying Cosmopolitan magazine and, against the wishes of Hearst executives, turned it from a women’s magazine about the home into one about sex and relationships.  The protagonist is actually Alice, Helen’s new secretary who is completely unqualified for the position but gets it through personal connections (such is the world of publishing, I supposed).  However, though the book does deal with Alice’s personal life including her friendships, sexual flings as she tries being a modern girl who has sex without ties just for fun, and her family secrets, the book really does revolve all around Gurley Brown and her vision for Cosmopolitan, and readers get a sense of how Alice is sucked into a mentality of “work and the magazine before all else,” trapped in the cult of Helen Gurley Brown, a bit like in The Devil Wears Prada.

My personal issue with the main tension of the book being “Will the new, sexy magazine succeed?” is that I didn’t really care either way.  Rosen does a fantastic job of portraying Helen as the underdog fighting an entire executive board, even an entire industry to launch a “modern” magazine for “her girls” that will touch on topics that are rather taboo.  When readers see how far people (mostly men) go to sabotage her, her career, and the magazine (which Hearst actually wants to fold, not revive, as they stated when they hired Gurley Brown), they won’t be able to help rooting for her.  However, beyond the “I like when underdogs win” feeling, I wasn’t invested in either Gurley Brown or her vision.

Alice talks about Gurley Brown as if she’s a force of nature, strong-willed and able to get her way even when people don’t want to give it to her.  However, those moment are represented rarely in the book.  Instead we see her crying (fair, considering what people are doing to her), calling other female employees things like “pussycat” (which seems the opposite of empowering), and, worst of all, frequently calling her husband to bail her out.  She got the job through her husband’s influence, then she calls him every time something goes wrong. She leaves the office to spend time with him so he can calm her down.  He is at every restaurant she hosts an important meeting at, ready to bail her out.  He writes parts of the magazine and solves her problems for her.  There’s nothing wrong with relying on a spouse for support, but I don’t know how much Gurley Brown was a strong, insightful woman with a vision. vs. a woman with a powerful, confident husband who did half her work for her.

I also balked at really rooting for the vision of the magazine.  Gurley Brown talks a lot about the modern, career-oriented woman and how she wants to help them (ok, “her girls”) succeed, but none of the stories she pitches are ever about careers or general empowerment. She tells Hearst executives that she’s going to write about how to touch a woman’s breasts, how to best masturbate, how to have an affair with a married man, etc.  Every other word out of her mouth was about having sex and sexual pleasure.  Being sex positive is one thing, but I could kind of see why the other magazine employees thought she was crazy and incredibly vulgar.  She seems more sex-obsessed than interested in actual female empowerment.

The fact I didn’t personally like Helen Gurley Brown or her vision for Cosmopolitan doesn’t mean the book was bad, of course.  I don’t need to find characters likable or relatable.  However, I do think the book struggled with the balance of focusing on Gurley Brown vs. focusing on the actual protagonist.  Alice herself is, frankly, a bit dull.  She gets all of her big breaks from nepotism, which is irritating, but, worse than that, she’s a bit dull.  Things seem to happen to her or at her, rather than because she herself took any action.  If she weren’t working for Gurley Brown and getting dragged into things bigger than herself because of luck and personal connections, she’d be incredibly uninteresting.

So, as a story, I think Park Avenue Summer is a bit dry. As an account of an interesting period in the magazine industry and the history of Cosmopolitan in particular, it’s worth a read if you don’t know much about this topic.

3 Stars Briana

Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte

Four Dead Queens

Information

Goodreads: Four Dead Queens
Series
: None
Source: City Book Review
Published: February 26, 2019

Official Summary

Seventeen-year-old Keralie Corrington may seem harmless, but she’s, in fact, one of Quadara’s most skilled thieves and a liar. Varin, on the other hand, is an honest, upstanding citizen of Quadara’s most enlightened region, Eonia. He runs afoul of Keralie when she steals a package from him, putting his life in danger. When Varin attempts to retrieve the package, he and Keralie both find themselves entangled in a conspiracy that leaves all four of Quadara’s queens dead.

With no other choices and on the run from Keralie’s former employer, the two decide to join forces, endeavoring to discover who has killed the queens and save their own lives in the process. When their reluctant partnership blooms into a tenuous romance, they must overcome their own dark secrets in hopes of a future together that seemed impossible just days before. But first they have to stay alive and untangle the secrets behind the nation’s four dead queens.

An enthralling fast-paced murder mystery where competing agendas collide with deadly consequences, Four Dead Queensheralds the arrival of an exciting new YA talent.

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Review

Some spoilers. Do not read if you do not want to know things like the set-up of the government in the novel, the weaknesses of some of the quadrants, or how easy I thought the mystery was to solve.

I love a good high fantasy book, and Four Dead Queens was one of my most highly anticipated books of 2019.  Everything from the summary (a fantasy murder mystery) to the cover (a pile of crowns discarded like trash) is engaging and evocative.  So I am immensely disappointed to report  that this book was extremely underdeveloped and incohesive.  I initially wanted to give it three stars but settled on two when I realized there are four main components of the book–a fantasy, a dystopian, a romance, and a mystery–and none of them really work.

The fantasy aspect might be the strongest–if you can overlook the completely absurd form of government (and apparently readers can, as has been demonstrated by very popular books like Three Dark Crowns.)  I, however, cannot get over the fact there is a country with four queens who each rule a different quadrant, who claim to be acting “together” for the good of Quadara while actually deciding that nearly all the benefits of their quadrant must remain in that quadrant.  (For example, only one quadrant can produce food. For some reason, they just give it away to the other three and accept the fact they’re not “allowed” to have things like electricity from the technology quadrant to make farming easier.  Why are they not rioting?  Why are they not trying to withhold food to get what they want from the other quadrants?  What army is enforcing all this?)  Other inane rules include not allowing the queens to ever set food in their quadrant once they ascend the throne (not knowing anything about your quadrant helps you rule better, apparently), and all the queens must live in the same palace for their safety (because we all know the safest thing to do is to put all the most important people in the same place that can be taken out by a single major attack).  The set-up of this country is, frankly, ludicrous, and I couldn’t help thinking they basically deserved to have their queens murdered or couped or something so someone could set up a more stable government. Really the most shocking thing is that no one tried to murder all the queens before.

However, the book is not all high fantasy and court politics.  Interestingly, there’s a small dystopian angle when the protagonist discovers the seemingly utopian technology sector is actually a nightmare place that encourages conformity and tells people what jobs they “must” take to best use their skills in society.  This, frankly, could have been an entire book on its own, and there is so much untapped potential here.  I can envision this  novel having gone in a Divergent direction where the characters learned that keeping the quadrants so separate was stupid and that they needed the good parts of the other quadrants to help keep them all in balance, but the author never really dealt with the obvious, deep-rooted problems of the country she created.  She mentions this quadrant is actually a terrible place to live and then…kind of just moves on.

But is the romance good, you ask?  No.  No, it’s not.  The characters know each other literally for about three days.  There is no time for them to convincingly develop feelings for each other, particularly when they are thrown together initially for work purposes and later because they want to help their country.  They’re basically two colleagues working towards the same goal, and there is no real chemistry between them at all.

So…the mystery.  Also underwhelming.  I suppose you can say there is a mystery in the sense that there is a murderer and that the characters and the reader do not know who it is, but this isn’t exactly an Agatha Christie novel.  There aren’t really clues that lead the reader to help figure out who the criminal is.  If you want to be super involved with this and try to figure out what’s going on, you are going to be disappointed because a lot of the information you need is withheld (and also kind of…weird or incohesive with the rest of the story).

I so wanted to like this, and there was a ton of potential if Scholte had recognized some of the problems of the worldbuilding for Quadara and actually talked about them.  If the lesson had been that everyone realized the government system was ridiculous or unstable, I think something could have been redeemed here.  Instead, the book tried to do at least four different things and didn’t do any of them well. and I am sadly completely unable to recommend this book.

2 star review Briana