The Incident on the Bridge – Laura McNeal

alternating narration, families, Female Leads

Thisbe was once a studious, if a little shy, high school student.  Not until a summer romance ended did she retreat into herself.  It wasn’t just that the relationship with Clay ended, but how it ended. Then as isolating as first heartbreak often is, Thisbe doesn’t realize the distraction and danger it puts her in as we learn it does on one night on the bridge.  As days go by into Thisbe’s disappearance, her little sister Ted and a new friend in town trying to recover from his own grief pair up to seek the truth concerning Thisbe’s disappearance.

Learning the backstory of Thisbe and Clay’s relationship alternating between the present days that occur after the night Thisbe disappeared, readers are privy to the inside thoughts of many characters, family members who fight for the truth they hope for, school friends who saw Thisbe’s demise, and the police who are trying to piece together different images of the  missing Thisbe.  Then as Thisbe picks up the narration herself, we realize this tale is far more sinister than high school relationships and that her broken heart led to a distracted moment which will change her life forever.

And what about all the people who either passed Thisbe on the bridge or the security officer who looked at her phone to check on her sick baby and missed the incident on the bridge?  This is a great telling of how we all interact and how people affect one another sort of like Gone Girl with a mystery to unwind.  As characters revisit conversations they had with Thisbe, everyone reflects on how people affect one another.  Thisbe herself realizes that her fixation on Clay and her own downward spiraling isolation wasn’t just an inward sulking, but a distraction which led to her not thinking clearly and over all abduction.

This is a shared narrative that is full of action, but more importantly it shows how we all connect and how, in a state of emergency, people can come together despite their guilt, innocence, or confusion.  There is a common goal and in this case it is to find Thisbe.

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Inherit Midnight -Kate Kae Myers

Award Nominee, families, Female Leads, Young Readers

Depending on your take – Avery VanDemere either has a privileged life or an unfortunate one.  Being raised by her incredibly wealthy grandmother in her mansion sounds great, but her alcoholic father has been gone for years, her mother is dead, and her extended family resents her presence.  Seeking a little freedom from the confines of mansion walls, Avery begins sneaking out and is soon shipped off to a boarding school, which is more of a prison.

Avery is picked up by the son of her Grandmother’s lawyer with no explanation as to why and taken back to the law firm where all of her extended family awaits.  Avery is not eager to see them and they make no attempt to hide their disdain for her.  After all, they view Avery as the illegitimate daughter of the drunken brother and nanny.  What they all soon learn is that they will begin an adventure of traveling focused on inheritance and legacy.  Their matriarch is not pleased with the selfishness, laziness, unruly behavior of her descendants and now they must compete against one another in order to receive their inheritance.  Among the players are two power hungry uncles, a bully of a cousin, a half brother who she has never had a relationship with, and two self-important female cousins – and Avery.  Her only ally is Riley, the son of the lawyer who picked her up.

As the competitors travel the world, they must remember family stories and histories Grandmother VanDemere has shared over Christmas dinners and brunches.  This is both a test of family heritage and wit, but also a test of strength and resourcefulness.  Besides this new challenge which can keep Avery from returning to a violet boarding school, Avery has also learned that her mother did not die – but was bought off and sent back to Croatia.  With each new challenge she successfully completes, she is rewarded with letters her mother has sent each year on her birthday.  Finding  more about her mother is more important to Avery than and amount of inheritance.  Determined to win the challenge only to escape this  hateful, selfish family and find her mother, Avery plays the game.

Add to the plot – a romance, violence, a secret message, and world travel and it’s worth sharing.  The challenges take the family through such important events in their family’s history as the Civil War, mining for diamonds, and the American Revolution.  The mix of a current, adventurous challenge and a mysterious, personal past is a plot so detailed with secrets and depth, it makes for an entertaining and surprising plot.

Court of Fives – Kate Elliott

Authors, Award Nominee, families, Favorites, Female Leads, Series

The intro is part Game of Thrones, Shakespeare, and mystery – sign me up!

Five sisters, one of which is Jessamy, a strong willed daughter who seeks adventure and freedom, are prim and proper born to a family rising in power and expected to behave as the highborn.  Since her father was born poor, but whose status has elevated due to his career and her mother is a commoner (who her father cannot marry!) the daughters are constantly insulted and considered commoner’s in their family’s new elevated status.  They are not the same as highborn, yet they are not commoners.  If this wasn’t challenging enough, Jessamy is a free spirit who wants to compete in the games of the Court of Fives.

The Fives is part gladiator games and part Ninja Warrior with alternating challenges of strength and flexibility.  The contestants can be anyone who can afford the entry fee and they are masked so identities are unknown.  Jessamy finds a way to enter, but she knows she must lose for winning would bring shame to her father and family – and they already have enough obstacles against them.  Once her secret is discovered, by a fellow highborn contender, her life gets even more complicated.   As Jessamy struggles with her want to compete, she must fight the urge of The Fives, but also with the want to see the boy she cannot.

When a death causes a life twist to Jessamy and her sisters, she both gets what she’s always wanted and also what she’s always feared – how does she choose between her dream and her personal freedom or her devotion to her family?

This is action, entertainment, character growth, and facing how allegiances made from the strangest of partners can be the strongest of partners [see, Shakespearean]. The writing is both old fashioned and beautiful, similarly as Jane Austen or other period pieces.  I have a new insult: “Your argument is a sieve that cannot hold water”

There are plenty of twists, dangers to overcome, but mostly Jess learns that decisions aren’t always clear and even after made, sometimes there was no choice at all, but an unfortunate ending to those who do not control their own lives.


Series continues with: Poisoned Blade and a 3rd untitled.

Truthwitch – Susan Dennard

Action, Fantasy, Female Leads

The concept of being able to “read” people takes on a variety of abilities through the witches in this fantasy.  There are many who hold magical power that different groups want to master: the ability to know whether someone tells the truth, the ability to “smell” and find any foe, and the ability to see the threads that connect people to one another and understand the making of your enemies and friends.

Safiya and Iseult are witches on the run, after a robbery gone wrong against a powerful man and his Bloodwitch bodyguard, the one who can “smell” true witches powers.  In other words, he is on the hunt for Safi – a Truthwitch.  The larger plot is a 20 year truce about to be lifted between different empires.  This is where readers meat Prince Merik, the son of a King, but one who holds no real magic.  He is, therefore, an ostracized disappointment and his sister will be the powerful Queen, and skilled in magic, after their father dies.

The women must separate for survival and each begin a separate journey which they must overcome stereotypes, arranged marriages, and true power.  Once reunited you would hope for an easier journey for the friends, but that is not the case.  As they are hunted, they must rely on new partnerships – even though they are only contracts for money.  Still adventure abounds, even with the occasional confusion of “Now which witch is this?”


Series The Witchlands continues with not two, but three planned sequels.

Daughter of Deep Silence – Carrie Ryan

Female Leads

Frances and Libby are rescued from being lost at sea for seven days, only Libby is dead and Frances’ parents are dead, and hundreds of others are dead after the cruise ship was attacked by gunmen.  This begins so dark and heavy and instantly addictive due to the detailed, clear writing.  Within a few pages – you will be hooked to learn more of France’s story and why the cruise liner was attacked.  As she is looked over by a medic, she finds out two other passengers survived: Senator Wells and his son Grey, the boy she fell in love with on board the cruise ship Persephone.  However, they are telling a lie about what happened to the cruise. 

As you read the story, you learn through flashbacks the events of that night.  You also learn of the great, detailed writing, such as

The bodies “And the blood and the screams and the smell of it all, like overripe peaches stuffed with pennies”

Frances finds news coverage of the Persephone and of the senator and his son being interviewed, but instead of telling the truth they have a different story.  Frances tells Libby’s dad, Cecil, the truth.   In an effort to protect her and investigate why the cruise was attacked, Cecil convinces Frances to pretend to be Libby so that they can stay together.

4 Years Later —– wait, what? 

This is a great revenge mystery like the Embassy Row series and the empowerment Frances feels at finally confronting the past at age 18 is exciting even if a little unrealistic in the timing of inheriting a trust fund, which allows her both the financial freedom and the freedom of being an adult, at the convenient age of 18.  Flashbacks to the night on board reappear throughout the story offering surreal and vivid images, descriptions of fear and witness of death, and detailed imagery that gets pretty dark. (This reminded me a lot of the show “Revenge” which is also a story of a young female planning a revenge for years and having unrealistic training, finances, and luck to achieve her ultimate revenge.

As Frances/Libby returns home for the first time in 4 years, she must pull off appearing as Libby for a fundraiser she hosts for her enemy, Senator Wells.  This provides a pupblic reunion of the only survivors from the disaster years before.   Frances/Libby can bounce from fully trained Libby traits and smile on the surface to full on rage bottled up for the last four years.  She must plan her revenge while playing the part.  And of course, others fall in her wake of revenge and truth seeking.

Besides the mystery, throw in the mix two young, dashing possible as love interests and whether Frances tells them the truth, and it’s a devious plan of revenge and a detailed plot.  Oh, did I mention one of the love interests is Grey – who Frances both wants to be the sweet boy that she knew on the cruise, but also wants to punish as the lying Senator’s son who helped hill her parents and friend.   The other love interest is Shep, Libby’s old boyfriend.   Ether way, a guy will be shocked and hurt, and Francis will have to live with how people suffer due to her plan of revenge. 

This book shows not everything is wrapped up in a bow.  Yet, teenage years are difficult for any young adult and especially for Frances who faced loss, fear, and survival, but must face her quest for revenge and truth while learning if she can ever trust anyone again and let people into her life.  The conspiracy is a good one too.   5 Stars! 

A School for Unusual Girls – Kathleen Baldwin

Female Leads, period pieces, Safe Bets, Series, Young Readers

It’s 1814 and Georgiana Fitzwilliam is not the submissive, dainty, quiet daughter her high society parents expect in a daughter.  In fact, she’s a scientist (!)  and after setting the family’s barn and fields on fire (oops!) from a failed science experiment, she is sent to Miss. Stranje – a woman known for breaking wild girls of their strong spirit and reforming them into high society’s expectations of a well behaved female…… or so the Stranje House is believed to do.

As any smart spy knows, one must have a good cover – and that’s what the Stranje House is: a cover for girls with skills to be honed in an effort to help Britain avoid another war.  Emma Stranje is not the harsh Headmistress who reforms wild girls, as parents believe, but she is a clever, atypical female herself who will train these young females and place them in dangerous situations with some of England’s most secretive of spies. A truly bold woman using the innate skills of young ladies to help her country.  A patriot in a corset!

A period piece, not historical fiction but a story that takes elements of history (not as accurate as a Dateline episode, but far better than a Lifetime movie), but a setting that readers will enjoy dreaming about even once the book is finished. Another tale of young females dreaming of living outside of their sexist, limited options.

Gerogie and the other girls of Stranje House all have skills that will help the British army and keep the French Napoleon sympathizers from gaining control of France.  Throw in a few spy scenarios, a ball to attend, and secrets from a few sinister characters, as well as a gallant hero and that’s the story.  But it isn’t as romance-novel as it sounds since, after all, Georgie and the other ladies from Stranje House are some of the most clever, ranging from realistically sloppy to the most naturally beautiful, heroes of this adventure.   It ends with a new foe and challenge even the Strange House ladies do not know how to conquor, but (sweetly) concludes with Georgie finally finding a home among the other “unusual” girls.


A Stranje House series continues with Exile for Dreamers

exile

 

The Glass Sword -Victoria Aveyard

Fantasy, Favorites, Female Leads, Series

Oh conflicted Mare Barrow, power-hungry and deceiving Maven, and crazy Shakespearean Queen Elara….. how I’ve been waiting for your return!

Aveyard picks up right where our beloved rebels within the Scarlet Guard left off – rescuing Mare and taking Cal prisoner – but the newly crowned KING Maven is on their tails with the Silver army and declaring Cal a murderous traitor and Mare an enemy to be killed.  Maven no longer hides his power hungry persona or distain for the Reds and now, with the crown, he holds the power to strengthen the attack on the Reds.  Since he also knows that Mare is not the only Red with powers he wants to capture any powerful Newbloods as well as the Scarlet Guard. Speaking of the Scarlet Guard, it is stronger and smarter than Mare realized and Farley, although strong and a good leader, is not the leader at all.

Like previous series, this second installment is full of action and the plot progresses from the very beginning.  The second is often my favorite of series from titles like Catching Fire and The Rose Society and this one continues that favoritism.

Our strong and conflicting characters now realize they must rely on one another as Mare, Captain Fairley, Cal, and Shade break away from one group of captors and into the clutches of another.  It seems Maven’s power has stretched through the land showing  the false story he created of Cal’s treachery in manipulating the truth for his gain.  With the lists of Newbloods (the same list Maven is using to kill Reds with power), the crew flies among villages to try and build an army of Reds with power against Maven and the silvers. Mare struggles with no longer being the Mare from the Barrows, nor the pretend Silver of the palace.  As she finds the rebellion leader within her, she struggles with what she has lost of her home-life, but also benefiting from traits and skills she learned from the Silvers.  How can she find her true self when her drive for justice contradicts her ideals?  Was her time with the Silvers actually helpful to the leader she has become?

“To rise. And rise alone.” It echoes like the howl of a wolf.  “I see you as you could become, no longer the lightning, but the storm. The storm that will swallow the world entirely”   (306)

As Mare and team gather more Newbloods, she hears others are being killed and tortured by Elara’s mind control and are even facing fighting for the Silvers.  Mare takes on the pressure of leadership and fear takes its toll on Mare.  As her confidence and pride succumbs to grief and guilt, she realizes all too late that a leader can still trust the people near her.  With plans of an attack and a path of justice, she is caught off guard and her future is uncertain once she reunites with Maven.  It’s still a battle between the Scarlet Guard and the Silvers, the difference now is that Mare is willing to risk herself to protect those she loves – even at the cost of herself.

“If I am a sword, I am a sword made of glass, and I feel myself beginning to shatter” (250)

 

As with any political struggle and a sudden rise to fame, Mare has soon lost the closeness of her inner circle as she has made decisions they do not believe were right nor necessary.  Only when a trusted person returns to her life does Mare realize how she can still maintain some of her ideals and values she had in the Burrow even as she takes on a new  role with command in the Scarlet Guard.  She is told

“No one is born evil, just like no one is born alone.  They become that way, through choice and circumstance.  The latter you cannot control, but the former…” (411)

The sequel ends with Mare in the lowest place she could find herself and it appears the Scarlet Guard cannot help.  Oh, and of course the side plot of Maven’s to bring down the Reds and Newbloods…. the 5,000 teenagers being sent to battle that now are without Mare’s rescue.  Who will win the next power struggle between the Silvers and the Scarlet Guard?  Will the Newbloods continue to be accepted and protected by the Scarlet Guard or will Maven achieve his genocide of these Reds with power?  Then there’s Mare herself, now at full control of her enemies.


The series continues with Book 3 and Book 4, both untitled.  But to quench your thirst, Aveyard has created two prequels that are already published:

Queen Song (The Red Queen #0.1) and Steel Scars (The Red Queen #0.2) which give us background to the first queen, Queen Coriane and Fairley, respectively.  A continuation of strong female characters I’m sure.

 

Serafina and the Black Cloak

Action, Fantasy, Female Leads, Young Readers

A setting similar to Downton Abbey with the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina,  a girl who is so sneaky many don’t know she exists, and a man who makes children disappear into smoke.  This is a dark mystery [with a happy ending] with a brave girl as its protagonist.


 

Biltmore-Estate

The real Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina


Serafina lives in the basement of the Biltmore Estate with her Pa, who is the handyman.  The Vanderbilt’s do not know of her existence or that they live in the basement.  One night while Serafina is sneaking around as the rat catcher, she witnesses a young girl being chased by a man in a black cloak, who later makes the little girl disappear and come after Serafina herself.  As Serafina investigates Clara’s disappearance she looks at the servants, Vanderbilts themselves, and at the guests wondering how to look at people and see if they are honest and how to tell truth from lies.

When her Pa tells her she is not his blood daughter, but a newborn babe he found in the woods, after a creature of dark magic left a mess of babies she realizes the world is not fair to those who do not look like them. Just because she has gold eyes, her spine was twisted, and because her body was deformed, many townspeople and even the nuns did not want to help her Pa save this baby.  At such a young age, little Serafina has seen injustice and mystery.  When another child goes missing, Serafina and the young Master Braeden being to investigate.  She believes she knows which guest is the mysterious man in the black cloak who takes children and she is determined to find them and stop him.  There is also a bit of mystery to her own past as well that she discovers.

This is a bit of fantasy and a lot of mystery.  There is the power of the cloak and also a shapeshifter involved, but more importantly is the lesson of a little girl who doesn’t quite look like everyone else, but who is good and kind.  Good conquers evil; Appearances do not matter; People who are different from one another can be friends.

“Character isn’t defined by the battles we win or lose,

but by the battles we are willing to fight”

Serafina realizes that being a part of the world is much better than just observing it.  She also thinks multiple times about how being judged on appearance or being treated because she looks differently is not fair, but that it’s character that matters.  She and her Pa both do not fit the norm of the Vanderbilt’s guests’ appearance or manners, but they are good people who, in the end, work hard, help others, and are rewarded.

I am a little surprised this is Juvenile (Serafina is 12) due to the scary encounters Serafina has with the man in the black cloak and the whole children disappearing thing.  But there is a happy ending so maybe that’s why.  Kids who like mystery and a little fantasy will enjoy it ans Serafina is a quality character.


Sequel: Serafina and the Twisted Staff                                     sera 3

 

All The Rage – Courtney Summers

Award Nominee, Female Leads

The title isn’t a trendy saying, instead it’s the rage of Romy Grey who was date raped by a popular boy, and Sheriff’s son.   Once he is accused, Romy is an outcast – seen as a liar and bullied by the small town high school teenagers, and even prominent adults in the community. This is a story that needs to be told- date rape occurs and should be reported.  I’ll get this out at the beginning – Romy is a survivor in more ways than one.

It begins with the retelling of a night in which Romy was so excited – what to wear on an anticipated date, being asked out by the cutest boy, and then having “fun” defined  by the 6, 7, 8, 9, and even 10 shots of alcohol she ingested  – probably no more then 110 pounds.

“How do you get a girl to stop crying?  You cover her mouth”

Where are the friends the night of and where are the adults the days after I was left wondering?  It makes me sad to read about the isolation and shame that results after a rape and certainly after a woman doesn’t report it. This is a strongly written, bold and powerful novel.  If every girl who experience some form of harassment had the strength of Romy, we would bee strong  stronger as  a female population.  Romy struggles and it is also important for readers to see protagonists with real life struggles and that there isn’t always a quick fix.

Months after her rapist has left town, the harassment continues as classmates are angry of his absence and she is seen as a liar.  Throughout the novel, she uses red nail polish and red lipstick as her shield and Romy finds courage to go to school each day (impressively), but her real solace is working in a diner one town over with people who don’t know her or her history.  When these worlds collide, Romy must face her past and also her vulnerability.  There are positive people in her life, but they cannot offset the mean girls at school and the harassment of boys. When Romy is found on a dirt road, 30 miles from town after going missing one night, with her clothes messed up and the words “Rape Me” written on her stomach, she cannot ignore her past any longer.   The same night, the town’s favorite popular girl also goes missing and Romy wonders if the coincidence of their disappearance on the same night has any link to her past.

Summers covers the aftermath of rape – isolation, shame, anger – well and also shows the strength in Romy as she deals with a town who shames her and calls her a liar.  When even the Sheriff publicly humiliates a teenager, one can’t read past the unfairness and sexism that Romy faces and that females still face such horrible backlash if coming forward with rape accusations against the wrong guy – even if it is the truth.  There is cruelty and unfairness in this novel, but there is also determination and strength.   In the end, Romy’s truth is known, she accepts support, and kindness from an unlikely person helps her feel validated and have a sense of worth.  Still, there are lots of serious mature issues in this besides the date rape.  Definitely a book I won’t forget for a while for the honest and respectful way it dealt with a serious issue of rape, teenage parties and bullying being allowed by adults, and how quickly one girl can get lost and isolated.


I am interested in Courtney Summers now and her award winning other books.  I love that this is her idea of a great character, “She likes writing books about girls who only have themselves because sometimes that realization is the scariest and most important thing–the slow untangling of the difference between ‘lonely’ and ‘alone.’ Her favorite kind of stories are the ones that make you wish so badly they’d ended differently but deep down you know they really couldn’t have gone any other way.”   She is a strong voice, who seems to focus on strong female characters.  Read more about her on her website

 

Ask the Passengers – A. S. King

Award Nominee, diversity in YA, families, Female Leads, gay characters, love

No one is perfect.

There are sort of three stories in one with this novel, which takes a little bit to get really into but it’s worth the wait. First, is the narration of Astrid Jones’ 17 year old life.  Her family moved to a small town from New York after her mom decided to buy the old family estate.  The mom is a piece of work, judgmental, favors Astrid’s younger sister so openly to serve her alcohol, take her on “mommy dates”, and favor any moment spent with her ignoring Astid for similar things.  Her sister is more small town minded than Astrid and focuses on what her schoolmates think.  Then the dad is clearly unhappy in a dull job and avoids his passive aggressive wife by smoking pot.  Astrid is also secretly trying to figure out if she’s gay and afraid to let anyone know.  Oh, she also helps keep the cover up of the perfect “it” couple at school, Christina and Justin (who are both gay, but pretend to be dating).

The second aspect of this story is when Astrid lays on her picnic table in the backyard and imagines the lives of passengers as planes fly above her.  We are given little mini-stories of passengers as Astrid imagines who is in the planes.  But in a touching way for a girl who receives no real love at home, she passes love to these strangers thousands of feet above her whose lives she imagines.  She doesn’t want to keep all of her love since she doesn’t feel she needs it all, but in a full circle at the end, it is Astrid who receives love.

The last part is actually quite funny.  It helps to offset the homophobic slurs that eventually get said and the sad lack of a mother-daughter relationship that Astrid wants, but doesn’t have.  Astrid is in a humanities class studying philosophers and she’s decided to take her appreciation of Socrates by imagining “Frank” Socrates and how he’d react to her life.    As she discusses Plato’s  Allegory of the Cave, she eventually compares those cavemen who want to stay living in the shadows to that of her close-minded classmates, and even her own sister who refuses to branch out from their mother’s favoritism to be an independent thinker.

cave

This is definitely a novel for older readers, not because of the many gay characters (who most are still in the closet other than their friendship), but due to the cussing.  There is a lot of cussing.  Once Astrid and her friends are outed (a raid on the gay bar in the city) prejudice and stereotypes become more apparent in their high school and Astrid not only has to struggle with the small minded hatred, she has to decide whether to tell her parents the truth.  She questions her arousal to Dee, her openly out female coworker and girlfriend.  There are great points made in this book about trying to find the truth and what people actually need to be honest and happy.  Even from her judgment mom, Claire, Astrid is told being gay isn’t a choice, you’re either born gay or straight.  While Claire hates how the gossip affects her and is not a warm mother to her eldest daughter, King has this otherwise bad mother say a loving comment which offers overall support, even if her daily actions are contradictory.

In the end a big discussion on labels and placing people in boxes to try to categorize them is the point – and being true to yourself.   With the humanities project of arguing paradoxes, Astrid argues against the idea of perfection and proves her point that no one is perfect, not her overcritical mother, her best friends, or passengers that fly over her house.  Everyone is simply trying to live and she sends love to them, but decides to keep some for herself as well.