ARC Review: Undead Girl Gang by Lily Anderson

Title: Undead Girl Gang
Author: Lily Anderson
Series: N/A
Pages: 272
Publisher: Razorbill
Release Date: May 8th 2018
*I received a free copy of this book through Penguin’s First to Read program which does not influence my review*

      “Mila Flores and her best friend Riley have always been inseparable. There’s not much excitement in their small town of Cross Creek, so Mila and Riley make their own fun, devoting most of their time to Riley’s favorite activity: amateur witchcraft.
      So when Riley and two Fairmont Academy mean girls die under suspicious circumstances, Mila refuses to believe everyone’s explanation that her BFF was involved in a suicide pact. Instead, armed with a tube of lip gloss and an ancient grimoire, Mila does the unthinkable to uncover the truth: she brings the girls back to life.
      Unfortunately, Riley, June, and Dayton have no recollection of their murders, but they do have unfinished business to attend to. Now, with only seven days until the spell wears off and the girls return to their graves, Mila must wrangle the distracted group of undead teens and work fast to discover their murderer…before the killer strikes again.”

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In Undead Girl Gang, Lily Anderson takes four very different female characters and has them challenge one another, coalescing in an unlikely and bittersweet friendship. Mila Flores is used to being the outsider. She’s one of only two practicing Wiccan witches at her school and one of the few POC students in the very small and very white town of Cross Creek. Things couldn’t possibly get anymore isolating, that is until her best friend’s body is found in a creek. Everyone but Mila is convinced Riley died by suicide. Wracked by grief, Mila does the only thing that makes sense to her, she casts a spell to bring her dead best friend back. The spell doesn’t exactly go as planned and Mila suddenly finds herself the caregiver of not one, but three dead girls. When Mila discovers their deaths may all be linked, the four girls set off on a mission to solve their murders while also hiding their resurrection from the rest of town. Easier said than done.

One of my favorite aspects of this novel is how Anderson handles her female character. Mila, Riley, June, and Dayton are deeply flawed characters. Mila has never been the most friendly and she likes it that way. It’s a way to protect herself, but she doesn’t bother to make an effort even with people who could be her friend. Riley is in many ways selfish and needs to know she is more capable than her friend Mila. This becomes apparent when she comes back to life only to discover that Mila managed to work magic when she never could. June and Dayton can only be described as mean girls. They never missed on opportunity to make Mila and Riley feel like outsiders. Though Dayton is more clueless in her cruelty, this doesn’t excuse her. June’s sense of entitlement is without parallel, her wrath like no other. Despite these shortcomings, Anderson still manages to make these characters sympathetic. They are more than their ugly aspects and by the end of the novel, I felt the need to gather them all in my arms and protect them.

Solving these girls’ murders is easier said than done. Riley, June, and Dayton may have risen from their graves, but they aren’t exactly all intact. For one, if they are too far away from Mila, their rotting corpses become impossible to hide. For another, their memories are all a bit fuzzy. None of them remember what led to their deaths. I found myself guessing pretty early on who I believed was responsible and I’m actually happy to say that I was wrong. The reveal ended up being surprising and really impactful to me as a reader.

Undead Girl Gang is just as much a comedy as it is a mystery. Anderson once again shines with her wry humor, her characters feel real even when they’re dead, and the unabashed openness of her protagonist makes you root for Mila from beginning to end.

4/5

★★★★

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Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Title: Dread Nation
Author: Justina Ireland
Series: Dread Nation, #1
Pages: 464
Publisher: Blazer + Bray
Release Date: April 3rd 2018

      “Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville—derailing the War Between the States and changing America forever. In this new nation, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Reeducation Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead. But there are also opportunities—and Jane is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect the well-to-do. It’s a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane. After all, not even being the daughter of a wealthy white Southern woman could save her from society’s expectations.
      But that’s not a life Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home and doesn’t pay much mind to the politics of the eastern cities, with their talk of returning America to the glory of its days before the dead rose. But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies. And the restless dead, it would seem, are the least of her problems.”

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“The trick is not to think of them as regular folks. When you do that, your emotions get all tangled up. You start to wonder whether it’s right or wrong and what kind of person that makes you for taking their life, whatever kind of existence it may be. Your brain starts doubting, and those second thoughts can get you killed.”

Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation reimagines the end of the Civil War not with the surrender of the Confederate Army, but with the rising of the dead. Facing its greatest threat, the government passes the Native and Negro Reedcation Act, forcing Native and black children into schools where they train to fight the undead. Jane has grown up in a world where shamblers are a constant threat. As a student at Miss Preston’s School of Combat, she has developed the necessary skills to survive a fight with a shambler. While she should be hoping to be hired as an Attendent for a rich, white family, all she really wants is to return home to her mother whom she hasn’t seen in years. When Jane reluctantly lends a hand to an old friend in finding his sister, she stumbles upon a scheme that will take her even farther from home, to a place where those in charge will do anything to keep their secrets hidden.

Ireland manages to be both creative and realistic in her world-building. Though shamblers have reshaped the country, the fundamentals of white supremacy still ring true. In towns like Baltimore, affluent families enjoy a degree of safety not afforded to others. They would rather pretend that the shambler threat exists elsewhere and that their city couldn’t possibly be overrun. Though slavery has been abolished, it is still black bodies being put on the front lines, valued less for their ability to fight the undead and more for their expendability. While some white folks are willing to move forward and embrace an age where black and white people could work together, there are factions that still believe certain races are inherently superior to others. When you combine this with religious fervor and unchecked power, the results are devastating.

I’d be hard-pressed to decide whether Ireland’s writing shines brightest in her world-building or her creation of a character that feels as real as the paper she’s printed on. Jane’s narration is one of the most genuine that I’ve come across. The more I read, the more I gained an appreciation for the character and Ireland’s ability to make every thought and piece of a dialogue feel both deliberate and authentic. I loved that Jane manages to be delightful both in her negative and positive attributes. Ireland never side-steps the protagonist’s flaws, but rather let’s her be petty and reckless in the moments that make sense for her character. This means Jane feels more real and readers get an honest glimpse at who she is rather than what the author just wants you to see.

There are several minor character who I grew to appreciate. Jane’s schoolmate Katherine starts off as a foil to Jane, but by the end of the novel there is an earned respect and camaraderie between the two. I did want to see more of Jackson, Jane’s once-upon-a-time romantic interest. It’s hard not to see how he might have charmed her and I’m greedily curious to know more about their lawless escapades. Like Jane, I am also very curious about Mr. Gideon, a bright young inventor who also understand what it means to play the long game against a more powerful opponent. 

Ireland’s Dead Nation is like nothing I’ve ever read. It takes a tired zombie trope and gives it a fresh new look. It’s insightful and provocative as it juxtaposes a population who longs for the glory days of a prosperous America with one that has only been used as stepladder for the other’s triumphs.

5/5

★★★★★

Mini Reviews: A Dash of Trouble + Pitch Dark

MiniToday I have two immensely different mini-reviews for you, but both are by Latina authors, so it kind of makes sense that I’ve paired them together? Yeah, let’s go with that. Anna Meriano’s A Dash of Trouble was so charming that I already have plans to purchase it for my niece come Christmas and I enjoyed Courtney Alameda’s Pitch Dark so much, I might have to buy for myself soon. Covers below are linked to Goodreads.

Title: A Dash of Trouble
Author: Anna Meriano
Series: Love Sugar Magic, #1
Pages: 320
Publisher: Walden Pond Press
Release Date: January 2nd 2018 

      “Leonora Logroño’s family owns the most beloved bakery in Rose Hill, Texas, spending their days conjuring delicious cookies and cakes for any occasion. And no occasion is more important than the annual Dia de los Muertos festival.
      Leo hopes that this might be the year that she gets to help prepare for the big celebration—but, once again, she is told she’s too young. Sneaking out of school and down to the bakery, she discovers that her mother, aunt, and four older sisters have in fact been keeping a big secret: they’re brujas—witches of Mexican ancestry—who pour a little bit of sweet magic into everything that they bake.

      Leo knows that she has magical ability as well and is more determined than ever to join the family business—even if she can’t let her mama and hermanas know about it yet.
      And when her best friend, Caroline, has a problem that needs solving, Leo has the perfect opportunity to try out her craft. It’s just one little spell, after all…what could possibly go wrong?”

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“They all had sticky smiles on their faces. Leo licked cinnamon sugar off her fingers and smiled too, but her thoughts kept wandering to the recipe book under her bed. She didn’t know what was worse, the guilty feeling of a secret or the impatience of wanting to try her next spell.”

Anna Meriano’s debut middle grade novel A Dash of Trouble is sweet, magical, and an utter delight. Eleven-year-old Leonora “Leo” Lograño just wants to be treated like her older sisters. But as the youngest of five daughters, Leo is often kept out of the loop. She also struggles to feel included when she grew up without speaking Spanish and everyone else in her family is either fluent or learning. As this year’s Día de Muertos celebration is approaching, Leo is determined more than ever to not be left out, but her curiosity leads her to a family secret that changes everything. The women on her mother’s side of the family are all brujas, witches with individual gifts from conjuring objects out of thin air to communicating with the dead. Leo is ecstatic, but she must keep her new knowledge a secret because like everything else, her family thinks she’s too young to learn about magic. In secret, Leo begins working spells to help her best friend Caroline, but it all starts to fall apart when her spells don’t go quite as planned. Now Leo must figure out how to fix her out of control magic without anyone in her family finding out. Leo is such an earnest character who I could not help but love. She wants more than anything to not be treated as a child and while her decisions aren’t always wise, her motivation comes from a good place. I loved all the different dynamics between Leo and her sisters and could picture each so clearly. Meriano includes real recipes in her novel (minus the magic) that are perfect for young readers to follow (with adult supervision) and hopefully helps bring this heartfelt and funny novel to life.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★


Title: Pitch Dark
Author: Courtney Alameda
Series: N/A
Pages: 384
Publisher: Feiwel Friends
Release Date: February 20th 2018

      “Tuck has been in stasis on the USS John Muir, a ship that houses Earth’s most valued artifacts—its natural resources. Parks and mountains are preserved in space.
      Laura belongs to a shipraiding family, who are funded by a group used to getting what they want. And they want what’s on the Muir.
      Tuck and Laura didn’t bargain on working together, or battling mutant aliens who use sound to kill. But their plan is the only hope for their crews, their families, and themselves.
      In space, nobody can hear you scream . . . but on the John Muir, the screams are the last thing you’ll hear.”

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“He groans, and the weight of his voice hits my temple, physical as a fist. Pain explodes from the crown of my head to my cheekbone. My nose cracks. Blood faucets from my left nostril, splattering over my mouth and chin.”

Courtney Alameda’s Pitch Dark takes the intricacies of science-fiction and combines it with all the thrills of a horror story in a novel that grabs readers from page one and doesn’t let go. Alameda’s two leads, Laura Cruz and Tuck Morgan, are both capable characters on their own, but they also make an excellent team and I loved the fact that they both had room to shine despite this fact. I was really impressed by the amount of detail that went into this novel from the descriptions of spaceships like the John Muir to the world-building. One of the novel’s drawbacks, however, is the time-frame. The events of the novel occur very quickly making the development of a connection between characters feel a little hasty. Still, it was hard not to fall in love with Pitch Dark‘s characters and feel the excitement of the story. I also loved the fact that Pitch Dark is a multi-layered novel that also addresses humane nature, racism, and the politics of written history. I also want to say that if you get a chance, read Alameda’s Author’s Note at the end as it really resonated with me.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Title: Children of Blood and Bone
Author: Tomi Adeyemi
Series: Legacy of Orïsha, #1
Pages: 525
Publisher: Henry Holt Books for Young Readers
Release Date: March 6th 2018

      “Zélie Adebola remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. Burners ignited flames, Tiders beckoned waves, and Zélie’s Reaper mother summoned forth souls.
      But everything changed the night magic disappeared. Under the orders of a ruthless king, maji were targeted and killed, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope.
      Now, Zélie has one chance to bring back magic and strike against the monarchy. With the help of a rogue princess, Zélie must outwit and outrun the crown prince, who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good.
      Danger lurks in Orïsha, where snow leoponaires prowl and vengeful spirits wait in the waters. Yet the greatest danger may be Zélie herself as she struggles to control her powers—and her growing feelings for the enemy.”

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“I gasp as the sweltering jungle heat around us snaps to a freezing cold. The chill bites through my skin, cutting straight to the bone.But the icy rush only lasts an instant. As quick as it comes, it vanishes, leaving us bewildered on the mountainside.”

Tomi Adeyemi’s much-anticipated debut, Children of Blood and Bone, is full of breathtaking adventure and features a world that is both stunning and complex. The land of Orïsha once overflowed with magic. The maji worked wonders, but hatred and a thirst for power turned the crown against them. When magic mysteriously disappeared, King Saran ordered the eradication of the defenseless maji, robbing the world of any trace of magic. Zélie knows intimately the injustices of Saran’s enmity toward those like her mother. As a divîner, Zélie and children like her who bear the mark of a once-promised magic, cannot hide what they might have become. Though magic no longer exists, it does not protect them from the prejudices held against them. When Zélie is unexpectedly thrust into an impossible scheme by Saran’s daughter Amari to restore magic to the divîners of Orïsha, she embarks on a journey that will test her resolve and courage.

Adeyemi has build a world that is inventive and multi-layered. In Orïsha, magic has divided its people. The divîners, those who would have become maji if magic still existed, remind King Saran and those who think like him of the corruption of magic. Those like Zélie are treated as inferior, subjected to daily prejudice and harsh punishment. She, along with other divîners, have trained in secret for years, knowing that one day Saran may come for them the way he came for their parents. The gods once occupied an important part of this world, but since magic’s disappearance, many believe the gods have abandoned them for good.

Told in three perspectives, Children of Blood and Bone, gives its readers an in-depth look at the young people who will ultimately shape the fate of this world. Zélie is an easy character to like. She’s tough and determined, and even when she is reckless, it’s hard not to admire her for wanting to do the right thing despite the consequences. Her doubts about her abilities are what ultimately make her a relatable character. Zélie lost her mother at a young age to Saran and his war against the maji. Magic is the strongest tie Zélie has to her mother; it’s a link to a past where those like her were able to thrive; it’s freedom from the oppression of Saran and a chance to right the wrongs she and those like her have endured. Her relationship with her brother, Tzain, is one of my favorites in the novel. He feels a strong obligation to protect her, but finds it hard when Zélie is more of a leap-first, think-later kind of person. She loves her brother, but finds his protectiveness to be stifling.

As princess of Orïsha, much is expected of Amari. Expectations that both her parents are disappointed that Amari fails to meet. She’s timid and soft-hearted. Though her father has wanted to raise both of his children to be strong and unrelenting, Amari has refused to raise a hand against those she cares about. I loved Amari’s entire arc, how she learns to embrace her own strengths when much of the world sees such traits as weak. Inan is destined to take over Orïsha from his father. He has learned to hate magic and will do anything to keep it from returning. His mission to retrieve a stolen artifact takes an unexpected turn when he crosses paths with Zélie. I loved his early interactions with Zélie as he is forced to face truths about himself and Saran, but does so very reluctantly. His relationship with Amari has been poisoned by their father. I really wanted to explore this aspect of both of their characters more. Saran is such a strong influence in both their lives, but we hardly get to see them interact with him.

Children of Blood and Bone is an impressive debut that takes readers on an epic journey full of hope and heartbreak. With an ending that will shake you to the core, Adeyemi has introduced readers to a world you won’t soon forget.

4/5

★★★★

ARC Review: Starry Eyes by Jenn Bennett

Title: Starry Eyes
Author: Jenn Bennett
Series: N/A
Pages: 432
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Release Date: April 3rd 2018
*I received a free copy of this novel through NetGalley which does not influence my review*

      “Ever since last year’s homecoming dance, best friends-turned-best enemies Zorie and Lennon have made an art of avoiding each other. It doesn’t hurt that their families are the modern day, Californian version of the Montagues and Capulets.
      But when a group camping trip goes south, Zorie and Lennon find themselves stranded in the wilderness. Alone. Together.
      What could go wrong?
      With no one but each other for company, Zorie and Lennon have no choice but to hash out their issues via witty jabs and insults as they try to make their way to safety. But fighting each other while also fighting off the forces of nature makes getting out of the woods in one piece less and less likely.
      And as the two travel deeper into Northern California’s rugged backcountry, secrets and hidden feelings surface. But can Zorie and Lennon’s rekindled connection survive out in the real world? Or was it just a result of the fresh forest air and the magic of the twinkling stars?”

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Jenn Bennett’s Starry Eyes suffers from an interesting synopsis that never quite gets delivered on page. Zorie and Lennon were once best friends, but now regard each other with nothing less than scorn. Though the synopsis boasts of a turbulent relationship between their families, the reality is less dramatic. Zorie’s mother has always been friendly with Lennon’s moms. The major point of contention between the two families is Zorie’s father. His bitterness about the failure of his career and his own bigotry toward Lennon’s moms are what fuels the tension between the two families. At times, the novel felt too long and the conflict between Zorie and Lennon felt too short-lived that the initial animosity at the beginning felt rather pointless.

I liked that Zorie, a devoted planner, learns to appreciate spontaneity, that she learns that there is value in the unexpected. Her relationship with her mother is my favorite in the novel. Joy is patient and understanding with Zorie. She never ridicules her daughter for bad decisions, but is always there to help her through her problems. Joy makes a striking contrast to Zorie’s father, Dan, and much of the time, I wondered what he really brought to the table in their marriage and Zorie’s upbringing. So much of the novel hinges on Zorie’s father’s destructive behavior without giving the character anything else to work with. As a result, Zorie’s father falls very flat. The revelations surrounding his character and the consequences with regard to his relationship with his daughter did not have a strong impact on me as a reader because I never could value him as an important influence in Zorie’s life.

One of my major issues with the novel is the hostility between the main character and her love interest. Part of the build-up is revealing what went wrong between former best friends, Zorie and Lennon. Though the two do their best to avoid one another, it seemed obvious from the beginning that this wasn’t something that Zorie felt strongly about. I expected a relationship with more tension, but after only a couple of bantering scenes, the two were already quickly on their way to reconciliation. My problem with this whole dynamic is when everything is put on the table, I could not help but shake my head because a little communication could have saved both characters from a lot of heartache. Strangely enough, I was more interested in finding out more about their friendship than their thwarted romance. It’s an aspect that is forced to take a backseat, but one I was more invested in.

Starry Eyes will probably appeal to those who enjoy second-chance romances and Bennett’s previous novel Alex, Approximately, but left me wanting more overall.

3/5

★★★

The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

Title: The Cruel Prince
Author: Holly Black
Series: The Folk of the Air, #1
Pages: 384
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: January 2nd 2017

      “Jude was seven years old when her parents were murdered and she and her two sisters were stolen away to live in the treacherous High Court of Faerie. Ten years later, Jude wants nothing more than to belong there, despite her mortality. But many of the fey despise humans. Especially Prince Cardan, the youngest and wickedest son of the High King.
      To win a place at the Court, she must defy him–and face the consequences.
      In doing so, she becomes embroiled in palace intrigues and deceptions, discovering her own capacity for bloodshed. But as civil war threatens to drown the Courts of Faerie in violence, Jude will need to risk her life in a dangerous alliance to save her sisters, and Faerie itself.

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“I thought I was supposed to be good and follow the rules…But I am done with being weak. I am done with being good. I think I am going to be something else.”

Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince features a complex heroine who is forced to become more ruthless than the monsters who surround her in order to survive. Jude was taken from the human world along with her sisters when she was a child and has grown up under the watchful eye of Madoc, the High King of Elfhame’s powerful general. As a mortal, Jude will never truly belong in the Faerie realm, but she has been so altered by its cruelty and majesty, that returning to the human world is unthinkable. Jude must find a way to earn her place in the High Court, to ensure her own safety and protection for those she cares about. But sparring with a foe who is stronger and more powerful than she will ever be will push Jude to her limits and could turn her into something even more terrible than than the Fae themselves.

Jude was such an interesting character in that she never wanted to embrace her humanity, but instead understood that she had to rid herself of her very human weaknesses in order to gain any kind of footing in the Faerie world. Her relationship with this world is rooted in opposing emotions. She hates these immortal beings for taking away her parents, for their cruelty, and the alienation she feels being a part of their world but not of it. But on the other hand, she has found a home in this strange and inhuman world. She admires their strength, ruthlessness, and power. Jude longs for the kind of power that no mortal has ever been granted. For the Faeries, mortal are playthings. There to amuse or serve them one minute and then to be discarded the next. It is for this reason that Jude is able to move undetected among them, it’s why her defiance is so provoking to those with more power, and why, though improbably, Jude finds a way to shape not just her own story but those around her.

I loved all the different relationships Jude has with each member of her family. Her twin sister Taryn very much wants to embrace the Faerie world, but in a very human way. She ultimate believes love will be her protection. She is everything that Jude might have been if she hadn’t been consumed by her own ambition. Jude’s older sister Vivi is half-Faerie and half-human. She longs to return to the human world where she has fallen in love with a human girl. Vivi hates her father Madoc for shattering her world and perhaps blames him for her sisters’ love for the Faerie realm. As far as side characters go, I thought Vivi was the most interesting and deserved more page time. For Jude, Madoc has always represented the best and worst part of the Faerie world. He murdered her parents, but has also shown her and her sisters a great deal of affection. He pushes her, but in many ways, also hold her back.

Making these vicious creatures romantic characters is always tricky. Faeries are inherently cruel and selfish. After finishing this first installment, I wonder if there is any goodness to be found in these creatures that you could call redeeming or if their nature is such that the morality we apply to human characters cannot be applied to them. It is for this reason that I found it hard to root for certain characters. Though it is revealed later that the motives of some may not be solely rooted in hatred, I still found it hard to forget the malice shown to the protagonist. I understood more what a Faerie might see in Jude in that she finds a way to overcome her own weaknesses despite her fragility as a mortal, but couldn’t quite see what Jude would see in someone who has been a thorn in her side. Still, I’m curious to see where the author decides to take a certain relationship.

Overall, Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince was a fascinating read that had me racing to the end with its startling conclusion.

4/5

★★★★