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

★★★★

Mini-Reviews: How to Hang a Witch

MiniI love the month of October. I love when the colors of the leaves change and the promise of cooler weather (the promise of, where I live it doesn’t start to cool down until November), but above all I enjoy October because of Halloween. I usually like to include two mini reviews in the same post but after I started writing one of my mini reviews it turned into a full one, so I’ve only got one for you this time around. If you’re still looking for a Halloween read, this might be the one for you. Cover below is linked to Goodreads.

Title: How to Hang a Witch
Author: Adriana Mather
Series:
How to Hang a Witch, #1
Pages:
368
Publisher: 
Knopf Books for Young Readers
Release Date: 
July 26th 2016

      “Salem, Massachusetts is the site of the infamous Witch Trials and the new home of Samantha Mather. Recently transplanted from New York City, Sam is not exactly welcomed with open arms. She is a descendant of Cotton Mather, one of the men responsible for those Trials—and almost immediately, she becomes the enemy of a group of girls who call themselves The Descendants. And guess who their ancestors were?
      If dealing with that wasn’t enough, Sam finds herself face to face with a real, live (well, technically dead) ghost. A handsome, angry ghost who wants Sam to stop touching his stuff.
      Soon Sam discovers she is at the center of a centuries-old curse affecting everyone with ties to the Trials. Sam must come to terms with the ghost and work with The Descendants to stop a deadly cycle that has been going on since the first alleged witch was hanged. If any town should have learned its lesson, it’s Salem. But history may be about to repeat itself.

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“There’s a light creaking of old wood as I approach the burgundy bedroom. I peek inside and flip on the light. The rocking chair moves back and forth. I grab the arm and it stops. I scan the room, but everything’s still.

Adrian Mather’s debut novel How to Hang a Witch has a rich setting that works really well at bringing the story to life, but at times the novel felt like it dragged. After an accident that leaves her father in a coma, Sam and her stepmother move back to his childhood home of Salem, Massachusetts. It’s hard enough to adjust to this new life without her father, but Sam soon discovers that her family’s history makes her an outcast in this town. Then she discovers that her family may be caught up in a deadly curse and she must find a way to break it before it takes the life of her father. How to Hang a Witch draws a lot of parallels between Sam’s situation and the Salem Witch Trials in the 17th century, sometimes this works to enhance the novel and sometimes the comparison falls flat. Sam herself was a character that I sometimes found frustrating, her bad attitude grated on my nervous. I really liked some of the minor characters, but we only get tiny glimpses of who they are. There is a love triangle of sorts in this novel and one side really didn’t resonate with me, but hopefully this is cleaned up in the next novel.

Rating: 3/5

★★★


Mini Reviews: The Last Great Adventure of the PB&J Society + ARC Review: The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart

MiniIt is by no plan on my part that this month’s set of mini reviews features two middle grade reads. Middle grade novels are always such a delight and it’s a bit disappointing that I haven’t been able to get to more this year. A little off topic, but why is it that so many MG books have long titles? I confess that I secretly love when titles are long-winded though. Covers below are linked to Goodreads.

Title: The Last Great Adventure of the PB&J Society
Author: Janet Sumner Johnson
Series: N/A
Pages: 256
Publisher: Capstone Young Readers
Release Date: April 1st 2016
*I received a copy of this book through a giveaway hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl which does not influence my review*

      “Some things are better together. Like peanut butter and jelly. Or Annie and Jason. So when her best friend’s house is threatened with foreclosure, Annie Jenkins is bursting with ideas to save Jason’s home. She could sell her appendix on eBay. (Why not?) Win the lottery. (It’s worth a shot!). Face the evil bankers herself. (She’s one tough cookie, after all.) Or hunt down an elusive (and questionably real) pirate treasure. Whatever the plan, it has to work, or this is undoubtedly THE LAST GREAT ADVENTURE OF THE PB&J SOCIETY.

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“The elephant crashed on top of me, smushing me like a two-liter on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I couldn’t believe. Even from a distance, the words on the sign were clear: For Sale.

In The Last Great Adventure of the PB&J Society, Janet Sumner Johnson masterfully captures the voice of ten-year-old Annie whose whole world goes topsy-turvy when she finds out her best friend, Jason, may have to move out of state. In a series of well-meaning, but overly-ambitious schemes, Annie and Jason try their best to figure out a way for his family to stay. Annie is the kind of girl with big ideas who can’t quite understand why the adults in her life don’t jump on board immediately. Her personality is nicely balanced with Jason’s, who is much more skeptical and hesitant to go along with Annie’s crazy plans, but does so anyway because that’s what best friends do. Full of amazing friendships, fun adventures, unexpected mysteries, and perfect PB&J sandwiches (yes, you will be craving a PB&J at least once while reading this), this debut middle grade read will both delight and move you.

Rating: 3/5

★★★


Title: The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart
Author: Lauren DeStefano
Series: N/A
Pages: 208
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Childrens
Release Date: September 13th 2016
*I received an eARC of this book through NetGalley, which does not influence my review*

      “Lionel is a wild boy, who doesn’t much like to be around other people. He’d rather be a purring cat or a wolf stalking the woods.
      Marybeth is a nice girl. She doesn’t need to be told to comb her hair or brush her teeth, and she’s kind to everyone at the orphanage . . . Lionel most of all.
      Different though they are, Lionel and Marybeth are best friends in a world that has forgotten about them. So when a mysterious blue spirit possesses Marybeth—and starts to take control—they know they must stop it before the real Marybeth fades away forever.”

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You might recognize Lauren DeStefano’s name from her YA book series, but she’s recently dipped her toe in the Middle Grade genre. Her newest book The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart, follows nine-year-old best friends Marybeth and Lionel. The two main characters are very well-developed with their own personalities and ways of looking at the world. Marybeth is the more practical of the two, she is well-behaved and never causes trouble for Mrs. Mannerd, who runs the orphanage where the children live. Lionel on the other hand is quite the handful, always disappearing and rarely willing to interact with other people. Marybeth and Lionel’s relationship is the strongest element in the novel, each is just as devoted to the other, despite their differences. For Lionel, who feels more at home in nature and among animals, Marybeth is his link to the human world. Likewise, Marybeth understands that Lionel belongs to a different kind of world, a world she only catches glimpses of through their friendship. The story itself is rather dark, but DeStefano’s charming writing makes the story accessible for all ages.

Rating: 3/5

★★★

The Steep & Thorny Way by Cat Winters

The Steep and Thorny Way by Cat Winters

Title: The Steep & Thorny Way
Author: Cat Winters
Series: N/A
Pages: 352
Publisher: Amulet Books
Release Date: March 8th 2016 

      “A thrilling reimagining of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Steep and Thorny Way tells the story of a murder most foul and the mighty power of love and acceptance in a state gone terribly rotten.
      1920s Oregon is not a welcoming place for Hanalee Denney, the daughter of a white woman and an African-American man. She has almost no rights by law, and the Ku Klux Klan breeds fear and hatred in even Hanalee’s oldest friendships. Plus, her father, Hank Denney, died a year ago, hit by a drunk-driving teenager. Now her father’s killer is out of jail and back in town, and he claims that Hanalee’s father wasn’t killed by the accident at all but, instead, was poisoned by the doctor who looked after him—who happens to be Hanalee’s new stepfather.

      The only way for Hanalee to get the answers she needs is to ask Hank himself, a ‘haint’ wandering the roads at night.”

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“The nighttime forest glowed in a strange haze of gold, and the fat trunks and green awnings soured high above, as if I were nothing more than a spider scampering through a window box.”

Cat Winters’ The Steep & Thorny Way is an engaging historical fiction novel with an interesting paranormal twist. With vivid writing, Winters brings to life an era in American history where prejudice is not only tolerated, but celebrated. While many of us associate the white supremacist group, the Ku Klux Klan, with the South, I found it really interesting that Winters chose to set her story in 1920s Oregon. I didn’t know how strong an influence this particular group had outside of the South and reading about their widespread impact is equal parts interesting as well as terrifying. Hanalee Denney, the daughter of a white woman and black man, has known her whole life that people look at her differently because of the color of her skin. In the tight-knit community where she grew up in, her exposure to racial prejudice has been limited, but as she’s gotten older, the influence of groups like the KKK has increased and people are much more open to showing their intolerance, including friends she was once close to. Winters does a really good job of showing just how difficult it must have been for someone like Hanalee, who is subjected to discrimination at every turn, to grow up in such an unfair time.

Winters’ novel deals with many subjects from racial prejudice to homophobia. It never escapes my notice when authors approach certain subjects in historical fiction in an almost idealistic way. While it’s a nice sentiment to believe that their characters are not as bigoted as the times in which they are brought up, I often find it unrealistic for these characters to always be immediately accepting of different sexual orientations besides heterosexual when history tells a different story. Winters does no such thing when it comes to her characters. When Hanalee learns that someone she knows is gay, her reaction is much more in line with the times. She doesn’t quite understand and makes a rather insensitive remark; that being said, she is never consciously vicious as her views come from a place of ignorance not hate.

While not a strict retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Steep & Thorny Way is focused on the death of Hanalee’s father and how she deals with learning that he might not have died the way everyone believes he did. Paranormal elements come into play when Hanalee is told that her father’s spirit has been wandering the town. She isn’t sure how to react to such a story and is made even more unsure when she finally encounters his ghost herself. Hanalee is determined to find the truth, even when her search puts her in the crosshairs of some dangerous people. While I did find the mystery aspect of the novel interesting, I did wonder at Hanalee’s methods. She often threw caution to the wind and started voicing her suspicions without first investigating. While I do think this makes sense for who her character is, I think the unraveling of the mystery would have felt more engaging if she had been more sly in her search for answers.

I highly recommend Cat Winters’ The Steep & Thorny Way for those who enjoy historical fiction, especially novels that explore subjects like discrimination throughout American history.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★