Review: The Merciful Crow

The Merciful Crow
By Margaret Owen
Published July 30, 2019 by Henry Holt

Publisher’s Summary:
A future chieftain

Fie abides by one rule: look after your own. Her Crow caste of undertakers and mercy-killers takes more abuse than coin, but when they’re called to collect royal dead, she’s hoping they’ll find the payout of a lifetime.

A fugitive prince

When Crown Prince Jasimir turns out to have faked his death, Fie’s ready to cut her losses—and perhaps his throat. But he offers a wager that she can’t refuse: protect him from a ruthless queen, and he’ll protect the Crows when he reigns.

A too-cunning bodyguard

Hawk warrior Tavin has always put Jas’s life before his, magically assuming the prince’s appearance and shadowing his every step. But what happens when Tavin begins to want something to call his own?

In a world where her caste is the lowest of the low, teenager Fie has to learn to lead her band of crows in the face of danger, prejudice, and an elaborate plot involving an evil Merciful Crowqueen.

The Merciful Crow has really interesting world building. There is an elaborate caste system, and the Crow caste is at the bottom. They live on the road, going from town to town to dispose of (and sometimes mercy kill) those who have died of the plague. They’re stuck with this task because they’re the only caste who is immune to the disease. They’re in constant danger from the Oleanders, a group of bigots that wants to eliminate the Crows (which makes you wonder who would then take care of the plague dead, but I guess hate groups aren’t known for their rational thinking). Fie’s band of crows are called to the capital to dispose of two plague bodies, but they find instead a live prince and his bodyguard. In return for better treatment when the prince becomes king, the crows agree to get him away from the city and his wicked stepmother who wants him dead. Fie ends up on a long, dangerous journey journey with the prince (Jasimir) and the bodyguard (Tavin).

Where this book really worked for was the detailed and immersive world building. It felt very real. It’s also a really well done examination of a very hierarchical class structure and the sort of prejudices and issues that develop in such a rigid structure. I also enjoyed the relationships of Fie and the prince and the bodyguard as she develops a grudging alliance with one and an unexpected romance with the other. Where the book didn’t work for me was the pacing. After an exciting start, I found that things dragged in the middle, and there was a lot of repetitive sequences of the trio almost, but not quite, getting caught.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, and I will be back for the sequel.

I received an ARC from the publisher through Amazon Vine.


Review: Good Girl, Bad Girl

Good Girl, Bad Girl
By Michael Robotham
Published July 23, 2019 by Scribner

Michael Robotham is a a prolific mystery writer, and I’ve been wanting to try one of his books. Good Girl, Bad Girl was my first Robotham, and it was quite good.

Good GirlPsychologist Cyrus Haven is assisting on two difficult cases. Teen figure skating champion Jodie Sheehan is murdered, and Cyrus is called in to help by an old friend. He’s also been asked to consult on whether a young women in a secure children’s home should be allowed to go free. Evie Cormack was discovered in a secret room in the home of a man who’d been tortured and murdered. She has no name and no past. She was so malnourished that determining her age wasn’t possible, and no one is sure if she’s 18 yet. Evie wants to be on her own, but the authorities think she’s a danger to herself and others. Cyrus, who has his own tragic past, finds Evie fascinating. She has the unique ability to tell when people are lying, something that most people find creepy, but Cyrus is interested in.

This was an engrossing mystery, and I stayed up too late at night reading because I couldn’t put it down. I did find that the mystery of Jodie’s death, although clever, wasn’t terribly original. It’s the story of a popular, pretty, girl-next-door type who has secrets, which has been done before. For me, it paled in comparison to Evie’s story, which is only just beginning to be explored. I get the feeling that this is a setup for a new series featuring Cyrus and Evie. The pairing of the troubled psychologist and the human lie detector is an interesting one. Cyrus’ past trauma makes him want to help Evie, and as unnerving as Evie can be, she’s also very much a scared child inside. More books with this pair sounds intriguing.

Trigger warning for mentions of rape, sexual abuse, and violence against children, attempted rape, descriptions of torture.

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley.

Review: Past Perfect Life

Past Perfect Life
By Elizabeth Eulberg
Published July 9, 2019 by Bloomsbury YA

Publisher’s summary:
Small-town Wisconsin high school senior Allison Smith loves her life the way it is-spending quality time with her widowed father and her tight-knit circle of friends, including best friend Marian and maybe-more-than-friends Neil. Sure she is stressed out about college applications . . . who wouldn’t be? In a few short months, everything’s going to change, big time.

But when Ally files her applications, they send up a red flag . . . because she’s not Allison Smith. And Ally’s-make that Amanda’s-ordinary life is suddenly blown apart. Was everything before a lie? Who will she be after? And what will she do as now comes crashing down around her?

I was interested in Past Perfect Life because I’m fascinated by stories about lost and then found family members (twins separated at birth, babies switched at birth, long-lost relatives finding each other through DNA testing, kidnapped people being found years Past perfectlater).

Ally has been raised by her father and believes that her mother is dead. When she applies to college, her application is rejected because of an issue with her social security number. Then the police show up at her house, telling her that her father kidnapped her when she was three and her mother is alive. Her father is arrested, and Ally is forced to leave her life in Wisconsin behind and move in with her mother in Florida.

This is a nicely done story about the difficulties Ally faces when she’s reunited with her mother. Although she knows logically what her father did was wrong, he was the parent who raised her and she’s still loyal to him, something that seriously upsets her mother. Ally is angry that her entire life has been uprooted. She just wanted to finish out her senior year in the place she feels most at home. Her mother just wants to make up for all the lost years and has trouble accepting the fact that Ally is almost an adult.

I thought the drama between Ally and her mother was well done. The relationship with her father was kind of dropped, and I would have liked more of an examination of how a parent and child move forward after such a huge betrayal. Ally is initially angry at her father, but seems to move on pretty quickly, which was a little unsatisfying.

This book skews toward the younger end of YA readers, and it’s a quick read.

I received an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley.

Review: The Need

The Need
By Helen Phillips
Published July 9, 2019 by Simon and Schuster

Publisher’s Synopsis:
When Molly, home alone with her two young children, hears footsteps in the living room, she tries to convince herself it’s the sleep deprivation. She’s been hearing things these days. Startling at loud noises. Imagining the worst-case scenario. It’s what mothers do, she knows.

But then the footsteps come again, and she catches a glimpse of movement.

Suddenly Molly finds herself face-to-face with an intruder who knows far too much about her and her family. As she attempts to protect those she loves most, Molly must also acknowledge her own frailty. Molly slips down an existential rabbit hole where she must confront the dualities of motherhood: the ecstasy and the dread; the languor and the ferocity; the banality and the transcendence as the book hurtles toward a mind-bending conclusion.

In The Need, Helen Phillips has created a subversive, speculative thriller that comes to life through blazing, arresting prose and gorgeous, haunting imagery. Anointed as one of the most exciting fiction writers working today, The Need is a glorious celebration of the bizarre and beautiful nature of our everyday lives.

The first third of The Need was unbelievably gripping and visceral. I was intrigued and filled with dread as I read it. Molly is a paleobotanist excavating a pit that has fossil plants and some very odd artifacts, including a toy solder with a monkey tail, an Altoids The Needbox that doesn’t look quite right, and a Bible in which God is a woman. She’s caring for her two small children on her own while her husband is out of town. One night, as she’s getting the children ready for bed, she finds an intruder wearing a deer head mask in her living room.

This is such a great start to the book, but for me, the rest of the book didn’t quite live up to it. The reveal of who is under the mask is fascinating, but the momentum of the story slows down at that point and never really regains the gut-punch effect of the first 75 pages. That said, this was still a four-star book for me because it was really gripping and because it’s the most honest, realistic portrayal I’ve ever read of life with small children: the joy, the drudgery, the transcendence. This quote sort of sums it up:

There it was: the bliss, the halo, the guilt at her richness. The ecstasy of the ordinary. Two, alive. This freshly peeled piece of the universe nuzzling into her.

This book is beautifully written and perfectly evokes the state of caring for small children.

I received an ARC from the publisher through Amazon Vine.






Review: Spin the Dawn

Spin the Dawn
By Elizabeth Lim
Published July 9, 2019 by Alfred K. Knopf Books for Young Readers

Publisher’s summary:
Project Runway
meets Mulan in this sweeping YA fantasy about a young girl who poses as a boy to compete for the role of imperial tailor and embarks on an impossible journey to sew three magic dresses, from the sun, the moon, and the stars.

Maia Tamarin dreams of becoming the greatest tailor in the land, but as a girl, the best she can hope for is to marry well. When a royal messenger summons her ailing father, once a tailor of renown, to court, Maia poses as a boy and takes his place. She knows her life is forfeit if her secret is discovered, but she’ll take that risk to achieve her dream and save her family from ruin. There’s just one catch: Maia is one of twelve tailors vying for the job.

Backstabbing and lies run rampant as the tailors compete in challenges to prove their artistry and skill. Maia’s task is further complicated when she draws the attention of the court magician, Edan, whose piercing eyes seem to see straight through her disguise.

And nothing could have prepared her for the final challenge: to sew three magic gowns for the emperor’s reluctant bride-to-be, from the laughter of the sun, the tears of the moon, and the blood of stars. With this impossible task before her, she embarks on a journey to the far reaches of the kingdom, seeking the sun, the moon, and the stars, and finding more than she ever could have imagined.

Spin the Dawn is a really fun young adult fantasy. It’s a Chinese-inspired tale about a young woman who’s determined to find her own destiny. Maia wants to be a master tailor, but because she is a woman, she thinks her dream can’t come true. But when her ill father is called to the imperial court to compete to become the emperor’s tailor, Maia disguises herself as her younger brother and goes to compete in her father’s place.

It’s an impulsive decision, and although Maia is a very talented tailor, she’s not ready for the cutthroat competition. She ends up being forced to make dresses for the emperor’s bride-to-be from the laughter of the sun, the tears of the moon, and the blood of the stars, which leads her on an epic journey.

I really enjoyed this book. It contains a number of familiar fairytale/fantasy/mythology tropes (a girl disguising herself as a boy, a princess inventing impossible tasks to fend off a suitor, an epic journey, forbidden love), but the author uses them in new ways. The plot never felt predictable, and it takes an interesting turn around the 40% mark.

Maia is a strong character. She finds a way to achieve her dream, and it’s entertaining to watch her try to compete to become the imperial tailor, as she realizes that talent alone may not be enough. I also thought Lady Sarnai, the emperor’s reluctant fiancee, was a fascinating character, and I would love to know more about her. I wasn’t as interested in the romance, but the trope of a young girl and a much older supernatural being isn’t my favorite. There’s going to be a sequel, and I’m very interested to see where the story goes.

I received an ARC from the publisher through Amazon Vine.



Review: Wilder Girls

Wilder Girls
By Rory Power
Published July 9, 2019 by Delacorte Press

Wilder Girls is a weird, visceral book that will stay with me long after reading it.

The Raxter School has been under quarantine for 18 months. Situated on an island, it’s isolated from the mainland, and it was easy to cut it off from civilization when the Tox Wilder Girlsstarted. The epidemic has killed all but two of the teachers and many of the students. Those who have survived are changed, their bodies strange and different.

Hetty, Reese, and Byatt were friends before the Tox, but now they are more or less a faction, the school having split into groups. There are no classes anymore, just duties split up among the girls. It’s a fairly brutal atmosphere. Food is scarce (there’s only what gets delivered from the mainland and it’s never enough), and even the bonds of friendship aren’t enough to keep Hetty and Reese from fighting each other for a rotting orange. When Byatt has a relapse and is taken to the infirmary, Hetty becomes convinced that something more is going on and decides to try to save her friend, even if it means going beyond the school gates, something that is forbidden by the quarantine.

The island itself is almost a character in the book. It’s changed with the Tox, vegetation overtaking everything outside the school gates, and the animals have become treacherous. The island has become a menacing place, a malevolent presence threatening to encroach upon the school.

This book is probably not for the squeamish. The girls all have strange things going on with their bodies, a missing eye, an extra spine. It’s rough and kind of gross at times, but it’s basically the new normal for the girls.

This book is genuinely creepy. It’s not horror in the “don’t go in there!” sense, but it’s disturbing and weird, and I felt very tense reading it. Some readers may find the pace a bit slow, but I thought it worked well for the story. When the pace picks up in the last third, it’s a gut-punch, and the ending is really well done.

I want to mention that two of the three main characters are queer, and I’m really glad to see the representation. 2019 is giving up lots of queer YA.

I received an eARC from the publisher through NetGalley.