3.5 star, YA

Review: You’ll Be the Death of Me by Karen M. McManus

Ivy, Mateo, and Cal used to be close. Now all they have in common is Carlton High and the beginning of a very bad day.

Type A Ivy lost a student council election to the class clown, and now she has to face the school, humiliated. Heartthrob Mateo is burned out–he’s been working two jobs since his family’s business failed. And outsider Cal just got stood up…. again.

So when Cal pulls into campus late for class and runs into Ivy and Mateo, it seems like the perfect opportunity to turn a bad day around. They’ll ditch and go into the city. Just the three of them, like old times. Except they’ve barely left the parking lot before they run out of things to say…

Until they spot another Carlton High student skipping school–and follow him to the scene of his own murder. In one chance move, their day turns from dull to deadly. And it’s about to get worse.

It turns out Ivy, Mateo, and Cal still have some things in common. They all have a connection to the dead kid. And they’re all hiding something.

Now they’re all wondering–could it be that their chance reconnection wasn’t by chance after all?

From the author of One of Us Is Lying comes a brand-new pulse-pounding thriller. It’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off with murder when three old friends relive an epic ditch day, and it goes horribly–and fatally–wrong.

I have been a fan of Karen McManus since her debut novel came out. She’s the reigning queen of YA mysteries for a reason, but in that way, I expect a lot from her writing. While You’ll Be the Death of Me is not bad by any means, it also wasn’t the best that I’ve come to expect.

Our 3 protagonists were friends in middle school that had once played hooky together and cemented their friendship, but due to some circumstances, they split up prior to high school. But on this day, all 3 come together by coincidence and decide to play hooky once again – maybe to recreate that amazing day they had.

While the story takes over the course of a literal day, the suspenseful aspect didn’t really hit me. The mystery takes a little while to get to because it takes place after the 3 friends are already together and skipped school. In all honesty, this piece felt more focused on the characters than only the mystery, which is still standard McManus writing but usually I find there’s more of a balance.

Okay, so this character-focused story may feature other secondary characters but it truly follows just the protagonists as we go around Boston with them. Of the 3 main characters, I empathized with Ivy the most, and not simply because she’s the only girl of the trio. I understood the immense pressure she put on herself to be the best, especially when she had an extraordinary genius for a younger brother. But I will say I enjoyed Cal’s POV a lot since he was someone that felt different from other characters I usually read from. He struggled with fitting in but not in the sense that he was bullied or anything. He just slipped between groups so easily that his presence was invisible at times. Mateo was probably the character I associated least with, but only because his perspective felt more reactionary to things Cal or Ivy said or did.

I liked that none of them were perfect. Each of them had their own secrets that slowly came to light over the day, and oddly enough had something to do with the murder victim in some way. This is some good storytelling for a mystery while highlighting the humanity of each teen. They’re not just props for a horrible crime but real people with their own problems that had unintended consequences.

As always, there’s a little bit of romance present too, but Mateo and Ivy’s rekindled feelings felt lacking in some way. The focus wasn’t on them, but it also didn’t add as much to the overall mystery or story in the same vein as other romances worked in Karen’s previous works.

That said, I wasn’t really sure where this story was going for the crime. It wasn’t suspenseful but it also wasn’t super predictable. I normally guessed the culprit (or at least some of the twists) in Karen’s other books, but I honestly wasn’t sure what to think here. That should be a great thing, but it lacked a bit of that wow factor I sometimes look for. The ending made sense when wrapped up all together like that, but I’m still left feeling like it overall missed something that would make it outstanding.

And that little final twist at the end? McManus-style final twists I normally find unsettling, but this one just made me upset. Like there’s this huge piece that was unresolved and we won’t ever get to see what comes of it. Maybe that works for some, but not for me apparently.

All of this to say in short, You’ll Be the Death of Me is a good mystery even with my nitpicky comments. If it came from any other author, I’d probably would’ve loved it. I still gobbled this story up in a day, but it was missing the extra Karen McManus magic I’ve come to love.

Overall Recommendation:

Karen McManus’ latest mystery You’ll Be the Death of Me is a Ferris Bueller-based story featuring a trio of previous friends that literally have the worst day ever when they land themselves with a horrible crime. Lacking in a suspense even with the shortened time period, this story felt more focused on the 3 protagonists than the mystery at hand, an imbalance I don’t normally feel from McManus’ books. However, I did enjoy the POVs of the trio and each of their unique voices as they rushed to solve the mystery (and hopefully not implicate themselves further). There’s nothing largely wrong with this story, but perhaps my expectations for the queen of YA mystery were somewhat let down by this one. If you enjoy mysteries in general and come into it with more of an open mind, it’s an interesting premise with twists I didn’t see coming.

3 star, YA

Review: Somewhere Only We Know by Maurene Goo

10 00 p.m.: Lucky is the biggest K-pop star on the scene, and she’s just performed her hit song “Heartbeat” in Hong Kong to thousands of adoring fans. She’s about to debut on The Tonight Show in America, hopefully a breakout performance for her career. But right now? She’s in her fancy hotel, trying to fall asleep but dying for a hamburger.

11 00 p.m.: Jack is sneaking into a fancy hotel, on assignment for his tabloid job that he keeps secret from his parents. On his way out of the hotel, he runs into a girl wearing slippers, a girl who is single-mindedly determined to find a hamburger. She looks kind of familiar. She’s very cute. He’s maybe curious.

12:00 a.m.: Nothing will ever be the same.

Does anyone else just have the song Somewhere Only We Know stuck in their heads whenever you see this title? No? Just me?

I had the pleasure of reading this book as an audiobook during some down time, which definitely enhanced the experience in my opinion. Otherwise, this rating may have dropped by 1.

Somewhere Only We Know is reminiscent of Gayle Forman’s Just One Day type of romance wherein our protagonist sets out on some wild one-day adventure with someone new generally across a wonderful locale. Mix into this is the celebrity meets ordinary citizen trope and that seemed like the perfect combination in a relaxing read.

And for the most part, it was. Lucky was a character I could sympathize with as she struggled with anxiety while juggling the demands of a successful K-pop career. The K-pop industry is known for its intensive training to shape their stars – aka investments – into a marketable star. Lucky was in the midst of this, about to embark on the next frontier in her career – America.

But then she meets savvy Jack, just trying to survive and figure things out in his life after high school. Having moved to Hong Kong with his family for his dad’s work a year ago, he found himself doing well in celebrity tabloid work in this city that still felt new to him in some ways. What were the odds he’d bump into an actual celebrity without maneuvering himself into such a situation?

The premise was cute. You know things will go down weirdly once Lucky found out her identity as a K-pop star was blown and she’s not just a fun, ordinary girl Jack decided to show around the city. But it sure took a long time to get there. The buildup was almost too long because Jack figured out who she was fairly early on in the book, and we’re just left feeling sorry for poor naive Lucky as Jack continued with his deception.

The romance that also builds as the two went around exploring Jack’s favourite places was also a little hard for me to always believe. I understand the connection for Lucky as this was the first guy she ever really got to interact with outside of her management’s scrutiny. There’s this newfound freedom that’s exhilarating and can easily be transferred to the person who brought such a gift to her. For Jack? Was it just because she was famous? I don’t think so, yet her excitement over absolutely everything didn’t make her personality shine through as much when this overshadowed everything else about her.

What I will say that really saved the story comes down to two things:

  1. I absolutely adored the locale in this book. There aren’t any YA books I’ve found that feature Hong Kong so prominently. As this is where my family is from, reading the descriptions of the food and tourist areas Jack brought Lucky to was an excruciating yearning to revisit this wondrous city. If Hong Kong is known for anything, it’s the amazing variety of foods. I loved listening to the book describe in detail things I remember from my past visits that it almost felt like I was back there.
  2. The other thing is the ending. Once you hold out for the climax when the other shoe finally drops, it’s totally worth it. I loved the way the author chose to deal with the aftermath of what you’d totally expect is going to be a messy fall out. It wasn’t prettily wrapped up in a bow, but it also brought a sense of joy and realness to this story.

While there were clearly pros and cons to this book, I still had a good experience with it. I love travel escapism books and this totally delivered, especially in a city that most YA never gets to see up close and personal. The Asian culture shines through in implicit ways because it is literally the backdrop of everything happening. It makes me feel proud to see my city represented like this, and I’m so grateful to Maurene Goo for writing it. I would still tell you to give this novel a chance. You never know if it’s the next read you’ll fall in love with. And maybe want to book a ticket to Hong Kong right away (when it’s safe to).

Overall Recommendation:

Somewhere Only We Know was an ode to Hong Kong, my family’s city, that made me want to be there with our protagonists as they embarked on a one-day wild trip around all the wondrous sights and foods. Lucky was a sweet but naive girl who struggled secretly on her own as she put on a different persona for her fans as a wildly popular K-pop star. When she finds the one boy who didn’t seem to know who she was, she obviously uses this newfound freedom to explore. While the premise was fun and cute, the execution could’ve been a little faster paced as we’re always left waiting for the other shoe to drop from near the beginning once Jack, our love interest, couldn’t keep up his deception. The ending was worth the wait though, and this book overall was entertaining and full of book escapism at its best.

3.5 star, YA

Review: Witchshadow by Susan Dennard

Series: The Witchlands #4

Susan Dennard’s New York Times bestselling, young adult epic fantasy Witchlands series continues with Witchshadow, the story of the Threadwitch Iseult.

War has come to the Witchlands . . . and nothing will be the same again.

Iseult has found her heartsister Safi at last, but their reunion is brief. For Iseult to stay alive, she must flee Cartorra while Safi remains. And though Iseult has plans to save her friend, they will require her to summon magic more dangerous than anything she has ever faced before.

Meanwhile, the Bloodwitch Aeduan is beset by forces he cannot understand. And Vivia—rightful queen of Nubrevna—finds herself without a crown or home.

As villains from legend reawaken across the Witchlands, only the mythical Cahr Awen can stop the gathering war. Iseult could embrace this power and heal the land, but first she must choose on which side of the shadows her destiny will lie.

Another installment has finally arrived in the Witchlands series, and in normal Susan Dennard style, it delivered multiple POVs and a plot that ties more people together, but also many more questions about what’s to come.

I will first say that I am on Susan’s newsletter list and that was so helpful in understanding some of this story. For starters, thank goodness she put up a recap of the first 3 books in this series on her website. Like any high fantasy book, there are so many character names, locations and backstories to keep track of that’s super hard to do when it’s been a while since the last one. So I highly recommend you read that – but ONLY if you actually read the first three books instead of spoiling it for yourself.

This one is about Iseult. She’s the darkness to Safi’s light. She was introduced right in the beginning of the series and now we finally get to focus more about her powers, and maybe some secret things she can do that no one else thought she could.

Right off the bat she seems to be morally grey, like she’s making decisions that didn’t quite seem like her from last we left her. It’s an interesting spot to start with, and it’s only through flashbacks of the last month that we get to understand HOW she got to this point.

Romance lovers, if you loved Bloodwitch because you shipped her with bad boy Aeduan so much like I did, fear not about their relationship but I will say that there weren’t a lot of moments present between them in this one. There’s definitely some relationship angst going on in there and you know I love that slow-burn angst, but fair warning, most of the book doesn’t focus on them.

Now, I appreciate the writing style of high fantasies, but there are a couple of things that just prevented me from loving each of these books that was different with the one novella, Sightwitch, in this series so far. I think most of it is due to pacing which was absolutely excellent in Sightwitch. Why is that? Let’s dig into it.

1) The flashbacks

This is a long book. I was able to get through it faster only because I was having some slow days at work. But the reality is something even Susan mentioned in her newsletter. This was supposed to be 2 books but was rewritten into one. So the solution was to plop the characters in the “second” act of the story and make the “first” act a flashback instead of cutting out so many crucial elements.

I understand the predicament but there’s just a bit of confusion as to how things occurred, especially at the beginning. It’s not necessarily a liability the whole way through but it makes the book choppier.

2) The multiple POVs

I don’t know where I land on this one but having so many people to follow really makes the story pause a lot when it gets exciting for one of them. Although this is considered Iseult’s story, obviously many of the other major players are up to something. We still have Safi out there trying to find her way back to Iseult (like, how did they get separated AGAIN?), and some Empresses on the run.

With my focus diverted all over the place, it just made putting down the book easier at times since the suspense was killed quite easily.

So what DID I like?

I’m not going to spend the whole time complaining here. I still thought it was a solid next book in a long series. Things are starting to be answered and I am seeing the threads (see what I did there?) linking certain plot points together from the previous books.

Something big is coming to their realm. Something might already be there. People are waking up with new memories they didn’t have before, and these people are either foe or friend. The history records do not have all the answers, and it’s hard to trust if they were written accurately or not to help our modern day friends decide who to trust.

Guessing which character we know who may be a reincarnation of someone from a millennia ago was super fun. I will ALSO admit I used some wiki page to help me keep track of all of them and their Witchery but there’s no shame in using guides.

There’s hardly any romance in here but that’s not the point in high fantasies. There IS, on the other hand, plenty of action, potential betrayal and empires on the brink of destruction or salvation.

If THIS is what you like, then I’d say you’ll continue to enjoy the latest installment in the Witchlands with Witchshadow.

Overall Recommendation:

Witchshadow is as I have come to expect from Susan Dennard and the Witchlands series. Following more of Iseult’s journey as she dives into her actual powers and tackles how far she’d go to save the people she loves, it’s an interesting continuation from the characters we’ve come to know in the first 3 books. Where it falters a little is the length and the pacing with so many POVs to juggle and confusing flashbacks. It’s also not much of a romance story but the action mostly makes up for it as connections are finally being made and the plot is really picking up. Powerful beings from a millennia ago are finally awakening in this world and something big is happening. The suspense and the fun in guessing who may be friend or foe propelled me through the drier areas. I can’t wait to pick up the next installment regardless if this wasn’t quite a 5-star read.