The Cousins by Karen M. McManus

Karen McManus has done it again; the author of best-selling One of Us is Lying has another addictive showstopper with The Cousins, released in 2020. This standalone book tells the saga of an estranged wealthy family and their dark secrets, through the eyes of the youngest generation. Cousins Jonah, Aubrey, and Milly don’t really know each other, and they’ve never met their wealthy and mysterious grandmother Mildred, because she disowned their parents long before they were born, for reasons unknown. Now, she’s invited the three teens to spend the summer living and working at her resort as a chance to get to know them better – or so she says. Their parents insist they go, eager for a chance to get back in their mother’s good graces. However, once they arrive, the cousins quickly discover nothing is as it seems, as their family’s many secrets start to come to light.

As before, McManus’ characters sparkle as realistic, well-rounded individuals, and the plot is mostly relatable, though shot through with drama and glamour. Aubrey is an athlete reeling from a family betrayal, Milly is chasing a glamorous life but struggling for her mother’s approval, and Jonah is angry about his plans for summer science camp being derailed…among other things. Despite their vastly different personalities, they forge a strong bond as they team up against the summer’s mysteries and dangers. What I really liked was the interspersed chapters set in 1996 and told from Milly’s mother Allison’s perspective; these chapters tell of the events leading up to the disowning of Mildred’s children, make Allison and her brothers real and relatable, and help the main plot build to its climax in an unexpected way. It’s unclear from the ending if a sequel will be forthcoming, but personally, I wouldn’t be opposed.

If you’re looking for a thoroughly modern YA mystery with an Agatha Christie vibe, or if you’ve loved McManus’ other mysteries, or both, I definitely recommend you try reading The Cousins.

Montague Siblings Series by Mackenzi Lee

The Montague Siblings series by Mackenzi Lee is an adventurous romp that has surpassed my every expectation, and I’m thrilled that the third volume is supposed to come out in April.

The first book is The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, and tells the story of Henry “Monty” Montague, a nobleman’s son embarking on his “grand tour” of Europe before he settles down to work on the family estate. Monty would rather party and have fun than do the serious, cultured work of a nobleman, so he’s excited to get one last hurrah with his beloved best friend Percy (and, to a lesser degree, his younger sister) before the drudgery begins. Unfortunately for Monty, his impulsive, fun-loving nature quickly gets him into trouble, and his respectable “grand tour” turns into a disaster-filled chase across the continent, featuring pirates, vengeful nobles, alchemy, danger, kidnapping, and lots of romantic misunderstandings.

The sequel is The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, featuring Monty’s younger sister Felicity. A powerhouse of intelligence, backbone, and independence, Felicity wants two things:  to be a doctor, and avoid getting married. Regrettably, university administrators unanimously believe only men can be the guardians of science and medicine. Her last chance is to meet with a renowned doctor in Germany and convince him to change her fate, but finances are a problem… until a mysterious woman offers to foot the bill, in exchange for traveling as her maid. With no other options, Felicity agrees, launching her on yet another perilous quest across the European continent in pursuit of life-altering secrets.

The final installment is The Nobleman’s Guide to Scandal and Shipwrecks, set some years later and featuring Monty and Felicity’s much younger brother, Aiden. As sole heir, Aiden is set to take over the Montague estate, but with a diagnosis of hysteria and an embarrassing breakdown on the public record, he’s not viewed as terribly fit for the job. In desperation, Aiden sets out on a journey to find his long-lost older siblings and convince them to take over the estate in his place. To his frustration, Monty refuses point-blank, agreeing only to help him claim the last of their late mother’s possessions in the Caribbean. But in true Montague fashion, this seemingly simple errand turns into a race across the world to chase down an mysterious artifact with links to a family curse.

I love these books because they’re packed with action and adventure, period details, and modern sensibilities – especially in the portrayal of well-rounded, realistically diverse characters. Not all historical fiction (or fiction published in the period) acknowledges disabilities, racism, sexism, LGBTQ identities, or mental health, but this series acknowledges all those things, and still presents happy or hopeful endings for the affected characters. I recommend this series as a perfect escapist read.

The Roads to Rebecca

Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca is a classic novel for very good reason — the suspenseful tone, the clever writing style, and compelling characters all make it a story for the ages. The original novel was published in 1938, and was turned into first a play in 1939, a film in 1940, and most recently a Netflix film released this year. If you’re not already aware (and let’s be honest, obsessed) with this story, here are some details about it and some different ways to experience it.

First, the basics: a young woman falls in love with an older man, Maxim De Winter, while working as a companion to a rich American woman in Monte Carlo. After a whirlwind romance, they marry and return to his estate, Manderley. Once they arrive, the young woman discovers the house is a monument to her husband’s deceased first wife, the Rebecca from the title. The house’s habits, decoration, and staff all bear her stamp, including a sinister housekeeper who undermines our insecure narrator at every turn, bullying her with stories of the glamorous Rebecca. In mounting distress, the narrator struggles both to escape Rebecca’s shadow and to uncover the dark secrets her husband is keeping from her about his past. Eventually, he confides in her, but that may only cause them more problems…

What I love about this book is how the writing style underscores the plot — the narrator is given no name other than Mrs. De Winter, while her predecessor Rebecca is not only named but is the book’s title. The narrator’s identity is literally erased, insignificant compared to Rebecca. Also, the story is told as a flashback, giving the reader enigmatic hints of the book’s ending long before it arrives – much as the narrator learns about Rebecca in mysterious bits and pieces.

Intrigued? Check out the book or the film version (or any one of the several available) from the library. But wait, there’s more!

Also released this year was a YA novel which retells the Rebecca story in a modern setting, to chilling effect. I Killed Zoe Spanos by Kit Frick echoes Du Maurier’s twisty plot full of drama, chills, and unexpected revelations. In this case, the story is about Anna, who comes to the Hamptons to spend the summer working as a nanny. She’s hoping for a fresh start but finds herself instead overshadowed by Zoe Spanos, a local girl who recently went missing, and who looks a LOT like Anna… Slowly, the mystery of Zoe Spanos takes over Anna’s life until she’s sure they’re linked by a dark connection. But did Anna really kill her? And how can she find the truth?

This is far from the only retelling of or companion to this iconic story, of course. There’s also Rebecca’s Tale, The Winters, Mrs. De Winter, In Her Shadow, and more. If you like atmospheric mysteries, thrillers, or marriage stories, check out any of these titles from the Rebeccaverse.

Either, Both, Neither: Gender Identity 101

I don’t know about you, but sometimes the best way for me to learn about a big, confusing topic is to read both fiction AND non-fiction about it. Fiction often helps us make sense of things in a story-telling, empathetic way, while non-fiction is more explanatory and logical. Reading one (or two) of each on the same topic can help me get a well-rounded view of a complicated idea. Today I’d like to show you what I mean by talking about gender identity. This is a big and messy topic that is coming up more and more in politics, popular culture, and general conversation – and speaking as a genderqueer, genderfluid, gender-vague person myself I do think it’s something more people should know about. But where to start, with such a huge area of research, history, and complex personal experiences to draw from? Good news: there are some really great books for that – all available through the library! All you need to bring is your library card and an open mind. Here are just a few titles I’d recommend trying to help you better understand your gender-diverse neighbors, coworkers, family members – or in my case, your librarian!

NONFICTION

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beyond the Gender Binary by Alok Vaid-Menon is a brief, manifesto-style book, packed with thoughtful insights and explanations of just what “the gender binary” means, along with how (and why) people like them want to disrupt it. Primarily, Vaid-Menon focuses on how your expression of gender is an act of creativity, imagination, and liberation.

How to They/Them by Stuart Getty is a light-hearted, visually engaging book which acts as both a guidebook/dictionary of the world of gender-nonconformity, and as a memoir. Getty explains these confusing topics through the lens of their own personal experiences, in order to help anyone and everyone understand.

What’s Your Pronoun? by Dennis E. Baron is a title for those deeply concerned with the grammar of gender identity. Baron delves deep into the long, long history of gender-neutral pronouns, explaining all the different options that have been used over time and why they matter.

FICTION

 

 

 

 

 

 

Out of Salem by Hal Shrieve is my most recent fiction read on this topic: a powerful and gritty YA urban fantasy. The book focuses on Z, a genderqueer teenager who has recently become a zombie. Together with their new friend Aysel, an unregistered werewolf, they struggle to survive in a town deeply, violently prejudiced against them. Z’s experiences both as a zombie and as a genderqueer teen show the rejection, dismissal, and suspicion faced by transgender individuals in the real world. I appreciated that despite the book’s dark depiction of society, the ending was hopeful.

I Wish You All The Best by Mason Deaver is another great but somewhat intense YA read. In this realistic fiction book, Ben comes out to their parents as nonbinary and is kicked out of the house. They move in with their estranged older sister, but struggle to overcome the trauma of their parents’ rejection, at last finding healing in a new romance with classmate Nathan. I like this book because it’s honest about how hard it is to navigate a complicated gender identity with both supportive and unsupportive family members. It’s also a good portrayal of living with anxiety, and has a hopeful ending.

The Hammer of Thor by Rick Riordan is a fun fiction title I would recommend to get introduced to this topic. This is the second installment in Riordan’s Magnus Chase series, and in this book Magnus meets the feisty Alex Fierro, a genderfluid shapeshifter. As he builds an alliance and a friendship with Alex, Magnus (and the reader) gets a crash course in what it means to be genderfluid, including how pronouns work for those who are sometimes male and sometimes female. I recommend this book for a more light-hearted introduction to a complicated issue.

There’s Someone In Your House by Stephanie Perkins

This fall, I’ve made a real effort to read more scary or creepy books, just to get in the spirit of things. Honestly, I really liked most of them, but so far I think my favorite is There’s Someone In Your House by Stephanie Perkins. For an author whose previous work had been mostly light-hearted romances, this 2017 book was a bit of a departure. It tells the story of Hawaii-born Makani Young, who was transplanted to Osborne, Nebraska after a shocking incident in her junior year of high school. Now a senior, Makani is trying to focus on the future, especially a future involving Ollie, the mysterious loner with whom she shared a brief summer romance. Everything changes, however, when her classmates begin to die, brutally murdered in horribly personal ways. Makani, her two best friends, and her maybe-boyfriend must scramble to survive and expose the Osborne Slayer before it’s too late — and Makani finds herself forced to confront her darkest secrets along the way.

There’s a few reasons this book really stuck with me. First, the characters were thoughtfully diverse and believably well-rounded. For each character, the author gives you insight into their character, their talents and insecurities, and what kind of person they are, so you can’t help but empathize with them. This happens not only for the main characters, Makani and her friends, but for minor characters as well. In an extremely effective writing tactic for the genre, Perkins begins alternate chapters by focusing on a different one of Makani’s classmates, describing their thoughts and feelings as they go about their everyday routine, becoming increasingly uneasy as unusual things begin to happen around them until finally, the killer emerges, completing his terrifying work. I personally thought Perkins did an amazing job making the victims real and sympathetic to the reader in just enough pages to make their deaths devastating. At the same time, no character is simple. Reading it, I was left very aware of the complex inner life hiding in every individual, no matter how put-together or straightforward they appear. In the same way, no one is purely good or purely evil; Perkins explores the ways that circumstances, chance, stress, and other pressures bring out the darkness in different people.

Second, the writing style and strategy was simply fantastic. The structure and order of the chapters kept the suspense building, with bursts of action raising the stakes and advancing the story. What I really liked was the interludes where Makani and Ollie slowly got to know each other and developed their relationship. Since I’m not a huge romance reader, I appreciated that these interludes weren’t distracting from the overarching story, but provided both a respite from the terror and hope for a future beyond the Osborne Slayer. As romances go, this one was believable and sweet for me, with both parties mostly communicating well, confronting their demons, and making an effort to be there for each other in friendship and in romance.

In short, while this book rings true both in the slasher genre and the YA romance genre, it didn’t feel cookie-cutter or standard. For me, Perkins created a rich world in Osborne, where there was a lot more going on than just the Osborne Slayer. I fell in love with the characters, I got addicted to the action, and I was pleased with the ending. I definitely recommend this book to any newbie or veteran reader of thrillers and horror.

Girls Save the World in This One by Ash Parsons

Full disclosure: I was never a huge zombie fan. I’m usually too squeamish for intense gore, for one thing, and I get caught up in thinking about the person a zombie used to be, which only makes it harder to see the zombie gruesomely killed. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve watched more intense shows and movies like Jurassic Park, Torchwood, and Supernatural, which have helped me sort through both those issues and appreciate the action and heroism, so I’ve gotten… let’s say “lukewarm” about zombies and undead media.

That said, it was still an unusual choice for me to read Girls Save The World in This One by Ash Parsons. This recently-published YA horror novel is narrated by June, a high school senior attending Zombiecon with her best friends. She’s been saving up for this all summer, and is excited to revel in the convention celebrating all things zombies. At first, she’s mainly worried about seeing all the panels and actors she wants to, not to mention graduation, future plans, growing apart with her friends, and whether she’s really as cool as they say she is. But then, the con is thrown into chaos when a virus outbreak launches the real zombie apocalypse, and June and her friends are in a real fight for survival. I was mixed going into this book: while I enjoy fandom, I don’t enjoy the crowds, chaos, and costs of conventions, and I still don’t love the idea of the zombie apocalypse. But I do love girl power and stories where friendship is front and center.

Despite my misgivings, this book did not disappoint me. For one thing, it was helpful to hear June’s take on zombies: they’re not malicious, just hungry and following their instincts, like sharks. But more than that, the diversity is realistic, the friendship is strong, the enthusiasm is contagious, and the examination of ethics and larger issues at play is extremely thoughtful.  As I had hoped, this book was filled with empowerment, celebration of differences and friendship, and pulse-pounding action. I definitely felt, even as someone who’s not a zombie aficionado, that this book was a fresh and fitting addition to the canon of zombie literature. My only real issue with it was that the book’s focus on friendship and empowerment means that (spoiler alert) there’s never a great explanation of how and why the zombie / virus outbreak happens or how it’s going to be resolved. I can’t decide whether or not it’s just added realism: a teenager might not care WHY the crisis happened, as long as it’s over.

If you love feminist takes on classic stories, if you’re looking for a celebration of zombies, or if you have a tight-knit squad that would have your back even if the world was ending, I definitely recommend reading this book.