Thanks to Partners NetGalley and Atria Books for the digital ARC of Shea Ernshaw’s A History of Wild Places in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on December 7, 2021.
I’m a fan of Shea Ernshaw’s YA books The Wicked Deep and Winterwood, so I’m not surprised that I loved A History of Wild Places, her first book for adults, as much as I did. It demonstrates the same talents for establishing and sustaining a unique, unsettling atmosphere and for building a compelling, complex world as those first two books. Ernshaw also has an ability to create complex, intriguing characters to populate her novels.
In A History of Wild Places, we start with a book within the book: Foxes and Museums, book one in the Eloise and the Foxtail series, a super-dark fairytale for children. The book’s author, Maggie St. James, has been missing for five years, and Travis Wren—the protagonist of the second layer of the novel—has been hired by her parents to find her. He has an ability to touch objects and then see their memories which has made him valuable to those searching for lost loved ones, but personal tragedy has made him back away from humanity. It’s only as a favor for a distant friend and a desperation for work that has brought him to this search.
As he follows her last-known path, he enters an isolated town in search of a mysterious community called Pastoral.
Then, the narrative shifts again and relocates into Pastoral itself, where we follow three characters: Theo, a man who is increasingly curious about what lies outside of Pastoral; Calla, who fears the potential consequences of her husband’s questions; and Calla’s sister Bee, a blind woman with abilities that make her valuable to Pastoral’s leader.
The shifting nature of truth, of what we think we understand and what lies beneath, mirrors the characters’ own search for identity and truth. It’s a gorgeous novel full of narratives made unreliable because of every character’s limited knowledge. As those disparate pieces come together, I found myself shifting them around, trying to make sense of the way the layers of the story connected.
A History of Wild Places is a brilliantly immersive novel, one that I couldn’t stop reading. Ernshaw is definitely an auto-read author for me.
Thanks to Partners NetGalley and Macmillan for the digital ARC of Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé’s Ace of Spades in exchange for an honest review. The book will be released on Tuesday, June 1.
I wasn’t very far in Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé’s Ace of Spades when I started to realize that something really strange was happening with the characters. Some of the pieces of this YA novel are familiar from other books about the power of privilege and the difficulty of navigating systems of power as an outsider, but other parts are wholly original.
There’s a predominantly white private academy with a few key student honors for Senior Prefects. The narrative focuses on two students, the only Black students in their grade: Chiamaka Adebayo who has been forging a path to the top of her class, of the social scene, of every extracurricular, since she was a freshman; and Devon Richards who tries to stay as invisible as possible, banking on his talent as a musician to pave his way (and his family’s way) out of poverty.
On the first day of their senior year, they attend the opening assembly with a new headmaster and find out the prefects. It’s no surprise that Chiamaka is named Head Prefect, but everyone is shocked when Devon receives one of the other Prefect spots. This is not part of the plan, and this initial contrast between Chiamaka’s confident acceptance of what she sees herself as being owed and Devon’s complete shock was immediately compelling.
Chiamaka is surrounded by people, but they’re not really friends (at least mostly). Instead, she has a series of transactional relationships that help her to maintain her popularity—maybe her “popularity”—while doing the same for them. The one exception is Jamie, her absolute best friend . . . and the guy she’s had a crush on forever. Finally, she thinks it’s time for them to define their relationship differently. Devon, conversely, is a loner. He has one person, Jack, who has been his friend for a long time, but lately, that friendship seems to be based more in memory than in reality. Àbíké-Íyímídé develops these characters effectively as she shows how they are both so alone but in different ways.
Clearly, Chiamaka and Devon are complete opposites. The only things they have in common are their race AND that they each have secrets that could ruin all of their plans. So when someone who goes by the moniker Ace of Spades starts sharing those secrets with the entire student body, Chiamaka and Devon are drawn to each other for support and to work together to solve the mystery.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which earns its comps to Get Out. It took me a few chapters to be pulled in completely, but once the plot started unfurling, I couldn’t wait to pick up this book, which was just wild. Àbíké-Íyímídé writes the book in chapters that alternate between Chiamaka’s and Devon’s points of view, which amped up the suspense as I tried to piece together the real story behind the sabotage. The author addresses issues of race, sexuality, privilege, and class, all while developing two complex characters and a thrilling plot.
Thanks to Partners Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and NetGalley for the digital ARC of Amy Suiter Clarke’s Girl, 11 in exchange for an honest review. The book is out today!
Elle Castillo is a true crime podcaster who investigates cold cases. A former social worker with her own history as a victim of crime, Elle chooses a different serial killer for each season of her podcast, determined both to rejuvenate the investigation and to focus attention on the victims.
Now, in season five, Elle decides to focus on The Countdown Killer. TCK’s first known victim was 20 years old. Three days after kidnapping her, he kidnapped a young woman who was 19. The body of the first victim was revealed seven days after she was taken. TCK is methodical, obsessed with numbers, and incredibly careful, leaving only very particular details for the police to investigate. He continues with his countdown, kidnapping and killing girls in order until one of his victims escapes. This is the 11-year-old girl, and though she recovers, she’s unable to provide any clues about TCK’s identity. His countdown ends, and most people think he’s dead. But Elle doesn’t agree.
Elle is in the midst of the season when she gets a tip from someone who thinks he knows who TCK might be. When she arrives at the caller’s apartment, she finds him dead, and there’s some indication that it might be his message to her that caused his death.
So, that’s the premise of the book, and I found that to be intriguing enough. What I really enjoyed about this one, though, is not this bare outline of the plot. Elle is a great protagonist: we know that her work as a podcaster and investigator is based on her desire to help people in ways she couldn’t always manage as a social worker. She also consults with the police, offering her investigative skills to help them uncover clues. She has a strong web of found family and friends—her husband Martín is a forensic investigator (he sometimes appears on the podcast); she also has a close friend Sash, and though Elle and Martín can’t have children, Sash’s daughter Natalie is like a part of their family. The sense of community support, of the ways that Elle has reached out—though she’s not close with her biological family—to make connections is lovely.
The style here is also great: the first part is told in alternating chapters, with transcripts of podcast episodes providing the background of TCK through interviews and Elle’s narration, and then the other chapters focusing on the current course of Elle’s investigation.
Though there were some twists and turns of the plot that I predicted, there were also some great surprises. Amy Suiter Clarke’s Girl, 11 is a strong, compelling, and thoughtful thriller that I’d recommend to readers looking for a balance of plot and character.
I'm Jen Moyers, co-host of the Unabridged Podcast and an English teacher.