Take Me With You

In Tara Altebrando’s newest book, Take Me with You, she addresses an unusual situation – what happens when four near-strangers are bonded by an Artificial Intelligence?

Marwan, Eden, Eli, and Ilanka are four students in the same high school who are summoned one afternoon to the music room by their teacher, or so they think. The teacher is not there, and they are intrigued by a black cube on the teacher’s desk which gives them messages: Do not tell anyone about the device. Never leave the device unattended. And then, Take me with you . . . or else. Though the teens are not convinced, a sudden fire alarm sounds and one of them grabs the cube as they evacuate.

The cube continues to give commands to the teens. The book is told in alternating points of view from all four of the main characters. The AI’s knowledge of them and its capabilities grow, even as the quartet tries to follow the first two rules. People around them grow curious. And when Marwan decides to abandon the device, it fries his cell phone as punishment. He must apologize to get his phone to work again.

This is an interesting book. The ending was a bit anti-climactic after all the buildup throughout, but it was engaging enough to continue. If you like psychological thrillers, you might like Take Me with You.

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What Unbreakable Looks Like

It’s very rare that I read a book that brings tears to my eyes from the beginning to the end. Kate McLaughlin’s What Unbreakable Looks Like is one of those books.

Raw and gritty, this book is about the aftermath of sex trafficking. Lex (aka Poppy) was lured away from her drunk mother and Mom’s boyfriend by Mitch, a man she thought cared about her but instead, dumped her in a cheap motel, changed her name to fit the “flower” theme of dehumanization of his girls, and kept her on her back and punished her physically when she didn’t behave.

Lex is a lucky one, though – when the police raid the motel, her Aunt Krys comes to take her home. But Lex has been Poppy so long, she doesn’t know how to be Lex. And can she trust Krys’s husband, Jamal, to not do what all other men do?

McLaughlin gives Lex a wonderful supporting cast in best friend Elsa, who she meets when adopting one of Elsa’s mother’s dog’s puppies, and Zack, the son of one of Jamal’s colleagues at Wesleyan University. With the help of family, friends, her therapist, and the female detective she met during the raid, Lex starts a journey toward finding herself again.

This is a very difficult book to read, but it is an important one. While fictional, it opens one’s eyes to the realities of sex trafficking and how it’s not just kidnapped girls shipped away to foreign lands. And while the subject matter makes it an emotional roller coaster of a book, McLaughlin’s writing makes it easier to come along with Lex as she tries to rediscover what it means to not be Poppy.

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Aix Marks the Spot

I have always been a Francophile, so when I saw a book where a teenage girl gets to spend a summer in Provence, I had to read it. Sarah Anderson’s Aix Marks the Spot is a lovely book, filled with lighthearted falling-in-love as well as a heavy emotional toll suffered by the protagonist.

Jamie Martin’s father is French, her mother American, and as the book opens, her summer plans to go to an art program with her best friend Jasmine (a.k.a. Jazz) have been thrown to the wind. Due to an accident, her mother has to learn to walk again, so Jamie has been exiled to Provence to live with her estranged Mamie, a best-selling author and her father’s mother, to whom he hasn’t spoken since before Jamie was born.

In exile, without wifi, without an English-speaking companion – Mamie insists Jamie speak French to her – Jamie doesn’t expect to actually enjoy her summer. But a trip to the local market to do some shopping for her grandmother results in a meet-cute with a French boy named Valentin, and after Jamie discovers a letter from her father to her mother, she entices Valentin to engage in a chasse-de-tresor with her to follow her father’s clues and hopefully bring her family back together.

The ending made me cry – and when an author can make me cry, it shows what an amazing story she’s written – but I won’t spoil it. Aix Marks the Spot is a great summer read.

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Tracy Wolff’s Crave has a front cover reminiscent of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. Don’t be fooled – protagonist Grace is no Bella Swan. While there are some similarities – the cover being the first, and paranormal characters being the second – this book is no rip-off.

Grace arrives at Katmere Academy, near Mt. Denali in Alaska, after the death of her parents. Her uncle Finn is the headmaster, and her cousin Macy becomes her roommate in the dorm. The Academy is housed in a castle, and the descriptions of the rooms/hallways/stairways made me want to go there, too.

Almost as soon as she arrives, Grace realizes there is something very off about her classmates, especially Jaxon Vega (who the cover blurb tells us is a vampire), who immediately tells her that if she wants to survive, she needs to actually leave Alaska. But Katmere’s secrets stay hidden for a while. Grace notices at a tea in her honor that the student body seems divided into factions, but she can’t quite figure out what the factions represent.

As the story progresses, we see a love triangle forming between Grace, Jaxon, and another student from a different faction, Flint. But eventually, the truth comes out, and we learn there’s WAY more to Katmere and Grace’s classmates that meets the eye. The book ends on a very surprising cliffhanger – which I HATE, especially when a book has drawn me in and I have to wait months to find out what happens next. Though the plot is a slow build, once the secrets start coming out, the action also picks up. Grace seems to end up in multiple mishaps that require Jaxon to rescue her, but she’s got spark and spunk and I like that in a protagonist.

Similarities to Twilight aside, I enjoyed Crave much more.

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My Summer of Love and Misfortune

This fun debut YA from author Lindsay Wong presents the reader with protagonist Iris Wang. Iris is a high school senior in New Jersey, has an AmEx on which she’s run up an extraordinary debt – especially since she bought two tickets to Paris to surprise her boyfriend for his birthday – and is happiest shopping. But when all hell breaks loose in the form of her boyfriend cheating on her (with her best friend, no less!), her parents learn she’s not only not gotten into any colleges, but she has failed her senior year of high school. Their solution? They decide to send Iris to stay with her father’s half-brother and his family in China – a family Iris didn’t know she even HAD.

But when she gets there and discovers how wealthy her uncle is, she’s ecstatic and even wonders if Uncle is actually her father. But things don’t turn out quite as Iris expected them to, and in a wonderfully plotted storyline, Iris grows and changes from the superficial shopaholic who landed in Beijing to someone with way more depth.

Having been to Beijing myself once upon a time, I loved Wong’s depiction of Iris’s experiences in a country that is her heritage, but that she really knows nothing about. Her character arc is beautifully written and I was happy for Iris when I finished the book and saw her growth. Iris is like a bull in a china shop in so many ways and that adds to the comedic effect of the book. I very much enjoyed this book.

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Breath Like Water

Anna Jarzab’s latest release puts the reader in the world of the elite athlete. Susannah Ramos is a swimmer. As the book opens, she’s won a gold medal at Worlds. But puberty hits, her body changes, and swimming isn’t as golden as her medal.

Breath Like Water takes the reader along Susannah’s journey to learn to swim competitively in the body she now has, which doesn’t perform the way her prepubescent body does. Her coach is a bully, her body isn’t working with her, and Susannah suffers guilt at the cost accrued by her working-class family so she can train and compete as an elite athlete.

Things start to change when her coach hires a new assistant, Beth, whose training methods are different and under whose coaching Susannah finds herself improving. But there’s a complication now, too, in the form of a new male swimmer on her team, Harry, with whom Susannah is developing a relationship.

Susannah has to endure setbacks – a shoulder injury jeopardizes her belief she can make it to the Olympic trials – and complications before she can find herself. Another complication is a secret Harry was keeping from her – and in the avoidance of spoilers, you, the reader, will have to find out Harry’s secret for yourself.

This is a really good book, giving a glimpse into the grueling world of a competitive athlete, with a side of romance tossed in. Well worth the read!

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Say Yes Summer

Rachel Brooks is the kind of girl you don’t really notice. She’s had her head buried in the books her entire scholastic career, has one really good friend and one pain-in-the-neck sort-of friend, works at the family restaurant, and basically stays home on the weekends.

But she realizes on graduation day that maybe, her strategy failed. In a Marie Kondo cleaning frenzy, she locates a book that belongs to her grandmother, a self-help guide to leading a more fulfilling life by saying yes to things. Since Nonna’s got underlines and notes throughout the book, Rachel takes a chance and declares that she will use this final summer before college to be her “Summer of Yes.”

So she does – which takes her to a party (when her long-time crush invites her), to Canada, to re-uniting with a former friend, and to trying to balance two boys she likes but is not sure which one she really wants. Until boy #2 catches her kissing boy #1, and the summer of yes risks becoming a summer of regret.

Lindsey Roth Culli’s debut is a fun, fresh look at a coming-of-age story. Rachel’s character is interesting and cool in her awkwardness. I loved the relationships within Rachel’s family as well as the friendships she has and the ones she develops along the way.

Say Yes to Say Yes Summer.

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Lulu Shapiro’s life is pretty darned perfect – at least, if you are going solely on her carefully crafted posts to the social media site Flash. She has ten thousand followers and spends much of her life posing artfully to show the world who she is.

Except, she isn’t.

The Lulu that’s the Flash celebrity-of-sorts doesn’t really exist. People think they know her based on what she’s chosen to share, and she’d been okay with it, mostly. That is, until she met Cass at a party, and what she thought she knew turned upside down. Cass’s best friend is the very wealthy Ryan Riggs, and the Riggs name is very well known in LA. Ryan is working on a project – rebuilding The Hotel, an abandoned relic built by one of his ancestors, and before long, Lulu and Cass are spending a lot of time at The Hotel. Cass is gay. Lulu, though she doesn’t feel attached to any titles, feels she’s bi. And Ryan is jealous of their growing relationship, though he doesn’t come out and say it.

This book is really about finding yourself – and about the fact that for most of us, the public face we let people see doesn’t always match what resides behind the facade. Romanoff’s exquisite writing style – a third person present tense that is at first jarring, but then pulls you into Lulu in a way third person point of view doesn’t usually – winds the reader into Lulu’s experiences with her friends: ex-boyfriend Owen, his new girl Kiley, and her bestie Bea, Lulu’s sister Naomi, and the new relationship with Cass and Ryan. I had a hard time putting this book down because I really felt for Lulu and how she was torn between who she thought she was and who she might really want to be.

“I’m just trying to figure out how to live in the world,” Lulu says to Cass in one conversation, and for me, it really summed up life as a teenager. This was a beautiful coming-of-age story and one I would highly recommend.

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A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder

I’m not a huge fan of whodunits. Many of the YA murder mysteries I’ve read in the past were hokey or too easily solved. But Holly Jackson’s debut, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, was given to me by a friend who highly recommended it, so I gave it a whirl and I’m REALLY glad I did.

I read this in one very long sitting because it was so well done I couldn’t put it down. We learn in the beginning that main character Pippa has chosen to do her senior capstone project investigating a murder/suicide that happened five years prior. The alleged murder victim (her body never found), Andie Bell, was in a relationship with Sal Singh, who allegedly committed suicide from the guilt of killing his girlfriend. But Pippa knew Sal – her best friend’s older sister, Naomi, was Sal’s best friend – and she didn’t believe it was possible for Sal to be the murderer, or that he would kill himself.

So Pippa launches an investigation with the assistance of Ravi, the y0unger Singh brother, when most of their town of Fairview has ostracized the Singh family for being related to the “monster” who killed the golden girl.

Jackson takes the reader along with Pippa as she makes her suspect list, records interviews, and gets closer to Ravi as they go. She is warned to stop digging, but instead pushes forward. I won’t give any spoilers here, but the fact that I couldn’t put the book down shows that Jackson plotted this very well – I didn’t want to sleep until I knew whether or not Sal was actually innocent, and if so, who the real murderer was.

If you like murder mysteries, this one is very well crafted. I highly recommend!

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Meet Me at Midnight

Jessica Pennington’s Meet Me at Midnight is a delightful summer read, a book that can bring the reader into summer mind just from falling into this story. And with most of us under shelter-at-home orders, reading a book that gives a great escape is a joy.

With parents who are college friends, Sidney and Asher have been spending summers in side by side lake houses for years. They exchange pranks on each other, escalating to the point when the owner of their neighboring lake houses tosses both families out. They are fortunate to find another house to rent – a single house both families will share – and Sidney and Asher will have only a bathroom between their rooms for the rest of the summer.

One night, Asher leaves Sidney a note – meet me at midnight – and proposes a truce to their prank war. This is a turning point in the enemies-to-lovers relationship. But something happens to make Sidney push Asher away. Can they fix the mess between them and work things out?

Character development is strong as is the plot, and I didn’t want to put the book down even as my eyes were closing at bedtime. Definitely a fun read and a good story. The pranking creativity is especially good, as is the surprise reason the pranking started in the first place. Well worth the read!

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