STAFF PICK: Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens, by Tanya Boteju

TitleKings, Queens, and In-Betweens
Author: Tanya Boteju
NarratorSoneela Nankani

Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens was everything I wanted and more! As most people are, I am way too obsessed with Ru Paul’s Drag Race, so when the description of this book compared it to a mixture of Judy Blume and Ru Paul I was completely sold.

Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens, an #ownvoices novel, is told from the perspective of Nima Kumara-Clark, an awkward teenager who has reached that time in her life where she feels the pressure to discover who she is, who she wants to be, and what she wants to do with her life. Overwhelmed by these big decisions in her small-town, she finds inspiration in the most unlikely place – a drag show.

The main character, Nima, was way too relatable to me with the way she second-guessed everything she did and said, constantly worried about things that may not even happen, and was her own worst critic. These are all feelings that I’m sure most of us felt as awkward teenagers trying to navigate that grey area between being a kid and becoming an adult.

Listening to Soneela Nankani narrate this fabulous story made it so easy to get lost in Nima’s world. Each character was so real and after being introduced, it didn’t take long to visualize a fully-developed, well-rounded person that I was already attached to. I’ll be honest, when I got down to the final few chapters I almost didn’t want to finish them because I didn’t want to say goodbye to Nima and her friends.

The realness of these characters and the story that unfolds likely comes from Boteju’s personal experience with being a queer woman and also delving into the world of drag herself. This allowed her to paint the perfect picture of Nima trying out a new persona (or two) on her path to self discovery.

Giving the spotlight to an array of characters with different sexual and gender identifications, Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens is the perfect listen if you’re in need of a diverse, and heart-warming coming-of-age story.

Publisher’s Summary:

“Poignant and important.” —Refinery29

Judy Blume meets RuPaul’s Drag Race in this funny, feel-good debut novel about a queer teen who navigates questions of identity and self-acceptance while discovering the magical world of drag.

Perpetually awkward Nima Kumara-Clark is bored with her insular community of Bridgeton, in love with her straight girlfriend, and trying to move past her mother’s unexpected departure. After a bewildering encounter at a local festival, Nima finds herself suddenly immersed in the drag scene on the other side of town.

Macho drag kings, magical queens, new love interests, and surprising allies propel Nima both painfully and hilariously closer to a self she never knew she could be—one that can confidently express and accept love. But she’ll have to learn to accept lost love to get there.

From debut author Tanya Boteju comes a poignant, laugh-out-loud tale of acceptance, self-expression, and the colorful worlds that await when we’re brave enough to look.

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STAFF PICK: Girls with Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young

Title: Girls with Sharp Sticks
Author: Suzanne Young
Narrator: Caitlin Davies

Girls With Sharp Sticks, by Suzanne Young, New York Times bestselling author of The Program was an exciting new addition to Audiobooks.com in March. I have to admit, it was the intriguing cover of this book that drew me in and then with a description likening it to Westworld meets The Handmaid’s Tale, I was ready to dive right in. This comparison made me wonder if Girls with Sharp Sticks could go toe-to-toe with such hard-hitters, but it definitely held its own!

Girls with Sharp Sticks is set at Innovations Academy, an old technology factory turned finishing school for girls. From the moment the story opens, there is the looming feeling that there’s more to this academy and these girls than meets the eye.

The protagonist, Philomena (Mena for short), is a model student at Innovations Academy, but begins to question certain practices and suspects that there’s something that they aren’t telling the students. This leads to lots of shocking revelations and twists and turns that keep you hooked.

I saw myself in Mena with the way she was vulnerable yet strong and her unfaltering dedication to her friends was what drew the strongest connection for me. Listening to this book was exciting, suspenseful and it made me want to yell “GIRL POWER!” from the rooftops.

It helps that the narrator, Caitlin Davies, portrays the characters distinctly, so that you are immersed in the shut off academy in the mountains. There are definite times where I got lost in Mena’s world so much so, that I didn’t even realize it was one single person narrating each one of the characters. This is especially true for the creepy feeling I got every time Davies would read the lines from the Guardian, one of the staff at Innovations Academy.

If you’re a fan of The Program series from Suzanne Young, then this listen is right up your alley. Girls with Sharp Sticks has many of the same themes throughout it and a similar dark, dystopian-type setting to it that you will find all too familiar.

If you’re looking for a fast-paced, mystery/thriller that will have your ears glued to your headphones, Girls with Sharp Sticks is the perfect next listen for you. I think there’s definitely more to this story, so I’m looking forward to the next installment from Young to see what other twists she can throw into the mix.

Publisher’s Summary:

Westworld meets The Handmaid’s Tale in this start to a thrilling, subversive near future series from New York Times bestselling author Suzanne Young about a girls-only private high school that is far more than it appears to be.

Some of the prettiest flowers have the sharpest thorns.

The Girls of Innovations Academy are beautiful and well-behaved—it says so on their report cards. Under the watchful gaze of their Guardian, they receive a well-rounded education that promises to make them better. Obedient girls, free from arrogance or defiance. Free from troublesome opinions or individual interests.

But the girls’ carefully controlled existence may not be quite as it appears. As Mena and her friends uncover the dark secrets of what’s actually happening there—and who they really are—the girls of Innovations Academy will learn to fight back.

Bringing the trademark plot twists and high-octane drama that made The Program a bestselling and award-winning series, Suzanne Young launches a new series that confronts some of today’s most pressing ethical questions.

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STAFF PICK: The Lost Night by Andrea Bartz

Title: The Lost Night
Author: Andrea Bartz
Narrator: Kristen Sieh

Sometimes, a book can really sum up a particular time in history, or a feeling. When I had just finished university, two books really spoke to me. One was Generation X, by Douglas Coupland, and the other was The Graduate by Charles Webb. Both of these novels summed up the feeling of having been given opportunities, but not living up to them, and not knowing where to go next in life.

If you lived in Brooklyn in the late 2000s, then The Lost Night may very well be your “Zeitgeist” novel. Set in a time of mass unemployment and economic uncertainty, this dark “whodunnit” is a unique murder mystery, since you’re very much enveloped in the dark world that the characters inhabit, in addition to being wrapped in the mystery itself.

In 2009, Edie is a graduate with the world at her feet – or so it seems. From the outside, she has a supportive family, friend group, and is incredibly talented and bright. But one fateful night, she’s found dead – an apparent suicide, leaving her friends and family devastated. This brings the drug-fueled party lifestyle that her friends are living to an abrupt halt. Lindsay (the main narrator, and Edie’s best friend) is so anguished that she decides to disappear, from both Brooklyn and her friends, for a decade.

Fast forward ten years, and Lindsay’s life has changed dramatically from the hedonistic party lifestyle she once had. After a meet up with Sarah, another friend of Edie’s, Lindsay starts to suspect Edie’s death was not a suicide. After she discovers a disturbing video from the night in question, she becomes convinced that there was foul play. This is further backed up by the fact that Lindsay is unsure of where SHE was on that night, due to random blackouts. So she begins to investigate, which ruffles feathers, disrupts and breaks relationships, and ultimately, leads Lindsay to confront her own violent past.

The story is told mostly from the perspective of Lindsay, who is not a very reliable narrator, since we know that she cannot remember what happened. A few of the chapters are also narrated by other friends in the group, which adds perspective, but also confusion. This multiple-narrators format really lends itself to audio and reinforces the notion that Lindsay’s story alone isn’t enough to solve the mystery. Kristen Seih‘s narration (who narrates the Lindsay sections) really adds to the darkness and suspense of the story.

The end of the book has a great twist. Of course, I’m not going to ruin it for you, but because of the different perspectives that you hear the story from, you go from character to character, wondering if they are the murderer, or if it was ever a murder at all….

I would recommend this listen to anyone who was in their twenties in the early 2000s, and anyone who is a fan of Paula Hawkins or Gillian Flynn.

Publisher Summary
“Tightly paced and skillfully plotted, The Lost Night is a remarkable debut.”—Jessica Knoll, New York Times bestselling author of Luckiest Girl Alive

What really happened the night Edie died? Years later, her best friend Lindsay will learn how unprepared she is for the truth.

In 2009, Edie had New York’s social world in her thrall. Mercurial and beguiling, she was the shining star of a group of recent graduates living in a Brooklyn loft and treating New York like their playground. When Edie’s body was found near a suicide note at the end of a long, drunken night, no one could believe it. Grief, shock, and resentment scattered the group and brought the era to an abrupt end.

A decade later, Lindsay has come a long way from the drug-addled world of Calhoun Lofts. She has devoted best friends, a cozy apartment, and a thriving career as a magazine’s head fact-checker. But when a chance reunion leads Lindsay to discover an unsettling video from that hazy night, she starts to wonder if Edie was actually murdered—and, worse, if she herself was involved. As she rifles through those months in 2009—combing through case files, old technology, and her fractured memories—Lindsay is forced to confront the demons of her own violent history to bring the truth to light.

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STAFF PICK: On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

Title: On the Come Up
Author: Angie Thomas
Narrator: Bahni Turpin 

Two years ago, when I was attending a publishing program in New York City with a big group of book-minded people, one debut had made a particularly big splash. Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give dominated conversations amongst professors and classmates alike; I simply couldn’t escape the hype around it. However, it wasn’t until my roommate left several teary Snapchat messages to me a year later praising the book to the heavens that I finally picked it up. Needless to say, I am fully on the Angie Thomas bandwagon now.

The Hate U Give was such an emotional and eye-opening book for me—and many, many others I’m sure—that it almost seems unfair that On the Come Up would have to live in the shadow of Thomas’s phenomenal debut. But, no matter how high expectations were for her follow up novel, Thomas has shattered them again. On the Come Up absolutely stands on its own, and it is already making huge ripples with Fox—the studio that brought The Hate U Give to the big screen—picking up the film rights.

On the Come Up begins after the events of The Hate U Give, with Garden Heights still reeling in the aftermath of protests and riots. Sixteen-year-old Brianna “Bri” Jackson yearns to be a rapper. She breathes flow and rhymes and dreams about her chance to break out when she should be focusing on ACT prep. Bri has lived a life marred by violence and struggles: her father, the legendary underground rapper Lawless, was murdered when she was a child; her mother, who battled addiction and has been eight years clean, just lost her job; and her brother, Trey, can only find menial work at a pizza shop despite graduating from college with honors.

Rapping for Bri is not just an avenue for honest expression, but also a way to lift her family out of poverty. When she is inspired to pen a bitter song after a particularly violent and targeted incident with a security guard at her school, Bri thinks her time in the spotlight has finally come—and it has, but not in the way she expected.

On the Come Up highlights the difficulty and frustrations of speaking the truth, your truth, in a world full of people who are bent on policing your speech. As Bri’s song goes viral, her words are twisted and used as evidence that she really is an aggressive hoodlum—an image that many around her want her to adopt.

This is a book that demands not just to be read, but also to be heard. Narrator Bahni Turpin returns with the same power and passion that she brought to The Hate U Give. Bri’s lyrics, which are already compelling on the page, are simply brought to life with Turpin’s performance. I can almost see myself standing in the garage-turned-recording studio, watching Bri speak her truths into the mic.

Thomas, who herself was a teen rapper, wrote the book for “black girls who are often made to feel as if they are somehow both too much and not enough in a world that makes wrongheaded assumptions about them.” It’s frankly remarkable that a novel so heavily entrenched in the issue of systemic racism can also be lighthearted and, at times, surprisingly funny. So, plug in your headphones, and treat yourself to a compelling, fun, and earnest story of a girl who finally gets to step into the spotlight.

Sixteen-year-old Bri wants to be one of the greatest rappers of all time. Or at least win her first battle. As the daughter of an underground hip hop legend who died right before he hit big, Bri’s got massive shoes to fill.

But it’s hard to get your come up when you’re labeled a hoodlum at school, and your fridge at home is empty after your mom loses her job. So Bri pours her anger and frustration into her first song, which goes viral…for all the wrong reasons. 

Bri soon finds herself at the center of a controversy, portrayed by the media as more menace than MC. But with an eviction notice staring her family down, Bri doesn’t just want to make it—she has to. Even if it means becoming the very thing the public has made her out to be.  

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STAFF PICK: The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi

Title: The Gilded Wolves
Author: Roshani Chokshi
Narrator: 
P. J. OchlanLaurie Catherine Winkel

Paris, 1889. Underneath the façade of this dusty, churning city lies a world lush and ripe with mystery. A powerful secret society by the name of the Order of Babel runs rampant underground, throwing elaborate parties and harboring dangerous secrets.

It is the eve of the Exposition Universelle, and the excitement of the city is at a breaking point. The wonder and ugliness of a distant world over a century old are on display—Claude Debussy gathers inspiration from his first encounter with Javanese gamelan music, and some 400 people make up the main attraction in the “Negro village.” In the midst of this, Roshani Chokshi weaves a tale of pure enchantment, gifting select people with the ability to Forge, a power believed to come from the broken pieces of the Tower of Babel.

Wealthy hotelier Séverin Montagnet-Alarie is trying to reclaim his inheritance and position as the patriarch of House Vance, one of the former reigning houses of the Order of Babel. When the Order seeks his help in finding an ancient artifact in exchange for his inheritance, listeners are thrown head first into a fast-paced heist that leads Séverin and his friends to discover some startling secrets.

The audiobook weaves together the stories of six characters: Séverin, a thief and heir to the dead House Vance; Laila, a dancer with a tragic past; Tristan, Séverin’s brother in all but blood; Zofia, a girl with a wicked sense for numbers and science; Enrique, a snarky, lovable history buff; and last but not least, Hypnos, the patriarch of House Nyx. The diversity of the cast in race, orientation, experiences, and perspectives is what truly makes this audiobook shine. Narrators P. J. Ochlan and Laurie Catherine Winkel embody each of the characters so thoroughly that I can’t help but become engrossed in their losses and triumphs. Their laugh-out-loud banter endears me to them, and their quirks and personalities make them feel so complex and real that you can’t help but fall in love with the entire cast.

Around them, 1889 Paris unfolds spectacularly. Chokshi’s lush descriptions lure you into an irresistible and mysterious world that is cocooned in a city on the cusp of transformation. The Gilded Wolves may be a tale of pure fantasy, but it is grounded in reality. Amidst the fast-paced plot and large cast of characters, Chokshi still finds the time to breathe depth into the story by bringing in honest discussions about colonialism, exploitation, and cultural erasure. She doesn’t hesitate to criticize and challenge—in fact, Chokshi aptly uses the post-industrial Parisian setting as an opportunity to deconstruct colonialism. That’s the true mark of a brave and astute writer. If you haven’t listened to Chokshi’s work before, there is no better place to start.

Whether you’re here for the characters, the gorgeous writing, or that one particularly lustful romance that will leave you swooning, The Gilded Wolves is a listen you won’t want to miss. Full of twists and delightful puzzles, this is an enchanting experience that will keep you on your toes until the very end.

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STAFF PICK: Broken Things by Lauren Oliver

Title: Broken Things
Author: Lauren Oliver
Narrators: Sarah DrewSaskia Maarleveld, and Erin Spencer

Five years ago, when Summer Marks was found stabbed to death in a ritualistic killing, suspicion immediately fell on her two best friends, Mia and Brynn, who had described the exact crime in a co-written sequel to a book all three girls were obsessed with, The Way into Lovelorn. Although there wasn’t enough evidence to convict, the town nevertheless pointed fingers at Mia and Brynn, who consequently became ostracized from the community.

In the aftermath, Mia transferred to another school in hopes of outrunning her classmates’ vicious remarks, while Brynn deliberately prolonged her stint in rehab to avoid rejoining society. However, when Mia makes a strange discovery about Summer, she resurrects the mystery of Summer’s death and begins her hunt for answers alongside Brynn, Owen Waldmann—an old friend and Summer’s then-boyfriend, and Abby—a teenage YouTube sensation whose need for homeschooling brought her and Mia together.

Lauren Oliver unfolds her story through alternating chapters from Mia and Brynn’s perspectives that shuffle between ‘then’ and ‘now.’ Slowly, snippets from the past coalesce with the present narrative to form a story of two young girls brought together by the enigmatic Summer Marks, who had always seemed undeniably perfect to Mia and Brynn—until they begin to examine her life in retrospect.

The characters leap off the page with excellent narration from Sarah Drew, Saskia Maarleveld, and Erin Spencer, whose passionate performances kept me captivated and utterly unable to press pause.

Shortly after the novel opens, Mia and Brynn’s hometown, Twin Lakes—a name that conjures the shadowy, atmospheric intensity of Twin Peaks—is ravaged by a hurricane. As the girls meet for the first time since Summer’s murder—in a community on the precipice of chaos and recovery, no less—old wounds and dark memories are dredged up. Before they can begin to heal and stitch their lives back together, Mia and Brynn must unravel the mysterious circumstances of Summer’s murder so they can close this chapter of their lives and clear their names.

The heart of the mystery revolves around fictional author Georgia C. Wells’ The Way into Lovelorn, which inexplicably ends mid-sentence, and its unofficial sequel Return to Lovelorn, which spawned from the girls’ obsession with the original text. In excerpts peppered between chapters, The Way into Lovelorn and Return to Lovelorn unfold like Narnia-esque tales with a sinister undercurrent. As Wells’ fiction creeps into reality, gripping the minds of three young, impressionable girls, I can’t help but recall the Slender Man stabbing in 2014 wherein two girls lured their friend into the woods and stabbed her to impress the fictional Slender Man.

The mystery will keep you hooked, but Broken Things is much more than that. It’s about the complexities of friendship, the meaningful bonds stories can forge, and how long and complicated the road to healing can be. Broken Things is an unmissable entry from one of today’s most prolific voices.

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