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, has 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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STAFF PICK: Neverworld Wake by Marisha Pessl

Post by Laura Laidman

Title: Neverworld Wake
Author: Marisha Pessl
Narrator: Phoebe Strole

What if you had the chance to pause time, to redo a day until you get it just right? A day to undo the mistakes of the past? That’s just what Beatrice Hartley and her friends get to do in Marisha Pessl’s Neverworld Wake. It is in this Neverword that they quickly realize that reliving the past is not a gift, but a curse.

A year ago, Beatrice’s boyfriend Jim, the driving creative force of her friend group, died under mysterious circumstances. Though deemed a suicide by the local police, not one of them believed it. Now, Beatrice returns to her hometown to find out just what her friends know, and what they’re hiding from her. It is in the fabulous, isolated manner belonging to her former best friend Whitley that a mysterious figure joins them and explains that time has become stuck in a loop. A loop that can only be broken if they make a cruel and painful choice.

Neverworld Wake starts out as five young adults dealing with reliving the same day over and over and how it affects their relationships with one another and their own psyches. As the story progresses, it takes surprising twists and turns that I never saw coming. Neverworld Wake isn’t just a YA version Groundhog Day. As the plot races forward, the narrative jumps the expected tracks into something so much bigger, and so much better. I never knew what to expect with every passing minute of the narration and the final revelations left me reeling for days.

Told from Beatrice’s perspective, the wonderful Phoebe Strole captures exactly the personality of ‘Sister Bee’ as her friends have always teased her. Sweet, slightly naive, and yet tirelessly working for the friends, her performance perfectly exudes the Beatrice that I pictured as I listened along.

Neverworld Wake is a perfect mix of sci-fi, mystery, and personal drama that I’ve come to expect from Marisha Pessl. While listening to the audiobook, I found myself picturing Neverworld Wake as the next big Netflix hit. With it’s creative blend of Stranger Things and 13 Reasons Why, all while telling its own unique, intriguing story, it wouldn’t surprise me if an adaptation was announced in the future.

Neverworld Wake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Other Side of the Castle: 6 Fairy Tales as Told by the Villains

For centuries, fairy tales have delighted the young and the old. Passed down through fireside fables and aged storybooks, these stories have been told and retold, yet they continue to captivate readers. As the tales typically go, good triumphs while evil is punished. Yet, nothing is ever what it seems. There are stories untold even in the most classic and familiar tales. Step into the shoes of some of the most infamous villains with these new spins on classic fairy tales.

 

1. All the Ever Afters: The Untold Story of Cinderella’s Stepmother by Danielle Teller, narrated by Jane Copland

As rumors about the cruel upbringing of beautiful newlywed Princess Cinderella roil the kingdom, her stepmother, Agnes, who knows all too well about hardship, privately records the true story. The story of their relationship reveals that nothing is what it seems, that beauty is not always desirable, and that love can take on many guises. Read more and sample the audio.

 

 

 

2. Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, narrated by Jennifer Ikeda

Frozen meets The Bloody Chamber in this feminist fantasy re-imagining of the Snow White fairy tale.
After the death of her mother, Mina forms a plan: win the king’s heart and become queen. The only catch is that she’ll have to become a stepmother to fifteen-year-old Lynet. Girls Made of Snow and Glass traces the relationship of two young women doomed to be rivals from the start. Read more and sample the audio.

 

 

3. Caroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller, narrated by Elizabeth Marvel

In this novel authorized by the Little House estate, Sarah Miller vividly recreates the beauty, hardship, and joys of the frontier in a dazzling work of historical fiction, a captivating story that illuminates one courageous, resilient, and loving pioneer woman as never before—Caroline Ingalls, “Ma” in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s beloved Little House books. Read more and sample the audio.

 

 

 

4. Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao, narrated by Kim Mai Guest

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns reimagines The Evil Queen legend as a tale of one peasant girl’s quest to become Empress. Growing up in a forgotten village on the edge of the map, Xifeng longs to fulfill the destiny promised to her by her cruel aunt, the witch Guma, who has seen glimmers of Xifeng’s majestic future. But, in order to achieve greatness, Xifeng must embrace the darkness within her. Read more and sample the audio.

 

 

5. Hiddensee: A Tale of the Once and Future Nutcracker by Gregory Maguire, narrated by Steven Crossley

Hiddensee recreates the backstory of the Nutcracker, re-imagining how this entrancing creature came to be carved and how it magically guided an ailing little girl named Klara through a dreamy paradise on a snowy Christmas Eve. It also brings to life the mysterious godfather Drosselmeier, the ominous, canny, one-eyed toymaker who presents the Nutcracker to Klara, his goddaughter. Read more and sample the audio.

 

 

6. Queen of Hearts by Colleen Oakes, narrated by Moira Quirk

Dinah, the future Queen of Wonderland, has not yet seen the dark depths of her kingdom; she longs only for her father’s approval and a future with the boy she loves. But when a betrayal threatens her throne, she is launched into Wonderland’s dangerous political game. Queen of Hearts brings to life the epic origin of Wonderland’s infamous villain. Read more and sample the audio.

 

 

 

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STAFF PICK: The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

This month, I chose John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, a Young Adult romance book about two teenagers with cancer who fall in love. That’s just the elevator pitch, though: it’s really about friendship, family, love and loss, all of which are already incredibly difficult and complicated things, but even more so for teenagers and for teenagers with terminal illness. I’d heard that the book was a real tear-jerker, but I generally have a higher tolerance for that kind of thing so I figured I’d judge it for myself.

The Fault In Our Stars audiobook by John Green

The first half of the book is, for the most part, hopeful. It does an excellent job of humanizing “sick people”, moving them from other and unknowable to sympathetic and familiar. Hazel and Augustus are teenagers like any other, though their singular life experiences have given them an advanced maturity and perspective. There is color and quirky fun and while the characters are going through some tough stuff, the first half cannot hold a candle to the second half of the book, whichcontained some of the most heart-breaking hours of literature I’ve ever listened to.

YA frequently gets written off as fluff. I’d like to argue that while there are indeed lots of poorly written YA stories with weak characters and flimsy pretenses just cashing in on the success of other poorly written YA stories, that’s not something that’s unique to young adult lit. There are plenty of poorly written books in every genre. (#sorrynotsorry)

The Fault In Our Stars, on the other hand, is an example of YA writing at it’s finest: yes, it’s a book about two teenagers who fall in love and yes, it’s written with simple language and straight-forward structure and it reads quickly and easily, as is typical of the genre. But that very simplicity makes it an extra-effective medium to explore the brutal and heart-breaking reality of cancer in children. There are no thick paragraphs of prose to hide in; instead, his characters love and fear and cry upfront, with dialogue that is so sincere and forthcoming that, as a reader, it’s impossible to turn away. Green’s ability to competently discuss such a difficult topic in such a straightforward and easily digestible way points towards a greater mastery of writing, not a lesser one. Complex ideas, simple language.

The narrator, Kate Rudd, was incredible. While her voice for main character Hazel was perfectly executed, I’m more impressed with her voice for Augustus. She manages to imbue his slightly pretentious dialogue with a sense of good-humor, awareness and sincerity that make the character more likable than my own mental narrator ever could. It’s rare to find a narrator who can do same- and opposite-gender characters equally well, but Rudd is definitely one of them.

I highly, highly recommend this audio book. If you listen to it and love it, check out Esther Earl’s This Star Won’t Go Out who influenced Green’s writing.

Let me know what you think!

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