SHOW US WHO YOU ARE by Elle McNicoll

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Cora didn’t want to go to her older brother’s boss’s son’s birthday party. For one thing, she doesn’t know these people, and for another thing, parties are always awkward for Cora who struggles with small talk and sensory and emotional overwhelm in some social situations. But when she meets Adrien, her night becomes anything but awkward. Adrien is her age and they understand each other better than Cora and her classmates, maybe in part because they are both neurodivergent. The one thing they don’t see eye to eye on is Adrien’s father’s company, Pomegranate, which she learns studies living people to create accurate, holographic representations of them so that when they die, their loved ones can still interact with them. Cora would give anything to have another conversation with her late mother, even a simulated one, but Adrien insists that it wouldn’t be real and that the company is preying on grieving people’s emotions–and their wallets.

When tragedy strikes, Cora can no longer resist the lure of being interviewed by Pomegranate, not when they could offer her a chance to talk with a loved one she’s lost. But Adrien was right: Pomegranate has ulterior motives, and Cora may be the only one capable of unraveling the mystery and stopping them from turning society down a sinister road.

Grief and disability acceptance take a front row seat in McNicoll’s compelling foray into middle grade suspense. McNicoll demonstrates Cora and Adrien’s unique strengths without shying away from their weaknesses, some of them linked to her particular collection of neurodivergent traits, and in doing so provides readers with positive, realistic neurodivergent heroes–a boon for neurodivergent readers looking to find positive reflections of themselves in the books they read and non-neurodivergent readers who need opportunities to better understand people of all neurotypes. On top of the wonderful neurodiverse representation, McNicoll delivers a thrilling borderline dystopian plot that becomes difficult to put down in the second half. I’d recommend this one to fans of middle grade contemporary and/or middle grade thrillers.

If you liked SHOW US WHO YOU ARE, you might like TREX by Christyne Morrell

CURSED by Marissa Meyer

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In the sequel and finale to the story begun in GILDED, Serilda and Gild race to undo their curses before the Erlking and his court of demons can enact their own plans to end an ancient imprisonment and rain evil upon the mortal realm.

I listened to the well-narrated audiobook (performed by Rebecca Soler) which highlighted Meyer’s rich, Gothic world-building, steeped in oral storytelling tradition. Twists were abundant and surprising, yet well-founded and throughly satisfying, both as a story on its own and a conclusion to the duology. I would highly recommend this novel (and audiobook) to fans of dark fairytale retellings and would suggest starting with GILDED.

BENEATH HIS SILENCE by Hannah Linder

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Ella arrives at Wyckhorn Manor hoping to succeed in the soul-consuming mission her late father did not live long enough to complete: proving that Lord Sedgewick murdered her sister.

From the moment she meets Lord Henry Sedgewick, it is clear her sister made a mistake in marrying him. He is cold, aloof, and admits he never even loved Lucy. Ella assumes a false name and takes a position as governess to Henry and Lucy’s young son, hoping to get to know her nephew and gather proof of Henry’s iniquity. Yet under his distant exterior, Ella is surprised and somewhat alarmed to find a compassionate, generous, devoted Christian who begins gently prodding her doubting soul back toward the faith. But Henry and Wyckhorn Manor hold dark, guilty secrets, and though neither Henry nor Ella know it, they are both in grave danger of losing their hearts, their lives, and everything they hold dear.

This Gothic, Bronte-esque Christian Regency Romance packs suspense and emotional drama alongside a sweet (clean) courtship and each protagonist’s arc toward self-forgiveness. The Christian elements are prominent—a journey toward conversion—making this title ideal for readers who enjoy both Christian Fiction and Regency Romance rather than either in isolation. If you are a reader of both categories, I can highly recommend this story as immersive, exciting, and emotionally satisfying.

HER LAST BETRAYAL by Pam Lecky

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Sarah Gillespie has survived a year of wartime tragedy. Her sister died in a German air raid which she later learned was facilitated by her own father, an IRA operative who faked his death to continue secretly collaborating with Nazis in return for their aid with the Irish republican cause. As if that suffering and betrayal weren’t enough, her fiance’s ship is attacked by the Nazis, leaving him missing in action.

When MI5 approaches Sarah for her help undermining her father’s spy mission and bringing him to justice, she can’t say no. Unfortunately, they pair her with insufferable American operative Tony Anderson, suspicious of her due to her Irish heritage and dismissive of her espionage skills. An undercover mission takes them to Wales to track down Sarah’s father, but German moles have infiltrated their operation and as Sarah’s sparring with Anderson gives way to attraction, she will need to decide whether the surly American can be trusted–or whether he might be the sinister double agent they’ve been hunting.

Twisty with just a touch of enemies-to-lovers romance, HER LAST BETRAYAL is a quick, fun read for fans of the historical thriller genre. Lecky packs her story with colorful secondary characters and enough red herrings to keep you guessing to the climax. The second in a series, an open ending teases more adventures from Sarah Gillespie in the future.

THE DUKE IN QUESTION by Amalie Howard

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Desperate to use her privilege as a white noblewoman to contribute to the fight for racial justice, Lady Bronwyn Chase accepted the clandestine identity as “the Kestrel,” a spy not exactly in the employment of the Crown. Unfortunately, she has caught the Crown’s notice, and on her first transatlantic mission to help turn the tide of the American Civil War, the Kestrel is pursued by one of their most stoic former agents, Lord Valentine Medford, the Duke of Thornbury and best friend to Bronwyn’s half brother, the mixed-race Duke of Ashvale.

Bronwyn has long been attracted to Lord Valentine. Valentine on the other hand can’t imagine being romantically interested in the superficial personality Bronwyn projects–and he would never guess that she was the elusive Kestrel. Yet, Valentine finds himself drawn inexplicably and inexorably to Bronwyn, and when her assignment goes wrong, he is there to save her life–and arrest her. Bound together by conflicting duties, Bronwyn can no longer escape their smoldering attraction to one another. But will they be able to let one another go to save their reputations–and Bronwyn’s neck?–or will an unavoidable, passionate affair ruin them both?

Immediately following RULES FOR HEIRESSES, this sizzling enemies-to-lovers romance continues Howard’s nuanced exploration of gender, class, and race in the Victorian Era with the same perfect execution of historical romance tropes that will thrill fans of the genre, plus a dash of romantic suspense a la Sherry Thomas’s HIS AT NIGHT and MY BEAUTIFUL ENEMY. Wrestling with their privilege and desire to be allies, the white hero and heroine consistently run up against barriers of systemic racism, while injustice constrains characters of color–even those advantaged by wealth and title. Yet like all satisfying romances, the plot ends with hope and love–plus a thick cloud of steam. Highly recommend to readers of the genre and fans of the Netflix adaptation of BRIDGERTON.

AMEN? QUESTIONS FOR A GOD I HOPE EXISTS by Julia Rocchi

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Additional disclaimer ( / brag!): My friend wrote this book!!

What if I don’t believe in you?

What if I don’t trust you?

Is this thing on?

Through personal essays, poetry, and prayers, Rocchi, a self-described progressive Christian, shares her doubts and hopes about the existence of a loving God and how her desire for divine love transforms her relationships and community with fellow humans. Eschewing theological argument in favor of emotion and personal connection, she weaves a compelling case that doubting yet spiritually-motivated readers are not alone in the universe–not because God exists but because fellow doubters, seekers, and hopers are out there asking the same questions, grappling with the same contradictions, and longing for something bigger than humanity alone.

Although Rocchi avoids gendering God or addressing prayers to Jesus Christ, Biblical references and her acknowledged “liturgical language” of Roman Catholicism center the text for a Christian audience. A standout chapter traces the evolution of a relationship from a single longing through marriage which serves both as a metaphor for relationship with a divine being and as an opening for patience and spiritual trust in one of the most universal experiences of human life. I’d recommend this title to readers who identify (however loosely) with a Christian tradition and are looking for a relatable contemplative voice to enliven their spirituality. A great opportunity for reflection!

SHAD HADID AND THE ALCHEMISTS OF ALEXANDRIA by George Jreije

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Shad Hadid excels at cooking up new recipes, whether they’re baked goods from his Lebanese heritage or magic charms like the stink bomb that never fails to disperse the bullies. But when a confrontation with queen of the bullies Sarah Decker attracts a shadowy ghost-like necromancer, Shad learns that his family’s magical recipes are actually works of alchemy and that he is one of the few alchemists left in the world, a legacy left him by his late parents.

Shad receives an invitation to study alchemy at Alexandria Academy, an overseas boarding school, and not a moment too soon since the necromancers who recently discovered his existence are circling closer. Unfortunately, Sarah Decker somehow got an invitation, too, along with Shad’s nightmare of a stepbrother, and even more unfortunately when he arrives at boarding school, no one else seems to have heard of alchemy, believing they’re all there to study advanced science. The presence of math whizzes and almost magical tech is enough to make Shad doubt his own sanity. But the necromancers have found their way into Alexandria Academy, and if Shad wants to protect his friends (and maybe even his bullies) he’s going to need to trust all of his outlandish skills and accept the role he was always meant to fill.

A fresh, funny voice and rich backdrop of Arabic culture elevate classic middle grade fantasy tropes in a wild, thrilling, and unique adventure. Fans of magical boarding school fantasies and intrepid groups of teens battling mystical evil won’t want to miss this stellar debut.

IN THE SHADOW OF A QUEEN by Heather B. Moore

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Like all of Queen Victoria’s children, Princess Louise adored her compassionate, attentive, and fun-loving father who often provided a buffer between the free-spirited girl and her strait-laced, duty-focused mother. But when the devoted husband and father succumbs to typhoid fever, both mother and daughter find their lives irrevocably altered. As the queen becomes more severe and rigid in her mourning, Louise throws herself into her unconventional artistic pursuits, determined to find a balance between familial love and responsibility and the deepest desires of her heart.

Steeped in historical detail and broad in scope, Moore’s Victorian family drama will entrance readers who love deep dives into history from female perspectives. Drawing on Princess Louise’s rich, gently-unconventional life, Moore animates the historical figure and her indomitable mother, using the controlled tension of their relationship as the touchstone to track Louise’s choices from adolescence through marriage and adulthood. The plot simmers gradually, making this book ideal for readers who relish immersion in a historical time period over a focused, quick-paced story arc.

MILLSTONE OF DOUBT (THRONDIKE & SWANN #2) by Erica Vetsch

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After wrapping up a whirlwind case as an agent-in-training for the Crown, Lady Juliette Thorndike has tried her best to forget Bow Street runner Daniel Swann and the improper, impossible feelings she has for him, a man entirely below her station. Although she and her family have often flouted class barriers, she worries that Detective Swann would only be embarrassed by her interest, a girl from such a frivolous world compared to his own.

But Daniel has some improper, impossible feelings of his own, and when a murder at a local mill looks like the work of anarchists, both Scotland Yard and the Crown get pulled into the case–meaning Daniel and Lady Juliette will be working together once more. As Juliette attempts to comfort (and glean information) from the victim’s grieving daughter, Daniel does some digging into the mill’s enemies. But the case is more complicated than it seemed, jeopardizing not only their hearts but their lives.

A (sweet) Regency romance pairs with an edge-of-your-seat murder mystery in a page turner with plenty of clues to piece together. Vetsch eschews the angst and slow-burn commonly infused in historical mystery relationships, relying instead on the murder itself and secrets from her hero’s past to drive suspense while the detective couple advances smoothly toward their happily ever after. Published by a Christian house, the book’s characters practice Christianity, but spiritual elements are smoothly incorporated with a light hand. A fun read for fans of the genre!

RUST IN THE ROOT by Justina Ireland

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As a Floramancer and young woman of Afrikan ancestry, Laura has always known the Prohibition targeted her people specifically. When the Great Rust set in in the 1930s, the small-time Negro mages bore the brunt of the blame, even though white Mechomancers were the ones who’d taken the purity of the power imbued in in nature (the Possibilities) and exploited it for financial gain in their Industrial Revolution. But the Blights are getting worse, and the U.S. government has put the dangerous burden of fixing it on the Bureau of the Archane’s Colored Auxiliary.

With few options for gaining a license to practice Floramancy–or even earn enough money to live–Laura takes a new name (the Peregrine) and an apprenticeship with the Floramancer known as the Skylark who is tasked with finding the source of a particularly rotten Blight in Ohio. But when the Colored Auxiliary arrives, the Peregrine and her mentor realize something is wrong. The Blight bears an alarming resemblance to the Klan’s Necromancy–a horrific evil that touched the Skylark’s life once before. And as they travel toward the heart of the dark magic, the Peregrine realizes that there were secrets within her power she was keeping even from herself.

Justina Ireland once again proves herself the queen of historical fantasy, crafting a richly grounded world with a detailed, inventive magic system that both accentuates past evils and demands that readers recognize and analyze alarming trends in the modern world. She perfectly balances her voice with historical colloquialisms and modern sensibility and weaves a cast of nuanced secondary characters to support her heroine. This novel is a must-read for YA and NA fantasy fans! I cannot recommend it highly enough.