Agnes at the End of the World by Kelly McWilliams

Agnes at the End of the World by Kelly McWilliams (9780316487337)

Agnes has only ever lived in Red Creek with her younger siblings, attending the Prophet’s sermons, and following his rules. Her mother has withdrawn into her room, not even attending church any more. Only Agnes’ sister Beth can get her mother to even eat any more. Agnes is the devoted sister, working to keep her siblings safe and never breaking the rules. No one knows that she has been sneaking insulin into Red Creek for her youngest brother, Ezekiel, to keep him alive. Beth spends much of her time dreaming of escaping Red Creek and kissing a boy. But soon the world around them changes with a virus that brings the end of civilization. The Prophet uses the virus to his advantage, facing the reckoning and putting everyone in Red Creek at risk. Agnes must figure out how to flee Red Creek to keep Ezekiel safe while Beth finds herself trapped in the nightmare that the Prophet has created. The two sisters each face the end of the world, one with the faith, power and abilities to create a new future for everyone.

McWilliams has written the perfect pandemic read, a book that takes all of our fears of our current pandemic and multiplies them into true horror as the virus hits animals and people alike. The world of Red Creek is haunting and shocking, the cult exactly the right place to find Agnes and Beth as society crumbles. McWilliams uses the cult’s brutality, patriarchy and abuse to create a crucible for these two young women as they find their way forward.

Beth and Agnes are marvelous characters, quite different and yet both wrestling with their fundamentalist upbringing and struggling to leave it behind in ashes. Yet their duty to family and the world itself is what keeps them focused and drives their choices in the apocalyptic world they find themselves in.

A dark and harrowing mix of cults, pandemics and faith-based magic. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Review: Love Is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson

love is the drug

Love Is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson

The author of The Summer Prince returns with another wild ride of a book.   Emily attends a prestigious prep school in Washington, DC.  Her parents have raised her not to ask questions and to show respect at all times.  She has her entire life under control: she’s part of the top group of girls at school, she has the ideal boyfriend, and she’s headed for Stanford in the fall, one of the small ways in which she is defying her mother.  But when she meets Roosevelt, a government agent, at a party, her entire life changes.  She wakes up days later with missing memories of that night, knowing only that her boyfriend helped get her into a car, took her away from the party, and that another boy, Coffee, desperately tried to stop them.  Meanwhile, the entire United States is caught in a viral disaster with many people dying.  Even Emily’s parents are trapped on the other side of the quarantine.  Now Emily is left to put the pieces of her memory back together and figure out the truth of why the government is interested in a high school senior.

Johnson writes with an elegant looseness here, along for the ride of the story arc with the reader.  There is a lot going on here, from budding romances to breakups to government agents to worldwide plagues to harsh parenting.  Yet somehow, amazingly, it holds together into a book that is an astonishing pleasure to read.  Well suited to the world of teens caught in a viral outbreak, the free flowing nature of this novel allows those teens space to breath, moments to connect, and a fairly rule-free environment to explore.

This is not a mystery where the pieces click together at the end into a satisfying result.  Rather it is an exploration of a theme with one great protagonist at the center, a girl who struggles with female friendship, refuses to fall in love with the boy she clearly connects with, and who battles her mother’s control even from afar.  Emily reinvents herself in this new world she finds herself in, and that is the story and the point.  This is a refreshing read that defies the expectations of dystopian fiction and creates something new.

A dystopian fantasy with an African-American heroine, this teen novel will appeal greatly to some readers who enjoy a lively, loose and wild read.  Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from ARC received from Arthur A. Levine Books.