Serena’s Review: “Under the Whispering Door”

Book: “Under the Whispering Door” by TJ Klune

Publishing Info: Tor Books, September 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: When a reaper comes to collect Wallace Price from his own funeral, Wallace suspects he really might be dead.

Instead of leading him directly to the afterlife, the reaper takes him to a small village. On the outskirts, off the path through the woods, tucked between mountains, is a particular tea shop, run by a man named Hugo. Hugo is the tea shop’s owner to locals and the ferryman to souls who need to cross over.

But Wallace isn’t ready to abandon the life he barely lived. With Hugo’s help he finally starts to learn about all the things he missed in life.

When the Manager, a curious and powerful being, arrives at the tea shop and gives Wallace one week to cross over, Wallace sets about living a lifetime in seven days.

Review: First off, props to the publisher for another awesome cover for one of Klune’s books. Does it subtly imply that it’s a sequel to the massively successful “House on the Cerulean Sea” with its similarities? Yes. Is it in fact that? No. However, as it’s still a neat cover in its own right, I’ll give it a pass. The fact that there are so few good standalone adult fantasy novels also supports that pass. Let’s dive in!

Young and successful, Wallace never dreamed the end could be so close. But when a reaper shows up for him, he realizes it must be so. Angry and confused, he meets Hugo, a magical being who helps ferry souls to the beyond. Soon Wallace begins to discover that the life he had thought was fulfilling had been an empty thing, bereft of all that makes life well-lived in the end. With only a few precious days remaining to him, Hugo and Wallace set out to give Wallace that last chance at discovering a true life and his true self.

There was a lot to like about this book, but it also wasn’t the high I had been expecting after enjoying Klune’s previous book so much. To begin with what did work, however, Klune’s flair for comedic moments was on point. In particular, the beginning of the story and the flames thrown towards corporate drones were hilarious and apt. As the book progressed, there were several other laugh-out-loud moments. However, as the story continued, even these sometimes began to feel a bit repetitive.

The characters were also quirky and compelling. This is largely a story of Wallace’s transformation from said corporate drone into an emotionally-realized individual, so nailing his character was key to the book working. And for the most part, this works. His interplay with Hugo is well done, and the two characters and their relationship is heartwarming.

However, as I went along, I kept wanting more. The characters were ok, but really just ok. The romance was sweet, but lacked the true heart that I was looking for. And most disappointingly, the message of the book, that of living one’s best life, felt at times trite and repetitive. There were a few times even when the moralizing fell completely flat, with Klune trotting out platitudes that have been overused many times before. Given the general set-up of the book, I knew what I was getting into. But I had hope that Klune would shine a new light on the topic. Or at least offer up some unique ways of looking at a common topic. Alas, not so.

Overall, the book was by no means bad. It just wasn’t what I had hoped to find. It’s perfectly acceptable in what it sets out to do, but knowing Klune’s previous work, I can’t help thinking he could have done better. There were parts of this book that almost felt phoned in, and the story started to drag towards the middling, struggling to keep up its pacing and momentum. Fans of Klune’s work will be pleased to see his trademark humor and strong characters, but he’s also had stronger outings in the past.

Rating 7: A bit disappointing, relying too heavily on tried and true platitudes instead of carving its own space.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Under the Whispering Door” is on these Goodreads lists: 2021 Queer SFF and 2021 Contemporary/Romance Releases.

Find “Under the Whispering Door” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “As Good As Dead”

Book: “As Good As Dead” (A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder #3) by Holly Jackson

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, September 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: The highly anticipated, edge-of-your-seat conclusion to the addictive A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder series that reads like your favorite true crime podcast or show. By the end, you’ll never think the same of good girls again.

Pip’s good girl days are long behind her. After solving two murder cases and garnering internet fame from her crime podcast, she’s seen a lot.

But she’s still blindsided when it starts to feel like someone is watching her. It’s small things at first. A USB stick with footage recording her and the same anonymous source always asking her: who will look for you when you’re the one who disappears? It could be a harmless fan, but her gut is telling her danger is lurking.

When Pip starts to find connections between her possible stalker and a local serial killer, Pip knows that there is only one choice: find the person threatening her town including herself–or be as good as dead. Because maybe someone has been watching her all along

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

Whenever I get to a final book of a series I have genuinely enjoyed, I am torn between wanting to devour it to see how it all plays out, and savoring it to stave off the end as long as possible. When I saw that “As Good As Dead”, the last book in Holly Jackson’s “A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder” series was coming out, I was thrilled and saddened. I think part of me had hoped that perhaps Jackson would make Pippa Fitz-Amobi, true crime obsessive and amateur detective, a series a la Temperence Brennan or Amelia Peabody. But if this is truly the end for Pip, I have to say that, while I was sad to say goodbye, this goodbye was so satisfying that I have few regrets.

Me saying goodbye to this series (though all three books are on my shelf to revisit whenever). (source)

When we left Pip at the end of “Good Girl, Bad Blood”, she had just survived a house fire and witnessed the brutal murder of sometimes ally, sometimes thorn in her side Stanley, who had been revealed as the son of a notorious murderer and who was killed out of revenge though he himself was a child at the time of the murders. Pip has been downward spiraling ever since, as while she’s counting the days down until she leaves for college, she’s also been taking Xanax on the sly to help her sleep, having PTSD episodes in secret, and fighting back unbridled rage issues. Especially since serial rapist Max Hastings, whose actions had far reaching consequences for Pip and those she cares about, has gone free. I had a very clear idea of what I thought was going to happen with this book. Pip is very unwell, understandably so, and I figured that we were going to get an exploration of a detective on the edge, who is after one last case to try and absolve herself of her roles in past cases and tragedies that came from them. As well as trying to solve the newest case of who is stalking her before it is too late.

In terms of these things, Jackson soars. I completely believed Pip’s mental state, and I loved that Jackson decided to go in this direction. I also found the slowly escalating stalker events in her life to be very creepy and unsettling, and through a combination of narrative as well as pictures, graphs, and epistolary segments (much like the previous books), we have a new case of a long supposedly solved serial killer that Pip now has to attend to, lest she be the next victim. Did this seem a little out there? Sure. But I was totally willing to buy in. Mostly because Jackson really knows how to plot a thriller that has wonderful characters and good connections to previous books/cases in the series.

It was about halfway through this book that I realized that Jackson had something else in store for the reader, and when I realized where it was all going, I was both blown away and a little bit horrified. I’m not going to spoil anything here, as it’s definitely worth keeping close to the vest. But “As Good As Dead” does away with preconceived notions of where this final book could go, even more so than just making Pip a complete emotional wreck. At first I was skeptical and a little bit incredulous, but as the plot goes on, it becomes very clear that Jackson has plans for Pip, and they are probably a foregone conclusion for her storyline given how things have been building since the first book. It’s so well done, and so suspenseful, and it made this final book a serious firecracker of a thriller. And I found myself going back to the previous two books to look for clues to see just how far back Jackson was planning this whole thing. It’s very well done. As mentioned above, while the main issue that Pip is facing (being the target of a potential dormant serial killer) did feel a little bit much, Jackson tells that story and the whole new other story so well that I was just enjoying the hell out of the ride. As well as getting my emotions totally run through the wringer. Sweet, sweet agony.

“As Good As Dead” is a satisfying end to a very enjoyable series! I look forward to seeing what Jackson writes next, and I wouldn’t mind revisiting Pip and all her loved ones down the road.

Rating 9: A supremely satisfying (and at times very very bleak) conclusion to a YA series I love, “As Good As Dead” takes Pip on her darkest case yet.

Reader’s Advisory:

“As Good As Dead” is included on the Goodreads lists “Young Adult THRILLERS”, and “Can’t Wait Crime, Mystery, and Thrillers 2021”.

Find “As Good As Dead” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously reviewed:

Serena’s Review: “Daughter of the Salt King”

Book: “Daughter of the Salt King” by A.S. Thornton

Publishing Info: CamCat Books, February 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: As a daughter of the Salt King, Emel ought to be among the most powerful women in the desert. Instead, she and her sisters have less freedom than even her father’s slaves … for the Salt King uses his own daughters to seduce visiting noblemen into becoming powerful allies by marriage.

Escape from her father’s court seems impossible, and Emel dreams of a life where she can choose her fate. When members of a secret rebellion attack, Emel stumbles upon an alluring escape route: her father’s best-kept secret—a wish-granting jinni, Saalim.

But in the land of the Salt King, wishes are never what they seem. Saalim’s magic is volatile. Emel could lose everything with a wish for her freedom as the rebellion intensifies around her. She soon finds herself playing a dangerous game that pits dreams against responsibility and love against the promise of freedom. As she finds herself drawn to the jinni for more than his magic, captivated by both him and the world he shows her outside her desert village, she has to decide if freedom is worth the loss of her family, her home and Saalim, the only man she’s ever loved.

Review: I’ll be honest, I requested this book way back in February the month it was coming out. I remember being intrigued by the description (I’m always in for a good jinni story) and happy to find an adult fantasy novel featuring a leading lady (something that I had been struggling to find at the time). But…then it just sat on my Kindle. And the reason I never looked at it to remind myself? The cover! Yes, I was one of those people who definitely started judging it on the cover and what my judgement was saying was: wow, that looks dull. And that’s too bad, because this book is way more exciting than the rather lackluster cover suggests.

As one of the more beautiful daughters of the Salt King, Emel has never understood why she can’t fulfill the only purpose her father allows her and her sisters: to seduce potential suitors whose connections wouldn’t benefit the Salt King. With a harrowing deadline growing steadily closer, Emel dreams of escape. As cracks begin to crumble around her seemingly all-powerful father, Emel stumbles on the secret to his success: a captive jinni who must fulfill his every wish. Soon Emel and Saalim form a strong attachment, but even with Saalim’s power at their fingertips, it’s a volatile thing, more like to harm them than help them. However, other forces are moving and soon their hands will be forced.

This book was such a pleasant surprise! Sometimes it seems that I know from the very first few sentences that a book will be for me. It’s something in the writing: longer, detailed sentences with expert use of a large vocabulary to begin drawing in the reader right away. This was definitely one of those stories. I felt immediately drawn to Emel, even when first meeting her in very tough circumstances when her choices are very much of the practical, if difficult, sort and not those that we often see from the “strong, feisty” heroines at the heart of these stories. Instead, half of Emel’s story is her growing to dream of more for herself and to slowly take control of the limited choices she has before her to direct that future into existence. She still made some puzzling choices, but they felt natural to this type of growth from a character’s whose life has been completely directed by an outside force for the entirety of her existence.

I also loved the romance. While this is a fantasy story first, the romance is a strong, driving element in the overall plot, so readers have to be onboard with that from the get go to enjoy the novel as a whole. I love a romantic fantasy, and both Emel and Saalim were compelling individually and even better together. It wasn’t exactly a slow-burn romance, but it also wasn’t instalove, with enough suspicion and miscommunication to ensure it read as realistic. The foibles that are set up before them also felt earned and also significant. I had a few ideas for how to get out of one snag or another, but most of the time the author quickly stomped out these plots, slowly twisting the screws on our tragic couple.

The world and magic were also interesting. There wasn’t anything incredibly unique to it all, being at times a fairly standard desert fantasy featuring a jinni with the usual abilities. But there added histories and beliefs tangled up in the magical elements that slowly began layering on top of one another as I read, until, in the end, the tapestry felt appropriately detailed and nuanced. In particular, I liked the brief exploration of the goddess behind the jinni’s power and his own backstory.

I really, really liked this book. It was simply solid in every way. It’s only lacking that 10 rating for having a few inexplicable character beats and having pacing that was a bit disjointed early on in the story. But those are real nitpicks on my part. There was also a fairly decent cliffhanger at the end. So, in this way, I was rewarded for dragging my feet about getting to this one as now my wait should be shorter before the second book comes out. Fans of jinnis and romance-heavy fantasies should definitely check this one out!

Rating 9: A wonderful surprise with two main characters you can’t help but love.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Daughter of the Salt King” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2021 and Desert Fantasy.

Find “Daughter of the Salk King” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Slewfoot: A Tale of Bewitchery”

Book: “Slewfoot: A Tale of Bewitchery” by Brom

Publishing Info: Tor Nightfire, September 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley, and a preview from Tor Nightfire via a giveaway.

Book Description: A spirited young Englishwoman, Abitha, arrives at a Puritan colony betrothed to a stranger – only to become quickly widowed when her husband dies under mysterious circumstances. All alone in this pious and patriarchal society, Abitha fights for what little freedom she can grasp onto, while trying to stay true to herself and her past.

Enter Slewfoot, a powerful spirit of antiquity newly woken… and trying to find his own role in the world. Healer or destroyer? Protector or predator? But as the shadows walk and villagers start dying, a new rumor is whispered: Witch.

Both Abitha and Slewfoot must swiftly decide who they are, and what they must do to survive in a world intent on hanging any who meddle in the dark arts.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel, as well as Tor Nightfire for sending me a preview with illustrations.

I’ve crowed on here about how much I love the historical horror film “The Witch” probably dozens of times. If you are sick of it, sorry! But I really love the story of a Puritan family being tormented by a coven that lives in the woods by their farm…. Or is it their own hubris and mistreatment of their teenage daughter Thomasin that is the true horror of that movie? Who can say? Best movie ending EVER. When I was reading up on “Slewfoot: A Tale of Bewitchery” by Brom, I was getting serious “The Witch” vibes, which made me super eager to get my grubby little paws on it, and I sat down one night thinking I’d start it, and enjoy the first few chapters. But then the ol’ Soup Brain happened, because I basically read this book in one sitting.

Jumping for joy at this book, truly. (source)

I never knew that I needed a “Beauty and the Beast” meets “The Witch” story, and yet here we are and “Slewfoot” gave me LIFE. Brom has created two compelling main characters who are isolated, angry, scared, and in need of companionship, and makes you care about both of them so, so much. Our first is Abitha, an Englishwoman who was sent to The Colonies to become a bride for a farmer (at a price, of course, as her father had no need for her but need for drinking cash). Abitha’s husband Edward is caring and a little awkward, and while they aren’t really romantic there is an intimacy there that is lovely, as well as short lived. When Edward dies tragically, Abitha takes over the farm, lest his nasty brother Wallace take it over and take her in as an indentured servant. And then we have a nameless forest spirit who awakens after a slumber, hungry and egged on by other spirits to kill and feed, in hopes that a mysterious Pawpaw tree will rebloom and recapture the magic of the forest. When Abitha and this being meet, thus begins a slow burn friendship, quasi-romance that both their worlds don’t approve of.

For me Abitha’s story was the more compelling one, as she is a headstrong woman in a Puritan community, and tales of this kind of strife are always my jam (especially if there is hope for the woman taking her freedom… and maybe a little revenge). Abitha is very easy to root for, and watching her slowly start to trust ‘Slewfoot’ (as her community calls The Devil, and she isn’t so sure this being she befriends ISN’T a devil of some kind) and come into her own ‘cunning’ powers through his assistance and friendship is so, so gratifying. You want her to remain powerful, you want her to get the best of Wallace as he plots against her and turns the town against her, and you want her and Slewfoot to just be together, be it romantic or platonic or a third kind of love that transcends both.

I also liked seeing Slewfoot slowly learn that he can be more than just a slayer and avenger for nature, which is what the wildfolk Forest, Creek, and Air have told him he is. Slewfoot has no memory of what he was before he went into this stasis, and while he starts out hungry and violent and frankly a bit terrifying, he starts to yearn to be more than this, and to connect with Abitha as they tentatively begin to interact with each other. I did find some of the folklore stuff to be interesting, though it KIND OF also felt a bit appropriative as Brom does take stories from Indigenous cultures of the region and applies them to this tale in some ways. It sounds like he did a lot of research and also spoke to members of the Pequot community to be as accurate and respectful as possible, which is definitely good, but there were some elements of the story that felt glossed over in regards to themes involving Indigenous people and their role in the narrative.

And the horror elements of this story are pretty on point, though they are few and far between until they are REALLY front and center. I would almost consider this more of a dark fairy tale or fantasy than a horror story, but that said I’m going to keep it as horror because there are definitely moments of body horror and just the horror of terrible humans that set me on edge. Slewfoot has his moments (especially when he’s still in the cave at the beginning of the book), but it’s really more the horrors of a fanatical community that will commit terrible acts in the name of God that really made me uncomfortable. As this kind of story always does. Abitha is so beaten down and abused by most of the town (with a few exceptions), that by the time she has to make a choice about mercy or revenge, you almost assuredly will be rooting for revenge. But that is also interesting, because as the story goes on and Slewfoot’s true identity is slowly parsed out, it becomes clear that sometimes the things we see as evil are actually neutral in the big scheme of things, and the things we consider righteous and good are deeply insidious. It’s a direction that I am all for, and I was wholly satisfied with how everything in this book gets wrapped up.

And finally, I have to mention the illustrations. The eARC that I received from NetGalley didn’t have any illustrations, but I was lucky enough to win a giveaway of a preview of the book from Tor Nightfire, which had a written sample of the story and a sampling of some of the artwork that Brom has included in the book. It’s haunting and feels very traditional in its design, and I know that when I do eventually get the book in print (as I need this to be a part of my home library) I will be excited to see what other images there are beyond the handful in the preview.

“Slewfoot: A Tale of Bewitchery” is one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had this year to be sure. If you like “The Witch”, this book will probably be a good fit for you. It’s just so damn good.

Rating 10: Magical, dark, angry, and wondrous, “Slewfoot” is a fantastic tale of witchcraft and finding out where you belong.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Slewfoot: A Tale of Bewitchery” is included on the Goodreads list “2021 Horror Releases”, and would fit in on “Witch Hunts”.

Find “Slewfoot: A Tale of Bewitchery” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Book Club Review: “Black Sun”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Award Winners”, in which we each picked a book that has won an award of some kind.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Black Sun” by Rebecca Roanhorse

Publishing Info: Saga Press, October 2020

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Award: Alex Award

Book Description: A god will return
When the earth and sky converge
Under the black sun

In the holy city of Tova, the winter solstice is usually a time for celebration and renewal, but this year it coincides with a solar eclipse, a rare celestial event proscribed by the Sun Priest as an unbalancing of the world.

Meanwhile, a ship launches from a distant city bound for Tova and set to arrive on the solstice. The captain of the ship, Xiala, is a disgraced Teek whose song can calm the waters around her as easily as it can warp a man’s mind. Her ship carries one passenger. Described as harmless, the passenger, Serapio, is a young man, blind, scarred, and cloaked in destiny. As Xiala well knows, when a man is described as harmless, he usually ends up being a villain.

Kate’s Thoughts

I’d heard of “Black Sun” through various book circles, online hype, and awards talk. I knew that it was really well liked by fantasy fans, and when it was picked as a book club book I had two very clear feelings about it. The first was ‘oh good, it’s great seeing BIPOC authors writing fantasy novels and this one has a lot of good hype around it!’ The second was ‘oh no, epic fantasy’. But I went in with an open mind because I have been surprised by fantasy now and then, in terms of how well I connect to it!

I can definitely recognize that “Black Sun” has some great epic fantasy elements to it, and hell, there were things that I liked about it as well! For one, I really liked Serapio and Xiala. For Serapio it’s because of his brooding and haunting backstory and the fact he seems to be walking the line between potential hero and villain. For Xiala, I liked her tenacity, I liked her motivation of being a disgraced sea captain, and I liked that she was tough but also very layered. I also really liked the two of them together, and how their potential romance built and formed against a backdrop of seafaring and potential disaster with the impending eclipse and Serapio’s potential destiny. And the themes and elements taken from Pre-Columbian folklore and mythology all seemed well researched and well implemented, which made me curious to look into some of the folklore beyond my own limited knowledge.

But as well all know, at the end of the day, I am not really an epic fantasy reading kind of gal. While there are some exceptions to that general rule, as a genre it doesn’t connect with me as much. So even though I could absolutely see the talent that Roanhorse has in writing this book and can appreciate the final product for how ambitious and well crafted it is, “Black Sun” wasn’t really my thing. And that is purely based on the genre preferences I have and not on the work itself. You should absolutely take my thoughts with a grain of salt, as Serena is the one who is going to have the most helpful and relevant things to say.

“Black Sun” may not work for you if you’re like me and you don’t care for epic fantasy. But it’s easy to see why it’s so lauded by those who do like the genre.

Serena’s Thoughts

I said this at bookclub itself, and I’ll repeat it here: this is why Kate and I are great blog partners! We both love books, but (with some definite exceptions and cross-overs) we tend to enjoy very different genres and types of reads. This gives us a lot of breadth of coverage on the blog and, hopefully, provides options and insights to readers of a lot of different sorts. This book is a perfect example. Epic fantasy is hardly ever Kate’s thing, and this was a bit of a miss for her. But for me? Loved the heck out of it! Hit every checkbox for things I like! Excellent all around! So, you see? Two very different sides of the same “loves books” coin.

For me, there was much to love about this book. I read the audiobook, so I missed out on the awesome maps that were provided in the print copy, but the world-building was so detailed and imaginative that I had no trouble picturing this sprawling world. From cities perched on pillars linked with bridges, to perilous seas and distant lands, it felt like a fully realized world full of different cultures, histories and religions. This information came out slowly and organically, something of a staple of epic fantasy, so readers must trust that these bits of the world and history will come together as the story continues. Which it does, brilliantly!

I also really enjoyed the way the story was laid out. It’s definitely the kind of read that takes its time setting up all of the various characters and their arcs and motivations. But the author wisely helps jumpstart this process by giving us a few glimpses of where some characters will end up by the book’s end before jumping back to about a month before these events. This type of teaser keeps readers on their feet, wondering how a character will get from point A to point B. I think it worked really well and did help with the slower pacing at the front end of the story.

I also really liked our three (kind of four?) main characters. I definitely had favorites, but I enjoyed all of their stories individually as well. It’s that delicious sort of torture where you have multiple characters you love and you see them beginning to be set up on opposing sides of a coming conflict. Like Kate, Serapio and Xiala were my favorites, with the spunky and sea-bitten Xiala taking the crown as my most enjoyed character. However, I also liked the political intrigue (another staple of much epic fantasy) that came with Naranpa’s story.

I loved the heck out of this book. The audiobook was also an excellent read, and I highly recommend that to fans of audiobooks. There are different narrators for all four main characters, and each one does an excellent job. I will definitely be checking out the second book the minute it comes out!

Kate’s Rating 6: This is very clearly well written and thought out epic fantasy. But as we all know, epic fantasy and I don’t really mix well.

Serena’s Rating 10: I loved this! Strong world-building, excellent mythology, and relatable characters make for the perfect fantasy read.

Book Club Questions

  1. Did you like the maps and the character list that were provided for the reader? Did these things make it easier to keep everything straight while you read?
  2. Do you think that the world building that Roanhorse did in regards to the Pre-Columbian inspirations was well done?
  3. What did you think of the gender representation in this novel?
  4. What did you think of the major city and town settings of Tova vs Cuecolla?
  5. Whose perspectives were your favorites? If there was a side story you could explore, whose would you choose?
  6. What are your thoughts on the magical elements and systems in this book?

Reader’s Advisory

“Black Sun” is included on the Goodreads lists “Non-Caucasian Protagonists in Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Paranormal Romance”, and “2020 Locus Recommended Reading List”.

Find “Black Sun” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “Furia” by Yamile Saied Méndez

Serena’s Review: “Wildwood Whispers”

Book: “Wildwood Whispers” by Willa Reece

Publishing Info: Redhook, August 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher!

Book Description: At the age of eleven, Mel Smith’s life found its purpose when she met Sarah Ross. Ten years later, Sarah’s sudden death threatens to break her. To fulfill a final promise to her best friend, Mel travels to an idyllic small town nestled in the shadows of the Appalachian Mountains. Yet Morgan’s Gap is more than a land of morning mists and deep forest shadows.

There are secrets that call to Mel, in the gaze of the gnarled and knowing woman everyone calls Granny, in a salvaged remedy book filled with the magic of simple mountain traditions, and in the connection, she feels to the Ross homestead and the wilderness around it.

With every taste of sweet honey and tart blackberries, the wildwood twines further into Mel’s broken heart. But a threat lingers in the woods—one that may have something to do with Sarah’s untimely death and that has now set its sight on Mel.

Review: I don’t often much magic realism fiction (or women’s fiction…not sure how I feel about that even being a subgenre category…), but the book description for this book was giving me major “Practical Magic” vibes, so I thought it was worth checking out. The cover art was also beautiful, and my mood fit well for a more quiet, reflective read. This one wasn’t a perfect fit for me, but I think it’s a solid entry for fans of these genres.

Growing up bouncing around in the system, Mel could never find her home. That is until she met Sarah, a young girl who had recently been orphaned. Together, the two made a home for one another in their enduring bond. Years later, Mel once again feels the sand shifting beneath her feet when Sarah dies. To fulfill a promise, she travels to Sarah’s childhood home. There, she discovers there was much more to Sarah than she had understood. And as the dark woods whispers and family secrets swirl through the town’s quiet streets, Mel begins to see a new place for herself.

I liked the idea of this book more than the book itself, in the end. Those familiar with the blog will know that I love a sisters book, which this is. I also really liked the imagery of a small, quiet town in the mountains, having grown up in one myself. There’s something compelling about the quirks and histories that come out in places like this, strange to all but those who have grown up with them. Mel’s exploration of the two, people, and woods was particularly poignant for me in this way.

I also liked Mel herself, especially the brief flash we see of her as a child when she first meets and bonds with Sarah. She was definitely started out on a strong note here, a defiant loner who discovers kinship with a younger girl. But the adult Mel was more difficult for me to handle. The flashes of defiance and strength seemed muted, and there were many early moments between characters that left me scratching my head. Mel comes to the town, a complete stranger, and then strikes up some really bizarre conversations with various locals. I couldn’t figure out what was going on here. Was it poor writing that made these portions of dialogue read as odd? Was it on purpose? Either way, it hurt Mel’s characterization as I couldn’t understand her lack of human reaction to these weird happenings.

I also struggled to identify with several other plot elements. The antagonist was easily spotted from the beginning of the story (even if the motives were left murky for a bit longer). And the romance felt tacked on and, again, unnatural. I didn’t feel any real chemistry between these characters other than the fact that the author simply designed them to be together, so they were. r

I liked the magical elements that were interspersed throughout the book, but was left wanting more. This is a point that is particular to my taste, however, as a lot of magical realism stories are light on the magic. The exploration of grief, family, and home had moments of depth, but, again, never struck any real chords for me. Ultimately, it was a bit too sentimental for me.

Readers who enjoy quiet, thoughtful books and magic realism will likely enjoy this story. If you’re looking for a fast plot, strong romance, or strong characterization, this might be more of a disappointment. I don’t regret reading it, but it’s enough to prove that a little goes a long way for me with this kind of stuff.

Rating 7: Decent for what it is, a sentimental story of a woman processing her grief and discovering a new sense of self and roots.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Wildwood Whispers” is on these Goodreads lists: Fantastic Women’s Fiction with Magical Elements and August 2021 Book Releases.

Find “Wildwood Whispers” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Locke & Key (Vol. 1): Welcome to Lovecraft”

Book: “Locke & Key (Vol. 1): Welcome to Lovecraft” by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodríguez (Ill.).

Publishing Info: IDW Publishing, 2008

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Locke & Key tells of Keyhouse, an unlikely New England mansion, with fantastic doors that transform all who dare to walk through them. Home to a hate-filled and relentless creature that will not rest until it forces open the most terrible door of them all…

Review: Back when I was still in graduate school, I decided to look into Joe Hill’s comic series “Locke and Key”. I didn’t know that much about it outside of the fact that I loved Joe Hill, and I checked out Volume 1, “Welcome to Lovecraft” from the library with very little to go off of. I eventually tore through the whole series, with my husband giving me the complete set as my graduation present in 2015. Since I’ve had a good time re-reading graphic series that I’ve loved, I thought that I would make my next re-read “Locke and Key”. I remembered how much I enjoyed the series overall. But I had forgotten how bleak the first volume is. Like, holy shit this is relentless in its bleakness bleak.

Had it been a weekend evening as opposed to a midday during the week that I finished this volume, I would have been Roy Kent upon finishing. (source)

“Welcome to Lovecraft” introduces us to the Locke family, which has just experienced an unspeakable tragedy. The family patriarch Rendell was a principal of a high school, and two of his students broke into his home, raped his wife, murdered him, and attempted to hunt down his three children Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode. Now the surviving family members are moving back to Rendell’s childhood home out east, a humungous and strange mansion called Keyhouse where Rendell’s brother Duncan lives. What appears to be a couple of psychopathic teenagers run amok is, anything but, however, as the surviving assailant, Sam, is communicating with something otherworldly that is living in the well of Keyhouse from his prison cell across the country. This first volume does a lot of heavy lifting, from giving voice and perspective to all of the Locke kids (and how they are all faring after this tragedy), to slowly unfolding the demonic presence in the well, to staring to sprinkle in the magical systems and objects that Keyhouse has hidden within its walls. It is a LOT, but Hill manages to fit it all in without it feeling overwrought or hurried. Granted, the magical systems are barely touched upon as of yet, but I am a-okay with building up the family members and their dynamics first. Hill isn’t in a rush, and I think that the characterizations benefit.

The magical elements we do have remain shrouded in mystery. We know that there are keys, and we know that they can do different things, like make you be able to leave your body and travel in a ghostly manner, or change from male to female. But where they come from, and what the deal is with the demon in the well, who is communicating with both murderer Sam and youngest Locke, Bode. They keys are important, and we get a taste as to why. I loved how we slowly see how the demon in the well (unnamed as of yet) inserts itself into both Sam’s consciousness, and the role that it plays in Sam’s violence AND how it manipulates Bode because of his age and naivete. Again, we don’t know much about this demon yet. The creepiness is well established through other means.

But I had really forgotten how freakin’ dark this first volume is. From the attack on the Locke Family at the beginning to Sam’s cross country murder spree after he is set free by the well demon, I found this volume harder to read now than it was the first time I dove in. I will say that some of the worse stuff is left off page in terms of graphic content (specifically Nina Locke’s rape, and it is a relief that we didn’t have to see it), but Hill absolutely pulls out the horrors in the aftermath of it all. I don’t remember the rest of this series being this upsetting, but who knows, maybe I blocked it out? My point is that there are lots of content warnings here. None of this seems exploitative to me in how Hill writes it, but it’s still disturbing.

And finally, I had forgotten about how much I really like the art of Gabriel Rodríguez. It definitely has a ‘cartoon-y’ vibe, but he really knows how to capture pain, sadness, joy, and all things macabre in his designs.

Even though diving back into “Locke and Key” was a bit rough with “Welcome to Lovecraft”, I have a feeling that this is once again going to be a successful re-read. This is old school Joe Hill, and it was clear even then that he was a horror and dark fantasy force to be reckoned with.

Rating 9: A fantastical and incredibly grim start to a dark fantasy series I love, “Locke and Key (Vol.1): Welcome to Lovecraft” will suck you in from the get go.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Locke & Key (Vol.1): Welcome to Lovecraft” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Horror Comics/Graphic Novels”, and “Comics + Graphic Novels To Read for Halloween”.

Find “Locke & Key (Vol.1): Welcome to Lovecraft” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “The Bronzed Beasts”

Book: “The Bronzed Beasts” by Roshani Chokshi

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, September 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: After Séverin’s seeming betrayal, the crew is fractured. Armed with only a handful of hints, Enrique, Laila, Hypnos and Zofia must find their way through the snarled, haunted waterways of Venice, Italy to locate Séverin.

Meanwhile, Séverin must balance the deranged whims of the Patriarch of the Fallen House and discover the location of a temple beneath a plague island where the Divine Lyre can be played and all that he desires will come to pass.

With only ten days until Laila expires, the crew will face plague pits and deadly masquerades, unearthly songs and the shining steps of a temple whose powers might offer divinity itself…but at a price they may not be willing to pay.

Previously Reviewed: “The Gilded Wolves” and “The Silvered Serpents”

Review: So far, my enjoyment of this series has been very on again, off again. My general likes and dislikes have remained consistent throughout the first two books. But as one of the “likes” is the characterization of the, arguably, two main characters, I’ve stuck around. I’m very much a character-driven reader, so if you’ve tackled that portion well, there’s a good chance you’ll hook me. That said, this author’s style of writing has never been my favorite. But I made it through the first two, so I was excited enough to see how it would all wrap up!

The race is on, with the Divine Lyre, a seemingly all-powerful magical device, within sight at last. But the group of friends is broken and distrusting. To many, Severin seems to have revealed himself as a betrayer and cold-hearted being to his core. But as they follow a few scattered clues, the group begins to wonder if all is not as it seems there. For her part, Laila can’t reconcile a Severin who would abandon his friends (and her) so easily with the man she’s grown to love. But her time, too, is limited as the clock that rules her life ticks down. For them all, the end is coming. What will it bring?

This was a pleasant surprise. The first book had been enjoyable enough, but I really struggled with the second one. So there were really only two options here. But luckily, it went the good route and ended on a strong note. Strong enough, even, for me to feel pretty good about reading the entire series, even with its low points.

Much of my enjoyment, again, came down to the character arcs. The middle book had felt like a lot of treading water and forced angst for our group, with emotional conflicts coming left and right that felt neither earned or natural. But here, with the end in sight, it was clear the author felt more comfortable again with these characters and their paths, while not devoid of twists and turns, felt stable and satisfying across the board.

Obviously, I’m mostly here for Severin and Laila, and I really, really loved what we got from them. It was incredibly cathartic to read some of the later scenes between them after the roller coaster ride that had been the first two books. That said, I was incredibly pleased to see their story take a few turns that took me completely by surprise. The ending, in particular, was very unexpected, full of bittersweet but cathartic notes.

I still struggled with some of the writing, with certain scenes and descriptions not painting a clear, crisp image. Chokshi’s style is now well-established, so I wasn’t surprised to see this. But it is probably the biggest reason why her books will likely never be huge hits for me. Too much emphasis is put on pretty sounding turns of phrase even if the words themselves fail to convey much of anything, sometimes even making things murkier and more difficult to follow.

Fans of this series will likely be completely satisfied with this book. Chokshi delivers on everything that she’s set up for the first two books. There is action aplenty and enough twists and turns to keep readers on the edge of their seats. The romance finally pays off in a big way, as well. I was pleased to end on this high note.

Rating 8: A definite improvement on the second book, including a strong, surprising ending for our beloved characters.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Bronzed Beasts” is on these Goodreads lists: Series Ending in 2021 and 2020 YA/MG Books With POC Leads.

Find “The Bronzed Beats” at the library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “White Smoke”

Book: “White Smoke” by Tiffany D. Jackson

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, September 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: The Haunting of Hill House meets Get Out in this chilling YA psychological thriller and modern take on the classic haunted house story from New York Times bestselling author Tiffany D. Jackson!

Marigold is running from ghosts. The phantoms of her old life keep haunting her, but a move with her newly blended family from their small California beach town to the embattled Midwestern city of Cedarville might be the fresh start she needs. Her mom has accepted a new job with the Sterling Foundation that comes with a free house, one that Mari now has to share with her bratty ten-year-old stepsister, Piper.

The renovated picture-perfect home on Maple Street, sitting between dilapidated houses, surrounded by wary neighbors has its . . . secrets. That’s only half the problem: household items vanish, doors open on their own, lights turn off, shadows walk past rooms, voices can be heard in the walls, and there’s a foul smell seeping through the vents only Mari seems to notice. Worse: Piper keeps talking about a friend who wants Mari gone. But “running from ghosts” is just a metaphor, right?

As the house closes in, Mari learns that the danger isn’t limited to Maple Street. Cedarville has its secrets, too. And secrets always find their way through the cracks.

Review: Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

Tiffany D. Jackson is one of my must read authors, whose books I clamor to get my hands on as soon as they come out. It comes as no shocker that when I heard she was writing a horror novel I was even more eager, insofar as I not only requested it from NetGalley, but I also pre-ordered it so that I could just have a copy for my own physical collection. That book is “White Smoke”, a YA horror novel that is described as “The Haunting of Hill House” meets “Get Out”, two big horror flexes if there ever were some. I dove in with high hopes, and Jackson didn’t disappoint.

I’m not going to to into spoilers here, as “White Smoke” is a book that greatly benefits from letting all of its twists and turns jump forth when they are ready to do so. But what I will say is that it is a haunted house story that has a bit of a twist. Mari and her (newly blended) family move into a new house, strange things start happening, and she has to figure out if these things are real, or if they are manifestations of her high anxiety and/or her history with drug use. These themes are, of course, the perfect recipe for a Gothic horror story, and if it was just this it would have been golden. But Jackson takes it a few steps further and not only has a potentially ghostly horror, but also the horrors of systemic racism that takes down communities and holds Black people down under the boot of white supremacy. Mari and her family are part of a neighborhood revitalization project, as they have moved into a long abandoned house in hopes of bringing people back to the neighborhood, but all is not what it seems in the community of Cedarville, which has a dark history of racial disparities and injustice, from prison pipelines to property discrimination. I loved how Jackson wove in these themes along with the strange and terrifying things that are happening in Mari’s house. She also addresses the issues of race and racism in Mari’s own family, as Mari’s mother, Raquel, has married a white man named Alec who has moments of not considering the experiences and grievances of his wife and stepchildren, as he as a white man has never had to deal with it. Jackson makes sure to give all the members of this family moments of being less than optimal, but also gives them all moments of grace to show that they are all adjusting to a new family situation, as well as a new home (WHICH MAY BE HAUNTED!). Mari is also a character whose experiences as a Black teenage girl have shaped some of her as a person, from being criminalized more easily due to her race to being expected to be strong when she has plenty of perfectly reasonable fragilities, like mental health issues and past trauma. All of these real world horror themes work very, very well.

And now the haunted house aspect. Mari’s new house is notorious in Cedarville, specifically in her Maplewood neighborhood, for supposedly being haunted by The Hag. The moment I saw reference to “The Hag”, I could have exploded in excitement, as this is one of my favorite ghost stories/pieces of folklore of all time. The Hag is a spirit that supposedly sucks your essence out of you as you sleep, and will ride you until you have nothing left. The Hag will then take your skin and appearance and wreak havoc. I first heard of this when I was visiting Savannah, Georgia the first time, and it scared the shit out of me. So Jackson using The Hag folklore in this story as the thing that is maybe haunting Mari’s house is SO perfect, as not only is it a bit unique, it is also said that The Hag targets young women who are especially susceptible to mental and emotional problems. And Jackson captures every aspect of the tale and makes it INCREDIBLY scary in this book, from strange shadows and noises to vocal mimicry and manifestations. There were moments where I was on the edge of my seat with suspense, and happy that I still had the lights on as I was reading on my eReader. Not that I was completely spared from jumping out of my skin.

At one point my cat jumped on the bed and I could have fainted. (source)

“White Smoke” is a great horror novel from Tiffany D. Jackson. You don’t want to miss this one with the upcoming Halloween season being right around the corner.

Rating 9: Tiffany D. Jackson effortlessly crosses into the horror genre, and presents a haunted house story that also takes on systemic injustices in American society.

Reader’s Advisory:

“White Smoke” is included on the Goodreads lists “Black Heroines 2021”, and “ATY 2022: Gothic Elements”.

Find “White Smoke” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Joint Review: “Certain Dark Things”

Book: “Certain Dark Things” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Publishing Info: Tor Nightfire, September 2021

Where Did We Get This Book: Received an eARC from NetGalley;

Book Description: From the New York Times bestselling author of Mexican Gothic comes a pulse-pounding neo-noir that reimagines vampire lore.

Welcome to Mexico City, an oasis in a sea of vampires. Domingo, a lonely garbage-collecting street kid, is just trying to survive its heavily policed streets when a jaded vampire on the run swoops into his life. Atl, the descendant of Aztec blood drinkers, is smart, beautiful, and dangerous. Domingo is mesmerized.

Atl needs to quickly escape the city, far from the rival narco-vampire clan relentlessly pursuing her. Her plan doesn’t include Domingo, but little by little, Atl finds herself warming up to the scrappy young man and his undeniable charm. As the trail of corpses stretches behind her, local cops and crime bosses both start closing in.

Vampires, humans, cops, and criminals collide in the dark streets of Mexico City. Do Atl and Domingo even stand a chance of making it out alive? Or will the city devour them all?

Kate’s Thoughts

Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

As someone who loves, but is VERY picky about, vampire mythology, I was very interested in seeing what Silvia Moreno-Garcia would do with a vampire story. She has consistently impressed me within multiple genres, and I figured that even if I didn’t care for her take on vampirism, I would at least find something to enjoy about “Certain Dark Things”. But good news! I not only liked the story as a whole, I also really liked her take on vampirism!

I greatly enjoyed our vampire protagonist Atl, a Tlāhuihpochtl vampire whose ancestors trace back to the Aztecs, and whose family is in a vampire gang war with the Necros, Central European transplant vampires who have been infesting Mexico for awhile. As Atl flees into Mexico City (where vampires are not allowed), she meets Domingo, a young man who is a bit aimless… until he meets Atl. Moreno-Garcia does a great job of bringing these two together and bringing in various vampire mythologies of vampires and servants to make their relationship both easy to like, but also a little hard to swallow. Which is almost certainly intentional, and completely appropriate in a vampire romance if we are being quite honest. I liked Domingo fine for his can do attitude, but it was Atl, with her hard exterior and suppressed pain for her lost family (and in turn violent motivations) that really sucked me in. I also LOVED how Moreno-Garcia brought colonialism into a vampire story, as the Tlāhuihpochtl are the now waning vampires that were in Mexico initially, and have been clashing with the Central European Necros, who came into Mexico and started throwing their weight around. Boy do I love social commentary in my horror, and this is how you execute it properly. And to make things even better, there is an entire encyclopedia of vampire factions within this universe at the end of the book!

It is, Deacon. It really is. (source)

“Certain Dark Things” was very fun vampire fiction! Silvia Moreno-Garcia continues her streak of genre jumping.

Serena’s Thoughts

I, too, really liked this book! I’m continuously impressed by how effortlessly (seemingly) Moreno-Garcia jumps from genre to genre, and this book is yet another example of it. Though, to be fair, this is a re-release of this book. Back when it was originally published, many publishers were cautious that “Twilight” had ruined vampire books for a good long time. But slowly and surely, this book gained a sort of cult following, strong enough to, years later, revive the book entirely (though I’m sure Moreno-Garcia’s spate of very successful recent releases has also played a part). Reading the book now, it’s hard to imagine how any publisher could ever equate this to “Twilight.”

Like Kate mentioned, in some ways, yes, this is a vampire romance. But when the romance in question is so highly questionable, with moving dynamics dependence and power inequalities, there’s no way it can be compared to the saccharine mess that was Edward and Bella. Atl and Domingo are each such incredibly complex characters, and their respective backgrounds are so rich (her recent loss of her powerful, native family to a encroaching gang of foreign vampires, and his perilous life on the streets as a trash collector). All of this plays into the slowly-built friendship and romance they develop.

It’s also incredibly dark and bloody. People die. Like, a lot of people. There are the nameless victims that one expects to find in true vampire stories, but there is also a larger cast of POV characters, each with their own compelling arcs, and their endings are also not guaranteed. I really enjoyed the action sequences and horror aspects of this story. It was just tense enough to keep me on the edge of my seat, but also too much for my non-horror-reading self.

This was another win by this author. At this point, she’s pretty much on my auto-read radar and nearing my auto-buy cateogry!

Kate’s Rating 8: A fresh take on vampire mythology with Mexican folklore as a guide, “Certain Dark Things” is a fun dark fantasy thrill ride!

Serena’s Rating 8: An excellent entry into vampire lore bringing with it an entire host of different vampires with the added bonus of the Mexican setting and history.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Certain Dark Things” is included on the Goodreads lists “Aztec, Maya, & Inca – Fiction”, and “Horror To Look Forward To 2021”.

Find “Certain Dark Things” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!