Highlights: March 2021

The temperature is finally starting to rise, the snow is starting to slowly melt, and we can sometimes hear a bird or two chirping in our neighborhoods! Does this mean that we can assume that we’re in the clear regarding another snow storm? Not on your life! But as we start to dream of Spring after an arduous pandemic winter, we have some books that we are also looking forward to this month.

Serena’s Picks

Book: “The Bone Maker” by Sarah Beth Durst

Publication Date: March 9, 2021

Why I’m Interested: Durst has always been a bit of a hit or miss author for me. But when I do enjoy her books, I really love them. Conversely, of course, there are a few of her that I really haven’t enjoyed. But a few things about this title stood out to me. First, it’s main character is a middle aged woman. I’ve talked before about how rare it is to find fantasy books that feature with middle aged or older women. Everyone has to have their grand adventure in their twenties, apparently! The story also focuses on what happens to the heroes after they have one. Kreya and her friends defeated their mortal enemy, but at great cost. And now she and they have had to go on living their lives for twenty more years coping with the fallout. Of course, evil lingers in the dark and seems to be rising again. I so hope that this is one of Durst’s hits!

Book: “An Unexpected Peril” by Deanna Raybourn

Publication Date: March 2, 2021

Why I’m Interested: “Interested” is definitely the right word here. I can no long unequivocally say that I’m “excited” for the next entries in this series. There have been too many flops, most recently the last one to come out, for me to think of this series as at all reliable in what it delivers. I’ve really loved some of the books, but it’s also begun to all feel a bit tired and stretched too thin. However, this book seems to involve Veronica and Stoker solving the mystery of a mountaineer’s death and sees them tied up in international politics when a princess goes missing. Seems like a fresh enough story, though I’m not to pleased about the line in the description about Veronica’s own ties to the Royal family. I’m so sick of that plot line. We shall see!

Book: “Namesake” by Adrienne Young

Publication Date: March 16, 2021

Why I’m Interested: I really loved “Fable” when I read it last year. I love pirate/sea-faring stories but I also seem to be fairly picky about what I expect those sorts of books to deliver. “Fable” had it all. An appropriately ruthless main character. Adventure on the high seas. A treasure hunt. And a constant guessing game as to who one should trust. In the end, it seemed to wrap up most of the plot lines before jumping to a sudden cliffhanger. The book description seems to be hinting that Fable will begin to uncover more about her mother. This is a really interesting concept, as the first book largely focused on Fable’s dysfunctional relationship with her father. I’m a bit wary about where the romance is headed, though, since it was already well-established at the end of the first book. Please no added drama in some misguided attempt to pique interest!

Kate’s Picks

Book: “She’s Too Pretty to Burn” by Wendy Heard

Publication Date: March 30, 2021

Why I’m Interested: This one grabbed my attention as I was perusing NetGalley, and I decided to go out on a limb and ‘Wish For It’. After getting lucky, and reading up on the description, it became VERY clear that I had hit the jackpot. Veronica is a fledgling teen photographer who is looking for inspiration. She then meets Mick, a shy and magnetic girl, at a party, and they immediately hit it off and fall for each other. When Veronica impulsively takes Mick’s picture, even though Mick hates having her picture taken, it starts a chain reaction of desire, obsession, art elevation, and perhaps even murder. We have a teenage Sapphic romance in the art world, AND, not only that, it’s a re-imagining of “The Picture of Dorian Gray”. I mean COME ON! It just SCREAMS ‘KATE IS GOING TO LIVE FOR THIS!’

Book: “Good Girl, Bad Blood” by Holly Jackson

Publication Date: March 2, 2021

Why I’m Interested: I loved loved LOVED “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” last year, and I told myself that I would absolutely hop into any more stories that concerned teenage detective Pip Fitz-Amobi and her penchant for looking into mysteries in her home town. This time, Pip has sworn off of her detective work and has instead dived deep into a podcast about her previous case and the court cases that come after. But when one of her close friends approaches her to investigate his older brother’s disappearance, Pip thinks that maybe she could solve another crime. But as she starts to investigate, she starts to find weird connections to people in her town, and begins to wonder if there is more danger at hand than she thought. Wherever Pip goes, I will follow, and given this book has been on my list awhile, the excitement is real.

Book: “Later” by Stephen King

Publication Date: March 2, 2021

Why I’m Interested: My man Stephen always has a spot on my highlights lists when he has a new book coming out, for one thing. The pulp looking cover is also to die for. But as always, it’s the content that pulls me in, and “Later” is no exception. Jamie is the son of a single mother who has preternatural abilities that he is trying to keep secret. But when a detective catches wind of his talents, she enlists him to help her in a strange case involving a dead murderer who may make good on a promise to keep on killing. It sounds like it’s going to be eerie, and in line with King’s old school stories about coming of age, grey areas of morality, and a good old fashioned supernatural threat. Hopefully my wait on the library hold list won’t be TOO long…

What books are you looking forward to this month? Let us know in the comments!

Serena’s Review: “Monsters of Men”

Book: “Monsters of Men” by Patrick Ness

Publishing Info: Candlewick, May 2010

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: As a world-ending war surges to life around them, Todd and Viola face monstrous decisions. The indigenous Spackle, thinking and acting as one, have mobilized to avenge their murdered people. Ruthless human leaders prepare to defend their factions at all costs, even as a convoy of new settlers approaches. And as the ceaseless Noise lays all thoughts bare, the projected will of the few threatens to overwhelm the desperate desire of the many. The consequences of each action, each word, are unspeakably vast: To follow a tyrant or a terrorist? To save the life of the one you love most or thousands of strangers? To believe in redemption or assume it is lost? Becoming adults amid the turmoil, Todd and Viola question all they have known, racing through horror and outrage toward a shocking finale.

Previously Reviewed: “The Knife of Never Letting Go” and “The Ask and the Answer”

Review: So remember how I was all whiny about the cliffhanger ending in the first book? Yeaaaah, Ness definitely leaned into that inclination with the end of “The Ask and the Answer” with both the arrival of another ship from Viola’s fleet and an army of Spackle marching in on New Prentisstown full of righteous vengeance. Betwen all of that, you’ll understand why my reviews for these books came on after another. I simply never put down the series and blew through all there in a matter of days!

Todd and Viola have finally managed to reunite only to be immediately set off on separate missions. For Todd, his victory over the Mayor is fleeting as the Spackle army marches down upon the town and the Mayor’s army still recognizes only one leader. For Viola, two more of her people have finally arrived only to find themselves in the midst of an ongoing war with terrible choices all around. To engage in a war against a wronged native people? To side with a terrorist group? To side with the maniacal Mayor whose cruelty sparked much of the violence? With no good choices, once again, both Todd and Viola must face just how far they will go to save one another. And at what cost to the greater good?

Following the path set in the first two books, Ness expands even further on the questions he presents his characters (and the readers) regarding violence, justice, and priorities. The first book was a very insular look at one boy’s, Todd’s, struggles to cope with one-on-one violence in his efforts to protect himself and those around him. In second book, we see Viola confronted with a terrorist organization that is working against a truly evil man but which is operating within its own questionable morality. And in the third book, we see the righteous fury of the native Spackle as they finally bring the Mayor’s great war to fruition. And we experience the horror of Viola, Todd, and, importantly, the two new comers as they are forced to pick sides in a volatile situation that seems to have no good outcomes.

The book jumps right into things with the first battle playing out between the Spackle, equipped with new powerful weaponry, and the Mayor’s army. There is no glory or exciting action here. Ness, through Todd’s eyes, is committed to presenting the horrors of war. Even from the Spackle whose mistreatment at the hands of the humans would justify much. It is all death, pain, and misery, as brought to home most poignantly in Todd’s eyes as he witness the death of a random man in the army whose Noise is projecting fear and longing for his wife and small son right up until the end. There’s no escaping the sheer nightmare of war as described in this battle scene. It’s powerful and painful and an excellent precursor to much of the rest of the book.

In the second book, we were given an extra POV through Viola’s eyes. Here, we get a third and begin to learn more about the Spackle themselves. I can’t talk to much about this without some fairly big spoilers. But I can’t emphasize how pleased I was with this addition. The first two books show a people who have been forcibly silenced by colonizers. All that is known of them is what the humans around them have projected upon them, with the original war and memories of what the Spackle were like before their enslavement all but gone in people’s memories. There were so many intriguing aspects of this portion of the story. I particularly liked the way Ness handled Noise and how, for the Spackle who are natives of this world, it is seen in a completely different light than it is by the humans who have torn themselves apart because of it.

Todd and Viola, for their part, are still excellent characters. We see each of them struggle with the choices before them, making missteps that are driven by what seems like the right choice at the time but that has lasting implications for everyone around them. Each has grown so much from the first book, but we almost get that much character growth all again in this single, last book. As a whole, their journeys are each spectacular and even more wonderful as a pair.

This entire trilogy is so very, very good. It challenges readers at every turn to evaluate the price of every action or reaction, regardless of how righteous the cause. Ness is smart enough to leave many of the conclusions left unsaid but obvious enough. It’s always nice to see an author trust his readers like that. The ending was rough, but so was the entire series. Sad, but hopeful. I think that’s how I’d sum up the the trilogy anyways. If you’ve enjoyed the first two books, I think it’s a given that you’re already planning on reading this given (yet again!) the massive cliffhanger at the end of that book. But I will reassure you all that Ness stick the landing perfectly.

Rating 10: Heartbreaking in the best way possible.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Monsters of Men” is on these Goodreads lists: Most Interesting World and Best War Novels.

Find “Monsters of Men” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Corpsing”

Book: “Corpsing” by Kayleigh Marie Edwards

Publishing Info: Sinister Horror Company, July 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eBook from the author.

Book Description: Kayleigh Marie Edwards has been entertaining and chilling audiences with her own eclectic mix of horror and comedy. Now, for the first time, this popular author has collected her works together, reviewing and revising each one to bring you the definitive versions of her unique tales.

From murderous children to nightmarish trips to an ill-fated zombie apocalypse, Corpsing will send you running for the light switch, but smiling as you do it. Featuring the stories: Bitey Bachman, Bits and Bobs, Siren, Now You See Them, Skin, ‘S’ Day, Barry’s Last Day & ’Twas The Night Before Christmas.

Review: Thank you to Kayleigh Marie Edwards for reaching out and sending me an eBook of this novel!

Since I’ve had a pretty okay run with short stories recently, there may not be a reason for me to do a disclaimer, but I’m going to do it anyway. Short stories or anthologies as a format for a book is VERY hit or miss for me. While there are definitely collections I’ve enjoyed, a good number in recent years, I still tend to stay away of my own volition unless it’s an author I REALLY love. But when Kayleigh Marie Edwards approached our blog about her short story collection “Corpsing”, I wanted to give it a shot, because the info I found out about it made it sound like it was going to be a treat. And let me tell you, when the first story in the collection had MANY “Rocky Horror Picture Show” references, I knew that I had made the right call.

One might say it makes me wanna take Charles Atlas by the hand. (source)

“Corpsing” is a very fast collection, clocking in under one hundred pages, so was able to finish it in an evening. But that isn’t to say that the stories within it feel rushed or incomplete in any way. On the contrary, Edwards has crafted some creepy, grotesque, and sometimes quite funny tales that make up this collection, all of them feeling well thought out with clear arcs. As per usual, I shall talk about my favorite stories, and then tackle the collection as a whole.

“Siren”

By far the scariest story of the bunch, “Siren” is about a girl named Lucy who moves to a new home with her mother, her father staying behind as their marriage has fallen apart. Lucy is resentful and bitter, but then she looks out her window overlooking a lake and sees a girl who appears to be floating on the surface. Lucy gets to know Alice, a ghost who is convinced that they are going to be the best of friends. “Siren” has so many creepy moments, from imagery to interactions to an unsettling feeling as the story progresses, and it is probably one of the most serious stories of the bunch just because of how bleak it feels. You get Lucy’s isolation and resentment, and she feels like a very realistic tween girl who doesn’t quite get the full consequences of her actions or the actions of those around her, and as she depends more and more on Alice the dread builds more and more. And again, back to the imagery I mentioned: holy shit. There was one moment in particular that made me shiver.

“Barry’s Last Day”

As someone who has felt resentment towards a job, I thought this was a pretty fun one. Barry has worked at his company for many years, only to be passed over in his promotion for a young and smarmy man named Todd. As he’s leaving his job, he wants to take revenge on those he feels wronged him, but it may not go to plan. “Barry’s Last Day” isn’t really a scary story per se, but it definitely falls into the suspenseful ‘will this work out for him, and if it does, what does that mean?’ realm. Barry isn’t particularly likable or sympathetic, but I feel like lots of people could relate to him in his frustration. And I laughed out loud at the dark gallows humor throughout, especially once everything shakes out in the conclusion.

“‘Twas The Night Before Christmas”

Jim has taken his sons Dan and Nathan out to chop down a Christmas tree, but the only one they can find is growing in an animal cemetery, and hadn’t been there the year previously when they buried the family cat. Jim brings it home anyway, as what could possibly go wrong? This one was such a creative concept, and I don’t really want to spoil it, but I feel like this one was the best in the collection in terms of combining true horror with the funny. And again, I don’t want to spoil anything. But the last line made me laugh out loud and clap. I see what you did there, Kayleigh Marie Edwards, and I APPROVE.

In terms of the other stories, I think that were I more into visceral splatter horror and body horror I may have enjoyed them more, so while a couple didn’t click with me, it is probably because the subgenres aren’t my jam for the most part. But they were still engaging and quick reads, so those who do like more body horror things and want a quick collection will probably be right at home with them. And yes, the dark humor is there for those who like that mixed in with their scares. Edwards does it well and captures a well balanced tone when they do mix.

“Corpsing” was a fun and fast read! Definitely seek it out if you’re looking for something quick with wit and gore.

Rating 7: A quick and nasty (in a good way!) collection of short stories that is sure to have something for everyone, “Corpsing” is a fun collection with a couple stories that really stood out for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Corpsing” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Spooky Short Story Collections”.

Find “Corpsing” at your library using WorldCat, or at sinisterhorrorcompany.com!

Serena’s Review: “The Ask and the Answer”

Book: “The Ask and the Answer” by Patrick Ness

Publishing Info: Candlewick, May 2009

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: We were in the square, in the square where I’d run, holding her, carrying her, telling her to stay alive, stay alive till we got safe, till we got to Haven so I could save her – But there weren’t no safety, no safety at all, there was just him and his men…

Fleeing before a relentless army, Todd has carried a desperately wounded Viola right into the hands of their worst enemy, Mayor Prentiss. Immediately separated from Viola and imprisoned, Todd is forced to learn the ways of the Mayor’s new order. But what secrets are hiding just outside of town? And where is Viola? Is she even still alive? And who are the mysterious Answer? And then, one day, the bombs begin to explode…

Previously Reviewed: “The Knife of Never Letting Go”

Review: Keeping on my read of Patrick Ness’s “Chaos Walking” trilogy, I was eager to pick up this next book after the massive cliffhanger we were left with in the first book! Warning, there will be spoilers for the first book in this review as it’s almost impossible to talk about this book without revealing some of the reveals we had there.

After desperately fleeing the Mayor and his growing army, Todd and a grievously injured Viola finally reach Haven to discover it is really nothing of the sort. Without even putting up a fight, the people of Haven have already surrendered to the Mayor, and it is he who now controls the town and Todd and Viola’s fate. The division between men and women, with men’s Noise and women’s lack of Noise at the heart of it, grows daily. Like all of the other men and women, Todd and Viola are separated and life is very different under the control of the Mayor (now the President.) But a resistance quickly emerges calling itself the Answer and waging a terrifying guerilla war against the Mayor and his men. No one knows when the next bomb will go off or how the Answer is even doing what its doing. Todd and Viola separately with the cruel decisions put before them, desperately trying to find their way back to one another at the same time.

I feel like this series is systematically expanding a central thought at its core: is violence ever justified? In the first book, we see Todd’s struggles with what he has been told makes a man, the ability to kill. Again and again he fails to kill even when it would spare his life. But then in a fit of anger and fear, he kills a Spackle violently and suddenly. And then we see this decision haunt him throughout the remainder of the book. By the end, Todd has come to his own decisions about what does and does not make a man and cold-blooded murder decidedly does not.

Here, however, the question of violence is expanded outwards. On one hand, we have the Mayor who insists that his army and tactics are necessary for dealing with the rising threat of the Spackle and to create a unified force for when Viola’s people arrive in their ships. The Answer, on the other hand, violently opposes the Mayor’s brutal tactics and cruel treatment of women and Spackle. For them, the “answer” is to fight back with everything they have, waging a terrorist bombing campaign against the town itself. They try to avoid casualties, but any accidental hits are simply put down to necessary losses in the grander scheme. And from a third perspective, Viola, who spends much of the first half of the book in a House of Healing, meets a healer woman who’s firm line that saving a life must always come first demonstrates just how hard this approach is, watching cruelty unfold but not responding other than to treat those who are injured, both friend and foe alike.

There is no clear “right” choice in any of it, other than the Mayor himself who is pretty clearly bad. Viola and Todd each have to tackle incredibly challenging situations that really make the reader stop and think about what they would do if presented these options in the circumstances. I was never really sure, other than to be glad I was reading about it and not experiencing it myself. But I find this type of story that really challenges its readers to be the best kind. It’s definitely not an easy book. There’s darkness throughout and some really terrible things happen, but it’s also one that shows the resilience of the spirit to go on through even the most impossible feeling events.

For his part, the Mayor is an excellent villain. Ness doesn’t overplay his hand here with any mustache-twirling or silly excess. Instead, the Mayor’s oozing manipulation is all to easy to understand. We see how even Todd can be influenced by it, a young many who has tackled more than many of the other men who fall under the Mayor’s sway. I also really liked that we got to see more from Davy, the Mayor’s son. His character is really rounded out here and shines a different light on the Mayor as well.

The narrative is also now split between chapters from Todd’s perspective and Viola’s. This is, of course, necessary to tell each of their stories as they spend so much of the book apart. But it’s also great to finally see into Viola’s head. In the first book, it was clear that even though Todd has grown up on this planet, he still had very little understanding of his own people’s history. But Viola is coming from a completely different life experience. She grew up on a colony ship with this planet as its destination. And then to be suddenly thrust into this situation after her parents die in the crash…It’s inevitable that she would see the decisions before her and the events around her through a very different lens than Todd.

I really enjoyed this book. Like I said, it’s not a light, fluffy read, but it’s darkness and challenge is what makes it stand-out. Ness doesn’t pull any punches when pushing his reader to tackle these tough topics. If you enjoyed the first book, I’m sure this is already on your radar (again, that ending!) So rest assured that while the pedal might have felt like it was to the metal in the first book, this is where it really gets started!

Rating 9: Tackling some really tough questions about violence and the rights and wrongs therein, this book is kept from being too dark by its incredibly compelling two main leads.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Ask and the Answer” is on these Goodreads lists: Fast-paced books with Redeeming social value to read in one-sitting and Deep Underrated YA.

Find “The Ask and the Answer” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Initial Insult”

Book: “The Initial Insult” by Mindy McGinnis

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, February 2021

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

Book Description: Welcome to Amontillado, Ohio, where your last name is worth more than money, and secrets can be kept… for a price. Tress Montor knows that her family used to mean something—until she didn’t have a family anymore. When her parents disappeared seven years ago while driving her best friend home, Tress lost everything. She might still be a Montor, but the entire town shuns her now that she lives with her drunken, one-eyed grandfather at what locals refer to as the “White Trash Zoo,” – a wild animal attraction featuring a zebra, a chimpanzee, and a panther, among other things.

Felicity Turnado has it all – looks, money, and a secret that she’s kept hidden. She knows that one misstep could send her tumbling from the top of the social ladder, and she’s worked hard to make everyone forget that she was with the Montors the night they disappeared. Felicity has buried what she knows so deeply that she can’t even remember what it is… only that she can’t look at Tress without having a panic attack.

But she’ll have to. Tress has a plan. A Halloween costume party at an abandoned house provides the ideal situation for Tress to pry the truth from Felicity – brick by brick – as she slowly seals her former best friend into a coal chute. With a drunken party above them, and a loose panther on the prowl, Tress will have her answers – or settle for revenge.

In the first book of this duology, award-winning author Mindy McGinnis draws inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe and masterfully delivers a dark, propulsive mystery in alternating points of view that unravels a friendship . . . forevermore.

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

As I’ve mentioned before, I really enjoyed Edgar Allan Poe and his poems and short stories. From the sad to the dream like to the macabre, the guy always has something that is going to connect with me. It’s been a long time since I read “The Cask of Amontillado”, the short story in which a man slowly seals up his rival into a tomb brick by brick, but I do remember how much it unsettled me the first time I read it back in middle school. When I head that Mindy McGinnis had written a new YA novel that took that story and updated it to be between two teenage girls, I was interested, but wondered how it could be done! But I was absolutely game to give it a try.

Taking a story like “The Cask of Amontillado” and turning it into a thriller/horror about two teenage girls whose friendship has gone bad is a lofty goal to set for oneself, but McGinnis rises to the occasion and has created a creepy and suspenseful story. We get the perspectives of both Tress, the one with the bricks, and Felicity, the one in the chains, and see how their relationship has gotten to this point. I really enjoyed both voices of each girl, and McGinnis was very careful to show that each of them had their own roles to play in the disintegration of their friendship. She doesn’t really give either of them a pass, but is also very empathetic to each of them in their struggles. It made it easy to both feel for them, and hate them, depending on the moment of the story. But it was the third perspective that I didn’t expect that kind of worked the best for me, and that is of the Panther that Tress’s grandfather Cecil owns, who has escaped from the exotic zoo. It’s this element that makes “The Black Cat” our other most prominent Poe work, and I thought it upped the ante, but also added an experimental and all knowing third perspective to bring in other, dreamy elements.

I WILL say, and I never thought I’d ever say this given how much I like Poe, that there was a little too much Poe stuffed into this book. It’s one thing when you are throwing references with names, vague similarities between the source content and the interpretation, and a main plot that’s paying homage. But McGinnis put a few too many plot points in that were a bit overwhelming. If it had just been “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Black Cat” with a few other nods I think it would have been fine. But we also get a whole “The Mask of Red Death” subplot which feels underexplored because there is so much else going on, and some plot points from “Hop Frog” thrown in as well that are also superfluous. It just made things seem a bit more bloated than they needed to be, especially since there is, indeed, going to be another book in the series. Could these things have been saved for that? Or will there be even MORE underutilized opportunities with some great source material?

But yes, having said that, “The Initial Insult” was a lot of fun, and while I’m curious about how a sequel is going to work (given that things seemed pretty final in some regards), I have a couple of theories as to what McGinnis may be up to. And even if those theories don’t pan out, I’m definitely anticipating what comes next.

Rating 8: A creative modern day interpretation of an Edgar Allan Poe classic, “The Initial Insult” sometimes does too much, but is entertaining and suspenseful nonetheless.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Initial Insult” is included on the Goodreads list “Books Influenced by Edgar Allan Poe”.

Find “The Initial Insult” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Not Just Books: February 2021

While we do love us some books, believe it not, we do have a life outside of reading. So to highlight our other pop culture interests, on the last Monday of each month, we each will highlight three other “happenings” from the last month. Big events on favorite TV shows, new movies we’ve watched, old movies we’ve “discovered,” etc. Pretty much whatever we found of particular interest outside of the book world during the last month. Share your own favorite things in the comments!

Serena’s Picks

TV Show: “How I Met Your Mother”

Apparently when I add a new small child to my life, my reaction is to re-watch sitcoms? Probably because of the short 20-minute format that allows for the brief moments of freedom I’m allowed in any given day. Add that to a show I’ve already seen and you have a media option that is perfect for someone who really doesn’t have the time to be watching anything in the first place and instead is just delusionally tricking themselves into thinking they do have such time. I have…feelings about the end of the show. So I’m sure once I get there I’ll probably just skip it. But it’s definitely a fun re-watch in the mean time. The cast has great chemistry and the early seasons especially take full advantage of the unique format of the show with its time-jumping and memory format.

Podcast: “Binge Mode: Harry Potter”

Like HIMYM, I remember when I had my first baby, I, appropriately, binged the entire “Binge Mode: Game of Thrones” series. So is it any wonder that this second go around found me listening to this? The two hosts are hilarious and I find that I’m enjoying this second outing even more than the first as I know (and like) “Harry Potter” better than “Game of Thrones.” The series is definitely filled with spoilers for the entire book series so if you’ve somehow lived under a rock for the last twenty years, this may not be for you. But any avid Potter fans are sure to enjoy it! I’m still only a few episodes in, but I can’t wait to hear their take on some of the key moments in the book that always stood out for me. It’s this type of shared experience that makes re-reading and talking about mutually beloved books so enjoyable to book nerds.

Movie: “Tenet”

This was one of the few movies of the last year that was released in theaters after COVID hit and upended life as we know it. I don’t think it performed particularly well, but it didn’t seem that that was a reflection on the film itself which seemed to be generally well-reviewed. Plus, Christopher Nolan is usually a fairly solid bet. My biggest take away? I think he was trying to out-do himself and make this movie even more confusing than “Inception.” Ultimately, I think that movie was the better and more smart of the two, but “Tenet” was definitely a fun, twisty movie that left you really thinking at the end. At one point early in the movie, a character says “Don’t think about it, just feel it.” And I really think that has to be the viewer’s mantra as well when going through this the first time. You just have to trust that answers will come. I was able to guess a few of the twists and turns, but exactly how everything played out, right up to the end, was a constant source of wonder and thrill. Definitely check this out if you enjoyed “Inception” and movies like that!

Kate’s Picks

TV Show: “Search Party”

I am still obsessed with the HBO Max show “Search Party”, which started as a satirical series about aimless Millennials who go on a search for an old classmate who has gone missing, and last season left off with one of those Millennials getting away with murder…. only to be kidnapped herself. Season 4 is where we are now, and Dory has, indeed, been kidnapped by her stalker Chip, who has masterfully crafted her disappearance as an indulgent self exploration journey so her friends won’t wonder where she is. And it keeps going from there, to the darkest places yet, so I LOVE IT, of course. Dory has gone through so many metamorphoses during the series, and Alia Shawkat plays her so well that I’ve run the gamut on how I feel about her as the show has gone on. I still love John Early’s narcissistic Elliot, of course, but it’s Susan Sarandon who really shines, as she plays Chip’s eccentric Aunt Lylah and is probably the funniest member of the cast this time around. It’s still biting, and it’s darker than ever, but I love it so.

Film: “Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar”

It’s been a long and hard winter, guys, but I’ve been keeping up with friends as best I can. So when my friend Tom suggested to our friend group that we virtual watch “Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar”, while I wasn’t totally familiar with what it WAS, I was on board. And guys…. I LOVED IT. The absurdist comedy is about two middle aged women besties named Barb and Star who decide to take a trip to Florida’s Vista Del Mar… and then find themselves unwittingly in a crazy supervillain plot that will surely put them in peril. Not that they realize this, even when they start cavorting with a lovelorn henchman named Edgar. The comedy is hilarious and totally out there, Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo are absolutely delightful as the title characters, and Jamie Dornan manages to steal the show as Edgar, whom said friend Tom aptly describes as ‘the best himbo’. I was laughing the whole time, and am absolutely going to watch it again and again until me and my friends can go on crazy vacations once more.

Netflix Series: “Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer”

In college my psychology degree had a focus on abnormal psych, specifically on psychopathy. I took a seminar on psychopathy and serial killers, and my final paper was on Richard Ramirez, aka The Night Stalker. This guy is a literal nightmare. So I waited until my husband got home from a business trip before I sat down to watch “Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer”, lest I freak myself out too much to sleep. This series follows the investigation into Ramirez’s killing spree, and while it centers the narrative on the investigation itself, it also gives a lot of time and voice to the victims, be they survivors or family members of those he murdered. What felt unique about this series is that very little time is actually devoted to Ramirez’s background, which I thought was effective in that it makes it so we don’t waste energy on trying to understand why he did what he did, and instead focus on the horrible damage he did to others. It sometimes feels like it borders into sensationalism, but I thought that it never quite stepped over the line (your mileage may vary in this opinion, of course). Overall, it’s well researched, well presented, and another interesting true crime docuseries.

Serena’s Review: “The Knife of Never Letting Go”

Book: “The Knife of Never Letting Go” by Patrick Ness

Publishing Info: Walker, May 2008

Where Did I Get this Book: own it

Book Description: Prentisstown isn’t like other towns. Everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts in an overwhelming, never-ending stream of Noise. Just a month away from the birthday that will make him a man, Todd and his dog, Manchee—whose thoughts Todd can hear too, whether he wants to or not—stumble upon an area of complete silence. They find that in a town where privacy is impossible, something terrible has been hidden—a secret so awful that Todd and Manchee must run for their lives.

Review: I read this book way back when it first came out, but given that the movie adaptation, “Chaos Walking,” is coming out soon, I thought now was the perfect time for a revisit. As it has been over ten years since my first read, I only remembered a few very basic things about the overall plot and style of the book. So really, it was almost like an entirely new experience this go around! One thing stayed the same, however: I really like this book.

Todd’s world is one filled with Noise. Where animals speak their simple animal words and men project their every thought in blasts of emotion, there is no escape from the barrage. But so has life always been for Todd, the youngest member of a town of settlers who came to this planet hoping for a new life. Instead, what they found was tragedy and challenge. Or so Todd has been told. But only weeks before Todd is set to become a man and join the rest of the town as a full-fledged adult, he discovers something that shouldn’t exist: a spot of silence in a chaotic world. And with that discovery, his entire understanding of his world, his people, and his history is blown wide open, and he finds himself running for his life.

The first thing that stands out when reading this book is the style of writing. It’s first person perspective, which is unique enough, though less so in YA. But more notably, the narration is very much written in a stream of conscience style. Todd’s thoughts are hectic, incomplete, with short bursts of feeling, sprinkled with hints of description only when needed. It’s definitely the sort of style that takes a bit of time to get used to. By necessity, the world-building and history of the story comes out in small tidbits seemingly dropped in at random. Todd’s habit of often starting sentences only to stop them can be frustrating at times. But this also all adds to the tension and chaos that is inherent to this world. All on its own, this style of writing does more to convey what life would be like on this strange planet where men’s thoughts are projected out for all to see than any elaborate description ever could.

The short, quick style of writing also effectively illustrates the tension and drive that is at the heart of this story. Todd spends the majority of the book fleeing, and the hectic style of the sentences almost makes it read as if he is panting out these lines as he tries to catch his breath while running, always running. The story is a fast read, though, and I blew through the entire thing in almost a day.

It’s hard to talk about much in this book without revealing one secret or another. There are a few reveals that I think were projected well-enough that many readers will pick up on them. But there were others that served as legitimate surprises. By the end, there also seemed to be a decent about of history and reveals that were simply left to be discussed in the next book. Ness really doesn’t make much of an effort to even pretend that this book could be read as a standalone story, and it definitely ends on a big cliffhanger, so be warned that if you start it, you’re pretty much committing to the entire trilogy!

Todd is an excellent character in his own right. He can be just as frustrating as he is endearingly naïve. And alongside the reactions to extraordinary circumstances, we also see the fact that he’s just a teenage boy, with all of the conflicting motivations and emotions that come with that. Much of Todd’s narration is fixated on the fact that he will become a man, according to the traditions of his colony, in about a month’s time. So, too, then the story is focused on the messy, painful process of Todd actually making this transition in the story.

As I said, this story is definitely written as the first in a trilogy. It’s a fast read, full of action and heart-break, and I already have the next two books purchased and downloaded onto my Kindle. I’m also really excited to see what the movie version has to offer, and I think Tom Holland is perfectly cast (though what isn’t he amazing in??)

Rating 9: A deceptively action-packed story hides a emotional wallop behind its unique style of writing.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Knife of Never Letting Go” is on these Goodreads lists Books that should get more attention and Teenagers . . . IN SPACE!

Find “The Knife of Never Letting Go” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “What She Found in the Woods”

Book: “What She Found in the Woods” by Josephine Angelini

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Fire, December 2020

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

Book Description: Running from a scandal at her New York private school, Magdalena heads to her family home to recover under the radar.

Over-medicated and under-confident, she’s fearful she’ll never escape her past.

Until she meets Bo out hiking. Wild, gorgeous and free, he makes her believe she might finally be able to move on.

But when a mutilated body is discovered in the woods, Magdalena realises she can’t trust anyone. Not even herself.

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

In a moment of ‘why did no one tell me this’, last November I was looking at my Highlights list for December, only to discover that one of the books I had highlighted had been postponed until Spring of this year. So I needed to go looking for a new title that I could highlight, and hit a bunch of lists for December publications. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I panic! But I was happy when I saw “What She Found in the Woods” by Josephine Angelini, as the description was checking off a LOT of my boxes. A privileged girl running from a private school scandal, a strange boy who may be hiding something, and dead bodies popping up in the wilderness, my gosh, what a treasure trove! I was lucky enough to get a copy via NetGalley, and dove in hoping for a fun read. But sadly, checked boxes or no, “What She Found in the Woods” ended up not gelling for me.

While it certainly has a promising premise and it did have some moments of tension because of a solid build up, “What She Found in the Woods” just didn’t thrill me the way that I wanted it to. The first issue I had was the characters themselves. Magdalena, our protagonist, had a well plotted slow burn of a reveal to her past, but I feel like there was too much piled on once we got past the first initial ‘bad thing’ that was revealed just to make it ‘extra bad’. We really didn’t need the additional issues after the first one (being vague as best as I can here), as it felt like too much to me. There was also a huge reliance on mental health problems as plot progression, or being used as potential foreshadowing, which doesn’t really count as character development, and is a bit problematic as it’s seen as a weakness or potential for violent behavior. And then there is Bo, the mysterious Wild Boy who lives in the wilderness with his family. I thought that Angelini did address how his social skills may not be up to par, though he felt a little manic pixie dream boy for a good amount of the time. There was also a glossed over ‘oh he’s going to go to college’ aspect to his storyline which didn’t feel very thought out, as how? How is he going to go to college? There are so many hoops that he would have to jump through within the context of him going that just saying ‘oh he’s going to’ doesn’t really cut it.

On top of that, the story itself wasn’t too thrilling for me. I wasn’t invested in who was maybe killing people in the woods, as to whether it was Bo or a mysterious entity known as Dr. Goodnight. The commentary on addiction and poverty was interesting enough, but ultimately it barely scratched the surface and the bigger priority was whether or not the instalove between Magdalena and Bo was going to work out, either because of her mental issues, or his potential for having a role in what was happening in the woods. By the time we got to the big climax, I just kind of wanted to be done for the sake of being done.

I’d been really struggling with if I wanted to go into spoilers for this review, just because those who may want to read it should go in without having to worry about having aspects of the mystery ruined. But one of my biggest gripes outside of ‘it just didn’t thrill me’ is tangled with a pretty big spoiler. But I think that I need to address it, so, as always, here is your

So, one of the big questions in this mystery is why Bo and his family have been living in the woods off the grid, and why they are so paranoid about Bo being discovered, and why he has to pretty much say goodbye to them once he leaves the woods for a college life. It is eventually revealed that Bo’s father Ray was an anesthesiologist who started doing a Dr. Kevorkian kind of service, where people who were dying and in agony wanted him to euthanize them to end their suffering. I actually liked that this book brought up issues of euthanasia and bodily autonomy, and whether or not people should have the right to decide when they end their life with the assistance of those who can make it painless and with dignity. This is the worst thing that he has done in this book (so this is the big spoiler: he is NOT Dr. Goodnight), a string of acts that are illegal, but seen as a huge grey area depending on whom you speak to. SO THAT SAID, since he is eventually shown as a medical professional who was participating in illegal, but morally complicated, acts, and wasn’t actively seeking out to cause pain and suffering to others, it felt COMPLETELY incongruous when in the story he encourages Magdalena to go off her very complex prescription regimen when that is SO dangerous to do. When it was possible that he was doing that as a sadist, I was thinking ‘okay, maybe’, but when it’s revealed that no, he’s NOT a sadist, that whole aspect just felt like either a lazy red herring (which IS incredibly damaging, as even though Magdalena eventually gets back on medication that she needs, it’s mentioned in passing, which doesn’t stand out), or a complete disservice to the character in that it just doesn’t mesh with who we eventually see him as.

“What She Found in the Woods” really had potential on paper, but just didn’t live up to it. I think that if I knew someone was just starting to dabble in unreliable narrator tropes in their stories I could see myself recommending it, but there are many that are better executed.

Rating 4: A promising concept to be sure, but a ho hum and at times uneven execution.

Reader’s Advisory:

“What She Found in the Woods” isn’t on many specific Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “YA Involving Mental Health Issues (2000-Present)”.

Find “What She Found in the Woods” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “We are the Fire”

Book: “We are the Fire” by Sam Taylor

Publishing Info: Swoon Reads, February 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: In the cold, treacherous land of Vesimaa, children are stolen from their families by a cruel emperor, forced to undergo a horrific transformative procedure, and serve in the army as magical fire-wielding soldiers. Pran and Oksana―both taken from their homeland at a young age―only have each other to hold onto in this heartless place.

Pran dreams of one day rebelling against their oppressors and destroying the empire; Oksana only dreams of returning home and creating a peaceful life for them both.

When they discover the emperor has a new, more terrible mission than ever for their kind, Pran and Oksana vow to escape his tyranny once and for all. But their methods and ideals differ drastically, driving a wedge between them. Worse still, they both soon find that the only way to defeat the monsters that subjugated them may be to become monsters themselves.

Review: Two books in a row that I requested based on intriguing covers! Plus a bunch of other things of course: fire magic, a central romance, and whatever those antlers are that they’re wearing in the cover art! This is the first book for this author, so it’s also always nice to support a new voice to the genre. While I did have some criticisms of the story in the end, overall, this was a fun, fast read.

Pran and Oksana share the same tragic story as most of their fellow soldiers: forcibly stolen from their families at a young age and then experimented on and trained to be fire warriors. Not only are the experiments that give them their abilities painful and cruel, there’s no guarantee they’ll even survive their training, all for the privilege of fighting for a nation that has invaded their own lands. But Pran and Oksana aren’t content to simply survive; they want to do away with the entire system. The struggle that follows will test their individual abilities and strengths as well as the heart of their relationship itself.

To start off, this book was very readable. A weird bit of praise for a book that is mean to be, you know, read, but it’s something that more than enough books still fail at anyways. The writing was perhaps simple, but it moved at a quick pace and I found myself blowing through the story in only a day or two. The story of two soldiers forced into battle and working against a tyrannical system and ruler is compelling and the action is tense. The story also doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the world it has built. I originally started questioning whether the book was actually going to demonstrate how bad things were (our hero and heroine escape horrible situations a few times too many to be entirely plausible), but the author really goes there about half way through with a pretty dark scene. It’s a weird thing to say, but I think this book might have benefited from leaning even more into this darker aspect of the story.

Like I alluded to earlier, Pran and Oksana, as interesting as they are as characters, did seem to have pretty obvious plot armor throughout the story. All main characters have this to some extent, but it depends on an author’s ability how well this fact can be masked. Here, it was less so. But simply as characters, Pran and Oksana do well enough. We see how the way they were forced into service has impacted all of their decisions going forward, for better and for worse. Their various relationships with the idea of family and the homes that they left behind drive them each to imagine a better life but direct them down very different paths to accomplish it.

I also liked the fact that the romance is already established at the beginning of the book. Yes, drama is added to give an arc to this relationship, but a story built around the challenges found in a previously strong romance is definitely unique among so many others that focus only on the beginnings. I could have used a bit more fleshing out, here, however. The story refers back to a few scenes that build up how these two came together, but perhaps a extending these into actual flashbacks might have helped make the romance feel more fully fleshed out as a whole.

My main criticism of the story is a bit hard to put my finger on. I think what it comes down to was that everything was a bit too simply described. There are the broad strokes of a world. The broad strokes of a magic system. The broad strokes of characters and their motivations. But I never felt like I was getting any details. I couldn’t describe the fort in which they lived. I couldn’t tell you what any characters looked like other than Pran and Oksana (and even there all I really knew for sure was that Oksana had red hair and what we see on the cover). I didn’t have a good sense of scope of the nations they each came from. It felt a bit like the author was writing a “just the fun bits” type of novel. I have read and liked a good number of fan fiction pieces, so I don’t say this as a heavy ding, but it kind of felt like those stories can: a bit simplistic with an over emphasis on the main characters’ inner thoughts and feelings at the detriment of fleshing out the world and story itself.

But like I said, this was a fun, fast read, if not fully realized. Fans of romantic fantasy who don’t require much deep world-building or intricacy to their magic systems will likely enjoy this book. Also, fans of the show “The 100″…the cover art looks bizarrely like Bellamy and Clarke, I think. A ship that I followed until it crashed and burned, so this was a bit like fan fiction in that sense too: wish fulfillment.

Right?! You see it too!

Rating 7: A sweet romance if a bit unsupported in other aspects of the story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“We are the Fire” is on these Goodreads lists: Monsters and Magic Society and YA Fantasy Standalone Books.

Find “We are the Fire” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Winter Counts”

Book: “Winter Counts” by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

Publishing Info: Ecco, August 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: A groundbreaking thriller about a vigilante on a Native American reservation who embarks on a dangerous mission to track down the source of a heroin influx. 

Virgil Wounded Horse is the local enforcer on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota.  When justice is denied by the American legal system or the tribal council, Virgil is hired to deliver his own punishment, the kind that’s hard to forget. But when heroin makes its way into the reservation and finds Virgil’s nephew, his vigilantism suddenly becomes personal. He enlists the help of his ex-girlfriend and sets out to learn where the drugs are coming from, and how to make them stop.

They follow a lead to Denver and find that drug cartels are rapidly expanding and forming new and terrifying alliances. And back on the reservation, a new tribal council initiative raises uncomfortable questions about money and power. As Virgil starts to link the pieces together, he must face his own demons and reclaim his Native identity. He realizes that being a Native American in the twenty-first century comes at an incredible cost.

Winter Counts is a tour-de-force of crime fiction, a bracingly honest look at a long-ignored part of American life, and a twisting, turning story that’s as deeply rendered as it is thrilling.

Review: While I am certainly an aficionado of the thriller genre, as a genre it can span over a number of sub genres. I tend to not really go as much into the literary side of things, nor do I really tread towards the incredibly dark. And given that “Winter Counts” by David Heska Wanbli Weiden is both of those things, I was stretching my preferred subgenre muscles a bit. But I’m also always game to read books by Indigenous authors, and when I read up on this one it captured my interest. One birthday gift later, and I owned it, though it sat on the shelf awhile. I eventually picked it up. Almost immediately it went dark and bleak. But it also snagged me in even as I was immediately uncomfortable.

Our main character is Virgil Wounded Horse, a Lakota man living on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He’s made his way as an enforcer who will dole out justice for those who cannot get it by other means, be it due to corruption, apathy, or both from local law enforcement and tribal governance. Right off the bat we have a trigger warning, as he beats the absolute shit out of a child rapist. This is just the beginning of the violence that is within this book, but it never feels exploitative, nor does it feel like it’s ever too much. “Winter Counts” doesn’t shy away from the very desperate circumstances on the reservation, and what those circumstances can drive people to do just to survive, and how predatory people can take advantage of it. While I feel like a character like Virgil in many other settings (especially within certain tropes of the thriller genre) may come off as morally ambiguous (and in some ways he kind of does here), overall Virgil never feels like an antihero, probably because of the environment he’s operating within. This book brings up a lot of hard realties and truths about 21st century life for Indigenous people both on and off reservations, and it isn’t limited to drug cartels. The fallout of racism, colonialism, and extended genocide by the American Government are throughout this book

The mystery of who is behind the cartel and drug activity on the reservation is the main thread of this story, given that Virgil’s nephew Nathan gets caught up in it after almost fatally OD’ing on some of the stuff brought in. Nathan and his ex girlfriend Marie set out to find the culprits, Virgil doing so because it’s personal and Marie acting as a guiding moral voice towards what it does to the Native community as a whole. While at times I wasn’t as interested in the ‘who’ of the whodunnit, it wasn’t because I didn’t want to know, it was more because the other themes of the story and the inner conflicts of Virgil, Marie, and others were more interesting. Marie is more idealistic and social justice driven, while Virgil is just trying to survive, and these two motivations sometimes bumped against each other, though thankfully never led to questions of who was ‘right’, as both are in their own ways. But that said, I was surprised by the ultimate solution to the mystery, even if the mystery itself took a bit of a backseat to other interests in my reading motivation.

And yeah, like I said, this is a DARK book. It took me a little while to get through it just because the heaviness of it all could be a bit much. But it’s also compelling and powerful, and totally worth it. Weiden kept me coming back for more, even if I had to pace myself a bit to get there. Just know that there are many triggering themes within its pages.

“Winter Counts” is a bold book from a striking new voice in thriller fiction. If you’re looking for a new twisty thriller and can handle the darkness, I definitely suggest you check it out.

Rating 8: Dark, compelling, and powerful, “Winter Counts” is a difficult read at times, but worth it to be sure.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Winter Counts” is included on the Goodreads lists “Popsugar 2021 #16: A Book by an Indigenous Author”, and “2020 Adult Debut Novels by Authors of Color”.

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