Kate’s Review: “When the Reckoning Comes”

Book: “When the Reckoning Comes” by LaTanya McQueen

Publishing Info: Harper Perennial, August 2021

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

Book Description: A haunting novel about a black woman who returns to her hometown for a plantation wedding and the horror that ensues as she reconnects with the blood-soaked history of the land and the best friends she left behind.

More than a decade ago, Mira fled her small, segregated hometown in the south to forget. With every mile she traveled, she distanced herself from her past: from her best friend Celine, mocked by their town as the only white girl with black friends; from her old neighborhood; from the eerie Woodsman plantation rumored to be haunted by the spirits of slaves; from the terrifying memory of a ghost she saw that terrible day when a dare-gone-wrong almost got Jesse—the boy she secretly loved—arrested for murder.

But now Mira is back in Kipsen to attend Celine’s wedding at the plantation, which has been transformed into a lush vacation resort. Mira hopes to reconnect with her friends, and especially, Jesse, to finally tell him the truth about her feelings and the events of that devastating long-ago day.

But for all its fancy renovations, the Woodsman remains a monument to its oppressive racist history. The bar serves antebellum drinks, entertainments include horrifying reenactments, and the service staff is nearly all black. Yet the darkest elements of the plantation’s past have been carefully erased—rumors that slaves were tortured mercilessly and that ghosts roam the lands, seeking vengeance on the descendants of those who tormented them, which includes most of the wedding guests. As the weekend unfolds, Mira, Jesse, and Celine are forced to acknowledge their history together, and to save themselves from what is to come.

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

One of my favorite places to visit on a semi-regular basis (at least in the beforetimes) is Savannah, Georgia. It’s such a funky historic town, and I really enjoy staying in the historic area, walking around the squares, and doing haunted pub crawls and ghost tours. I also try to go on historic house tours, as there is a lot of interesting history there, but I almost always found it hard to really enjoy because so many of the tours would completely white wash the slavery aspect of said history. That isn’t to say that doesn’t happen in Northern historical institutions: as someone who has worked at historic sites before, one of which had a significant tie to Dred Scott, it happens up North too (admittedly, the sites I worked at did try to start the conversations, they just also didn’t give us tools to handle the visitors who would meet those conversations with either derision or flat out hostility. THE STORIES I HAVE.). Horrors of some of our historic sites can get lost, and a lot of the time it’s because of the fact America hasn’t really faced those horrors yet. “When the Reckoning Comes” by LaTanya McQueen takes this idea, and makes it into a full blown vengeful ghost story, and boy does it work.

In terms of ghostly plots, we have a little bit of everything. Childhood friends Mira and Celine have grown apart, but Mira returns home for Celine’s wedding at a rural plantation house that may or may not be haunted. We see this story unfold in a few ways. The first is the present, as Mira attends the wedding celebrations in spite of her very understandable discomfort. But that discomfort isn’t just because of the terrible things that happened to Black people on that land (and Celine deciding to have a lavish party there in spite of that), but also because of another timeline we see: when they were kids, Mira and hers and Celine’s friend Jesse went onto the land when it was run down and abandoned, as the rumors of ghosts were intriguing. But what they both saw and experienced on that visit changed their lives. For Mira, she saw things that she couldn’t explain, but for Jesse, the mysterious death of a white local on the property led to him being suspected of murder due to his proximity, but mostly his race. All of these things come to a head during Celine’s wedding celebrations, but there is also the aspect of the vengeful ghosts that want to take out any descendants of those who brutalized them in life… who happen to be a lot of the wedding guests and wedding party members. The ghost aspects of this book hit all the marks I wanted them to hit: they have VERY legitimate reasons for being angry, there are a lot of creepy moments with imagery and pacing, and we have Mira who just can’t quite believe that she is seeing something supernatural, even as it becomes more and more clear that something strange is happening. McQueen knows the beats to hit for an effective ghost story, and she hits them pretty well.

But this ghost story, while absolutely having creepy ghost moments, is also about the way that history and trauma can haunt for generations. The metaphors are rich in this book, the ghosts of America’s sins being a huge theme, and characters like Mira and Jesse who have to reckon with them, while characters like Celine don’t feel like they have to. Mira and Jesse bear the brunt of American racism in different ways, be it Jesse being accused of a crime he didn’t commit because of his race, or Mira internalizing that racism and trying to be an ‘ideal’ Black woman in a society that is fueled by white ideals and supremacy. For them to be invited by white childhood friend Celine to her LITERAL plantation wedding, and for her to not see what the problem is with it and to dismiss how fucked up it is, is truly a perfect set up for this kind of story. Celine is a bit more than the caricature that she could have been, in that you do see her complex friendship with Mira for both the bad and the good. You do see how she, too, had a hard time growing up in their community as someone who was poor. But you also see that she always, ALWAYS, falls on the side of her whiteness, even when it is on the side of those who mistreated her for other things, and how insidious whiteness can be because of that. It’s heavy stuff, and McQueen lays it all out expertly. And really, the true horror story moments are moments of interlude that are from the generalized POV of the ghosts of the slaves, who tell their experiences in all of their devastating truths. It is so hard to read, but it is very important to do so. We have so much reckoning to do still.

“When the Reckoning Comes” is certainly a horror story, but it’s the horror story of the disgusting legacy of chattel slavery in America. And it’s long past time we face that horror head on.

Rating 9: Lots of suspense and scares, as well as on point commentary, “When the Reckoning Comes” is a seething and scary horror story!

Reader’s Advisory:

“When the Reckoning Comes” is new and not on many Goodreads lists, but I think it would fit in on “Diverse Horror”.

Find “When the Reckoning Comes” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Forestborn”

Book: “Forestborn” by Elayne Audrey Becker

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, August 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Rora is a shifter, as magical as all those born in the wilderness–and as feared. She uses her abilities to spy for the king, traveling under different guises and listening for signs of trouble.

When a magical illness surfaces across the kingdom, Rora uncovers a devastating truth: Finley, the young prince and her best friend, has caught it, too. His only hope is stardust, the rarest of magical elements, found deep in the wilderness where Rora grew up–and to which she swore never to return.

But for her only friend, Rora will face her past and brave the dark, magical wood, journeying with her brother and the obstinate, older prince who insists on coming. Together, they must survive sentient forests and creatures unknown, battling an ever-changing landscape while escaping human pursuers who want them dead. With illness gripping the kingdom and war on the horizon, Finley’s is not the only life that hangs in the balance.

Review: Everything about this book promo worked to lure me in. The cover is gorgeous and speaks to the fairytale-like fantasy novels that I’m always on the search for. And the book description just cemented it for me. A young woman with magical abilities setting off on a dangerous quest? Yep! Siblings relationships? Yep! Friendship and potential romance? Yep! But even with all of these high expectations, I wasn’t prepared for just how much I was going to enjoy this book.

Though the last several years have seen Rora and her brother taken under the wing of the royal family, there life before this was very different. As shifters, they have been hated and feared almost their entire life and grew up struggling to remain alive in a land riddled with dangerous magic. Nothing could compel Rora to return to that frightful land. Or so she thinks. When her best friend, the young prince Finley comes down with a deadly illness that is sweeping the country, Rora knows there is only one hope of saving him. Now, she, her brother, and Finley’s older, serious brother must set out on a quest to retrieve the cure. But along the way, they discover that more is going wrong in the land than just this illness. And soon, the choices before them will become more and more impossible as they fight for all they love.

I really, really enjoyed this book. From the very beginning, I could tell the writing style was exactly of the sort that I prefer: descriptive, lyrical, and confident in its readers to pick up on small lines here and there to build a picture of the world around them. It’s always so nice when authors trust their readers. It allows the story to play out slowly and in a more natural way, with reveals about past events perhaps being referenced early but not made clear until a more organic moment later in the book. It’s quite a ways into the book before we fully understand Rora’s past and how (and why) it affects her views of herself in the present. But not only do we piece together these past revelations, but there are number of twists and turns within the story as well. I could predict one or two, but there were a number that were genuinely surprising, especially how they interwove with each other and our characters.

I also really enjoyed the fantasy and magical elements of the story. While we’ve all read “humans are afraid of those with magic and thus persecution” stories, this one played this out in a rather unique way. The magic itself was also appropriately wild and dangerous. While there are wonderous aspects of it, it’s also seen to be dark and terrifying. Like the tag line on the cover, magic is neither good or bad, but instead is a force of nature unto itself. Even those with magical abilities, like Rora and her brother, both fear and respect the forces of magic around them. There were some magical encounters that were truly creepy, and the fantasy creatures were also very unique and interesting.

Overall, the story was darker than I had expected going in. There is violence, death, and loss. Especially towards the end of the book, things became much more grim than I was expecting. But all of this darkness is nicely woven into Rora’s personal arch of self-acceptance and her struggles with abandonment, loyalty, and trust. She was an excellent character all around, and I really enjoyed her narration of the story. Not only does she go through a lot of self-reflection, but we see her readjust her opinions of those few individuals who have gotten close to her through her life. She learns that not everyone is who she believed them to be, for better and for worse. This translates best into her relationship with her brother, one that goes through the natural ups and downs of two siblings transitioning from the simply relationship they had as children to the more complicated one they share as adults. But we also see these themes play out in the lovely slow-burn romance.

There were a lot of big events towards the end of this story. Much of what feels like the main arch is somewhat resolved halfway through, and then we see the story shift into an entire new gear. I don’t see a sequel currently planned on Goodreads, but I think it must be a duology given the end of this book. It’s not a straight-up cliffhanger, but there is definitely a strong set-up for a continuing story. I’ll be keeping my eyes out for sure. And in the meantime, I strongly recommend this book for fantasy fans of all sorts!

Rating 9: So, so good! Strong, confident writing mixed with excellent characters and dark fantasy elements result in a near-perfect debut book!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Forestborn” is a new title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists. But it is on 2021 Debut MG/YA Novels.

Find “Forestborn” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Dead and the Dark”

Book: “The Dead and the Dark” by Courtney Gould

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, August 2021

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

Book Description: Courtney Gould’s thrilling debut The Dead and the Dark is about the things that lurk in dark corners, the parts of you that can’t remain hidden, and about finding home in places―and people―you didn’t expect

The Dark has been waiting for far too long, and it won’t stay hidden any longer.

Something is wrong in Snakebite, Oregon. Teenagers are disappearing, some turning up dead, the weather isn’t normal, and all fingers seem to point to TV’s most popular ghost hunters who have just returned to town. Logan Ortiz-Woodley, daughter of TV’s ParaSpectors, has never been to Snakebite before, but the moment she and her dads arrive, she starts to get the feeling that there’s more secrets buried here than they originally let on.

Ashley Barton’s boyfriend was the first teen to go missing, and she’s felt his presence ever since. But now that the Ortiz-Woodleys are in town, his ghost is following her and the only person Ashley can trust is the mysterious Logan. When Ashley and Logan team up to figure out who—or what—is haunting Snakebite, their investigation reveals truths about the town, their families, and themselves that neither of them are ready for. As the danger intensifies, they realize that their growing feelings for each other could be a light in the darkness.

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

Given that I am a HUGE sucker for the ‘small town with terrible secrets’ trope, I am always on the lookout for books and stories that showcase it, and showcase it well. In the past few years there have been books that have hit the mark and missed the mark, and when I requested “The Dead and the Dark” by Courtney Gould I didn’t really know what to expect. All I knew was that it was a YA horror novel that not only had that highly enjoyable theme, but it also had a sapphic romance to go with the scares. Since I was a bit let down by a previously hyped book with these themes, I was hoping that this one would give me what I wanted, and for the most part it did!

“The Dead and the Dark” is told through two third person perspectives. The first is that of Logan, a teenage daughter of Brandon and Alejo, the hosts of the ghost hunting show “Paraspectors”. Her Dads were raised in Snakebite but never fit in, and Logan has a strained relationship with Brandon that she hasn’t been able to really figure out. Ashley, on the other hand, is a local teenager who is basically a member of Snakebite royalty, but ever since her boyfriend Tristan disappeared she’s felt like something is off. When Logan’s dads are suddenly suspects in Tristan’s disappearance, Logan and Ashley have to work together to try and figure out what happened, and what secrets the town is hiding. Both characters were well explored and given depth, and I found myself eager to get to each perspective as the book went on. They are both good characters on their own, but Gould is sure to make their interactions as they become allies, then friends, then maybe something more, enjoyable. But Gould doesn’t stop there, as the supporting characters are also interesting and do more than just furthering the plot that Logan and Ashley work within. I liked getting to know Brandon and Alejo, as well as the other teens in the town who range from helpful to downright hostile. Snakebite as a town is also well explored, as the small town with a secret theme has layers of small town angst and pain for outsiders that come to the surface.

As for the plot and the horror elements, “The Dead and the Dark” did some new things that I really liked. I don’t want to give too much away, as there are definitely things here that I want readers to discover without the potential for being spoiled. But, like many good horror stories, there is thought and purpose behind the dark fantasy and horror elements. As Logan and Ashley start to find clues to the evil that is hurting local teens, they also start seeing the every day rot, be it due to sexism, or homophobia, or just plain resentment of anything different from what is known. This ties into the big reveal as to what is going on, and then another reveal within that reveal that legitimately caught me off guard. And it was done in a way that built it up, made it believable, AND socked me right in the feels. So much so that I found myself crying a bit, and I’m not really used to crying while reading YA horror novels.

I had a really good time reading “The Dead and the Dark”. The horror elements were creepy, the sapphic elements were very satisfying, and I will definitely be checking out what Courtney Gould has to offer the genre in the future!

Rating 8: A creepy and suspenseful YA horror story with enjoyable characters and a small town with secrets setting, “The Dead and the Dark” is a fun read with a nice romance to boot.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Dead and the Dark” is included on the Goodreads lists “2021 Sapphic Releases”, and “Monsters and Magic Society”.

Find “The Dead and the Dark” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Highlights: August 2021

It’s hot. Oh, need more? It’s also humid, and we’ve had a lot of smoke drifting in from fires. So, summer is definitely here! While we both appreciate our A/C for the magic it is, neither of us is quite prepared to complain enough to want winter back. Fall, on the other hand…But the evenings are still lovely and there are a bunch of books lined up to fill our time this coming month. Check out our picks below!

Serena’s Picks

Book: “Forestborn” by Elayne Audrey Becker

Publication Date: August 31, 2021

Why I’m Interested: Firstly, I love everything about this cover. Without reading the book description at all, I could already have a fairly clear sense of the type of fantasy story we’re dealing with. Rora and her brother are shifters, a kind of magical being that are particularly feared recently after a dark omen has foretold two shifters and death. But they’ve found their way, under the watchful arm of their friend, the young prince of the land. But when he falls ill with a magical disease, Rora, her brother, and the prince’s grim older brother must venture into the wild lands in pursuit of a cure. This book has a lot of potential to be just the sort of thing I like! I mean, I’m always down for the “grim older brother” romantic interest type at the very least.

Book: “Nolyn” by Michael J. Sullivan

Publication Date: August 3, 2021

Why I’m Interested: Yes, yes, I know. I haven’t even managed to read and review the very last book in his previous series! But what can I say? I have a hard time finishing things I’m enjoying so much! But now that Sullivan is releasing a new trilogy, it’s probably safe to finish that one out. At the very least so I can jump into this one next! Set in his same world of Elan, only many centuries after the events of the “Legends of the First Empyre,” the stories follows Nolyn, the heir to the empyre who returns from exile to find himself caught up in more than he had expected. I still haven’t read Sullivan’s original series, but all of his books are written to be enjoyed by new comers as well, so I’ll probably still jump to this one next rather than go back to the first ones. I’m really excited to see what’s in store next!

Book: “Wildwood Whispers” by Willa Reece

Publication Date: August 17, 2021

Why I’m Interested: In some of the marketing and early reviews for this book, I found some comparisons to “Practical Magic” and that’s all it took! I can definitely see it, too, given the description of a grieving woman returning to her small-town home in the Appalachian Mountains after the death of her best friend. The story describes a town full of old folktales, deep woods, and mysteries to be found and explored, all while delving into what it means to return home and to process grief. I think this one will ride or die on the strength of the writing, but if it’s anything like the style found in “Practical Magic,” I’m sure I’ll love it!

Kate’s Picks

Book: “The Dead and the Dark” by Courtney Gould

Publication Date: August 3, 2021

Why I’m Interested: While it’s true that sometimes YA horror can be a bit hit or miss for me, I am always looking for a book that will hook me in and give me a case of the willies. If a cute side romance is involved I’m even more game. So when I heard about “The Dead and the Dark” by Courtney Gould, it definitely had potential! In small town Snakebite, Oregon, teenagers are disappearing. Logan is visiting with her two dads, who grew up in Snakebite but left as outsiders, and now have a ghost hunting show. Ashley is a local and well to do daughter of a popular family, but her boyfriend is missing and Ashely has been seeing visions of him. When the town thinks that Logan’s dads are to blame, she and Ashley team up to try and figure out what is going on, and start to fall for each other. This has ‘Kate’ written all over it, honestly.

Book: “How We Fall Apart” by Katie Zhao

Publication Date: August 17, 2021

Why I’m Interested: Similar to the above statement, I also am always on the lookout for YA mystery thrillers where it’s hard to know who to trust, and everyone seems like they could be duplicitous. “How We Fall Apart” by Katie Zhao seems to have the potential to check all those boxes. When Queen Bee of Sinclair Prep Jamie Ruan goes missing and ends up murdered, it’s her former friend Nancy and her new friends Krystal, Akil, and Alexander who brunt the suspicion of their peers. The rumors are started by the online persona of The Proctor, who has everyone’s secrets up their sleeves to air at their whim. Now Nancy and her friends need to find out who really killed Jamie, before they all lose everything. Downright scintillating.

Book: “My Heart Is a Chainsaw” by Stephen Graham Jones

Publication Date: August 31, 2021

Why I’m Interested: Jones is one of my must read authors, as his horror stories are deeply disturbing as well as supremely moving. He weaves in lots of themes with the scares, about identity and hope and what it means to be Indigenous in the United States. But he also has a deep love for all things horror, so when it was announced he was writing a ‘final girl’ slasher story, I was PUMPED AS HELL. “My Heart Is a Chainsaw” is the story of Jade, a teenage girl in a small Idaho town that is starting to gentrify. When she starts seeing the tell tale signs that her town is falling victim to a slasher killer, she taps into her encyclopedic knowledge of the slasher genre to try and find the ‘final girl’ who will save them all. This is not only a highly anticipated book of the month for me, but also of the entire year.

Serena’s Review: “Curses”

Book: “Curses” by Lish McBride

Publishing Info: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, July 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Merit Cravan refused to fulfill her obligation to marry a prince, leading to a fairy godling’s curse. She will be forced to live as a beast forever, unless she agrees to marry a man of her mother’s choosing before her eighteenth birthday.

Tevin Dumont has always been a pawn in his family’s cons. The prettiest boy in a big family, his job is to tempt naïve rich girls to abandon their engagements, unless their parents agree to pay him off. But after his mother runs afoul of the beast, she decides to trade Tevin for her own freedom.

Now, Tevin and Merit have agreed that he can pay off his mother’s debt by using his con-artist skills to help Merit find the best match . . . but what if the best match is Tevin himself?

Review: A cover can go a long way. More often than not, I get sucked into reading books that have summaries that don’t really speak to me but have covers that I can’t resist. But sometimes it cuts the other way. This isn’t an awful cover, but it also looks a bit cheap and like something that was quickly drawn up on Photoshop without much great thought. I almost passed the book up based purely on this, judging the entire book to be of a similar lack-luster quality. Luckily, my obsession with “Beauty and the Beast” forced my hand, because the cover in no way represents the absolute blast of a time I had reading this story!

Fairy gifts and curses can look much alike, often to the detriment of the poor human on whom its cast. But Merit’s experience is very much that of a curse, stuck in the form of a beast except for the few hours that a rare medicine can grant her. And, unless she marries for love or marries a strategic gentleman selected by her mother, this form will become a permanent state. Luckily, Tevin, a con man with his own agenda, is on the case. Together, they hope to break Merit’s curse by finding her a truly perfect match. Soon enough, however, each begins to find their own feelings getting in the way of this task. Will it be enough to break the curse in time?

This was such a fun and funny story. It’s definitely a light-hearted fairytale retelling, but it’s not shallow, like so many stories tend to be when they go for a lighter tone. There were several moments that had me laughing out loud, with witty dialogue and clever, insightful takes sprinkled within the text. On the more serious side, there are a bunch of mothers in this book whose failures as a parent range from general obtuseness to outright neglect and maliciousness. Most of it is still played for comedic affect, but there are some interesting nuggets buried in there regarding the complicated nature of parent/child relationships. How, even if a parent is abusive, there can be a desire to please and impress them on the child’s part, even a grown child.

I really enjoyed both Merit and Tavin as characters. Tavin, perhaps, in particular, was an interesting take on a gender-swapped “Beauty.” His looks are an established part of his way of operating in the world, for better and worse. There’s also a mixture of magic, with his ability to charm those around him. I like that the author didn’t simply say “oh, he’s handsome” and leave it at that as far as the Beauty adaptation worked.

Merit’s beastly nature is also interesting. Unlike many other versions of the story, she’s not left brooding in some dark castle. Instead, while she may prefer to linger in the countryside, her mother likes to keep her in town and participating in society. Merit can go in her human form at times, but also goes out and about in public in her beastly form as well. In a land that is blessed/stricken with people affected by fairy magic, while Merit’s form is unique, she’s not the only person with such an affliction. There were a couple of other characters with interesting curses/blessing, especially the nods at other fairytale characters, a few of whom are on the lesser known side of things.

There’s was also an interesting commentary on the freedom that Merit finds in her beastly form. Not only is she physically more capable, but at times she is seen to appreciate some of the other animalistic characteristics of that form, such as having her emotions closer to the surface and the freedom to express them as such. It was also refreshing to have all of the horror/fear of the beast essentially not even play a part in the story. By not having this aspect, it allowed for the story to develop the romance in a different way and for the story to explore different challenges and aspects of the curse itself.

The world-building and magic all fell heavily in the “light and fluffy” category. There wasn’t tons of detail given into how any of it works or any nuanced history of the world. Instead, readers are left to simply enjoy the ride, with discussions about flying badgers and pompous boys being casually turned into ostriches. The side characters were also all fantastic and added a lot of flair and amusement to the story.

I definitely recommend this one to fans of fairytale re-tellings. Had we not already done our “Beach Reads” lists for the summer, this is exactly the sort of book I’d throw up in my fantasy category. Who knows? Perhaps next summer it will make an appearance!

Rating 8: Perfectly fun in every way, with a well-balanced mixture of romance and humor sure to appeal to any romantic comedy fan.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Curses” is on these Goodreads list: Fairy tales & Retellings.

Find “Curses” at your library using WorldCat!m

Kate’s Review: “Just One Look”

Book: “Just One Look” by Lindsay Cameron

Publishing Info: Ballantine Books, July 2021

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

Book Description: Eyes aren’t the windows to the soul. Emails are.

Cassie Woodson is adrift. After suffering an epic tumble down the corporate ladder, Cassie finds the only way she can pay her bills is to take a thankless temp job reviewing correspondence for a large-scale fraud suit. The daily drudgery amplifies all that her life is lacking–love, friends, stability–and leaves her with too much time on her hands, which she spends fixating on the mistakes that brought her to this point. While sorting through a relentless deluge of emails, something catches her eye: the tender (and totally private) exchanges between a partner at the firm, Forest Watts, and his enchanting wife, Annabelle. Cassie knows she shouldn’t read them. But it’s just one look. And once that door opens, she finds she can’t look away.

Every day, twenty floors below Forest’s corner office, Cassie dissects their emails from her dingy workstation. A few clicks of her mouse and she can see every adoring word they write to each other. By peeking into their apparently perfect life, Cassie finds renewed purpose and happiness, reveling in their penchant for vintage wines, morning juice presses, and lavish dinner parties thrown in their stately Westchester home. There are no secrets from her. Or so she thinks.

Her admiration quickly escalates into all-out mimicry, because she wants this life more than anything. Maybe if she plays make-believe long enough, it will become real for her. But when Cassie orchestrates a “chance” meeting with Forest in the real world and sees something that throws the state of his marriage into question, the fantasy she’s been carefully cultivating shatters. Suddenly, she doesn’t simply admire Annabelle–she wants to take her place. And she’s armed with the tools to make that happen.

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

Given that Caroline Kepnes is one of my favorite authors, anything that she recommends I am going to jump all over. So when I saw that she had put a blurb on a book called “Just One Look” by Lindsay Cameron, I was definitely interested to see what it was about. If the blurb piqued my interest, the description totally reeled me in: a woman who is overseeing emails for a large fraud issue stumbles upon personal emails between a married couple, and starts to obsess about them and covet their life. Oh hell yeah, that sounds right up my alley! I figured I knew what I was in for. But boy, I was wrong. And in this instance that was a good thing.

“Just One Look” is a slow burn of a creepy tale of obsessive love and wanting, as a woman who has lost everything starts to covet a life that is laid out in front of her in emails. Cassie lost a very prestigious position at her previous firm, and her downfall was viral and well known enough that she has been reduced to humiliating drudgery. We slowly get to see just what Cassie did, and we do this as we watch her start to obsess over Forest and Annabelle Watts thanks to private emails between them that have been caught in this email review. As Cassie obsesses more and more and starts building up a narrative of their lives in her head, she starts to see herself there as well, and creeps ever closer to Forest as she pieces his life together. But I can tell you that this plot isn’t what you think it is. Cameron does a really good job of building up a lot of tension along with a very unreliable protagonist, so anything she says could be completely false, even if she doesn’t know it. I thought that this story was going to be one thing, but it took many different directions that I didn’t expect, and I really, really enjoyed being surprised at a new moment or reveal. It’s so unsettling watching Cassie seep more and more into Forest and Annabelle’s life, and Cameron yanks it so taut that it could easily snap. Especially when she pulls the rug out from under you.

But what I liked the most about this book was our protagonist, Cassie. I went into the book with some preconceived notions about how it was going to go, and just what kind of person Cassie was going to be. I mean, in my defense, since Kepnes was used as a blurb on the cover, I figured ‘okay, so it’s gonna be like ‘You’ but with a woman creepazoid’. And hey, I was here for that, don’t get me wrong! But Cameron has other tricks up her sleeves, and Cassie is a very interesting protagonist with a lot of layers. Some of those layers are incredibly sympathetic, and others are very, very disturbing. In some ways, there are definitely similarities to Joe Goldberg, but Cassie has more of a broken feeling to her, and in some ways that makes her all the creepier. But along with that, Cameron affords her some interesting exploration that female characters don’t often get. While it’s true that the things that Cassie does in this book are super, super unethical and also absolutely stalker behavior, it was kind of nice to see the background as to why she is this way, without excusing any of her behavior or making it okay. Cameron walks that fine line between romanticizing a dangerous obsessive, and making her a cartoonish caricature.

I really enjoyed “Just One Look”. It got under my skin, and surprised me in a lot of ways. Don’t sleep on this one, thriller fans! And be careful about what you put in emails that others can potentially see..

Rating 9: A slow burn of a suspense thriller with a creepy protagonist and some really well done twists!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Just One Look” is included on the Goodreads list “Mystery and Thriller 2021”, and would fit in on “Thrillers ft. Stalkers or Obsessive Love”.

Find “Just One Look” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Cry of Metal and Bone”

Book: “Cry of Metal and Bone” by L. Penelope

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Griffin, August 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley!

Book Description: Six weeks after the fall of the Mantle, centuries-old enemies Elsira and Lagrimar struggle to unite. The will of the goddess is that the two nations become one, but while the war may be over, peace is still elusive. As desperate Lagrimari flee their barren land for a chance at a better life in Elsira, a dangerous faction opposed to the unification rises.

When a shadowy group with ties to the Elsiran government takes responsibility for the attack and promises more, an unlikely crew is assembled to investigate. Among them are Lizvette Nirall, a disgraced socialite seeking redemption for past mistakes, and Tai Summerhawk, a foreign smuggler determined to keep a promise he made to a dead man. Powerful Earthsinger Darvyn ol-Tahlyro is sent with a secret assignment, one that Queen Jasminda can’t know about. And in a prison far away, Kyara ul-Lagrimar searches for a way to escape her captors and save a family long thought dead.

It’s a race against time in this world of deadly magic, secret agendas and court intrigue to discover those responsible for the bombing before the next attack. And in another land a new enemy awakens—one that will strike terror into the hearts of gods and men.

Previously Reviewed: “Song of Blood and Stone” and “Whispers of Shadow and Flame”

Review: While it may have taken me quite a while to get to “Whispers of Shadow and Flame” after reading “Song of Blood and Stone” over a year earlier, I was much more prompt in my continuance of the series this time. It took reading the second story to really remind me how fantastic this series really is! The fact that each book centers around a new set of characters while continuing the overall plot of two countries needing to come together in a new world just adds to the appeal. And not for nothing, but I also really like the cover on this one. Let’s dive in!

After so long kept separate by the magical barrier known as the Mantle, it’s no wonder that the countries of Elsira and Lagrimar have struggled to come together. Thing only get worse when there’s an attack on an Elsiran holy site. The King and Queen, desperate to hold their country together and with a shared vision of the prosperous land that could be these two countries united, bring together a small group of individuals to seek out the culprits. Darvyn, still working to find Kyara, his love who has been captured, joins a smuggler and an ex-socialite. For her part, Kyara works to begin to understand and control her powerful magical abilities.

This series seems to just get better and better! Like I mentioned already, one of the things I’ve liked so far has been that each book has introduced a new set of characters/romantic pairing. But as the series continues, this also becomes a more challenging task to undertake as the previous, now four, other characters still exist in the story, some with active storylines playing out. Darvyn and Kyara, for example, from the previous book, ended their story on somewhat of a cliffhanger. They were separated, and Kyara was still learning how to manage her magic. So I was thrilled to see them given the time and page count needed to continue their stories in a satisfying way.

At the same time, these characters can’t outshine the new characters introduced. I really like both of the new character we got here. They each had distinct voices and backgrounds that set them apart from the characters we’ve seen before. I also really liked the romance that developed between them (I’ve really liked all the romances in these books, another feat!). I was perhaps a bit, a bit, less interested than in others just because I was still very distracted by Darvyn and Kyara’s drama that was still unfolding. But that is barely a complaint at all.

I also really liked the continue exploration into the magic of this world and the various powerful players working behind the scenes. The history of the land also continues to unfold in new and surprising ways, keeping you constantly guessing at who was in the wrong or the right. I really like this type of nebulous story-telling that reflects history so well: it’s often told by the winners and so much is lost to time. My only real criticism here is that the villains in all of the books, including this one, have felt rather one dimensional with unclear motivations.

Fans of the series should definitely check this one out. Each book can technically be read as a stand-alone, but I think this one, even more than the second, would suffer as a first entry for new readers. There’s too much of Darvyns and Kyara’s story that would be lost. I’m excited to see where the story will go from here.

Rating 8: Another great entry with a new set of compelling characters and a sweet romance.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Cry of Metal and Bone” is on these Goodreads lists: Black Heroines 2020 and Diversity in Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Find “Cry of Metal and Bone” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Sinful Lives of Trophy Wives”

Book: “The Sinful Lives of Trophy Wives” by Kristin Miller

Publishing Info: Ballantine Books, July 2021

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

Book Description: Meet the trophy wives of Presidio Terrace, San Francisco’s most exclusive–and most deadly–neighborhood in this shrewd, darkly compelling novel from the New York Times bestselling author of In Her Shadow.

Mystery writer Brooke Davies is the new wife on the block. Her tech-billionaire husband, Jack, twenty-two years her senior, whisked her to the Bay Area via private jet and purchased a modest mansion on the same day. He demands perfection, and before now, Brooke has had no problem playing the role of a doting housewife. But as she befriends other wives on the street and spends considerable time away from Jack, he worries if he doesn’t control Brooke’s every move, she will reveal the truth behind their “perfect” marriage.

Erin King, famed news anchor and chair of the community board, is no stranger to maintaining an image–though being married to a plastic surgeon helps. But the skyrocketing success of her career has worn her love life thin, and her professional ambitions have pushed Mason away. Quitting her job is a Hail Mary attempt at keeping him interested, to steer him away from finding a young trophy wife. But is it enough, and is Mason truly the man she thought he was?

Georgia St. Claire allegedly cashed in on the deaths of her first two husbands, earning her the nickname “Black Widow”–and the stares and whispers of her curious neighbors. Rumored to have murdered both men for their fortunes, she claims to have found true love in her third marriage, yet her mysterious, captivating allure keeps everyone guessing. Then a tragic accident forces the residents of Presidio Terrace to ask: Has Georgia struck again? And what is she really capable of doing to protect her secrets?

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

Soapy trashy stories about potentially villainous men and women who are hiding and spilling secrets is something of a guilty pleasure of mine, and I mostly try to own that fact. I loved the first few seasons of “Desperate Housewives” (after season 4 it went downhill VERY fast, in my honest opinion), and while I haven’t been able to bring myself to consume reality TV like “The Real Housewives” or anything like that, I do enjoy watching drama porn like “Untucked” when watching “RuPaul’s Drag Race”. So a book with the title and description of “The Sinful Lives of Trophy Wives” by Kristin Miller absolutely caught my attention. I’ve found some really fun books involving bored housewives behaving badly (Hello, “Big Little Lies”!), and if you have some potential murder and whodunnit elements to go with it, I am absolutely there! I went into this book with high hopes for soapy thrills. And I got that. But I also remembered why sometimes that isn’t enough.

But, as I always try to do, I will start with what I did like about this book. It was a very fast, very entertaining read in the moment. I picked it up over the Fourth of July weekend, and basically read it over the course of two days. It has some really good moments of sudsy drama, and there were pretty well done moments of shocking reveals as well as a build up to a nutty and soapy climax that is hinted at right at the start. So it tantalized me as a reader, and definitely gave me that “Desperate Housewives” vibe of manipulation, bitchiness, and over the top whodunnit/who are these people really and what are they hiding. A breezy read it always a plus in my book, as it makes the experience enjoyable in the moment.

But there were a few things that really bogged down “The Sinful Lives of Trophy Wives” and made it a pretty meh book once all is said and done. The first is the cast of characters. Our main focus are on the perspectives of Erin, the neurotic and (horror and shock!) aging news anchor who is trying to keep her allure and lost youth at the forefront, lest her husband Mason stray, and Brooke, a mystery writer who is trying to keep up appearances for her much older husband, but is sniffing out a potential new plot with Georgia, the supposed Black Widow. Both Erin and Brooke have things that they are hiding, but getting into their heads doesn’t make them all that interesting, nor does it let them branch out from their two dimensional character tropes (admittedly there is a bit of a twist here, but I’m not going to go into that because spoilers). We see Georgia through their eyes, and while we do learn a bit about her through various reveals that each character has through action in the moment and past actions, she TOO is very flat and predictable. On shows like “Desperate Housewives” this kind of thing can work for awhile, but that is because we also get to see characters complexities come out as stories go on (well, in some cases; Teri Hatcher’s Susan was always two dimensional). But in this book, we don’t really get to see any growth. Even aforementioned twist couldn’t save it in the end. The other issue is that once I was done and I was no longer in the moment, upon reflection there wasn’t really much new or interesting to the story and how the mystery all shook out. It felt a bit like it was trying to be similar to “Big Little Lies”, but never really hit the emotional plot beats that that book did. The problem with gooey sudsy tales is that in the moment I really enjoy them, but without some solid foundation and substance to keep it up I look back and realize that there wasn’t really much to work with.

“The Sinful Lives of Trophy Wives” could be a good read if you just need something to pass the time. Pass the time it will! But I found it to be middling when all was said and done.

Rating 5: The read itself was quick and breezy, but the characters were middling and the story upon reflection was a bit ho hum.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Sinful Lives of Trophy Wives” is included on the Goodreads lists “Mystery & Thriller 2021”, and I think it would fit in on the list “Desperate Housewives”.

Find “The Sinful Lives of Trophy Wives” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Not Just Books: July 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

Documentary: “The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young”

After watching “Eco Challenge” and reveling in my own laziness as I watched teams complete ridiculous feats of strength and endurance, it was only natural to jump into another such story. This time, a documentary on the strange, bewildering world of The Barkley Marathon, a crazy-pants race that embraces all the weirdness. For one thing, you have to be invited to participate. And then there are a bunch of random rules, like the fact that on the day of the race’s start, no one actually knows when it will begin until they hear the sound of a Conch shell being blown. And once the race actually begins, its a cross-over between endurance cross-country racing and one’s ability to navigate a largely unmakred trail. Oh, and it’s five loops of a brutal, uphill and down 20 mile track that must be completed within 60 hours. The thing is so crazy that it went years and years before anyone even completed it, and only 15 people have completed it in the race’s 35 year history. The documentary is not only a great look in the the history of the marathon, but it follows a particularly interesting year for the race itself. Definitely check it out if you want to be amazed at what the human body can do!

Reality Websites: Zillow/Realtor.com

This is only being included because there’s finally a happy ending to what was a grueling spring for me and my family. After our second son was born last fall, our cozy little house was suddenly way too small, so we got into the housing market. At THE WORST TIME EVER! Anyone who’s looked for a house this last year can attest to how crazy the market has been. We looked at around 50 hours and made double digits’ worth of offers on houses before finally getting one. We move in about three weeks, so really what I’m highlighting here is my absolute joy to NEVER look at Zillow or Realtor.com again (at least not for the foreseeable future!)

Movie: “Ford v. Ferrari”

Lastly, a movie that I really enjoyed (though there were more tears than I was expecting from a moving about car racing, something I’m actively uninterested in for the most part). This movie had been on my radar for a bit, mostly because I like Matt Damon in practically anything. However, I’m not a huge Christian Bale fan (though I recognize his talent) and, as I said, car racing…But I enjoyed the heck out of this movie! I didn’t know anything about this story or the car companies behind it and their connection/process with race cars. Most likely, I enjoyed this history side of the story more than anything. But if you’re into car racing, this is definitely a movie to check out. And even if not, the strength of the story and acting are enough to elevate it to appeal to most everyone, especially those who appreciate movies with connections to true stories.

Kate’s Picks

TV Show: “Cold Case”

Right after I graduated college into a recession and limited employment options, I would spend my days job searching and watching reruns of cop procedurals on cable. One of my favorites was “Cold Case”, a show about homicide detectives who would reopen unsolved cases that could span back decades, and also deal with their own personal issues. For years I figured that it would never be released on DVD or streaming, as every episode used popular songs from the era of the case, and therefore licensing would be a nightmare. Well either it’s different with streaming or HBO ponied up, but regardless “Cold Case” is on HBOMax WITH THE ORIGINAL SONGS! That was my one caveat on a rewatch: it had to have the music, as the music really sells the emotional punches and beats (there are actually a few episodes I know I can’t watch because they are so sad, no small part due to the music selections). I also like that we get to know the victims a bit because of the flashback format, which makes it feel more personal and resonant. I’ve cried MANY times on my rewatch, so you know it still packs a wallop.

Podcast: “I Pray You Put This Journal Away”

I’ve mentioned the podcast “Some Place Under Neith”, and when they did a series on the Institute on Basic Life Principles cult with a focus on the Duggar family, I was both deeply fascinated and also completely horrified (especially when they went into a deep dive on predator Josh Duggar; my God. LOCK HIM UP AND NEVER LET HIM OUT). One of the podcasts that they recommended was “I Pray You Put This Journal Away”, and I knew I had to listen to that next. It is a podcast by a man who not only grew up in the IBLP, but was also friends with Josh Duggar, and left the church when he was older and realized how oppressive and predatory this fundamentalist Christian lifestyle was. This podcast is partially him talking about the Duggars, but is mostly him reading through his journal at the time and reflecting about what it was like to grow up in this kind of culture, especially as someone with undiagnosed autism. It’s personal and very reflective, and I enjoyed his insight into the IBPL’s fucked upness, as well as how he and his wife (also an ex-fundamentalist) went on journeys of self discovery and empowerment.

Film Trilogy: “Fear Street”

Trust and believe, I am going to go into full deep dive reviews on all three movies in this trilogy to complement my “Revisit to Fear Street” series on here, but I just want to give a shout out to it as a whole. Because AHHHHH, this trilogy is SO DAMN FUN! As you all probably know, I grew up reading “Fear Street” books, and couldn’t have been more pleased to find out that Netflix was releasing movies based on the books. Well, sort of. They’re a lot gorier than anything on the page, but that works out just fine for me because I love me a good slasher film! A group of teens in 1994 accidentally awaken the dark powers of long dead witch Sarah Fier, and to save themselves they need to figure out what she wants. This happens to involve a curse that goes back centuries, and therefore they are going to need some help from those who have dealt with it before. With homages to the original series and some new mythos, as well as really enjoyable characters and gnarly death scenes, the “Fear Street” Trilogy is a blast. Look for more comprehensive reviews in a couple weeks!

Serena’s Review: “Cast in Firelight”

Book: “Cast in Firelight” by Dana Swift

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, January 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Adraa is the royal heir of Belwar, a talented witch on the cusp of taking her royal ceremony test, and a girl who just wants to prove her worth to her people

Jatin is the royal heir to Naupure, a competitive wizard who’s mastered all nine colors of magic, and a boy anxious to return home for the first time since he was a child.

Together, their arranged marriage will unite two of Wickery’s most powerful kingdoms. But after years of rivalry from afar, Adraa and Jatin only agree on one thing: their reunion will be anything but sweet.

Only, destiny has other plans and with the criminal underbelly of Belwar suddenly making a move for control, their paths cross…and neither realizes who the other is, adopting separate secret identities instead.

Between dodging deathly spells and keeping their true selves hidden, the pair must learn to put their trust in the other if either is to uncover the real threat. Now Wickery’s fate is in the hands of rivals..? Fiancées..? Partners..? Whatever they are, it’s complicated and bound for greatness or destruction.

Review: Before we get into the actual review, we interrupt my regular, meandering, usually skip-able intro paragraph to dive into another segment of “Nonsense in YA Covers!”, a semi-regular bit where I shake my head at the cover art of YA books. Today’s example isn’t so much anything overtly wrong with this book’s cover, but with the inexplicable resemblance it has to another. See if you can spot the similarities!

They are both by the obviously very gifted Charlie Bowater. I’m not coming after her, but I can’t decided whether it’s laziness or brilliance that these titles look so similar! Did she hoodwink the publishers into essentially buying the same image slightly re-tooled six months later? The male characters, especially, look almost identical. And then you have the character position, the colors, the entire thing really. One of my librarian friends, Alicia, found it so amusing that she routinely placed them side-by-side on the “New Arrivals” shelf at her library just to troll patrons. But enough of that, on to the review!

Though they were betrothed as children after a particularly…eventful…first meeting, Adraa and Jatin’s entire relationship since has been made up of a few letters and a secret competition of magical abilities. However, now that they are each about to come into their own roles as the upcoming leaders of their countries, they suddenly find themselves thrust into each other’s company. But neither know it, having each taken on alternate identities for different reasons when they first re-unite. Thrown into adventure and intrigue, the two begin to each learn that this strange new person isn’t so bad. If only they weren’t already engaged to someone else…

This book is another one of those tough books that seems to fall into the category of aggressively fine. It was a quick, snappy read, and I was entertained enough while reading it, easily caught up in the fast-moving plot. But when I think back on the book, characters, and world as a hole, there simply isn’t a lot there. The magic system is barely described and while the resulting abilities serve the action-packed plot well, there’s no intricacies to be found or, indeed, many details of any kind. If you asked me to tell you anything about it, all I’d have is something about tattoos and that the number of magical abilities you master has a direct connection to your status in society. Which…I’ve seen before.

As for the world-building, I appreciated that there was a map included in the story, but I almost felt like the map did more of the heavy lifting than anything in the book. This very much read like one of those overly simplistic YA novels that treat their worlds like big green screens that their character simply run across. Like the cover, almost, the mental images that came to mind were almost cartoonish in their simplicity.

The writing was probably the strongest part. Like I said, the pacing was excellent, keeping the plot and character moving at a steady clip. Some portions of it were also incredibly funny. However, here, too, I had some troubles. Mostly with the dialogue which was bizarrely modern. This is clearly a second-world fantasy story, so there are no rules about how characters should speak. But at times the dialogue was so very much of this world and time that it simply didn’t seem to fit here. I often found myself pulled back out of the story once the characters started speaking overly much. There was also an over-reliance on “quippiness” as a stand-in for real character development and connection.

As a debut, it was a fun ride, but it also showed the areas in which the author still has room for improvement. If you’re looking for a fast, light read and don’t mind kind of random-feeling modern dialogue, this could be a fun book for you! But those looking for a more serious or layered story will be disappointed.

Rating 7: Fast-paced and fun, but too light in any real depth, both in its world and characters.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Cast in Firelight” isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on 2021 YA with Male POV.

Find “Cast in Firelight” at your library using WorldCat!