Book Club Review: “Annihilation”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Outside the Genre Box”, in which we each picked a book from a genre or format that we don’t usually read.

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

Book: “Annihilation” by Jeff VanderMeer

Publishing Info: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, February 2014

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Area X has been cut off from the rest of the world for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; the second expedition ended in mass suicide, the third in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another. The members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within weeks, all had died of cancer. In Annihilation, the first volume of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, we join the twelfth expedition.

The group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain, record all observations of their surroundings and of one another, and, above all, avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.

They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another that change everything.

Genre/Format: Horror

Kate’s Thoughts

This is not my first time reading “Annihilation”, as a few years ago I picked it up thanks to the recommendation of a circulation supervisor at a library I was subbing at at the time. Along with his rec, one of my good friends also said that she loved the series. Reading it through the first time was a weird, unsettling, but rewarding experience into weirdo gonzo sci-fi horror. So when Serena chose it for book club, I was pretty amped to give it a re-read.

And on the second time around, I was once again really into “Annihilation”. Vandermeer creates such a unique, creepy, and mysterious environment that feels like a character in and of itself. Area X is an unknown entity that dooms those who enter it, many of whom just straight up never come back, and those that do come back, well… They’re changed. As our characters (all nameless, referred to by their occupations in the expedition) start to fall prey to Area X, as well as their own paranoia and potentially even their compatriots, the first person Narrator, The Biologist, leads us on a confusing and convoluted journey where you don’t really know what’s going on. And that, in and of itself, is scary.

Vandermeer’s greatest strength is building up the unknown through the things we cannot see. For me, the scariest aspect was an entity referred to as The Moaner, which lets off terrifying baying sounds at dusk and night. I mean MY GOD. It’s things like this, as well as nefarious scheming that we see happen without much explanation, and the general breaking down of the explorers’s sanity, that kept my dread levels pretty high up on both reads. While other books may slowly start to peel back reveals, with foreshadowing, twists, and ah ha moments abound, those aren’t the kind of things that you find in this book. And our book club was pretty split as to how we felt about that. For some of us that worked. For others, it didn’t. But that just meant the conversation was great as we all peeled back the various layers.

“Annihilation” is weird. It doesn’t feel a need to give you many answers. But if you like weirdo Sci-Fi horror with a hint of eco-terror as well, it is absolutely the book for you.

Serena’s Thoughts

When we came up with this round’s bookclub theme, I knew immediately that I wanted to do horror for my pick. Not only is it good to dabble in the genre that my co-blogger routinely writes about and reads, but I’ve found myself enjoying a decent number of horror-y book that have come across my reading pile recently (“Mexican Gothic” comes to mind right off the bat). But, of course, being me, I couldn’t resist a choice that also seemed to dabble in science fiction themes as well. And thus, “Annihilation!”

I really enjoyed this book. It’s definitely a strange one, and I feel like my comfort reading epic fantasy novels where you’re routinely thrown into worlds full of strange words and rituals that are never really explained paid off really well for me. This book is weird and it’s only marginally interested in explaining itself. What does get explained only comes up in the last 20% or so of the story. So that leaves almost the entire book with the reader being just as (if not more) clueless than our nameless main character. It takes a long time to even get an answer about why there are so few answers to start with! A convoluted idea if ever there was one.

In many ways, the reader is left feeling unbalanced and confused throughout most of the read. This helps increase the building tension and fear when, for most of it, very little is actually, physically, happening. Instead, the book leans into the sense of doom and the greater fear of an unknown that you can’t see or understand rather than the monster that is richly described in detail for you.

The narrator is also an unknown. Much of her story plays out in a series of flashbacks to her life before entering Area X. She is is definitely a strange entity all on her unknown. I wasn’t quite sure if her oddness was an intentional choice on the author’s part or if he struggled to write from a woman’s perspective? Or some combination of things? I will say, characterization is perhaps not his particular strength as a writer, but the narrator was definitely serviceable in delivery all the oddness and spookiness inherent in Area X itself.

In the end, I think I was left with more questions than I had answers. Most of bookclub was just one big question: “What the heck did we just read?” But for me, this was a good question, and I’ll probably add the second book to my TBR pile.

Kate’s Rating: Super weird but incredibly fascinating, “Annihilation” is very unique in how it tells a story.

Serena’s Rating 8: Bizarre in the best way, this book dials into the fear of the unseen in a really great way.

Book Club Questions

  1. The main character’s past and her relationship with her husband directs a lot of her thoughts and actions. In what ways were these flashbacks important to her story? Was there any one moment/flashback that stood out to you as touching on the greater themes?
  2. There are a lot of unknowns in this book, from bigger mysteries surrounding Area X down to smaller details like characters’ names. How did this prevailing sense of the unknown affect your reading experience? Were you able to predict any of the reveals?
  3. What do you believe Area X is? Does it have a goal, and if so, what is it? Any theories regarding the meaning of the writing and the writer?
  4. This story walks the line between horror and science fiction. What aspects of the story/writing best represented each of these genres?
  5. This is the first book in a trilogy. Do you have any predictions for where the story will go from here? What are you most curious to learn more about?

Reader’s Advisory

“Annihilation” is included on these Goodreads lists: Best Weird Fiction Books and Cli-Fi: Climate Change Fiction.

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

Next Book Club Book: “Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close” by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman

Monthly Marillier: “Seer of Sevenwaters”

“Monthly Marillier” is a review series that is, essentially, an excuse for me to go back and re-read one of my favorite author’s back catalog. Ever since I first discovered her work over fifteen years ago, Juliet Marillier has been one of my favorite authors. Her stories are the perfect mixture of so many things I love: strong heroines, beautiful romances, fairytale-like magic, and whimsical writing. Even better, Marillier is a prolific author and has regularly put out new books almost once a year since I began following her. I own almost all of them, and most of those I’ve read several times. Tor began re-releasing her original Sevenwaters trilogy, so that’s all the excuse I needed to begin a new series in which I indulge myself in a massive re-read of her books. I’ll be posting a new entry in this series on the first Friday of every month.

Book: “Seer of Sevenwaters” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Roc Hardcover, December 2010

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: The young seer Sibeal is visiting an island of elite warriors, prior to making her final pledge as a druid. It’s there she finds Felix, a survivor of a Viking shipwreck, who’s lost his memory. The scholarly Felix and Sibeal form a natural bond. He could even be her soul mate, but Sibeal’s vocation is her true calling, and her heart must answer.

As Felix fully regains his memory, Sibeal has a runic divination showing her that Felix must go on a perilous mission-and that she will join him. The rough waters and the sea creatures they will face are no match for Sibeal’s own inner turmoil. She must choose between the two things that tug at her soul-her spirituality and a chance at love…

Review: Unlike the first Sevenwaters trilogy which jumps generations with each book, the second trilogy remains focused on one generation: the daughters of Sean and Aisling. We’ve met, or heard reference to, them all before either in “Child of the Prophesy” or the previous book, so there’s an element of familiarity and expectation on each’s story from the start. Clodagh was a fantastic first pick for this new set of books, and it seemed only natural that Sibeal, her reserved, mystical younger sister would be the next choice. Unfortunately, for as much as I liked Sibeal’s character in “Heir to Sevenwaters,” her story has been one of my less favorite Marillier books, and so it remained with this re-read.

Even without the power of a seer, Sibeal believes she knows what will come of her life. She is soon to take her final vows to become a druid and join her brethren in the services they provide, that of wisdom, story-telling, and powerful, magical insight into the world around them. But this clear, straight path takes a sudden turn when Sibeal discovers a young man washed up on the shore with no memory of who he is. Suddenly, her life becomes much less clear and mysteries appear around every corner. For his part, Felix knows next to nothing about himself, with only dire hints at his own past and what paths he had been trodding before meeting Sibeal. Together, each must take on a perilous journey not only of self-discovery but to unlock wonders in the very world itself.

I really liked what we got from Sibeal in “Heir to Sevenwaters.” She didn’t have much page time, but she was a refreshing breath of fresh air in the midst of a family who was all treating Clodagh fairly poorly. Sibeal, alone, believed Clodagh and provided what support she could in the journey set out before her sister. Alas, as a main character, Sibeal wasn’t nearly as compelling. For one thing, her voice and perspective are not as distinct and unique as I had hoped. In too many ways, she seems similar to the other female protagonists we’ve seen in these stories and lacks the spark needed to make her stand out from the pack.

What’s worse, for the first time in this series, the narrative is split between Sibeal’s chapters and Felix’s, the romantic interest. And his are even worse than hers. Not only does the bare fact that splitting the narrative this way lesson the page time we have to get to know Sibeal as a character (perhaps this extended page count would have allowed for more development for her), but Felix himself brings next to nothing to the story. Amnesia stories are tough in this way, and Marillier falls into the same trap that many authors do with this type of arch: there’s just not enough to build upon when your character doesn’t know himself or his history. Beyond that, Felix’s chapters feel almost too similar to Sibeal’s. I’m not saying that there is a “male” and “female” way of thinking/speaking, but I definitely don’t want my two main characters to sound almost indistinguishable.

I also didn’t enjoy the overall story in this one as much as I have in Marillier’s previous Sevenwaters books. The mystery itself was fairly obvious, with numerous clues laid down well in advance of any characters piecing them together. It also all felt disconnected from the rest of the Sevenwaters story. In many ways, I feel like you could almost lift this book out of the series and no one would miss it.

Marillier’s writing remains strong, but with weaker characters and a weaker story overall, some of her tried and true go-toes become a bit more obvious as well. Some of her turns of phrase feel a bit tired and over-used, even. I did enjoy reading the final act of the story, where I felt like the pace picked up a bit more and my interested was piqued somewhat. But overall, it wasn’t enough to justify the rest of the story.

I remember being very disappointed when I read this book and wondering whether it might not be for the best that Marillier just hang up the Sevenwaters series altogether. Luckily (spoilers!), I did enjoy the last book in this series quite a bit, so that helped me recover from this reading experience. Luckily there are very few duds in her work, but this is definitely one of them.

Rating 6: The weakest Sevenwaters book of the lot with two main character, neither of whom are particularly interesting.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Seer of Sevenwaters” is on these Goodreads lists: Hidden Gems: YA-Fantasy Novels and Best Reconciliation Romance Books.

Find “Seer of Sevenwaters” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Sandman (Vol. 9): The Kindly Ones”

Book: “The Sandman (Vol.9): The Kindly Ones” by Neil Gaiman, Marc Hempel (Ill.), Richard Case (Ill.), D’Israeli (Ill.), Teddu Kristiansen (Ill.), Glyn Dillon (Ill.), Charlie Vess (Ill.), Dean Ormston (Ill.), & Kevin Nowlan (ill.).

Publishing Info: Vertigo, 1995

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: The Penultimate volume to the phenomenal Sandman series: distraught by the kidnapping and presumed death of her son, and believing Morpheus to be responsible, Lyta Hall calls the ancient wrath of the Furies down upon him. A former superheroine blames Morpheus for the death of her child and summons an ancient curse of vengeance against the Lord of Dream. The “kindly ones” enter his realm and force a sacrifice that will change the Dreaming forever.

Review: If I’m being totally honest, as I was going through my “Sandman” re-read, “The Kindly Ones” was the issue that I was most dreading. For one, it’s long. It’s the longest of all the volumes. Normally length doesn’t daunt me, but knowing what was coming, added thickness just wasn’t getting me stoked for this part of my re-read. And the bigger reason, without spoiling too much, is that “The Kindly Ones” is really where the big, sad, frustrating and beautiful climax happens for this series. Yes, we have one more volume to go, but that’s all release and wrap up. “The Kindly Ones” is the action part of the finale, and it packs an emotional wallop.

Pardon me while I go stare aimlessly at a wall for a good long time. (source)

“The Kindly Ones” is the volume in which everything comes to a head. In “Worlds’ End” we saw a haunting funeral procession in the sky. In “Brief Lives”, Morpheus finally released Orpheus from his eternal life, though the consequences were sure to be dire. In the middle of the series, a faerie named Nuala stays in the Dreaming to live her life in a lonesome way. And way back, early in the series, we saw Morpheus tell Lyta Hall that her son Daniel would always belong to him in some way, as a child conceived in the Dreaming. All of these moments come together in “The Kindly Ones”, and lead to a huge consequence that destroyed me the first time I read this book. And knowing it was coming didn’t make it any less painful. But let’s move back a little bit.

“The Kindly Ones” is about vengeance, and retribution, and paying the Piper. It opens with an image of a ball of string, and ends with the image of a ball of string, symbolizing the circular events that this series has always been about, at least in part. Plot set up wise, Lyta Hall’s son Daniel is suddenly kidnapped. She assumes that not only is her only child, and last tie to her dead husband, dead, but it is at the hands of Dream because of what he told her about Daniel way back when, that he would always belong to Dream. Lyta, already a bit emotionally unstable because of her husband’s death, is basically destroyed, and hellbent on revenge. So she turns to The Furies (also known as The Kindly Ones), hoping that they will grant her vengeance against Dream and all he holds dear. It’s been building and simmering awhile, and now it has come to fruition: Lyta’s rage has serious consequences through the Furies, and characters that we met and have grown to love, or at least expect to be there, are victims to her wrath.

And it all feels inevitable, like the pages in Destiny’s book. Gaiman pulls out all the stops and spares nothing, and as we are reunited with some characters, we say goodbye to others. And all the while, we watch Dream as he has to meet with his own destiny, and has to do so in the same lonely, isolated way that he’s had to endure so much before this. My God, it just hurts as you read it. Through the entire series Dream has been about responsibility above most other things, sometimes to his detriment, and because of his responsibility to another character he made a promise to in this arc, it leads to a terrible fallout. It feels both devastating and incredibly in character for him. We also have a lovely and incredibly painful call back to the first time we saw Dream and Death interact, amongst a flock of pigeons, as they have their inevitable moment before everything changes. Gaiman, you monster!

I will say, however, that “The Kindly Ones” has probably my least favorite artwork of the entire series. I know some people who love it, and hey, to each their own, but it feels discordant when compared to what is going on in the narrative.

“The Kindly Ones” is arguably the most epic and consequential of “The Sandman” series. It was a hard read again, even knowing what was to come. Up next is the epilogue to this series, “The Wake”.

Rating 8: “The Kindly Ones” isn’t a story that I really ‘enjoy’ because it hurts so much, but it’s a really well done bit of storytelling from Gaiman.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Sandman (Vol.9): The Kindly Ones” is included on the Goodreads lists “Death Gods and Reaper Protagonists”, and “Mythic Fantasy Comics”.

Find “The Sandman (Vol.9): The Kindly Ones” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed:

Serena’s Review: “The Princess Knight”

Book: “The Princess Knight” by G.A. Aiken

Publishing Info: Kensington, November 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley!

Book Description: Gemma Smythe dedicated her life to the glory of battle. With her fellow War Monks, she worshipped the war gods, rained destruction on her enemies, and raised the dead when the fancy took her. Until her sister Keeley became the prophesied Blacksmith Queen, and Gemma broke faith with her order to journey to the Amichai Mountain and fight by Keeley’s side.

The Amichai warriors are an unruly, never-to-be-tamed lot, especially their leader-in-waiting, Quinn. But when the War Monks declare support for Gemma’s ruthless younger sister Beatrix, the immaturity of her key ally is the least of Gemma’s problems. She has to get to the grand masters, dispel their grudge against her, and persuade them to fight for Keeley and justice. If her conviction can’t sway them, perhaps Quinn’s irritating, irreverent, clearly unhinged, ferocity will win the day . . .

Previously Reviewed: “The Blacksmith Queen”

Review: I read “The Blacksmith Queen” a few years ago and enjoyed it well enough for the wacky thing it was: a fantasy, romance, kind of comedy, kind of urban fantasy, bizarre little story. I hadn’t read anything else by the author, so I really didn’t know what I was getting into. But I did like the main characters, especially Keely, and usually that’s enough for me to want to continue on with a series. I requested this sequel quite a while ago and only got around to it recently, however. I’m glad I finally did though, because I thought it was a lot of fun!

Gemma has always been a warrior, fighting her elite force of monks. But her loyalties are tested and refocused when her sister becomes the fabled Queen. But the War Monks don’t follow her, instead choosing her younger, and more brutal, younger sister. But Keely’s efforts need their support, and it is up to Gemma to persuade them back. Perhaps, she wonders, they will respond better to someone equally unhinged? Perhaps the infuriatingly handsome and unruly fighter, Quinn? With so much at stake, Gemma must find a way to bridge these divides and bring aid to her sister’s fight.

As I said, I hadn’t read this author’s previous series (same world), so I wasn’t familiar with out multiple books in the same story really operated. I was pleased to find that this one continued forward with having several POV characters and that, most importantly, Keely still featured heavily as a main character herself. I was excited to read about Gemma, of course, but I wasn’t looking forward to totally forgoing Keely who I’d liked so much in the first book and who, being queen, still had a large role to play going forward.

The characters, overall, still remain my favorite part of this story. I was particularly interested in reading Gemma’s story and her attempts to balance her loyalties between her sister, the queen, the fighting force of monks that she had been fully committed to prior to the last story. Her history around the worship of the death god that the warrior monks serve was also very interesting, as well as, of course, their practice of raising the dead. I did struggle a bit to become fully invested in Gemma’s story, however, because Keely was still such a presence in this book, and I knew her a bit better. But I did enjoy the fact that Gemma was distinctly her own character. She was much more wary and paranoid than her more trusting and accepting sister, something that I think works with her warrior’s background.

The romance also takes a back seat in this book. I enjoyed it well enough, but it was definitely not the most compelling part of the story. They had decent chemistry, but there wasn’t a lot of spark, more just a steady burn of comradery that turns into a relationship at one point. I like this kind of love arch, too, so I was ok with it. But, like I said, if you’re tuning in for a sparkling romance, this probably isn’t it. Instead, the story focuses much more heavily on the battles and political maneuvers that Keely and her force must employ to protect her queenship from the various other heirs who are still hoping to unseat her. These action-packed scenes were a blast, and the story really felt like it was on its most solid footing during these points.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Perhaps a bit more than the first, even, just because I knew a bit better what to expect from it. I was also pleased with Gemma as a new character, while also not having to give up my beloved Keely, which I took as a big win. Fans of this author and her work are sure to enjoy this one!

Rating 8: Light on the romance, but it compensates with a fast-moving, action-packed story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Princess Knight” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should be on Badass Female Leads!

Find “The Princess Knight” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Hour of the Witch”

Book: “Hour of the Witch” by Chris Bohjalian

Publishing Info: Doubleday Books, May 2021

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

Book Description: A young Puritan woman–faithful, resourceful, but afraid of the demons that dog her soul–plots her escape from a violent marriage in this riveting and propulsive historical thriller from the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Flight Attendant.

Boston, 1662. Mary Deerfield is twenty-four-years-old. Her skin is porcelain, her eyes delft blue, and in England she might have had many suitors. But here in the New World, amid this community of saints, Mary is the second wife of Thomas Deerfield, a man as cruel as he is powerful. When Thomas, prone to drunken rage, drives a three-tined fork into the back of Mary’s hand, she resolves that she must divorce him to save her life. But in a world where every neighbor is watching for signs of the devil, a woman like Mary–a woman who harbors secret desires and finds it difficult to tolerate the brazen hypocrisy of so many men in the colony–soon finds herself the object of suspicion and rumor. When tainted objects are discovered buried in Mary’s garden, when a boy she has treated with herbs and simples dies, and when their servant girl runs screaming in fright from her home, Mary must fight to not only escape her marriage, but also the gallows. A twisting, tightly plotted thriller from one of our greatest storytellers, Hour of the Witch is a timely and terrifying novel of socially sanctioned brutality and the original American witch hunt.

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

Back in middle school I decided to read “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller, after my drama class chose it as one of the scenes that we’d perform and I was voted to be Mary Warren in said scene. After reading the whole play my thirteen year old self was super indignant, and I basically have had a seething anger deep in my soul for any kind of witchcraft or Satanic Panic fueled hysteria ever since. Because of this, I was eager to snatch up the new historical fiction thriller “Hour of the Witch” by Chris Bohjalian. I’ve enjoyed Bohjalian’s stories in the past, I love me a good historical fiction thriller, and demolishing the Patriarchy in Puritan times? We ALL know how I feel about that!

Yes please. (source)

Now I don’t want anyone thinking that “Hour of the Witch” is a pro-Witchcraft-As-Way-To-Smash-Misogyny kind of tale. Instead, Bohjalian takes the idea of a community turning on a strong minded woman and tries to tell it in a way that would be realistic towards the time and culture. Mary isn’t a woman who ends up turning to Satan because it’s the only clear path to agency in her life. Instead, we get a tale of a woman who dares stand up for herself and wants to advocate for her health and happiness against an abusive husband while still being God fearing and devout, and while also questioning power structures that are hypocritical. I admittedly don’t have as much breadth of knowledge in this part of American history and Puritan times, but from the historical notes in the back it seems like Bohjalian did his very best to make it realistic, and therein I found Mary to be believable. Her story of trying to divorce her abusive husband Thomas, and being the target of scorn and then witchcraft accusations for daring to push against the misogynistic norms, is suspenseful, frustrating, and incredibly readable. I loved Mary as a character, and seeing her fight in the face of powerful and abusive men was both cathartic, but also tense, as we all know how the power structures during the Puritan times could easily cry ‘witch’ and have a person killed (that said, while this story really does a good job of addressing the oppression that women faced, little is noted of the Indigenous groups in the area. I’m not sure how Bohjalian could have tackled such a huge aspect from Mary’s perspective without feeding into paternalistic or oppressive views, but when the groups were mentioned it felt like a nod without doing much work beyond that. Take that as you will).

In terms of plot, “Hour of the Witch” is definitely steeped in suspense, as well as a little bit of mystery. Working against Mary in her endeavors are her husband’s standing in the community, the fact that no one has seen him hurt her as he’s always careful to do it when they are alone, and the fact that some three tined forks were found buried in her yard, which at the time were thought to be ‘the devils tines’ due to the three prongs resembling a pitchfork (side note: when I worked at a historic fort that had a context set during the Georgian period, a dining demonstration did mention the lack of three tined forks in America in spite of the fact they were prevalent in Europe. We didn’t talk about ‘the devils tines’ aspect, however). The questions are 1) is Mary going to be able to escape her husband without being convicted of witchcraft, and 2) who IS the one who is setting her up to look like a witch? Such moments will make you shake with rage, but it also just goes to show that some things never change. Mary is accused of lying for attention, lying to offset the fact she hasn’t been able to have children as of yet, lying because she’s lustful, and lying because she’s a witch. These days, maybe we don’t see as much ‘witch’ stuff, but the rest of those accusations against an abused woman in hopes of painting her as a liar are all too familiar. And as for what is really going on with the buried forks in her yard, I really enjoyed trying to figure out what was going on there, as Bohjalian has a whole SLEW of suspects and possibilities, some one which are not as they seem. I was left on pins and needles worrying about what was going to happen to Mary, as well as wanting to spit nails out of rage when looking at how the men in the community (with a couple exceptions) and some of the women were treating her because of the misogyny that was rife. BE PREPARED TO BE MAD.

Overall, I thought that “Hour of the Witch” was a pretty good read, with a unique setting that felt timeless all the same. It may not be the Satanic feminism that I tend to love, but I still enjoyed it!

Rating 8: Suspenseful and unique in voice and setting, “Hour of the Witch” tells a tale as old as time about misogyny, women, and a society that uses one to keep the other in its place no matter what the outcome.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Hour of the Witch” is included on the Goodreads lists “Witch Hunts in Historical Fiction”, and “2021 Gothic”.

Find “Hour of the Witch” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Highlights: May 2021

We’re fully into Spring now, and as the temperatures trend upwards we have dreams of summer to be sure! That means long walks, outside activities, and a long weekend here and there for a little bit of relaxation. And with a new month comes a new list of books we’re excited to check out! Here is what we’re looking forward to this month!

Serena’s Picks

Book: “The Shadow in the Glass” by J.J.A. Harwood

Publication Date: May 4, 2021

Why I’m Interested: The cover immediately caught my eye when I was browsing through the books coming out this month. Looks like a fairytale retelling to me! And, of course, it is. And this time we’re diving into a dark re-imaging of the Cinderella tale. After her wealthy benefactor passes away, Ella’s future, which once was filled with balls and a wealthy marriage, has taken a turn, her days filled with toil and hardship. But when a mysterious figure arrives on night offering Ella the chance to regain the life she lost, Ella must face the fact that all wishes come with a price. And for these, the price might be too high. “Cinderella” isn’t my favorite fairytale, but I do like darker versions of the classics, so I’m excited to see what this one has to offer!

Book: “Black Water Sister” by Zen Cho

Publication Date: May 11, 2021

Why I’m Interested: I’m not typically a big fan of contemporary fantasy, but I really enjoyed Cho’s “Sorcerer to the Crown” when we read it a few months back for book club. Plus, the premise of this one sounds pretty unique! Jess is a young woman who doesn’t feel as if she knows herself. After moving back to her native land of Malaysia, Jess’s credits the current stress of her life as the cause for the strange voice in her head. But before she knows it, she’s caught up in her dead grandmother’s world of ghosts, feuds, and gods. With such players on the stage, will Jess sink or swim as she forges her own way forward? Also, this is another fantastic cover!

Book: “The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng” by K. S. Villoso

Publication Date: May 4, 2021

Why I’m Interested: Well, obviously! I’ve been enjoying the heck out of Villoso’s “Chronicles of the Bitch Queen” trilogy. Each entry has been higher stakes than the last, and with the dire state of things in the last book, with Queen Tali imprisoned in her own country, I was eager to get my hands on this final entry. With so many forces aligned against her, Tali must once again pull together all of her strength and the aid of the few people she trusts to attempt to save not only herself and her son, but her country. To get there, however, she must delve even deeper into the hard choices that her warlord father made before her. And with the lingering threat of dragons long returned, will Tali be up to all of these challenges? There are a lot of string to tie up in this last entry, so I’m really excited to see how it all comes together!

Kate’s Picks

Book: “Hour of the Witch” by Chris Bohjalian

Publication Date: May 4, 2021

Why I’m Interested: Though I find it to be a very frustrating and maddening time to read about, I also am deeply fascinated by the Puritans in American during the Colonial era. Especially the Witch trials and accusations of witchcraft in general (and I love to see a story that shows a woman taking control of her own destiny in this setting, of course). So when I read about Chris Bohjalian’s “Hour of the Witch”, I knew that I had to read it. It covers those topics, but also is described like a modern woman in potential peril thriller. Mary Deerfield is a young woman living in Boston in the 1660s, and she is married to an abusive man who is a well liked member of the community. One night he goes too far and she demands she be granted a divorce. But then someone finds three tined forks buried in her yard, and people start to whisper that perhaps she is a witch, and it puts Mary in even more danger. I love a suspenseful thriller, and this time period is an awesome aspect of this one.

Book: “Arsenic and Adobo” by Mia P. Manansala

Publication Date: May 4, 2021

Why I’m Interested: Since this is a year that my reading goal is expanding my genre choices, I was kind of interested in giving another cozy mystery a shot after enjoying “The Widows of Malabar Hill”. But I didn’t want to go full on ‘woman who owns a yarn store solves mysteries’ into it (not that there’s a problem with that, of course). Enter “Arsenic and Adobo” by Mia P. Manansala. It follows Lila, a woman who returns to her small town after a break up and who helps out at her auntie’s diner. When her ex boyfriend eats at the establishment, they get get into a huge fight… and then he drops dead from poisoning. Now Lila has to not only figure out who killed her ex to save her auntie’s restaurant, she also has to clear her own name. The cover is cute, the story sounds fun, and there is promise of recipes in the back. I’m in.

Book: “While Justice Sleeps” by Stacey Abrams

Publication Date: May 25, 2021

Why I’m Interested: Like many people during the past couple of years, I have come to greatly and deeply respect Stacey Abrams for the fantastic political mind and organizer that she is. There is no way that Georgia would have gone blue in the Senate run offs this year had she not been at the helm. What I didn’t know until recently was that Abrams is not only a political powerhouse, but she’s also a fiction author! And her newest book is a political thriller! “While Justice Sleeps” follows Avery Keene, a law clerk for the powerful and notoriously cold Supreme Court Justice Wynn. When Wynn is suddenly hospitalized and falls into a coma, he leaves Avery as his power of attorney, which shocks everyone, Avery included. As Avery starts to look into his work, she finds that he’s been digging into one of the cases that is supposed to go before the court… one that could have sweeping and controversial medical implications. And it could be a reason that someone would want him dead. Another genre I’m not as familiar with, but Abrams is more than enough to gt me to check it out.

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

Serena’s Review: “Given”

Book: “Given” by Nandi Taylor

Publishing Info: Wattpad Books, January 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: As a princess of the Yirba, Yenni is all-but-engaged to the prince of a neighboring tribe. She knows it’s her duty to ensure peace for her people, but as her father’s stubborn illness steadily worsens, she sets out on a sacred journey to the empire of Cresh, determined to find a way to save him at any cost, even though failure could mean the wrath of her gods and ruin for her people. One further complication? On the day she arrives at the Prevan Academy for Battle and Magical Arts, she meets an arrogant dragon-shifter named Weysh who claims she’s his “Given”, or destined mate. Muscular, beautiful (and completely infuriating), he’s exactly the kind of distraction Yenni can’t afford while her father’s life hangs in the balance.

But while Yenni would like nothing more than to toss Weysh the man into the nearest river, Weysh the dragon quickly becomes a much-needed friend in the confusing northern empire. Yet when her affection for the dragon starts to transfer to the man, Yenni must decide what is more important: her duty to her tribe, or the call of her own heart.

Review: This book had two things going for it immediately: first, the cover is so cool! There was an alternative cover that was much less compelling, but the one I highlighted here was the one I saw and the one that initially drew me in. And second, it’s a book about dragons. Lump me in with all the other unoriginal fantasy fans who love dragons, I don’t care! A good dragon story will always be right up my alley. A bad dragon story, however….

Yenni has always grown up with duty at the heart of her life. But when her father falls prey to a mysterious illness, this duty takes on a new form. Not only must she travel to a distant academy to follow through on her next steps to queendom, but while there, she desperately hopes to find a cure for her beloved father. The last thing she needs is distractions. Especially not distractions that show up in the form of infuriating, handsome, young men. And frankly, the only thing in this particular young man’s favor is his dragon form whom Yenni forms a close relationship. Sadly, one comes with the other. But as Yenni finds herself growing closer to man and dragon, the choices before her and the duties that call to her begin to blend and meld.

I probably should have known from the description that this probably wasn’t going to be a winner for me. YA books that describe their romantic heroes as “infuriating” and “arrogant” are almost always underselling it, with the terms “demeaning” and “borderline-abusive” often being the words I would substitute. Alas, so was the case here.

There were so many cringe-worthy lines (also to be expected from most fantasy romances that center around some sort of “mate bond”…can we just stop with this entire idea??). And what was worse was how quickly Yenni ultimately got over her first impression made by some of these rude interactions. Her initial reaction of dislike is completely justified. Her 180-turn like five pages later was….less so. And that’s all without touching the utter lack of romance involved in an insta-love connection. Or any of the other trope-ridden high school romance boxes that were dutifully checked off as the story progressed. All the worse in that these were supposedly more adult characters! Sadly, every aspect of this romance didn’t work for me and pretty much ruined my experience.

Perhaps it’s for the best, then, that I also didn’t feel like there was overly much to ruin in the first place. The writing was strong enough, but wasn’t accomplishing anything truly note-worthy. There was an over-reliance on the author telling readers how they should feel about things, rather than creating situations and dialogue that would resonate with readers and do the showing for her. And the world-building and magical school were incredibly predictable and unoriginal feeling. Sure, one can say that with “Harry Potter” looming large, it’s almost impossible to write a magical school book that doesn’t feel like either a straight-up copy attempt or a pale comparison. But in response, I will point you to Naomi Novik’s “A Deadly Education” and leave it at that. It definitely can be done. This one just doesn’t manage it.

Ultimately, I was really disappointed by this book. Not only did it not live up to the awesome, bad-ass heroine who seemed to be depicted on the cover, but it fell into every negative romance trope you can think of in recent years. I really wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone. There are better dragon stories out there. Better leading ladies. Better worlds. In a word, better books.

Rating 4: Not only did it not bring anything new to the table, but it highlighted another unhealthy romantic dynamic as some sort of wish-fulfillment.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Given” is on these Goodreads lists: 2020 Fantasy and Science Fiction Books by Black Authors and Fantasy That Isn’t Fantastic Straight White Men Doing Epic Things….

Find “Given” at your local library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Don’t Tell a Soul”

Book: “Don’t Tell a Soul” by Kirsten Miller

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, January 2021

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

Book Description: People say the house is cursed. It preys on the weakest, and young women are its favorite victims. In Louth, they’re called the Dead Girls.

All Bram wanted was to disappear—from her old life, her family’s past, and from the scandal that continues to haunt her. The only place left to go is Louth, the tiny town on the Hudson River where her uncle, James, has been renovating an old mansion. But James is haunted by his own ghosts. Months earlier, his beloved wife died in a fire that people say was set by her daughter. The tragedy left James a shell of the man Bram knew—and destroyed half the house he’d so lovingly restored.

The manor is creepy, and so are the locals. The people of Louth don’t want outsiders like Bram in their town, and with each passing day she’s discovering that the rumors they spread are just as disturbing as the secrets they hide. Most frightening of all are the legends they tell about the Dead Girls. Girls whose lives were cut short in the very house Bram now calls home.

The terrifying reality is that the Dead Girls may have never left the manor. And if Bram looks too hard into the town’s haunted past, she might not either.

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

I decided to pick up “Don’t Tell a Soul” by Kirsten Miller after a Minnesota snow storm, one of the first of the season and no doubt a precursor to a long winter ahead. There is just something about the dead of winter that makes a haunted house story feel all the more ominous, probably the isolation factor (which is amped up by the pandemic we are facing right now), and while my review is just now coming out in the Spring, I will say that had I read it now that feeling would have been different. I hadn’t read anything by Miller before this book, so I had no idea what to expect. All I wanted was something creepy and satisfying to match the atmosphere, as well as a story that would keep me on my toes and tick all the boxes of a genre that I love. And I didn’t really get that from this book, unfortunately.

We will start with what I did like about this book. For one, there were some really creepy moments within the manor house, moments that felt like they could have fit right in in a classic haunted house story. From flashes of someone running across the property at night, to the sense of someone standing just around the doorway but right out of sight, the unsettling moments were crafted and described very well. I also liked how Miller takes the idea of the tragic woman in a Gothic haunted house story and tweaks with it a bit. There was a line I loved in particular, “Ghosts and girls go hand in hand. Why do you suppose that is?” It gave me chills, as so many ghost stories, especially in this subgenre, do have to do with women who were probably victims in one way or another. Instead of running with the outcome as interesting, Miller decides to look at the victimization at hand and show the injustice of that. Many of the women in this story are victims of misogyny and rape culture, and there is a lot of pushback against that, which I appreciated.

But the qualms I had with “Don’t Tell a Soul” skewed my ultimate enjoyment of the novel. For one, while we get a lot of hints about Bram’s tragic backstory, up until the reveals about her circumstances we get a lot of ‘other girls aren’t like me’ and ‘but if they knew who I REALLY was they wouldn’t think that’ kind of malarky that I find frustrating. “I’m Not Like Other Girls” is frustrating when it’s used to make a girl seem cooler, and it’s just as frustrating when it’s used to make a girl seem tragic. By the time we did find out what was going on with her, the build up didn’t match the way that it was just kind of stated and then not explored. It also felt like a lot of the people in her circles were just there to be awful and unsympathetic to bolster her tragic-ness, but it made them feel more two dimensionally villain-y than actual real world problematic people. On top of all that, while I DID like how Miller takes apart the idea of the ‘crazy girl in the haunted manor’ trope we’ve seen many a time before, it was done in a lot of heavy handed ways that felt more like telling as opposed to showing.

My biggest problem, however, was that while “Don’t Tell a Soul” wanted to make good points about misogyny and the dangers that women face, too often was the bad behavior of certain men written off as okay. There were many times where Bram was feeling intimidated by local men in the town, while characters who are supposed to be ‘good’ would tell her that she didn’t have anything to worry about when it came to them. My biggest issue of this was with the character Maisie. Maisie is a local girl who befriends Bram, and is there to be the character that makes you question the ‘crazy woman’ tropes, as she actively pushes back against it in theory, and also has to deal with a mother who has a reputation for being a crazy alcoholic (but is in actuality dealing with trauma). Maisie continuously brings up some really good points, but she herself is toxic in many ways. One of the biggest examples was how she was quick to defend the very clearly abusive and bad behavior of local men (spoilers here: at one point in hopes of ‘saving’ Bram from a situation, she literally gets two local men to kidnap her and tries to write it off as ‘oh their intentions were good you don’t have to worry about the men here’. WHAT THE FUCK). I was fine with the taking down of the privileged wealthy men who were abusing the town and its locals in various ways, but it felt like others who were behaving in other bad ways got more of a pass, and that didn’t sit right.

Overall, I found “Don’t Tell a Soul” mundane and frustrating. There were glimmers here and there, but it missed the mark for me.

Rating 5: Character development felt left behind in favor of messaging, but “Don’t Tell a Soul” brings up some interesting, though not terribly unique, points about misogyny.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Don’t Tell a Soul” is included on the Goodreads list “2021 YA Mysteries and Thrillers”.

Find “Don’t Tell a Soul” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “A River in the Sky”

Book: “A River in the Sky” by Elizabeth Peters

Publishing Info: Harper Collins, April 2010

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: August 1910. Banned from the Valley of the Kings, Amelia Peabody and husband Emerson are persuaded to follow would-be archaeologist Major George Morley on an expedition to Palestine. Somewhere in this province of the corrupt, crumbling Ottoman Empire—the Holy Land of three religions—Morley is determined to unearth the legendary Ark of the Covenant.

At the request of British Intelligence, Emerson will be keeping an eye on the seemingly inept Morley, believed to be an agent of the Kaiser sent to stir up trouble in this politically volatile land. Amelia hopes to prevent a catastrophically unprofessional excavation from destroying priceless historical finds and sparking an armed protest by infuriated Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Meanwhile, Amelia’s headstrong son, Ramses, working on a dig at Samaria, encounters an unusual party of travelers and makes a startling discovery—information that he must pass along to his parents in Jerusalem…if he can get there alive.

Previously Reviewed: “The Crocodile on the Sandbank” and “The Curse of the Pharaohs” and “The Mummy Case” and “Lion in the Valley” and “Deeds of the Disturber” and “The Last Camel Died at Noon” and “The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog.” and “The Hippopotamus Pool” and “The Ape Who Guards the Balance” and “Guardian of the Horizon”

Review: It’s been quite a while since I’ve returned to my beloved Amelia Peabody series. Not from any lack of continued interest, just the continuous growth of my TBR which shames me into reading more current books more often than not. But I felt like it was high time to return to a comforting favorite, so here we are! What adventures will Amelia and her family get up to this time?

The season ahead looks bleak for Amelia and Emerson. They are forbidden from working in their beloved location in the Valley of the Kings and have no fruitful prospects before them. But, sure enough, adventure arrives on their doorway in the form of spy craft and intrigue. This time they are sent by the British government to follow the activities of a would-be archeologist whom the intelligence community suspects of being an agent of disruption sent by the Kaiser to sew chaos in Palestine. But Amelia and Emerson are archeologists at their hearts and can’t help getting caught up in the man’s mad quest to uncover the Ark of the Covenant (and prevent the man from blundering up the entire affair to boot!)

Following what seems to be a bit of a trend, this book largely sees our party split up, with Amelia and Emerson working their own case, and Ramses off on his own (with some other friends) doing his own thing. The story intertwine in a creative way, but I think, overall, I’m always a bit disheartened by the books that playout like this. So much of what makes these stories so good is the interaction between its very charismatic cast of characters. Other than perhaps Amelia herself, I’ve never felt like any of the other cast can really stand well on their own. I think this book is making a case for Ramses being more of his own character, and perhaps that will just be the way later books go and he will begin to flesh out more as we move forward. But for now, I still miss the amusing parental/grown-child interactions that we see from this family unit when they’re all together.

For whatever reason, I also struggled a bit more with the mystery in this book. Some of this could just be due to the chopped-up nature of my reading experience, only listening to chunks here and there when I could catch a minute. But I had a hard time keeping track of the cast of characters, especially between the discoveries we learn from Ramses’ plotline and those we were discovering with Amelia and Emerson. I did like, however, that the general flow of both of these sections felt very different. Amelia and Emerson’s plotline largely felt familiar, with the pair travelling to an excavation site and finding their trip and work constantly interrupted by baffling experiences. Ramses, however, followed a much more action-packed story that was less a mystery than it was a thriller. The combination of both tones made for an interesting reading experience. It was just a bit tough reacclimating when we switched from one to the other.

I also really liked the new setting. The last book saw the crew return to the Lost Oasis, and that was a breath of fresh air from the usual Egyptian setting. But here we had an entirely new location, one we had never visited previously. This is where I wish our family group had been together more of the time, and the story could have devoted more of its page time to exploring the ins and outs of this region. As it was, we only had Amelia and Emerson’s chapters to really dive into Jerusalem and its political/cultural/religious quagmire.

I really enjoyed returning to this series. I do think that my piece-meal approach to reading these later books is hurting my experience a bit, though. I can see that the author is really trying to grow Ramses into a fully fledged lead character in his own right, but because I have such long gaps in my reading experience, he always is the least interesting to me, something that may become more of a problem going forward. Hopefully I can get to the next one more quickly and start to become more invested in him in his own right. But fans of the series are sure to be pleased with this one, especially if you’re already more onboard the Ramses train.

Rating 8: A fun new adventure that mixes the traditional mystery with a more action-packed thriller style of storyline.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A River in the Sky” is on these Goodreads lists: Novels That Let You Travel in Retro Style and Historical Mysteries and Thrillers Featuring Women.

Find “A River in the Sky” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Mirrorland”

Book: “Mirrorland” by Carole Johnstone

Publishing Info: Scribner, April 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from the publisher.

Book Description: With the startling twists of Gone Girl and the haunting emotional power of Room, Mirrorland is a thrilling work of psychological suspense about twin sisters, the man they both love, and the dark childhood they can’t leave behind.

Cat lives in Los Angeles, far away from 36 Westeryk Road, the imposing gothic house in Edinburgh where she and her estranged twin sister, El, grew up. As girls, they invented Mirrorland, a dark, imaginary place under the pantry stairs full of pirates, witches, and clowns. These days Cat rarely thinks about their childhood home, or the fact that El now lives there with her husband Ross.

But when El mysteriously disappears after going out on her sailboat, Cat is forced to return to 36 Westeryk Road, which has scarcely changed in twenty years. The grand old house is still full of shadowy corners, and at every turn Cat finds herself stumbling on long-held secrets and terrifying ghosts from the past. Because someone—El?—has left Cat clues in almost every room: a treasure hunt that leads right back to Mirrorland, where she knows the truth lies crouched and waiting…

A twisty, dark, and brilliantly crafted thriller about love and betrayal, redemption and revenge, Mirrorland is a propulsive, page-turning debut about the power of imagination and the price of freedom.

Review: Thank you to Scribner for sending me an ARC of this novel!

Right before I picked up “Mirrorland” by Carole Johnstone, I gave up on a thriller novel involving twin women, one of whom goes missing off a boat, and the other who finds herself getting closer to her twin’s husband after her sister’s supposed death. I actually ended up giving up on it, and it just wasn’t gelling with me. So imagine my double take when I picked up “Mirrorland”, and found a story about twin women, one of who goes missing off a boat, and the other getting closer to the MIA twin’s husband. Coincidence like whoa! Very “Dante’s Peak” and “Volcano”! All that aside, I did find myself more interested in “Mirrorland”, and didn’t find it hard to finish. But that only gets one so far.

“Mirrorland” has a lot of promise and potential that made me interested to read it, but the execution was a little lackluster. In terms of the good, I loved seeing Cat try to hunt through her old home, finding out piece by piece what someone (could it be El?) has left for her to find. As she slowly peels back the clues and starts to piece together what could have happened to her sister, we get a really fun narrative device that feels like it could also be unreliable. I also liked slowly learning about what Mirrorland’s purpose was for Cat and El, and the slow reveal as to what their home life was like that necessitated a place like Mirrorland. There were genuine surprises to go with it, and some of the big reveals totally caught me off guard.

But that is part of the problem with this book. For a few of the twists and reveals, one in particular that I don’t want to go into too much detail about, we have to really, REALLY do some suspension of disbelief and plot gymnastics for it to work. By the time we got to that big reveal, it was so out of left field that we had to have a character actively sit down and explain it, in the ultimate telling versus showing strategy. It feels a lot like the end of “Psycho”, where we get a stilted monologue about what the heck was going on with Norman Bates kind of offsets the entire film. It doesn’t work very well there, and it doesn’t work very well here either. And really, it’s so farfetched and unbelievable, and the story before it isn’t strong enough to make up for it (unlike “Psycho”). I was kind of flabbergasted that we got all of the wrap up in a monologue, as that feels like a big no no to me.

And to add insult to injury, I really didn’t connect with any of the characters. The only one that we really got to know was Cat, and she didn’t feel like she was reinventing the wheel when it comes to unreliable and tortured protagonists in stories like this one. And everyone else fit into very familiar and well worn tropes we see in the genre without really exploring beyond. Overall, it just felt like more of the same. While I definitely don’t doubt that this book and the book I had given up on previously were complete coincidences when it came to plot details and ideas, the fact remains that there just didn’t feel like there was a lot of originality going on in this book, nor were the characters people I was invested in.

“Mirrorland” was a bit of a letdown. Books don’t always have to reinvent the wheel, but if you’re going to lean into familiar themes and ideas, I want a seamless execution.

Rating 5: Lots of twists and turns, but some real plot gymnastics to make some of them work and not terribly interesting characters makes “Mirrorland” a bit of a letdown.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Mirrorland” is included on the Goodreads list “Mystery & Thriller 2021”.

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