Kate’s Review: “American Fire”

32191677Book: “American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land” by Monica Hesse

Publishing Info: Liveright, July 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: Audible

Book Description: Shocked by a five-month arson spree that left rural Virginia reeling, Washington Post reporter Monica Hesse drove down to Accomack County to cover the trial of Charlie Smith, who pled guilty to sixty-seven counts of arson. But Charlie wasn’t lighting fires alone: he had an accomplice, his girlfriend Tonya Bundick. Through her depiction of the dangerous shift that happened in their passionate relationship, Hesse brilliantly brings to life the once-thriving coastal community and its distressed inhabitants, who had already been decimated by a punishing economy before they were terrified by a string of fires they could not explain. Incorporating this drama into the long-overlooked history of arson in the United States, American Fire re-creates the anguished nights that this quiet county spent lit up in flames, mesmerizingly evoking a microcosm of rural America – a land half gutted before the fires even began.

Review: True crime is a genre that is known for a focus on the more horrific crimes that can be committed. You will usually find stories of murder, kidnapping, and missing people, and I’ll admit that those are the kinds of stories that float my boat the most. But there is a very large swath of topics that can be covered in the genre, and for the people who are interested in the recent true crime boom but not interested in the blood and gore, I have good news for you. “American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land” by Monica Hesse may be the perfect true crime book to check out. Because not only does it address relevant social issues, and focus on a crazy and obsessive romance, it has a shit ton of fires and arson that are incredibly nuts in their origins and motives.

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Buckle up, buttercups, it’s about to get weird. (source)

Hesse doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to revealing the perpetrators of the 60+ arsons that were set in Accomack County, Virginia in 2012. Given that she initially wrote articles for the Washington Post about these fires, the identities of Charles Smith and Tonya Bundick were already out there for all to see if you had followed Hesse’s writings. But that doesn’t make “American Fire” any less compelling. On the contrary, it’s almost more fascinating to be told the backgrounds of Smith and Bundick, the ways that the investigation unfolded for those who had to fight and solve the arsons, and to explore the economic and social circumstances that Accomack County was in when the arsons occurred. What you end up taking away is a smorgasbord of both maddening and upsetting circumstances that came together to create a vortex where these fires terrified and fascinated a community already on its knees. We get to see the relationship between Smith and Bundick come to fruition, and by learning about their backgrounds (from the menial and petty crimes that Smith had already committed to Bundick’s past relationships, be they romantic of familial) we see the context of how these two people found each other, clung to each other, and did completely outlandish acts (like ARSON) together. Hesse compares and contrasts them with other criminal romances, and tries to figure out how their codependence and passion could take such a strange and destructive turn. I thought that she gave them a pretty fair shake, in that she never excuses their actions, but paints a picture that leaves it so the reader can get inside their heads and potentially empathize, at least a little bit. And let me tell you, it’s one crazy ride that reads like something out of a Coen Brothers film, which is only buoyed by Hesse’s writing style and how gifted she is a narrative non-fiction.

But what’s even more interesting is how Hesse peels back the layers of Accomack County itself, and gives us an idea of what it was like in 2012. The arsons were all committed in buildings that were long abandoned, and given that it was 60+ buildings it goes to show that, like other rural parts of America during this time, the economic downturn really hit this area hard. With corporate agriculture and big box stores moving in and pushing independent businesses and their owners out, and with the general nosedive the economy took during the Recession, Accomack County was already going through something bleak, and its residents were in dire straights even before the fires began. The fires became a literal hell scape in a lot of ways, though they also piqued the interests of those in the communities as to who could be doing it. It’s an interesting prelude to what has become such a hot topic as of late, because of the cultural shift that seems to have happened with the 2016 election and how these communities and their grievances have been connected to it. Accomack County feels like a ghost of itself in this book, a place that has been left behind in some ways, and I couldn’t help but think of present day and how it feels like everything is burning to the ground and the inevitable tie our political climate now has to the idea of the forgotten rural areas. It just struck a lot of nerves for me as I read it. And I think that was part of the point that Hesse was trying to make.

“American Fire” might be the perfect true crime book for those who want to give the genre a try, but are reluctant to read something that has too much violence or nihilism. It’s a bizarre tale to be sure, but it has a lot of resonance that I didn’t expect from a book about two lovers who burn shit to the ground. But then one should expect the unexpected when it comes to this book.

Rating 8: A fascinating and a little bonkers tale of romance, fires, and a shifting American culture that reads stranger than fiction.

Reader’s Advisory:

“American Fire” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books About Middle America – NonFiction”, and “Murderino Reading List”.

Find “American Fire” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “To the Waters and the Wild”

45440239._sy475_Book: “To the Waters and the Wild” by S.C. McGrath

Publishing Info: Seanchie Press, May 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: BookishFirst

Book Description: Shrouded in mystery, ancient Eire nurtured a people both eloquent and fierce. Scholars and warriors were honored with like reverence and women were recognized as equals to men. Within this isolated world of poetry and warfare, Keelin, a fearless chieftain’s daughter, struggles to understand her fate. Gifted by the gods in the arts of healing and telepathy, and destined to become a priestess, she nonetheless rails against such a solitary and self-sacrificing life. She chafes under the strict tutelage of the austere priestess, Nuala, who demands unerring scholarship and dedication. Torn by conflicting emotions, Keelin imagines a life possible only in her dreams.

Keelin’s troubles are soon overshadowed by a dire threat to her island home: the most powerful civilization in the ancient world has turned a covetous eye toward Eire and an invasion is imminent. Rife with clan rivalries and blood feuds, Eire and its defiantly independent people seem doomed, forcing Keelin to resolve her internal strife and quickly hone her extrasensory powers to help defeat the invader. So, too, Eire’s clans must unite their warriors to battle the forces of the Roman Empire. Among these warriors is Brian, who Keelin has alternately hated and loved for as long as she can remember. The approaching battle will irrevocably seal their fate.

Review: I was excited when I snagged a copy of this title from BookishFirst. The description and short synopsis that I had early access to made it seem like just the kind of book that would be up my alley being in a similar vein as many of Juliet Marillier’s works (which we all know are my favorite). When I received my copy I dove right in, but sadly it didn’t live up to these, perhaps too high, expectations.

Set in an alternative ancient Ireland, Keelin has her future before her. Destined to be one of the wise women, valued for their gifted abilities, Keelin brings to the table her own abilities as a healer and a variation of telepathy. But any fears she has about the restriction placed on her in this role are suddenly done away by the very real threat of war on her people’s doorstep. Now she, and a warrior who has always inspired strong feelings, both good and bad, find themselves with the fate of their people in their hands.

As I mentioned above, this was a pretty easy book request for me to place. On paper it had everything I liked: a historical setting mixed with a dash of fantasy, romance, and a lyrical style of writing ala one of my favorite authors. But also as I mentioned, it ended up not being for me. For most of the book, this boiled down to my feeling rather “meh” about the entire thing. And then we got to end and while a stronger feeling was drawn forth, it was definitely not a positive one.

The biggest thing that stood out to me throughout the story was the fact that I simply didn’t feel connected to the main character. Either through the presentation or the fact that she was simply not that compelling, I never truly cared about Keelin’s arc. And she was still the best drawn character of the batch. Part of my struggle to connect to her could have had to do with the numerous time jumps in the story. They seemingly struck out of nowhere and left the story feeling disjointed and choppy. Because I was always off-balance due to this, I struggled even more to connect to Keelin herself and the events taking place around her.

I also found the romance to be much less of a factor than I had expected. Obviously this wasn’t presented as a romance novel, and I didn’t want it to be one, but my own personal preference would have been for this aspect of the story to have been given a bit more attention. There was also only a scattering use of the fantasy elements, which read as kind of strange given Keelin’s own abilities.

With both of these elements taking a back seat, the story was left mostly focusing on the war itself. Again, it’s not that I don’t enjoy stories that focus on warfare and action; I very much do! But combined with the weaker characterization and the lack of balance between the other story elements, the focus on the war itself and the larger battle scenes left little effect. Because I wasn’t wholly invested in Keelin herself or those around her, I didn’t care as much about the outcome.

And then the ending was not something I enjoyed. I don’t want to spoil it, but I feel like it’s the kind of ending that will frustrate many readers, coming out of nowhere and effectively undercutting its own story. My own personal preferences also played a part in my frustrations here, so some readers may have less of a problem with this. But I do want to put out a general warning that the ending is noteworthy, at the least. Overall, this book was a disappointing read for me. At best I wasn’t as invested as I would have liked, and when I did become invested, it was in regards to a strongly negative reaction to the choices made in the end.

Rating 5: A lackluster character and weaker fantasy elements leaves a story with a war at its heart that I didn’t particularly care about.

Reader’s Advisory:

“To the Waters and the Wild” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should be one “Popular Celtic Fantasy Novels.”

 

 

Kate’s Review: “A Madness of Sunshine”

43419669._sx318_Book: “A Madness of Sunshine” by Nalini Singh

Publishing Info: Berkley, December 2019

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

Book Description: New York Times bestselling author Nalini Singh welcomes you to a remote town on the edge of the world where even the blinding brightness of the sun can’t mask the darkness that lies deep within a killer…

On the rugged West Coast of New Zealand, Golden Cove is more than just a town where people live. The adults are more than neighbors; the children, more than schoolmates.
 
That is until one fateful summer—and several vanished bodies—shatters the trust holding Golden Cove together. All that’s left are whispers behind closed doors, broken friendships, and a silent agreement not to look back. But they can’t run from the past forever.
 
Eight years later, a beautiful young woman disappears without a trace, and the residents of Golden Cove wonder if their home shelters something far more dangerous than an unforgiving landscape.
 
It’s not long before the dark past collides with the haunting present and deadly secrets come to light.

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

Back at my previous library job, I spent a lot of my time shelving books in all sections of the library. This branch had a very high circulating romance section, and therefore I shelved a lot of Nalini Singh. This was my only exposure to her before Berkley Books sent me the link to an eARC of “A Madness of Sunshine”. I am not really one for romance novels in general, but the description caught my attention for two reasons. The first is that the plot is described like a gritty thriller. Missing women, a town with secrets, a potential serial killer, all of these things entice me. The other is the location: it takes place in New Zealand, my favorite place in the entire world! Could I relive the best vacation of my life through the pages of this book? I was willing to try!

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Two of my favorite Kiwis, who did not make an appearance in this book. (source)

“A Madness of Sunshine” is framed as a mystery/thriller, with the main thread of the story being about the disappearance of Miriama, a young and effervescent woman who goes missing and whose absence is noticed by many people within the small town of Golden Cove. It also happens to harken back to similar cases of young women who had gone missing a number of years previously. But the focus is more upon the two people who have their own reasons for wanting to find her. The first is Anahera, a woman who was born and raised in Golden Cove, and then left after a traumatic experience and she met a man who whisked her off to London. She’s back home, now a new widow (and reeling from the shock of his infidelity), and has a personal friendly connection to Miriama and her family. The other is Will, a detective who is trying to move on after he bungled an investigation in such a way that it left collateral damage. As the two of them try to put together the clues towards where Miriama could be, they start to get closer to each other. Which, given that Singh is a prolific and well received romance author, makes sense. I enjoyed both Anahera and Will, and while I didn’t really feel like they grew as much as I would have liked them to within the narrative I liked the heat gradually sparked between them. I did like learning about both of their backgrounds as well, and their various tragic backstory details made me really root for them to find happiness when all was said and done.

However, this is a thriller at it’s core, and when it came to that aspect of this book “A Madness of Sunshine” could have been a bit stronger. I would have liked to have more exploration of the missing women from years earlier, as it felt like they just got mentioned and brought up every once in awhile. I also felt like Miriama was more of an ideal than a character that we were supposed to care about, and because of that I didn’t really care one way or the other if she was found safe and sound at the end of the day. In terms of what happened to her, and what happened to the missing women prior, the solutions to those mysteries were standard and kind of bland. They made sense, but by the time we got to them I was less rocked by the revelations, and more ‘oh, okay’ when all was said and done. Not exactly the kind of reaction I like to have when it comes to the solution of a tantalizing thriller or mystery!

But the biggest positive of this book for me was the New Zealand locale. Singh effortlessly brings the town of Golden Cove to life, and the references to various aspects of New Zealand culture, geography, and history really anchored the setting for me. It makes me think about picking up more Nalini Singh novels, with the expectation of romance and heat, and see what they do for me. After all, it was the romance aspects that were the strongest parts of this book.

I think that if you are a thriller fan who isn’t used to a mix of other genres, “A Madness of Sunshine” may not satisfy your reading itch. But if you are going in with the expectation of a little bit of romance and angst, it might be a pretty good fit!

Rating 6: While it was a bit more heavy on the romantic and hidden past elements than the thriller ones, “A Madness of Sunshine” was an entertaining read, and takes place in my favorite place on Earth.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Madness of Sunshine” isn’t on many relevant Goodreads book lists yet, but I think it would fit in on “Popular Missing Persons Books”, and “New Zealand”.

Find “A Madness of Sunshine” at your library using WorldCat!

Highlights: December 2019

Thanksgiving has passed and the rest and most jovial part of the holiday season is upon us! As we prepare for Christmas and Hanukkah we look forward to time with family and friends, and time with some good books. Here are the ones we are most looking forward to this month! 

Serena’s Picks

44244324Book: “Dangerous Alliance: An Austentacious Romance” by Jennieke Cohen

Publication Date: December 3, 2o19

Why I’m Interested: There are a million and one retellings of Austen’s stories, most especially “Pride and Prejudice” and “Emma” (there’s another “Emma” movie coming out in only a few months, even!). But what sold me on this book was the concept of Vicky, a young woman living in Regency England who just so happens to love the novels of this brand new author, a lady named Austen. When Vicky’s own life begins to take a sudden turn with mysterious accidents, nefarious gentleman, and suitors with their own secrets, Vicky begins to ask her self “What would Austen’s ladies do in such circumstances?”

46299614Book: “Reverie” by Ryan La Sala

Publication Date: December 3, 2019

Why I’m Interested: The cover? Well, at least that was what first inspired me to do a bit more digging into what this book was about. The story is compared to “Inception” and reading through the description, I can definitely see that. Kane is discovered half dead on the banks of a river with very few memories only a general sense of “wrongness” in both himself and the world around him. From there it’s all portal jumping into strange and mysterious worlds that weave in and out of each other. In some ways, this sounds a lot like “The Starless Sea” which I absolutely adored. So I have high hopes for this!

43517326Book: “The Weight of a Soul” by Elizabeth Tammi

Publication Date: December 3, 2019

Why I’m Interested: Another book for which I have cover lust! Seriously, it’s just gorgeous. Props to whoever designed it! Set in a Viking village, Lena and Fressa are two sisters who are as close as can be. But when Fressa is found suddenly dead, while the village as a whole mourns, Lena cannot rest until she discovers the truth. From there the story jumps into deals with Norse gods and adventures that somehow become connected to Ragnarok, the Norse myth of the end of the world. Can Lena bring her sister back? And is it worth the steep cost? I’m really excited by the premise for this book and am especially curious to see who the Norse gods and Ragnarok are depicted. Sadly, likely not like this:

Kate’s Picks

43263388Book: “Trace of Evil” by Alice Blanchard

Publication Date: December 3, 2019

Why I’m Interested: I’m always on the lookout for a new mystery series to follow, as the Tempe Brennan books have taken a break, and one that has some tense thrills is just a bonus. So when I heard about “Trace of Evil” by Alice Blanchard, it seemed to hit the points I was looking for. It has a determined but haunted rookie detective, a central mystery that has high stakes (the murder of a cop’s wife, who’s pregnant to boot, is bound to be high priority), and a history of missing girls in a small town that may have some secrets. And on top of that, our detective, Natalie, has her own demons and traumas that she hopes to work through, involving herself and the murder of her older sister Willow. I would love it if this book kicked off a new series obsession for me, and I have high hopes that Detective Natalie Lockhart is going to be a new favorite of mine.

45701350Book: “The Dead Girls Club” by Damien Angelica Walters

Publication Date: December 10, 2019

Why I’m Interested: Give me a good urban legend any day and I will probably become obsessed with it. I’ve long touted stories that have elements of scary urban legends to the plots, but also lamented that there have been so few and far between of this niche genre that I am a total sucker for. When I heard about “The Dead Girls Club”, I was given hope that a new book was going to give focus to an urban legend that is, excitingly, about a witch! In 1991 Heather’s and her best friend Becca are part of The Dead Girls Club, where friends share stories of the ghastly and macabre. Becca’s new story is about The Red Lady, a woman executed for witchcraft centuries ago. But then Becca was murdered. In the modern day Heather has moved on with her life, until she starts getting messages about Becca. Messages that may not only be from The Red Lady, but imply they know that Heather was responsible for Becca’s death. Spooky, I say!

42771599Book: “Good Girls Lie” by J.T. Ellison

Publication Date: December 31, 2019

Why I’m Interested: A boarding school thriller!! With overachieving and bitchy girls, an outsider who may have secrets of her own, and murder most foul! Was this book written specfically for me? Because it checks so many guilty pleasure boxes! Recently orphaned Ash has left England for the U.S. to attend the prestigious Goode School, a boarding school that produces powerful and talented women. Ash has secrets of her own, but hopes to go under the radar at her new home. But she soon gets pulled into the life of friendship, secret societies, and the high expectations of her reputation. Things only get worse when someone ends up dead, and Ash may or may not have a hand in it. Guilty pleasure or not, “Good Girls Lie” sounds like a sudsy and gripping thriller!

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

 

Serena’s Review: “Winterwood”

40148425._sy475_Book: “Winterwood” by Shea Ernshaw

Publishing Info: Simon Pulse, November 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Be careful of the dark, dark wood . . .

Especially the woods surrounding the town of Fir Haven. Some say these woods are magical. Haunted, even.

Rumored to be a witch, only Nora Walker knows the truth. She and the Walker women before her have always shared a special connection with the woods. And it’s this special connection that leads Nora to Oliver Huntsman—the same boy who disappeared from the Camp for Wayward Boys weeks ago—and in the middle of the worst snowstorm in years. He should be dead, but here he is alive, and left in the woods with no memory of the time he’d been missing.

But Nora can feel an uneasy shift in the woods at Oliver’s presence. And it’s not too long after that Nora realizes she has no choice but to unearth the truth behind how the boy she has come to care so deeply about survived his time in the forest, and what led him there in the first place. What Nora doesn’t know, though, is that Oliver has secrets of his own—secrets he’ll do anything to keep buried, because as it turns out, he wasn’t the only one to have gone missing on that fateful night all those weeks ago.

Review: Yet another sophomore book from an author whom I missed out on the first go around. Not quite sure why I never got around to “The Wicked Deep,” but when I saw this one pop up, once again I decided to be late to the party and see what all the fuss was about. Unfortunately, while this strategy has worked with other books (shout out again to “Song of the Crimson Flower”!), here it just proved that I probably made the right choice with the first book and these are just not for me.

Nora is out in the woods after one of the worst winter storms in years. Everything is closed down, but she is not like others: she is a Walker woman and does not fear the woods. Instead, she shares a close bond with this strange, mysterious place where others dare not to walk. This connection leads to her a lost boy, missing for weeks and presumed dead. But he has survived the forest…somehow. As they grow closer to each other, Nora begins to suspect that Oliver has secrets of his own. Perhaps he, too, shares a connection with the forest? But what is it and does it pose a threat?

There were several reasons this book didn’t work for me, and most of them have to do with either the YA fantasy genre reading as a bit tired recently, or it’s just me. But the first thing that stood out to me as a warning sign that this book and I might not get along was the writing itself. I had heard that this, like the author’s first book, was noted for its atmospheric writing. I think I may have a different understanding of that word than the way it is often used. I have used it myself, don’t get me wrong. Probably recently, because if I didn’t say it in my review of “The Starless Sea,” then that’s an example of the type of book that I would describe that way. But when I use that word it has to do with how an author draws a scene. It doesn’t have to be restrained to the physical characteristics of setting, but to a scene as a whole: the action of it, the location, the indescribable “feel” of a situation. An atmospheric style of writing adds depth and is beautiful to read on its own, often with a poetic choice of words.

But I feel that when it is used to describe books like this one, most reviewers are getting at something different. I think it’s still consistently used for these books, but in a different way than what I described above. Most notably, I think the “atmosphere” is often applied to the characters themselves. Perhaps there is still some sense of poetry to the words chosen, but beautiful words devoid of rational meaning don’t result in much, in my opinion. This then ends up with books that use random, disconnected phrases to describe characters. In this book, only two pages in, the main character is describing herself as “more darkness than girl.” Ok. Sounds nice enough, I guess. But what does that actually mean? I have no idea, and given that we’re only two pages into the book, I don’t even have any context where I could try to parse out an actual meaning from that. Instead, it reads as if the author is simply throwing around  pretty phrases and not bothering to ground them in anything, or, frankly, make them worth while to the story at all. This is only one example, but it continues throughout the book.

This is the type of “atmosphere” that I find all too often in YA fantasy, and it’s always a red flag for me. It may not always be true (I’m sure there are exceptions if I really thought about it), but usually it’s a good predictor that the author seems to be having more fun writing pretty strings of words than constructing an actual story. Paired with this habit often comes bland characters, convenient plots, and stories that sound good on paper but prove to be underwhelming. Unfortunately, that all proved to be true here as well.

I didn’t care about our main characters. Neither of them were bad, but I also didn’t feel particularly attached to them. How can I be attached to someone who introduces herself to me as “more darkness than girl?” I don’t know what that means, and honestly I’m too lazy to find out. It’s the books job to make me care, and that doesn’t do it. I did like the general overview of the story, and the witchy elements and spooky woods were promising. But they were paired with a convenient and predictable plot. I was able to guess many of the twists (including the big one) right away which cut the legs out of it right from the start.

I feel like I’ve come down hard on this book, and I don’t want to make it seem that this one is any worse than most of the run-of-the-mill YA fantasy stories out there like this. I guess I was just in a mood to talk about this particular frustration, and this book had the bad luck of being the most recent one to show up on my reading list featuring this specific peeve. Fans of the author’s first book and her writing style will likely be pleased with this. But those who recognize the traits I’m talking about may find themselves underwhelmed by this story.

Rating 6: Hits a nerve for one of my pet peeves, but is otherwise a fairly standard, if uninspiring, story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Winterwood” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists. But it should be on “Magical Trees.”

Find “Winterwood” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Ninth House”

43263680Book: “Ninth House” (Alex Stern #1) by Leigh Bardugo

Publishing Info: Flatiron Books, October 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Galaxy “Alex” Stern is the most unlikely member of Yale’s freshman class. Raised in the Los Angeles hinterlands by a hippie mom, Alex dropped out of school early and into a world of shady drug dealer boyfriends, dead-end jobs, and much, much worse. By age twenty, in fact, she is the sole survivor of a horrific, unsolved multiple homicide. Some might say she’s thrown her life away. But at her hospital bed, Alex is offered a second chance: to attend one of the world’s most elite universities on a full ride. What’s the catch, and why her?

Still searching for answers to this herself, Alex arrives in New Haven tasked by her mysterious benefactors with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies. These eight windowless “tombs” are well-known to be haunts of the future rich and powerful, from high-ranking politicos to Wall Street and Hollywood’s biggest players. But their occult activities are revealed to be more sinister and more extraordinary than any paranoid imagination might conceive.

Review: I was never going to be Ivy League material and I never had the aspirations to be. The only thing that sounded at all interesting about Yale was the collection of secret societies that are scattered throughout the campus community, but even that came off as pretentious as hell to teenage me (though secretly I thought how cool to be admitted into one). Never did I consider that these secret societies would make a genuinely solid premise to a dark fantasy novel, but if anyone could pull it off, it would be Leigh Bardugo. Which brings us to “Ninth House”, Bardugo’s foray from YA fantasy into adult dark fantasy, a jump that I was very interested in seeing in motion. While I haven’t really cared for Bardugo’s fantasy tales like the “Grisha” series or the “Six of Crows” duology, I liked her take on “Wonder Woman”, and LOVED her short story “Verse Chorus Verse”. It stood to reason that Bardugo would probably do something at least interesting with a dark fantasy magic story set on the Yale Campus. I went in with midlevel expectations, and those expectations were blown out of the water. I loved “Ninth House”.

Bardugo has created a fun melding of the real world and a magical environment, with Yale University as an unlikely and yet seamless backdrop. She brings in themes class, privilege, and misogyny, and stirs them into magic, ghosts, the afterlife, and the occult. It’s no surprise that these themes can blend together with little problem, but Bardugo does it in a way that really packs a punch and gets her intent across. At first glance the idea of Yale’s secret societies as magical groups could feel a bit “Harry Potter”, but the darkness is there from the get go, with histories of said groups abusing their powers and preying on the less privileged and ‘less valued’, at least in their eyes, all for a perceived ‘greater good’. It’s up to Lethe House to keep them in line, lest they start abusing their stature and powers again, though you get the impression that Lethe is more there to work as ‘fixers’ should things go wrong, as the corruption is still very much in play. The social commentary may seem a little obvious, but it’s written in such a charming and engaging way that I didn’t even care. Bardugo also creates a unique ghost system. The ghosts, or ‘Grays’ as they are called, are everywhere, though they are mostly unseen by regular people (more on that in a moment). They can also disrupt magical rituals, and that would be a bad thing to the secret societies. I loved the descriptions of the Grays, from the ones who just meander around campus, to the more sinister and scary, to one whose notorious reputation may not be earned. This one in particular was great. His name is North, he may have killed his fiancee during the Victorian Era, he’s dark and broody and I, of course, fell in love with him almost immediately.

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Is he a potential murderer? Yes. Do I care even a little bit? No. (source)

The person tying all of this together is Alex Stern, a first year student at Yale who has a dark past and a purpose for her enrollment. Stern has been able to see Grays her entire life, and a horrific encounter with one left her traumatized (quick content warning moment here: there is a scene of sexual assault in this book that was upsetting and potentially triggering). After falling into drugs to cope, Alex fell into the wrong crowd and ended up the lone survivor of a multiple murder. This is when Yale set their sights on her, her talent to see Grays incredibly valuable, valuable to offer her a full ride and a fresh start. Alex is a fish out of water at Yale, and her pluckiness and grit makes for a fun character whose determination is very easy to root for. While at first she’s perfectly happy being a member of Lethe house and getting the perks of the Ivy League, the murder of a townie girl plunges her into the very dark past of the secret societies. Add in the loss of her mentor, Darlington, and Alex has to find her footing in a strange and dangerous world. Her story is told through time jumps and a nonlinear structure, and it’s an effective way to show how Alex got to where she is, and the influences people and events from her past have shaped her. I especially liked her relationship with Darlington, a Golden Boy of Lethe whose idealistic nature and earnest personality is a fun contrast to Alex, and whose absence makes for a lingering sense of sadness over the story, for both the characters and the reader. But it also makes Alex figure things out on her own, which makes her journey and investigation a bit more empowering.

On top of all this, the story is very engaging and paced perfectly. I had a hard time putting it down, finding myself reading during my down time when I should have been taking care of various tasks around the house. Oh well! What’s a neglected laundry pile in comparison to an addictive read?

“Ninth House” was a fun and fantastic dark fantasy story with lots to love. It’s set up for another book, and I for one cannot wait to get my hands on the next one. I need to know what Alex is going to do next!

Rating 10: A fast paced and well plotted dark fantasy, “Ninth House” builds a complex world of magic and ghosts within an unlikely setting. I’ll be looking forward to the next Alex Stern adventure!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Ninth House” is included on the Goodreads lists “Dark Academia”.

Find “Ninth House” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Starless Sea”

43575115._sy475_Book: “The Starless Sea” by Erin Morgenstern

Publishing Info: Doubleday Books, November 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student in Vermont when he discovers a mysterious book hidden in the stacks. As he turns the pages, entranced by tales of lovelorn prisoners, key collectors, and nameless acolytes, he reads something strange: a story from his own childhood. Bewildered by this inexplicable book and desperate to make sense of how his own life came to be recorded, Zachary uncovers a series of clues–a bee, a key, and a sword–that lead him to a masquerade party in New York, to a secret club, and through a doorway to an ancient library, hidden far below the surface of the earth.

What Zachary finds in this curious place is more than just a buried home for books and their guardians–it is a place of lost cities and seas, lovers who pass notes under doors and across time, and of stories whispered by the dead. Zachary learns of those who have sacrificed much to protect this realm, relinquishing their sight and their tongues to preserve this archive, and also those who are intent on its destruction.

Together with Mirabel, a fierce, pink-haired protector of the place, and Dorian, a handsome, barefoot man with shifting alliances, Zachary travels the twisting tunnels, darkened stairwells, crowded ballrooms, and sweetly-soaked shores of this magical world, discovering his purpose–in both the mysterious book and in his own life.

Review: I had to do a double-take when I saw this book pop up on Edelweiss+. I was like, “I know that author! But…but is she finally publishing something new??” It’s been several years since “The Night Circus” was published. Long enough that I look fondly at the book on my shelf but hadn’t really thought to check up again on what the author was doing. This is not a complaint about the time taken between books. Some authors can pump them out seemingly one after another. But as it stands, Morgenstern can take all the time she wants if it means we keep seeing books like “The Night Circus” and now the wonder that is “The Starless Sea.”

Once upon a time there was a book. And in that book were stories. And in those stories were characters reading books. Too, there were doors. And through those doors more books, and characters reading those books. The story winds in and out, but this one begins with Zachary, a college graduate who once saw a door but chose not to open it. A simple moment, seemingly, until he discovers that same moment described in detail in a book he discovers in the library while conducting research. But his is only one among many stories contained with this book’s pages. And as he searches for answers, he finds that through that door that he didn’t take are a million other doors just waiting to be opened.

Books, authors, and readers have a strange, self-celebrating relationship. Readers love books. Some readers love them so much that they go out and write their own. Often about how much they love books. Other readers find those books and gain all the more pleasure from reading a book about characters who love reading books. And some readers go on to be librarians who like nothing more than stocking their shelves with books, especially those books that wax poetic about a love for reading, libraries, and, of course, books themselves. It’s all very “snake eating its own tail,” but in the best of ways possible. All of this to say: “The Starless Sea” is one of the most beautiful love letters to stories and books that I have ever read.

The book starts off slowly, with several seemingly unconnected stories coming one after another to the point that the reader may start to question whether they are reading a collection of tales or a novel. But soon enough Zachary’s story starts to come together and the pieces oh, so slowly begin to fall into place. It takes the entire book to get a full picture of what Morgenstern has accomplished here, which makes it all the more challenging to review. This is a nested-doll of a story and even now I feel that I might have missed some clues here and there.

The world itself is intricate, lush, and a bit spooky around the edges. Like Hogwarts is to many of us, the Starless Sea and its vast libraries are to readers. What reader doesn’t wish to live Zachary’s story? To open a door and find oneself part of a story? And if not that, I want to go there just to cozy up with the millions of books and the hundreds of cats wandering around (I mean, honestly, it’s like she wrote this book for me). There are details galore and half of the fun is simply wandering into the next scene alongside Zachary to see what marvels lay beneath the next. There are just enough strings holding it all together to make it feel connected and approachable. But I was still caught off guard again and again by the directions the story took in its many twists and turns.

There are two love stories at the heart of this book. One, a love that spans centuries, a story that keeps looking for its ending. And the other is Zachary’s. Each is beautiful in its way, one highlighting the testament of love over time and the other the connections that can be formed more quickly but still inspire the greatest of undertakings on each other’s behalf. Each was lovely in its own way, though given Zachary’s role in this book, his stood out all the more.

Like “The Night Circus,” this book highlights just how well-matched Morgenstern’s creativity is with her stylistic writing. In another author’s hands, some of these scenes could have come off as pretentious or grandiose, but her simple, yet delicate, manner of laying down words on a page makes them seem like just more magic to be discovered. As I said, the book builds slowly, and even towards the end when the action begins to pick up, Morgenstern still devotes a decent amount of page time to her descriptive settings and poetic observations. Readers who enjoyed her previous book will be pleased to see her talents put to work in another such story. Those looking for a faster-paced story might struggle a bit, however.

So close to the end of the year and with my “Top 10” on the mind, this was an instant winner for me. I think I would even go so far as to say that I preferred this book to “The Night Circus.” In many ways, that book now seems as if it was a primer, or simply Morgenstern testing the water, as she prepared for the tour de force that is “The Starless Sea.”

Rating 10: A love letter to stories and books that makes you wish for nothing more than to visit the Starless Sea yourself.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Starless Sea” is on these Goodreads lists: “Best Books with Underground Setting” and “Scifi/Fantasy for when you are feeling down.”

Find “The Starless Sea” at your library using WorldCat!