Serena’s Review: “The Art of Theft”

36510437Book: “The Art of Theft” by Sherry Thomas”

Publication Info: Berkley, October 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: As “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” Charlotte Holmes has solved murders and found missing individuals. But she has never stolen a priceless artwork—or rather, made away with the secrets hidden behind a much-coveted canvas.

But Mrs. Watson is desperate to help her old friend recover those secrets and Charlotte finds herself involved in a fever-paced scheme to infiltrate a glamorous Yuletide ball where the painting is one handshake away from being sold and the secrets a bare breath from exposure.

Her dear friend Lord Ingram, her sister Livia, Livia’s admirer Stephen Marbleton—everyone pitches in to help and everyone has a grand time. But nothing about this adventure is what it seems and disaster is biding time on the grounds of a glittering French chateau, waiting only for Charlotte to make a single mistake…

Previously Reviewed: “A Study in Scarlet Women” and “A Conspiracy in Belgravia” and “The Hollow of Fear”

Review:  Continuing my week of Sherry Thomas reviews! While “The Magnolia Sword” took me by surprise (I didn’t realize it was coming out until late in the game, and still later figured out the author was Sherry Thomas), I’ve been impatiently waiting for the release of the latest “Lady Sherlock” story. Thanks to Edelweiss+, I had early access to it on my Kindle, and due to a complete lack of willpower, I ended up reading this book a few months ago but still wanted to review it closer to its publication date, so here we are. And while this wasn’t my favorite book in the series, I’m still enjoying the heck out of these stories and, again, am anxiously awaiting the next.

After helping Lord Ingram escape a false murder charge in the last book, Charlotte Holmes once again finds herself at the service of one of her close friends. This time it’s Mrs. Watson who has been contacted by a friend from the past who is now caught up in a mysterious blackmail/art theft situation. But this time, Charlotte and co. must do more than simply unravel the various players in this charade, but now find themselves playing an active role within the events themselves. Now she must not only discover who is at the heart of this conflict, but find a way to walk the narrow line between solving the case and not becoming a criminal herself!

Many of the strengths of the original books are still present here. Charlotte, as always, is a perfectly realized character, now comfortably familiar in both her quirks (her sense of fashion and preference for sweet treats), her strengths (obviously), as well as her weaknesses (challenges with navigating complicated relationships). One of the pleasing things about a long(ish) running series is this solid comfort with a character who is understood and beloved, but it also come with challenges. Here, while Charlotte is still at the heart of untangling the mystery, it feels like she is not the main character in her own book. That is, there is very little ongoing character development or a unique arc that is devoted to her. Much of this character work is picked up by the others in the book, but for a series that is called the “Lady Sherlock” series, this book was the first that did begin to show some signs of not quite knowing where to go from here with its titular character.

Luckily, the series has already set up a good number of side characters in the first several books so a shift of focus to them, while not preferred, also still feels earned. And I was already invested enough to feel that their conflicts were enough to carry much of this story. Mrs. Watson, of course, is at the heart of this story, and I loved learning more about her past and those who played a role in it. We see, again, both the strengths and weaknesses that lead her to where she is today. She also serves as a good mentor for Livia who ends up taking on a much more active role in this story.

Throughout the series, Livia has always played a bit of a strange role. A decent amount of page time is devoted to her, but she’s typically no where near the action and her development has moved at a fairly glacial pace. Here, Livia finally gets to come out of the shadow and play with the big kids. I loved seeing her come out of her shell, even if it was an uncomfortable process for her. Through her, the story also spends a bit exploring, again, the limitations on women in this time period. And, while Livia’s life has by no means been a happy one, she comes to realize the privileges that she has taken for granted.

I did enjoy the mystery itself as well. After the more active role that Charlotte took on in the previous book, it was nice to see that approach used once again here with Charlotte and co. essentially staging a heist. The story has definite “‘Ocean’s 11’ but in Victorian times” vibes, which I thought was a clever change of pace from the other, more typical mysteries of the first books. There were some surprises sprinkled throughout, as well, and, overall, I found the conclusion and explanation satisfying.

However, for all the answers we do get, there were a few too many loose ends left hanging. This was clearly done on purpose, but there were just one or two too many for me not to begin to feel slightly frustrated and anxious. For one thing, these mysteries are complicated. It always takes a bit of thinking on my part to fully put things together and still I’d have a hard time explaining it all later. But to add more unsolved clues on top of all that, clues I can only assume will come into play in a later book and that I will need to recall…it’s a bit too much. For me, I was left feeling a bit worried that I was not only missing things in this book, but will now likely miss even more in some future story.

The book also ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, which I’m not sure was necessary. It’s not the type that gnaws away at you, but more just introduces the topic of the next book. But it seemed liked a strange choice for an established series. It’s the kind of thing you do in book one or two, just to keep readers interested. But here, it was more like an unneeded “coming next week” preview for a well-watched and established TV show. Just leave it out and let the book end on a note relevant to this book’s story. The next book can take care of itself without page time given to it here.

Those quibbles aside, this was another solid entry in the “Lady Sherlock” series. I’m definitely excited for the next book as it seems like it will focus on a character who wasn’t much seen in this story. And I hope that Charlotte’s more active role continues. However, I also hope that she gets a bit more character development and a more defined emotional arc in future stories. I enjoy the side characters, for sure, but I’m mostly here for Charlotte. All of this to say, if you’ve enjoyed this series so far, you’re good to go on this one as well. And never fear, there will be another; it’s all set up right there at the end of this one.

Rating 8: While Charlotte fades a bit into the background and there are a few too many dangling clues, I enjoyed the addition of a heist plot onto another solid mystery.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Art of Theft” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads’ lists, but it is on “Historical Mystery 2019.”

Find “The Art of Theft” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Institute”

43798285Book: “The Institute” by Stephen King

Publishing Info: Scribner, September 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: From #1 New York Times bestselling author Stephen King, the most riveting and unforgettable story of kids confronting evil since It—publishing just as the second part of It, the movie, lands in theaters.

In the middle of the night, in a house on a quiet street in suburban Minneapolis, intruders silently murder Luke Ellis’s parents and load him into a black SUV. The operation takes less than two minutes. Luke will wake up at The Institute, in a room that looks just like his own, except there’s no window. And outside his door are other doors, behind which are other kids with special talents—telekinesis and telepathy—who got to this place the same way Luke did: Kalisha, Nick, George, Iris, and ten-year-old Avery Dixon. They are all in Front Half. Others, Luke learns, graduated to Back Half, “like the roach motel,” Kalisha says. “You check in, but you don’t check out.”

In this most sinister of institutions, the director, Mrs. Sigsby, and her staff are ruthlessly dedicated to extracting from these children the force of their extranormal gifts. There are no scruples here. If you go along, you get tokens for the vending machines. If you don’t, punishment is brutal. As each new victim disappears to Back Half, Luke becomes more and more desperate to get out and get help. But no one has ever escaped from the Institute.

As psychically terrifying as Firestarter, and with the spectacular kid power of It, The Institute is Stephen King’s gut-wrenchingly dramatic story of good vs. evil in a world where the good guys don’t always win.

Review: Whenever a new book I really want to read is about to come out, I try to get myself positioned high on the request list at the library. When this doesn’t work, I will make sure it’s going to be available at my former job on the day it comes out, as copies from that branch don’t go to the request list. And then once it’s publication day, if I can I will rush to that branch before opening, and become that patron that I used to kvetch about: the one who hangs out outside before the doors open and rushes the new wall as soon as they do. This made it so I got a copy of Stephen King’s “The Institute” at the library the day it came out, and yeah, I was a bit of a sore winner when I snagged it off the display. We are kind of in the midst of a King Renaissance right now, from new books to adaptations of his works in movie theaters and on TV and computer screens. I’m always going to be stoked for anything King related, and he has so much content to explore that you have a lot to work with. Unfortunately, on the flip side of that is the fact that not everything is going to be a winner, and “The Institute”, for me, was not a winner.

But like usual, we’ll start with the good. Even in books he’s written that don’t quite click with me, I am almost always happy with the way that King portrays childhood experiences and childhood friendships. From “It” to “The Body”/”Stand By Me”, the way that he can capture the innocence and yet importance of these childhood bonds and put them on the page is almost always incredibly effective. He brings this talent to “The Institute”, as whenever he focuses on Luke Ellis, Kalisha, and the other child prisoners it feels like you’re seeing real kids interacting with each other. I was worried that the innate precociousness of the children, especially super genius Luke, would stunt the dialogue and relationships, but I greatly enjoyed all of them whether they were playing, scheming, or mourning. While I didn’t feel like I got to know all of them as deeply as I got to know The Losers Club or the four boys who went looking for a dead body, I still liked seeing the glimpses into the relationships that we did, as it was always entertaining. With a resurgence in popularity of ‘kids solving mysteries/fighting back against more powerful entities’ because of “Stranger Things”, I definitely get tapping back into that kind of tale. It is also very hard to deny that, given the horrific reality that children are being imprisoned in cages at the Southern Border, some of the themes are all the more resonant in this story. King does a good job of drawing comparisons without treading into distaste, and given that I’m sure this book had already been submitted to the publisher before some of the more recent developments I definitely couldn’t help but connect his story to the horrible things our Government is doing. Especially as the slow reveal of The Institute’s true intentions is carefully peeled back. Plus, the pacing was well done and it never felt slow, so it was mostly entertaining.

The reason that this doesn’t get a higher score from me is because “The Institute”, while being entertaining, didn’t quite evoke the emotions I have come to want from Stephen King novels. Yes, the concept is horrible and scary, and there were certainly thrilling aspects of the plot as we reach the end, but I never felt the actual tension, elation, sadness, and fear. For whatever reason it just didn’t connect with me. I think that part of it was that this felt less like a horror novel and more like a conspiracy thriller, and while that’s fine and I generally like a good conspiracy thriller, this one just didn’t quite click. And I think the other part I already kind of touched on earlier, in that while I liked the characters and the relationships they had with each other (the kids especially), I don’t think that we got to know them well enough for me to really connect with them. And if I’m not as connected, I’m not as invested. I don’t think “The Institute” was a bad read by any definition, but if a book falls into these traps that I’ve mentioned, I’m just not going to enjoy it as much.

I’m so happy that Stephen King is still writing, and that he’s getting all kinds of attention right now. While “The Institute” was a miss, the man is still my favorite horror author of all time. And given that there’s already rumors of this book being adapted into yet another TV series based on King source material, it may be in your interest to give it a go regardless of what I thought!

Rating 6: While “The Institute” was an entertaining read and had its moments and details that I liked, overall it fell a little flat for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Institute”, surprisingly, isn’t included on many relevant or specific Goodreads lists. But I think that it would fit in on “Conspiracy Fiction”, and “Books like Stranger Things”.

Find “The Institute” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan”

44059557._sy475_-1Book: “The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan” by Sherry Thomas

Publishing Info: Tu Books, September 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: CHINA, 484 A.D.

A Warrior in Disguise

All her life, Mulan has trained for one purpose: to win the duel that every generation in her family must fight. If she prevails, she can reunite a pair of priceless heirloom swords separated decades earlier, and avenge her father, who was paralyzed in his own duel.

Then a messenger from the Emperor arrives, demanding that all families send one soldier to fight the Rouran invaders in the north. Mulan’s father cannot go. Her brother is just a child. So she ties up her hair, takes up her sword, and joins the army as a man.

A War for a Dynasty

Thanks to her martial arts skills, Mulan is chosen for an elite team under the command of the princeling–the royal duke’s son, who is also the handsomest man she’s ever seen. But the princeling has secrets of his own, which explode into Mulan’s life and shake up everything she knows. As they cross the Great Wall to face the enemy beyond, Mulan and the princeling must find a way to unwind their past, unmask a traitor, and uncover the plans for the Rouran invasion . . . before it’s too late.

Review: There are certain stories out there that I always think about wistfully. They are the ones that have so much potential and yet, while tried, have still not (to my mind at least) come out with a definitive version (like “Beauty” by Robin McKinely is for me for “Beauty and the Beast). Even worse, sometimes, are those that have so much potential and have been attempted only to muck it up badly. “Mulan” is one of those tales. It has all the right ingredients to make a great story and to be (seemingly) easily adapted into a story that is sure to appeal to many readers right now. And yet…for me, it definitely falls in the latter category of disappointment: attempts have been made but not only are they not the definitive version (again, my own opinion of it at least), but I had varying levels of frustration with these attempts. From boredom to out-right anger. cough”Flame in the Mist”cough. But…but…finally!

Mulan has spent much of her life disguised as a boy and training to compete in an age-long duel between her family and another over the possession of two incredible swords. Her days are filled with swordplay, catching flying arrows while blindfolded, and other incredible feats. She has defined her life around this role, though secretly mourns the loss of her own identity as her father’s only daughter. But when war strikes, thoughts of the duel are set aside and duty rises to the forefront. Now, marching to battle, Mulan finds herself in the company of a handsome prince who seems somehow familiar. And all too soon her fighting skills are put to the test, not in an organized duel, but out in the wild with death on the line.

I was incredibly hopeful for this version of “Mulan” when I saw that Sherry Thomas would be the author writing it. Not only is Thomas a Chinese American who was born and lived in China during her childhood, but she’s successfully tackled retelling other well-known historical stories, like her “Lady Sherlock” series (guess what review you’ll be reading from me next??). Like that series, here Thomas not only masterfully recreates the character of Mulan but deftly draws a version of early China that not only feels authentic but is very informative of a time and culture that many Western readers may not be familiar with.

The central conflict, for example, doesn’t center  around the ubiquitous, largely undefined Huns as many past versions have done. Instead, it dives into the various political maneuverings of North and South China, their differing cultures, and the challenges of bringing together a nation as large and diverse as that. It also speaks to the seeming randomness of borders and how being on one side or another can define much about a person and have lasting effects on the way one group is perceived over time.

But don’t get me wrong, the story isn’t just an exploration of cultural definitions in China; Mulan and her fellows are going to war. I very much enjoyed the action of this story. From the beginning, we see the differences between how Mulan has been raised to fight, seeing it as something bound in duty and a form of art, and what fighting looks like on a battlefield when your life depends on your choices. Here we see Mulan struggle not because she is a woman and has to somehow overcome more due to this “deficiency” (no, she is largely acknowledged as one of the most skilled fighters from the beginning), but because she is human, and being human makes fear and courage very real things that must also be learned and mastered. Here, we have not only the exploration of these themes through Mulan’s experiences, but some really great examples seen in the princeling himself.

I think of them all, much as I love Mulan herself, the princeling struck me as the most interesting character. Thomas goes some surprising routes with this character and deftly sidesteps the pitfalls that other versions have fallen into where his “manliness” is used to bluntly contrast Mulan’s own femininity. Much as I love Disney’s “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” song, this version provides a much more layered character and one who contrasts Mulan, but not in the ways one would expect.

I’m not terribly familiar with the original tale of Mulan, but this one feels right. The added layer of the ancient sword duel and the use of this aspect of the story to delve into family, honor, and trust fleshed the story out beyond the confines of a war story where a girl disguises herself as a man. Mulan’s conflicts are not only battles and war tactics, but the challenge of understanding one’s parents and the choices of those who came before us. Through this understanding, she is better able to find peace with her own walk of life.

I absolutely loved this story. It’s everything I could have wanted for a “Mulan” retelling. If I had to ding it, HAD to, I would say I could have used a tad bit more of the romance. But this is such a niggling thing that it barely is worth mentioning. Overall, I found the romantic plotline, like everything else, to be very satisfying. This story not only retells the known tale (at least what most readers know of it, probably, again, based on Disney), but it adds new layers to the main characters and the conflict itself. If you, like me, were waiting for the version, your wait is over! Check out this book immediately!

Rating 9: Absolutely brilliant. Thomas has done for “Mulan” what she did for Sherlock: taken a challenging-to-get-right story and blown it away!

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “Retellings of Mulan” and “YA East Asian Fantasy.”

Find “The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Mooncakes”

44774415._sy475_Book: “Mooncakes” by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Lion Forge, October 2019

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

Book Description: A story of love and demons, family and witchcraft.

Nova Huang knows more about magic than your average teen witch. She works at her grandmothers’ bookshop, where she helps them loan out spell books and investigate any supernatural occurrences in their New England town.

One fateful night, she follows reports of a white wolf into the woods, and she comes across the unexpected: her childhood crush, Tam Lang, battling a horse demon in the woods. As a werewolf, Tam has been wandering from place to place for years, unable to call any town home.

Pursued by dark forces eager to claim the magic of wolves and out of options, Tam turns to Nova for help. Their latent feelings are rekindled against the backdrop of witchcraft, untested magic, occult rituals, and family ties both new and old in this enchanting tale of self-discovery.

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

I know that not everyone has the same love and affinity for all things horror that I do. And while I know that for me the month of October is all about the ghosts, ghouls, slashers, and monsters that I want to associate with, for others that may not be as appealing. So for today’s Horrorpalooza book, we’re actually inching away from the horror, and looking at a kinder, gentler kind of book of the season, where witches and werewolves fall in love, and magic can lead to self discovery. Today I’m going to talk about the sweet and romantic graphic novel “Mooncakes” by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu, a story about a witch named Nova and a werewolf named Tam and the magic that surrounds their lives, for better or for worse.

“Mooncakes” takes the kinder, gentler witch story and gives it some new and unique twists. Nova’s family life is the familiar matriarchal witch household, as she is living with her grandmothers Quili and Nechama and learning about magic and spells from them. While I do love a vengeful or spiteful witch, or one who has legitimate grievances with society and the patriarchy, I do have to say that I also like the positive stories of witches empowering other witches through education, family, and love. “Mooncakes” really embodies this positive trope, and Quili and Nechama are the perfect supportive and bustling mother figures that fill the void of Nova’s parent’s deaths. Nova herself is a unique main character. She is Chinese American, so her culture influences not only her home life but also her magic. Along with that she also has hearing aids, and after she lost her hearing she began to master the art of nonverbal magical spells, a concept that we may see (as sometimes witches don’t have to say ANYTHING to make magic happen in stories), but is rarely explored. But it’s her romance with Tam that is the center of the story. Tam and Nova were childhood friends, but Tam left town and has been wandering on their own, living as a werewolf and distancing themself from an abusive home life. When Tam and Nova reconnect, their lingering feelings for each other start to re-boot. Their romance is sweet and not terribly complicated, and I liked that Tam’s nonbinary identity wasn’t the focus of the conflict, and that they were easily and readily accepted by the other characters.

The plot and the magical aspects of this story, however, weren’t as strong as I had hoped they would be. We know that Tam is being targeted for some kind of nefarious spells, as when we meet them they are in conflict with a horse demon in the woods. Nova is there for Tam and is determined to figure out what is going on, but I never felt like that aspect of the plot was really focused on. We get hints as to who may be behind it, and while I feel like Walker tried to hide the culprit, it felt pretty obvious as to who it was going to be. While we are told that Tam is in some serious danger, it never feels like the stakes are all that high. And once we got to the big showdown, things resolved themselves rather easily, and threw in some obvious tropes that have been seen many times before for good measure in terms of resolution. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily! I love a ‘the love for the other person is able to fight through a spell’ twist as much as the next person, but when the rest of the magical plot and conflict feels a little haphazard, that doesn’t exactly make the twist seem stronger. I think that had this story paid more attention to building up the conflict and magic issues, it would have worked better. As it was, it felt more like an afterthought.

The art, however, is totally adorable and sweet! I really like Wendy Xu’s style, and I love the details and designs that she brought to the characters.

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(source)

If you want a sweet romantic story with magical elements, “Mooncakes” could be a good choice. I wouldn’t go in expecting a whole lot of magical system building, but it does have charming characters and some great representation. And if you don’t want something scary this witchy season, it’s a good alternative.

Rating 6: A cute and romantic story about witches, family, and magic, “Mooncakes” is filled with a lot of sweetness, though not much complexity.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Mooncakes” is included on the Goodreads lists “Comics for Witches”, and “Graphic Novels Featuring LGBTQ Themes”.

Find “Mooncakes” at your library using WorldCat!

Scary Reads from Silver Screams: Book Picks from Spooky Movies

We are deep into the Halloween Season, and while scary stories and creepy books are all well and good, a huge part of the season, at least for Kate, is consuming all the horror and spooky movies that she can. For those of you who also enjoy a good festive movie for this time of the year, here is a list of book recommendations that could be a good pairing with your favorite spooky film!

Movie: “Suspiria” (1977) / Book: “The Walls Around Us”

The original “Suspiria”, directed by Dario Argento, is a surrealistic and completely bananas horror film with vibrant colors, a kick ass soundtrack, and an unnerving setting in a ballet academy where strange, supernatural things are afoot. The reasons that it would pair well with Nova Ren Suma’s “The Walls Around Us” are numerous. “The Walls Around Us” involves a ballet school, death, and a dancers who find themselves behind bars in a juvenile detention center for murders they may or may not have committed. But, like “Suspiria”, there are strange and surreal supernatural elements that come into play, and make the reader feel like they don’t know which way is up when all is said and done. Both “Suspiria” and “The Walls Around Us” are creepy and unsettling, and fans of the movie would definitely find a lot to like in this book.

Movie: “The Blair Witch Project” / Book: “Hex”

“The Blair Witch Project” is still one of Kate’s all time favorite horror movies, as any movie involving scary witches is going to be a must watch in her book. Three grad students go into the woods to film a documentary about a folktale involving a woman who was killed as a witch, and disappear. The movie is the found footage of their disappearance, and the slow realization that someone, or something is in the woods with them. This movie is going to be perfectly with Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s “Hex”. Like “Blair Witch”, it involves a town that is haunted by it’s history, and literally haunted by the ghost of a witch that was killed in puritan times. Not only are the themes of witches from olden times at play, so are the themes of technology, as the filmmakers in “Blair Witch” are filming the whole time, and the townspeople in “Hex” use cameras and tech to keep an eye on the witch as she moves about. Both are disturbing as all get out.

Movie: “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974) / Book: “Off Season”

For those who aren’t afraid of a little brutality in their horror media and literature, this pairing could be for you. In “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, a group of young adults run afoul a family that has started killing people for sport and profit after they lost their livelihood at the local slaughterhouse. It was a notorious sensation at the time of it’s release, and yes, it’s one that Kate watches every Halloween Day. And Jack Ketchum is the go to author for visceral horror with lots of depravity and violence. Like “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, a group of friends are traveling together, those in this case to a coastal retreat deep in the wilderness, while a group of inbred cannibals starts to hunt them down. This book is NOT for the faint of heart, especially if you get the most recent edition that restored all the violence the initial publication did away with.

 Movie: “The Ring” (2002) / Book: “The Girl from the Well”

The movie that turned all dark, long-haired girls into immediate Halloween hits simply by creating a wet, comb-forward look and pairing it with a nightdress. This pairing is also pretty obvious. The book description of a murdered girl who died in a well hunting down humans even references the same Japanese horror ghost story that inspired “The Ring.” Serena is particularly terrified of this movie having, for some unknown reason, been conned into watching it several times in highschool and never having recovered. So much so that she hasn’t read the book, even being a fan of Chupeco’s other work. But for those who were not scarred permanently about girls drowned in well and then climbing out of TVs, this book is the perfect pairing!

Movie: “A Quiet Place” (2018) / “In the After”

For those who like their scares to blur the lines between sci-fi and horror, creature flicks are often a go-to pick. “A Quiet Place” seemed to come out of nowhere but soon struck a chord with fans of many genres with its spooks but also its heart-wrenching deep dive into the love of a family trying to survive in the most difficult of circumstances. All told with very few words as any sound at all will attract the deadly creatures who now roam earth. “In the After” follows a very similar concept, that creatures have shown up on Earth who hunt by sound thus making silence the only source of safety. The main character, a teenage girl, has survived for years not speaking while also raising a young little girl who has mysterious origins. Fans who enjoyed the basic concept at the heart of “A Quiet Place” are sure to be pleased to see the same idea play out on the page.

Movie: “28 Days Later” (2002) / “The Walking Dead”

And, of course, no Halloween list isn’t completely with some nod to the zombie genre. “28 Days Later” is a favorite zombie movie of Serena’s largely based on the fact that the story explores the horror at the heart of humanity. “The Walking Dead,” mostly known for the hit TV show, has been the be all, end all for zombie stories for quite a while. But for those who haven’t read the original graphic novel, it’s a perfect pairing for fans of “28 Days Later.” It, too, tells a zombie story, but readers soon learn that the zombies are largely only a natural disaster phenomenon to be dealt with; the true horror lies in how humanity responds to this sudden loss of society and civilization. Some rise to the top, while others sink into the worst of the cruelty and inhumanity that can exist in some.

Those are our picks! What other movies and books are your favorites during the Halloween season?

Serena’s Review: “Fireborne”

36578543Book: “Fireborne” by Rosaria Munda

Publication Info: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, October 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: BookishFirst

Book Description: Annie and Lee were just children when a brutal revolution changed their world, giving everyone—even the lowborn—a chance to test into the governing class of dragonriders.

Now they are both rising stars in the new regime, despite backgrounds that couldn’t be more different. Annie’s lowborn family was executed by dragonfire, while Lee’s aristocratic family was murdered by revolutionaries. Growing up in the same orphanage forged their friendship, and seven years of training have made them rivals for the top position in the dragonriding fleet.

But everything changes when survivors from the old regime surface, bent on reclaiming the city.

With war on the horizon and his relationship with Annie changing fast, Lee must choose to kill the only family he has left or to betray everything he’s come to believe in. And Annie must decide whether to protect the boy she loves . . . or step up to be the champion her city needs.

Review: I’m always interested in a good dragon book. And for as popular as the subject matter is, it’s rare that I find one that really hits the spot for me. Maybe it’s just that the more I like something, the higher standards I set for it. But combined with an intriguing book description and comparison to “Red Rising,” I was excited to see what new take “Fireborne” had to offer!

Revolutions are bloody and brutal, but what comes after can be just as hard. The decks have been shuffled leaving those who survived living very different lives than the ones they had before. For Annie and Lee, these changes hit very close to home, but in very different ways. Now, together, they are slowly climbing their way through the ranks as dragon riders, each hoping to build their own future in this new world. But the old regime has only gone underground, and when it becomes clear that the revolution is not over, Annie and Lee must now, once again, choose sides.

I can definitely see how the comparisons to “Red Rising” came about. For all that a dragon is on the cover, this story is mostly a deep dive into the moral grey zone of what a revolution really looks like. Similarly to that book, it explores complex issues spending extra time highlighting that no choice is perfect and consequences are to be had no matter how good one’s intentions are going in. In our current political and cultural environment, I really appreciated the attention that went into this portrayal and the challenging questions it poses to not only its characters but to readers as well. It’s always refreshing to find a story that goes past the simple (and often unbelievable) “good” and “bad” of it all.

Both Annie and Lee provide insights into the past events of the revolution, the current regime, and, of course, the challenges posed by the resurgence of the conflict. At various times it was easy to side with one or another only to skip to the next chapter, read the other character’s perspective, and feel conflicted once again. I will say that Annie, by the nature of her story, had the easier sell, leaving Lee more often in the role of the character who needed to experience more growth and perspective.

However, at times, the writing itself seemed to let down these greater themes. For one thing, as I’ve gone into before, it’s always challenging to write two perspectives. Yes, Annie and Lee tell different stories and have differing challenges and views on events. But the writing itself is doing very little to differentiate their voices. Take away the actual story beats, and these two characters sound the same and it would be challenging to identify which of the two is speaking. This flaw makes it hard to truly connect to either character as they feel less like people and more like vessels through which to communicate the overall conflicts of the story.

The writing was also a bit slow. It did pick up towards the end and became quite engaging at that point. But it still took a bit to reach that point. This may, again, have to do with the challenge of feeling truly emotionally invested in either character. There were a lot of characters and connections between them that never felt fully explained leaving me more often than not still trying to pin down who was who about half way into into the book. A whiff of a love triangle was also a bit of a detractor even if it never became fully fledged.

I still really enjoyed the dragons, of course. And the overall story has a lot of potential growth. It’s tackling some big concepts and putting in the work to approach the realities of such decisions, actions, or inactions. Perhaps the second in the series will help cement to the two protagonists more fully into their own. I’m still game to check it out! And, if you’re interested in getting your hands on a free copy, don’t forget to enter our giveaway for “Fireborne!”

Rating 7: The story and themes outshine its own main characters at times, but there’s still a lot of potential in this first in a new trilogy!

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Fireborne” is a newer title so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but, funnily, it is on this “We Fire the Darkness And Flame At Night.”

Find “Fireborne” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “White Tears”

30780283Book: “White Tears” by Hari Kunzru

Publishing Info: Knopf Publishing Group, May 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: From one of the most talented fiction writers at work today: two ambitious young musicians are drawn into the dark underworld of blues record collecting, haunted by the ghosts of a repressive past.

Two twenty-something New Yorkers. Seth is awkward and shy. Carter is glamorous and the heir to one of America’s great fortunes. They have one thing in common: an obsession with music. Seth is desperate to reach for the future. Carter is slipping back into the past. When Seth accidentally records an unknown singer in a park, Carter sends it out over the Internet, claiming it’s a long lost 1920s blues recording by a musician called Charlie Shaw. When an old collector contacts them to say that their fake record and their fake bluesman are actually real, the two young white men, accompanied by Carter’s troubled sister Leonie, spiral down into the heart of the nation’s darkness, encountering a suppressed history of greed, envy, revenge, and exploitation.

White Tears is a ghost story, a terrifying murder mystery, a timely meditation on race, and a love letter to all the forgotten geniuses of American music.

Review: There has been a strange narrative that has come out lately that I’ve had a hard time swallowing when it comes to the horror genre, and that is the idea of ‘elevating’ horror. While I think that there has been a healthy respect from creators of newer horror movies that manage to gather more from the story than just jump scares or cliches (Jordan Peele, for example), there are others that seem to think that they can ‘improve’ the genre by being more artistic or surrealistic. For example, while I liked aspects of the new “Suspiria”, I definitely felt like it had a very high opinion of itself, and I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had hoped I would because it took itself almost too seriously. It’s not really something you see as much in literature, so I don’t go into horror stories with these worries. But I will say that I was a LITTLE worried about “White Tears” by Hari Kunzru, if only because a few people who I know who really liked it seemed to be saying that this was superior to genre horror specifically because of the literary style. That said, I was definitely interested in the themes of social justice and cultural appropriation and violence, and decided that it was finally time to pick it up. I will admit that the horror elements weren’t very horror based, at least for this fan. But everything else was executed wonderfully.

I will actually start with the weaker points in this review, just to get them out of the way. This is advertised as a horror novel, and while it absolutely has horror themes that involve possession, ghosts, and slow descents into instability, none of these themes or moments really made me feel scared, nor did they instill much dread in me. I think that part of this was the writing style choices that Kunzru made, be it the way the dialog was written or the way that sometimes things would jump around. This made it so that the scares couldn’t build up as much as they might have were the beats written in other ways. I tend to have a harder time with literary horror because of these kinds of things, and while I can appreciate authors experimenting and doing their own thing, it didn’t make the action as exciting or ‘unputdownable’ as I wanted. Even moments that could have felt merely unsettling as opposed to outright scary didn’t quite get to that level.

But honestly, the strengths of this book outweigh those issues, specifically the commentary about cultural appropriation, violence, and racism in American culture and society. Our protagonists are Seth and Carter, two white college students who think that because they study and have a fascination with American Blues that they have ownership over it. Seth isn’t nearly as entitled as Carter, whose wealth and status has really inflated his ego, but Seth definitely shares similar views when it comes to music. It’s an entitlement that is seen in American culture as white audiences consume and repackage facets from Black culture and market it to wider audiences and profit off of it. The idea that these two men think that they create a unique song and performer, only to find out that this person and his music was real, is very reminiscent of this view (even if there is something a bit supernatural about this specific instance within the story). I liked the contrast between Carter and Seth, as while Carter is clearly toxic from the get go, Seth is almost more damaging because he thinks that he is immune to these critiques because he doesn’t think he has the privileges that Carter has. Which is, of course, flagrantly ignoring his White privilege. You see a lot of White entitlement in this story, and when we finally start to see the voices of African American characters, specifically Charlie Shaw, the hypocrisy and scumbaggery of Seth, Carter, and others is highlighted and really punctuates the overall violence that artists like Shaw had to endure. I liked how Kunzru did a good job of applying the ideas of possession and haunting to the idea of cultural appropriation and the damages and injustices that it can foster. This is the kind of ‘horror elevation’ that I greatly enjoy, specifically because horror fiction, be it movies or literature, has always had some political and social commentary elements to it. “White Tears” knows how to weave those messages into this story seamlessly.

While I wish that “White Tears” had done a little bit more to scare me, I really enjoyed it for everything else that it had to offer! I should be more adventurous when it comes to literary horror, because this had some serious chops.

Rating 8: While the story wasn’t as horror centric as I had hoped, the social commentary more than made up for that.

Reader’s Advisory:

“White Tears” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books White People Need To Read”, and “Diversity in Fantasy and Science Fiction”.

Find “White Tears” at your library using WorldCat!