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!

Kate’s Review: “The Burned House”

48575470._sy475_Book: “The Burned House” (Jonny Roberts #2) by Alexander Lound

Publishing Info: Self Published, November 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The author sent me an eARC

Book Description: Nearly a year after learning that he can speak to the dead, Jonny Roberts has spent much of his time working with his new medium friend, Aaron. Whether it’s reconnecting loved ones with dead relatives, or helping spirits to cross over, Jonny has been happy to help.

That is, until a young boy is found dead, his body impaled with floorboards, sharpened into knife points; and in the same house where a family died seven years earlier, in a tragic fire.

Suspecting that the event might be down to the supernatural, Aaron and Jonny soon investigate. But when the spirit makes it clear that it doesn’t intend to stop at the boy, they begin to wonder if this might be their most dangerous case yet…

Review: Thank you to Alexander Lound for approaching our blog and sending me an eARC of this book!

Halloween has long passed, but there’s always time for a ghost story as far as I’m concerned. So when Alexander Lound emailed me asking if I would be interested in reading and reviewing the second book in the Jonny Roberts series, “The Burned House”, there was really only one way I could answer.

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Honestly I’m halfway convinced that all of my reactions to anything could be summed up by one of the Rose siblings. (source)

If you recall, I enjoyed the first in the series, “The Spirit in the Crypt” as I found it to be an engaging ghost story with likable characters and high stakes. Teenage medium Jonny Roberts is a fun protagonist, and I was eager to see where things went next for him and his girlfriend Cassy, as well as his medium mentor Aaron. Now that we’ve established Jonny as a full fledged medium, that meant that he’d have to delve deeper into his powers, and with that could mean upped stakes and higher tension. And boy oh boy did we go in both those directions.

In “The Burned House”, Jonny has started to come into his own as a medium, helping Aaron with various spirit cases, and while he and his girlfriend Cassy are still happy and in love, the tension with his ‘profession’ has started to come to the surface. And in this story, there is reason to believe that Cassy’s hesitance may be right, as Jonny and Aaron are soon entangled in the death of a boy, whose body was found in a house in which a family burned to death a few years prior. It soon becomes clear that it’s the work of an angry spirit, and the only insight they have is from the surviving family member, a teenage girl named Megan. Jonny, of course, wants to help, but the good intentions he has involve more and more risk. The story is basically Jonny potentially biting off more than he can chew, and how that threatens not only his life, but his relationships. I liked that Lound showed how someone with his abilities would potentially have a lot of difficulties with relationships with ‘normal’ people, and that you can understand why both he AND Cassy have legitimate reasons to feel the way they do about his new calling. It also means that we get some deliciously angsty scenes with teenagers. And as a teenager who was in love with her boyfriend and had to deal with some problems that felt earth shattering at the time, these scenes felt very, very true to life.

The mystery and motivation behind the angry spirit was well plotted out and fun to get through. I cracked the code early on, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was easy to crack. I’ve just been reading these kinds of stories for years, so I know what to look for. And even though I guessed the outcome early, I still enjoyed the journey that we took to get to said outcome. Lound really does up the stakes this time around, with the looming threat of injury and death at the hands of an angry spirit a very real issue. And we don’t pussyfoot around what all of this could mean for Jonny and his friends; on the contrary, there is a very significant loss in this book, one that I didn’t see coming, and one that was a bit of a bummer. But no spoilers here. I just want to hit the point home that we are starting to see the consequences that Jonny has to contend with because he has decided to pursue being a medium.

“The Burned House” was a thrilling and fun follow up to “The Spirit in the Crypt”. It checks all of my favorite boxes of a ghost story and medium story, and I’m eager to see where Jonny Roberts goes next!

Rating 8: Another satisfying YA ghost story, “The Burned House” continues the adventures of Jonny Roberts, and shows the upped stakes that being a medium means, both physically and emotionally.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Burned House” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “YA Novels and Psychic Abilities”, and “Young Adult Ghost Stories”.

“The Burned House” isn’t available on WorldCat as of now, but it will be available for purchase this week. For more information, go to Alexander Lound’s WEBSITE.

Previously Reviewed: “The Spirit in the Crypt”

Not Just Books: November 2019

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

Serena’s Picks

mv5bndg1zjc4yzktmmrmzi00zwjmlwjiyzgtyjg3mme0otm1nzy5xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtkxnjuynq4040._v1_uy268_cr00182268_al_Amazon Show: “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” Season 2

I really enjoyed the first outing of this show and pretty much watched the second season immediately after it dropped. And I have…mixed feelings. On one hand, there’s no denying John Krasinski’s talent and screen presence. Indeed, I think this second season depends heavily on that fact for, in many ways, the Jack Ryan we’re seeing in this go around is very unlike the one of the first season. This Jack Ryan seems to have lost many of his boy scout ways and too often fades into just another generic action hero. His smarts and strong morals are often lost in a convoluted plot that doesn’t necessarily earn its twists. The villain is significantly weaker, in my opinion, and I think the idea to focus on a part of the world, Venezuela, that is less often seen in shows/movies like this was rather wasted by painting in too large (and predictable) black and white swathes. It also misrepresents some of the real-life political conflicts going on there. So, that’s a lot of negatives. But, like I said, I still really liked Krasinksi and the idea of the show as a whole, so I’ll still be checking in for season 3 and hoping for a return to its roots.

survivor_island_of_the_idols_logoTV Show: “Survivor”

Look, I wasn’t going to highlight this one, yet again. But after some of the recent episodes, I feel like I’ve spent enough time thinking about it and reading about it that it would be mispresenting my month of non-book-media NOT to put it in here. I was…very uncomfortable and disappointed to see the turn this show took in episode 8. There are so many variables in what went down in these #metoo related episodes, but while “Survivor” has long been known for pushing its players to make challenging moral decisions, what happened here I think crossed some important lines. Everyone involved failed: the producers of the show for allowing the situation to devolve to this point, the women who exploited it, the men who ignored it, and the man who, at the heart of it all, didn’t respect a woman’s wishes when she clearly asked him to respect her personal space. I won’t go into the full run down, but I think Dalton Ross over at EW.com did a good job of summarizing many of the angles, and while my own reaction is probably a bit more condemning of some involved, his might be the more balanced take.

220px-the_outer_worlds_cover_artVideo Game: “The Outer Worlds”

My husband and I rushed through finishing up our play through (and replay for me) of “Skyrim” so that we would have a clear slate when “The Outer Worlds” was released. Touted as being similar to “Fallout: New Vegas” but in space, this was an obvious game for us to dive into. We both like open world games where you feel like you can stumble upon new locations, characters, and quests around any corner. Beyond that, after playing through all of the “Fallout” and “Elder Scrolls” games, it was a nice chance of pace to find ourselves in a brightly colored and wacky space setting. We’ve only just gotten started, so I can’t speak to how the main storyline plays out, but so far it’s been a fun ride. And at this point, that’s all I’m looking for!

Kate’s Picks

WatchmenTV Show: “Watchmen”

The graphic novel “Watchmen” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons is one of my Top 3 favorite books of all time. I have stood by Moore’s distaste at DC using his characters in their new comic storylines, but I had to set aside my devotion to his grumpiness for the HBO show “Watchmen”. Because it’s fantastic. It brings the “Watchmen” universe to modern day Tulsa, expanding upon the alternate reality that Moore and Gibbons created and showing how that world has continued post Manhattan Squid attack. The focus is on Angela, a Tulsa detective who, like all other law enforcement officers in this world, has taken on a mask and persona to hide her identity. But soon she finds herself trying to crack down on a white supremacist movement, as well as a potential, insidious conspiracy that has been going on before her very eyes. This show brings in fabulous new characters, and brings some of the originals into the fold in creative and engaging ways. It also has a lot to say about our political world at the moment, even if it takes place in a different timeline. Frankly, it’s some of the best TV in the past few years.

castlerock10-590x332TV Show: “Castle Rock”

One of the most iconic Stephen King villain performances is hands down Kathy Bates as the obsessive and murderous Annie Wilkes from “Misery”. When I heard that for Season 2 “Castle Rock” was going to give a new backstory to Annie, I was skeptical as hell. But, like Season 1, “Castle Rock” has taken me in and has me hooked. Lizzy Caplan plays a young Annie, who has found herself, along with her daughter Joy, stranded in the mysterious Maine town. And like last season, strange things start happening. But for Annie, these strange things could easily be hallucinations brought on by her psychosis. Throw in a plot line in ‘Salem’s Lot, and some commentary about xenophobia and racism towards a Somali immigrant population, and you have a bonkers and powerful second season. And don’t worry; Caplan is PERFECT as a young Annie, both making it her own but also paying homage to Bates in her portrayal through posture, gait, and cadence. It’s a joy to see.

mv5bymy3ngjlytitymq4os00ztewlwizoditmjmznwu2mde0njzhxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymzqzmda3mti40._v1_Film: “Doctor Sleep”

Given that “Doctor Sleep” is my favorite of Stephen King’s recent books, I was both anticipating and somewhat worrying about the adaptation that was going to hit the big screen. Given the weight that Kubrick’s version of “The Shining” has in the cinematic world, I was afraid that too much focus would be on an interpretation that King himself never cared for. I shouldn’t have been so worried. And given that Mike Flanagan, the director of the stellar “The Haunting of Hill House” on Netflix was at the helm, I should have been more excited. “Doctor Sleep” is a wonderful adaptation of the novel, with a fantastic cast, a moody tone, and the perfect melding of King’s original vision in both “Doctor Sleep” and “The Shining”, and the Kubrick interpretation that has been beloved for so long. Ewan McGregor is a wonderful Danny, bringing pathos and determination to the character, and Kyleigh Curran is the perfect Abra, the precocious psychic teen he befriends. But it’s Rebecca Ferguson’s Rose the Hat that really stole the show for me. Rose the Hat is a Top 3 King villain in my book, up there with Flagg and Annie Wilkes, and Ferguson brings her to sinister and charismatic life. If you were hesitant about this movie, don’t be. It’s wonderful, it’s emotional, and it’s scary.

What non-book media were highlights for you this month? Share in the comments below!

Serena’s Review: “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet”

22733729Book: “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers

Publishing Info: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, July 2014

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

Book Description: Rosemary Harper doesn’t expect much when she joins the crew of the aging Wayfarer. While the patched-up ship has seen better days, it offers her a bed, a chance to explore the far-off corners of the galaxy, and most importantly, some distance from her past. An introspective young woman who learned early to keep to herself, she’s never met anyone remotely like the ship’s diverse crew, including Sissix, the exotic reptilian pilot, chatty engineers Kizzy and Jenks who keep the ship running, and Ashby, their noble captain.

Life aboard the Wayfarer is chaotic and crazy—exactly what Rosemary wants. It’s also about to get extremely dangerous when the crew is offered the job of a lifetime. Tunneling wormholes through space to a distant planet is definitely lucrative and will keep them comfortable for years. But risking her life wasn’t part of the plan. In the far reaches of deep space, the tiny Wayfarer crew will confront a host of unexpected mishaps and thrilling adventures that force them to depend on each other. To survive, Rosemary’s got to learn how to rely on this assortment of oddballs—an experience that teaches her about love and trust, and that having a family isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the universe.

Review:  One of my librarian friends recommended this book a few years ago, so I had dutifully added it to my TBR list. And there it sat. But recently I was finding myself in the mood of a sci fi read, realizing I hadn’t read and reviewed a book in that genre for quite a while, and while browsing, there it was! I was able to nab an audiobook copy from the library, and I was off!

Rosemary is running from her past. And what better place to forget where she came from than a ship that travels to the outer reaches of space itself. Staffed by an odd assortment of crew made up of a diverse species and peoples, Rosemary soon learns that life on this ship is not like ordinary space travel. There is more danger to be sure, but she also finds that through these adventures and close calls, the bonds that form between this oddball family can be stronger than anything she’s known before.

I’ll admit to having a hard time with this book, but it’s for a reason that is pretty new to me. For all that every book is different and each reading experience offers something new, I can definitely point to some typical things that throw me out of a story: nonsense characters, love triangles, predictable plots trying to be pretentious. But this was a new one for me. This book was just too…nice. Obviously, with a complaint like that, there are also a lot of pros to talk about, too, so let me cover those first before trying to explain myself.

First things first, the story largely depends on its cast of characters that make up the crew. I appreciated the diversity that the author brought to this group. Not only did she create original alien species who are all physically unique from humans, but they each had distinct cultures with differing approaches to communication, relationships, food, and many other aspects of life. One of the more interesting aspects of the book was exploring the ins and outs of each of these distinct characters and learning more about how their species differs from humanity. Several of them were simply entertaining, with quippy dialogue and fun interactions. However, these fun characters did ultimately end up washing out Rosemary herself. She quickly felt more like the readers point of entrance into the story and very little else.

The problems with the “niceness” start here, too. In some ways, this book reminds me of what “Star Trek” set out to do: to show an idealized future where most of humanity’s internal conflict has been set to rest and exploration and understanding are the sole mission. Here, while humanity as a whole does not have its act together, the crew largely does. It’s a weird thing to complain about, but there simply wasn’t enough conflict. I don’t need tons of drama or in-fighting or anything, but the story seemed to lack tension.

The crew fly in and out of a variety of adventures, and while some aspects of these were thrilling enough on their own, the crew’s seemingly perfect “woke” attitude about it all became almost tiring. It was hard to continue to read them all as fully realized characters when there were very few, if any, flaws in sight. This leaves the characters with very few emotional arcs of their own. The quippy-ness, while fun at the beginning, quickly began to feel cutesy and disingenuous.

This book has been compared to “Firefly” and I would add “Star Trek” to that mix. But what both of those shows got right was that these tight knit families of crew members were pulled together in spite of their ongoing flaws, not because they simply didn’t have any. Like I said, it’s a weird complaint. In the end, I guess I was just looking for a bit more of a serious sci-fi read and this one was too light for my own taste. Readers who want a fun, beach-read-style sci-fi story might enjoy this more.

Rating 6: While fun enough at times, there simply wasn’t enough real conflict or tension to really sink my teeth into the book.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” is on these Goodreads lists: “Optimistic Space Scifi” and “Alien Diplomacy and Interspecies Friendship.”

Find “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Whisper Network”

41555931._sy475_Book: “Whisper Network” by Chandler Baker

Publishing Info: Flatiron Books, July 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Four women learn their boss (a man who’s always been surrounded by rumors about how he treats women) is next in line to be CEO—what will happen when they decide enough is enough?

Sloane, Ardie, Grace, and Rosalita are four women who have worked at Truviv, Inc., for years. The sudden death of Truviv’s CEO means their boss, Ames, will likely take over the entire company. Ames is a complicated man, a man they’ve all known for a long time, a man who’s always been surrounded by…whispers. Whispers that have always been ignored by those in charge. But the world has changed, and the women are watching Ames’s latest promotion differently. This time, they’ve decided enough is enough.

Sloane and her colleagues set in motion a catastrophic shift within every floor and department of the Truviv offices. All four women’s lives—as women, colleagues, mothers, wives, friends, even adversaries—will change dramatically as a result.

“If only you had listened to us,” they tell us on page one, “none of this would have happened.”

Review: When my husband and I first brought our daughter home, we had to adjust to spending more time at the house and finding ways to spend the evenings when we weren’t directly caring for the kiddo. One of those ways was to watch “Mad Men” on Netflix, a show that neither of us watched when it was on originally but had been on our lists. I think that both of us were struck and angered by the casual misogyny that a number of the women characters experienced during the course of the show, both at home and at work. Around this time I also got the book “Whisper Network” by Chandler Baker, a Reese’s Book Club pick that had a pretty long hold list at the library. As I read “Whisper Network” I kept thinking about “Mad Men” and how the women at the ad agency had to deal with terrible, abusive men. It wasn’t lost on me that the similarities were incredibly high, even though fifty some years had passed between the timelines in which the characters from both stories were living. Goes to show that while in a number of ways we’ve progressed in terms of women in the work force, some things stay the same, and boy does that rile me up.

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A phrase I’ve related to so many times in the past few years. (source)

“Whisper Network” has been described as a #MeToo story, though the themes have been present long before the movement. Our protagonists, Sloane, Ardie, and Grace all work in the legal department at a high powered corporation, and all of them have had run ins of varying degrees with the soon to be new CEO Ames Garrett. Ames is a well liked member of the company’s corporate boys club, and while he seems to be a shoe in for the position his abusive and harassing tendencies have been swept under the rug. Sloane, Ardie, and Grace are all competent and capable women, and as of now have kept their mouths shut when it comes to their experiences with Ames because they don’t necessarily think that tangling with him directly would be worth it. It’s when a new employee, the young and seemingly naive Katherine, enters the mix that they think perhaps they need to speak up, lest Ames set his predatory sights on her. What comes next involves lies, deception, back stabbing, and an untimely death that Sloane, Ardie, and Grace are blamed for because they decided to speak up. Baker does a really good job of addressing how sometimes victims of harassment, especially if the accused is seen as ‘likable’, can be demonized and vilified for speaking of their experiences. Some of the most effective moments of this were told through ‘witness’ interviews after the main incident, where coworkers, male and female alike, are questioning the veracity of the accusations, and also questioning the stability or motivations of those who have spoken out. It’s angering to read in its realism.

The mystery of “Whisper Network” is pretty straightforward (what really happened to the victim we see at the beginning), though I didn’t really find myself too invested in the solution to it. I was more invested in what was going to happen to those who were left behind as the fallout comes crashing down. I was also more invested in Sloane, Grace, and Ardie getting justice for what had happened to them at the hands of an abusive boss, and at the hands of those who don’t believe them and try to drag their names through the mud. None of the characters really stood out for me, but were all likable enough and relatable enough that I did care about them and how things worked out once the book was done. The character that I liked the most, however, was Rosalita, a night cleaning lady at the company who doesn’t have the same privileges as our main three, and who has her own story to tell, or not tell as the case may be. I liked how Baker brought in a bit of intersectionality when it comes to this #MeToo story, as unlike other characters Rosalita doesn’t have the class privilege they do, and as a woman of color she has more reasons to stay quiet against a powerful white man. I think that Baker could have done more with this, as to me it was the most interesting component to the story.

“Whisper Network” will probably anger you as you read it, but it’s a story that has resonance as the spotlight of #MeToo continues to highlight misogyny and sexual harassment in our culture. The mystery comes second to the social commentary, but it’s still an entertaining page turner.

Rating 7: A #MeToo story with a slow burn mystery, “Whisper Network” is a relevant and upsetting tale of work place harassment and how victims can be unfairly punished for speaking out against powerful harassers.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Whisper Network” is included on the Goodreads lists “MeToo”, and “ATY 2020 – Books Related to News Stories”.

Find “Whisper Network” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Sisters of Shadow and Light”

9781250208408_8e486Book: “Sisters of Shadow and Light” by Sara B. Larson

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, November 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: “The night my sister was born, the stars died and were reborn in her eyes…”.

Zuhra and Inara have grown up in the Citadel of the Paladins, an abandoned fortress where legendary, magical warriors once lived before disappearing from the world―including their Paladin father the night Inara was born.

On that same night, a massive, magical hedge grew and imprisoned them within the citadel. Inara inherited their father’s Paladin power; her eyes glow blue and she is able to make plants grow at unbelievable rates, but she has been trapped in her own mind because of a “roar” that drowns everything else out―leaving Zuhra virtually alone with their emotionally broken human mother.

For fifteen years they have lived, trapped in the citadel, with little contact from the outside world…until the day a stranger passes through the hedge, and everything changes.

Review: I highlighted this book as one I was looking forward to reading this month. I had requested it based on the fact that it seemed to be a YA fantasy that centered around a relationship between sisters, a pretty basic plot that I typically enjoy. Unfortunately, while it does deliver on the elements that drew me to it originally, there wasn’t enough else to keep me invested, and a few too many YA tropes that induced eyerolls.

Zuhra and Inara have grown up in the wreckage of what was once a great power in the world. Locked in a fortress and surrounded by a sentient hedge that keeps out all others, the two sisters have grown up isolated from the world with only their fragile mother as a connection to not only their origins but also the world outside the walls. Inara is isolated even further by a power that manifests itself in ways that produce great effects but also cut her off from the world outside her own mind. But the world has continued to move outside their small home, and one day it breaks in, bringing new faces and new challenges.

While this book wasn’t for me, I do, as always, want to start with the things I did appreciate. I requested this book based on my love for sister stories, and luckily for me, that was the aspect of the story that was the strongest throughout. There was a clear, consistent bond between the two from start to finish, without any delving into melodrama or cattiness. We start out the story with only Zuhra’s POV, so there was a lot of time spent setting up how she view the relationship between herself and her sister, who is very cutoff from those around her. This was all well and good. But this aspect of the story was greatly strengthened when, about a third of the way in, we’re given Inara’s perspective as well. Having both POVs really fleshed out the nuances of their relationship, and while I did struggle with much of the rest of the book, I did still enjoy this portion of the story throughout.

Alas, much of the rest of it wasn’t as much of a hit. For me, part of the problem was how similar this read felt to “Strange the Dreamer.” The set up of siblings, some with magical abilities, growing up isolated from the world in the husk of a place that used to belong to god-like beings, one of whom was the father of said siblings? It’s pretty identical. And “Strange the Dreamer” was a superb book, so it’s rare that a direct comparison like this is going to go well for another book. Had I read this one without that one in mind, perhaps some things would have been better received. But that’s also the world of books: readers will always approach stories in the context of what they’ve read before. This can be a good or bad thing; unfortunately, here it was a bad thing. While the elements were similar, they were noticably weaker than Laini Taylor’s similar set-up.

While I liked the sister relationship between our two main characters, I still never really connected to either of them as wholly realized characters on their own. Zuhra, in particularly, was hard to identify with, especially in the beginning when we are left with only her perspective. Both sisters fell into the unfortunate trap of immediately going googly-eyed over the first boys they see, which felt not only silly, but also undermined some of the strengths we had been told they possess, having grown up needing to be so self-reliant.

The world and plot suffered from a writing style that erred more towards telling rather than showing. The middle of the book especially dragged, which I find is often a problem with this style of writing. When you have a new world to introduced, it’s easier for a “tell vs show” style to go unnoticed amid all of the new things being thrown at the reader. And the end typically has enough action when building to the climax of the story to also get away with it. But the middle is where it always shows up, and it was just as true here as in other books with a similar writing issue.

There were some good ideas in this book, and I did enjoy the sister relationship. I was able to predict a few of the twists, but one or two did actually catch me by surprise. However, all of that was not enough to pull the book through. The characters fell into a few too many YA “boy crazy” tropes, the world and plot were a bit on the limp side, and the style of writing was particularly captivating. Not to say that this book should be written off anyone’s list full-stop. But I do think there are betters versions of it out there.

Rating 6: An OK read, but one that felt flat and dim in comparison to its contemporaries.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Sisters of Shadow and Light” can be found on this Goodreads list: “We Fire the Darkness And Flame At Night.”

Find “Sisters of Shadow and Light” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Giant Days (Vol.1)”

25785993Book: “Giant Days (Vol.1)” by John Allison & Lissa Treiman (Ill.)

Publishing Info: BOOM! Box, December 2015

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Susan, Esther, and Daisy started at university three weeks ago and became fast friends. Now, away from home for the first time, all three want to reinvent themselves. But in the face of handwringing boys, “personal experimentation,” influenza, mystery-mold, nu-chauvinism, and the willful, unwanted intrusion of “academia,” they may be lucky just to make it to spring alive. Going off to university is always a time of change and growth, but for Esther, Susan, and Daisy, things are about to get a little weird.

Review: I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but I look back at my time in college and get overwhelmed with a massive wave of nostalgia. I really came into my own in college, I made friendships that I cherish to this day, and I have lots of fond memories of the various misadventures my friend group and I got into while on and around campus. When my friend and fellow librarian Jenny told me about “Giant Days”, I looked into it and knew that it was something I definitely wanted to check out. A university setting starring quirky and snarky girls could be a bit of a gamble for me (given that TOO quirky can put me off), but I trusted Jenny, and requested the first volume of the series. And boy oh boy, did I immediately miss college.

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Let me take this moment to say GO GOPHERS! (source)

“Giant Days (Vol.1)” is more of a collection of vignettes as opposed to a large, overarching plot at this point, and said vignettes focus on three unlikely friends just starting out at University. There’s Susan, an ill tempered and cynical tomboy who puts on a tough facade even though she’s actually fairly sensitive. There’s Esther, a dramatic and emotional beauty who is goth to the core and rather impetuous. And finally there’s Daisy, the sweet and somewhat naive kind soul who is loyal and hard working. They all share a dorm, and while they seem like they wouldn’t get along, it’s their differences that make them totally suited for each other. They find themselves dealing with a new home, the flu, perverted boys, and the ups and downs of romance, usually with very snide and hilarious results. Author John Allison is certain to make all three of the characters flawed and awkward as they try to navigate their new path, and is never unkind towards them, even when putting their sometimes bad behavior on display. Their banter and their interactions made me smile and laugh a large number of times, and it felt refreshing to see a college story focusing on predominantly women characters and the foolish shenanigans that they get into. I feel like that’s afforded far more often to dudes, and seeing some of the bullshit that Susan, Esther, and Daisy get into made me think of the lady friends I had in college and some of the dumb things we did. All of them are relatable and fun to follow, and super easy to root for even when they’re being ridiculous.

As I mentioned above, as of now “Giant Days” is mostly separate vignettes, though the stories have had some overlap between each other. One segment would focus on a specific arc, then the next segment would be a different arc that might have been hinted at in segment one. I liked that it meant that they could stand on their own, and then we could go into a fresh story with new possibilities and stakes. It also meant that each of our three main characters got to deal with the conflict of the segment in their own ways, and got basically equal time to navigate the plot (the only example I can think of where this wasn’t necessarily the case was when Esther ended up on a ‘hot or not’ website run by a bunch of cretins, but even then we saw how Susan and Daisy reacted as well). I am curious to see if this format continues into the later volumes, or if larger plot starts to form. As of now, I like the vignettes, but I don’t know how long my investment would hold if it continued.

Finally, I really REALLY love the artwork by Lissa Treiman! She has done work for a number of recent Disney movies, and you can definitely see the similarities between those styles and the ones you see in this. It makes for very vibrant and expressive faces and designs, and part of the humor comes from the imagery.

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(source)

“Giant Days (Vol.1)” is a fun and humorous read, and those of you who are feeling extra nostalgic for friendships from your formative years will find so much to like here. I’m definitely going to continue on with this series, because I can’t get enough of Susan, Esther, and Daisy.

Rating 8: A snarky and witty graphic novel involving three irreverent college women, “Giant Days (Vol.1)” will make you nostalgic for college, and will remind you of the joys of friendships in your young adult years.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Giant Days (Vol.1)” is included on the Goodreads lists “Girls Read Comics”, and “Female Power Comics”.

Find “Giant Days (Vol.1)” at your library using WorldCat!

Bookclub Review: “An Ember in the Ashes”

20560137We 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 ‘Books On Our To Read Shelf’, where we pick books that we’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten to.

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: “An Ember in the Ashes” by Sabaa Tahir

Publishing Info: Razorbill, April 2015

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Laia is a slave.  Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.

It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.

But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.

There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

Kate’s Thoughts

I like to think of myself as a good sport when it comes to my willingness to read genres that I’m not too keen on. Be it in an effort to stretch my reading wings or going off a recommendation from a close friend, I will try and be open minded about a book even if I wouldn’t really pick it up on my own or of my own volition. This happens a lot of book club with YA fantasy fiction, and I will be the first to admit that I’ve found some pretty good books this way that I wouldn’t have normally read. But when it comes to “An Ember in the Ashes”, it HAD been on my list in spite of the genre, it just never came up in my reading rounds. So when it was the selection for the month, I went in apprehensive but hopeful. YA fantasy, sure, but based on Roman history! That’s something I could enjoy, right?

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(source)

“An Ember in the Ashes” does have strengths that I did like about it. For one, as mentioned, the Roman influenced world was unique for me and fun to see, as I’ve had a fascination with Ancient Rome (specifically the Julio-Claudian Emperors) since college. I liked that Tahir took influence from the culture in terms of not only the way the characters were, but in the way that world was built. While it’s been tweaked to fit the story, there were definitely aspects of the society that felt familiar, and the society itself was definitely interesting enough that I wanted to know more about it. On top of that, the story itself was engaging and filled with enough conflict and stakes that I wanted to know what was going to happen next. I wanted to see what was going to happen to Elias and Laia, and wanted to know how their fates were going to tie together, as promised. We get two narratives within this story, of Laia and Elias, and of the two I liked Elias’s narrative more. One of the reasons for that is that I thought that his voice was more interesting to me as someone who is incredibly good at what he does, though he secretly despises it and plans to abandon it as soon as he can. The other reason, and the far more pressing one, is that while I liked Laia and was interested in what she was doing her ‘reluctant but willing rebel who has devoted everything to avenging and saving her family’ is a theme we have seen in YA for a very long time now, and it didn’t feel all that new or unique, nor did it stand out from the other narratives out there. Throw in some awfully cartoony/not terribly well fleshed out antagonists, and you have a story that has promise, but doesn’t quite land.

I thought that “An Ember in the Ashes” was an entertaining read, but I don’t think that I’m going to go on in the series. Should someone tell me that I should give it a chance, I will happily be a good sport and do so. But as it stands now, I am parting ways with Elias and Laia where we left them.

Serena’s Thoughts

I…wasn’t a fan of this book. I’ll also admit that right out of the gate I wasn’t feeling super hopeful about this one, as I remember it coming out and then looking into it at the time and choosing to pass. It then blew up into a huge read of the year, and I still didn’t read it. I can’t remember now why I didn’t read it, but I’m guessing that some of the trusted reviewers I follow must have flagged it and I had enough other things on my plate (a perpetual non-problem!problem) to write it off as likely not for me. But, like Kate said, bookclub is super handy in that it pushes me to read books that I otherwise wouldn’t, for whatever reason. And as I said, this was a huge fantasy novel, so really, it’s good that I read it so I could form my own opinion.

Most of what I liked about the book, Kate already covered. Though, even there, I had some pretty big qualifiers to my enjoyment of most of them. First off, the world-building. I did enjoy the Roman aspects that were being used and the unique world that was built around it. However, having read a lot of YA fantasy, these elements also didn’t standout as breaking some huge mold. Roman society and influences are at the heart of a lot of second world fantasy. I did find it interesting, however, that the rebellion seemed to be stemming from a different cultural background. Irish, I would guess, based on the naming conventions. One of our booklcub members had a theory that the world here was essentially the Roman empire shrunk down to a more manageable size. So some of the nearby cultures could be representing other place in the world that Romans expanded out to, like Ireland. It’s an interesting theory, and one that I think would be super clever. However, this is never explicitly said in the book itself, and I’m not sure there’s enough to conclusively say that that was the purpose behind some of these choices. If it was, I wish the author had made it more clear, because it is a very interesting idea.

The other thing that stands out as notable about this book was the violence of it all. I think that this was one of the aspects of the story that made it stand-out when it was first published, that it went further than other YA fantasy. But this is also where I started having major problems with the book. Primarily, the violent, serious nature of the world that our characters are living in didn’t match up with the often frivolous and silly nature of their thoughts and priorities, especially with regards to their romances. In other words, the book was trying to walk an unnatural line. It wanted to be “Game of Thrones,” but still have “Twilight” level romances. This simply doesn’t work. “Game of Thrones” is known for having teen characters involved at the heart of the story. The difference here is that when presented with the dire and very serious nature of the world around them, their thoughts and actions appropriately reflect that.

Laia and Elias have grown up in a world where violence and the threat of violence is around every corner. Beyond this, sex is used as a weapon and prostitution is a fairly normal thing for soldiers to participate in. Yet, Laia and Elias don’t reflect this as characters. Instead, right next to rape threats and horrific deaths, we have two characters who read so PG as to be almost laughable. It also weirdly worships the purity of these two characters. Elias is not like other boys and while he is constantly admiring the beauty of the women around him, he’s never engaged in anything himself. They both talk about physical attraction and love in the same way that teenagers today would. But that doesn’t work in a world where they would have grown up past this type of purity quickly (if they ever had it in the first place). You just can’t convince me that a character whose family has been murdered and is a spy for an evil queen would be so caught up in this love square or whatever it was.

I also didn’t appreciate the repeated rape threats made to Laia and Elias’s near constant worry about rape happening to the women in his life. It felt like the topic was used to further darken the world but was never explored further on how it would shape the lives of these women. Attempted rape has its own horrific aftereffects and yet none of this is explored with Laia.

Perhaps if this book had been written for adults I would have appreciated it more. There were some strong bones with the world and the political nature of the story. Elias and Laia, if aged out of their teenage swooning, could have also been good characters. But as it stands, the book seems to be presenting a weird position where tons of violence and rape threats are a totally ok topic for teen readers, but consensual sex between characters would be too “adult” so Laia and Elias must weirdly fixate the belly flutters. It’s a strange position to take and I don’t think it fits well.

Kate’s Rating 6: An engaging read to be sure, though a lot of the themes and characterizations we’ve seen in this genre over and over again.

Serena’s Rating 5: Not for me. I don’t think it did enough to address some of the serious topics it throws around and the romance didn’t mesh with the world that was created.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of the world building in this novel? Did you think that it took accurate aspects from Ancient Rome and applied them well?
  2. There are two narrative POVs within this book. Did you connect more with Laia’s storyline, or Elias’s storyline?
  3. This book is labeled as a YA fantasy, though some would argue that it doesn’t have as many fantasy elements as other fantasies do. What do you think of this genre classification?
  4. What are your opinions on the antagonists of this story, specifically Marcus and The Commandant?
  5. Do you think that the romance aspects of the book lined up with the world that the characters lived within? More specifically, can people still be fixated on potential romance or attraction when they are surrounded by darkness and horrors?
  6. This is the first in a four book series. Do you have predictions on where the plot is going to go? Do you think you’ll keep reading?

Reader’s Advisory

“An Ember in the Ashes” is included on the Goodreads lists “Free Range and Morally Complex YA”, and “‘High Fantasy’ With Female Leads/Protagonists”.

Find “An Ember in the Ashes” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens