Kate’s Review: “Eight Perfect Murders”

Book: “Eight Perfect Murders” by Peter Swanson

Publishing Info: William Morrow, March 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: Audible

Book Description: A chilling tale of psychological suspense and an homage to the thriller genre tailor-made for fans: the story of a bookseller who finds himself at the center of an FBI investigation because a very clever killer has started using his list of fiction’s most ingenious murders.

Years ago, bookseller and mystery aficionado Malcolm Kershaw compiled a list of the genre’s most unsolvable murders, those that are almost impossible to crack—which he titled “Eight Perfect Murders”—chosen from among the best of the best including Agatha Christie’s A. B. C. Murders, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, Ira Levin’s Death Trap, A. A. Milne’s Red House Mystery, Anthony Berkeley Cox’s Malice Aforethought, James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, John D. Macdonald’s The Drowner, and Donna Tartt’s A Secret History.

But no one is more surprised than Mal, now the owner of the Old Devils Bookshop in Boston, when an FBI agent comes knocking on his door one snowy day in February. She’s looking for information about a series of unsolved murders that look eerily similar to the killings on Mal’s old list. And the FBI agent isn’t the only one interested in this bookseller who spends almost every night at home reading. The killer is out there, watching his every move—a diabolical threat who knows way too much about Mal’s personal history, especially the secrets he’s never told anyone, even his recently deceased wife.

To protect himself, Mal begins looking into possible suspects—and sees a killer in everyone around him. But Mal doesn’t count on the investigation leaving a trail of death in its wake. Suddenly, a series of shocking twists leaves more victims dead—and the noose around Mal’s neck grows so tight he might never escape.

Review: As we say goodbye to the year 2020 (and hope that 2021 is better….), I look back at the complete shitshow that we leave behind and I see ways that I was affected that I hadn’t really thought about at the time. There are many, but for this review I’m going to talk about the lack of audiobooks on my list. In normal times I would probably listen to about one audiobook a month, mostly when driving to work or wherever. But with my job being on hold until the pandemic is better controlled and it’s safer, I haven’t been driving so I really wasn’t listening to things outside of my favorite podcast. But once the weather got a little cooler, I started taking my daughter on walks around the neighborhood, and my audiobook intake rose once more (though with winter being here now I am doing more listening at night before bed). Enter “Eight Perfect Murders” by Peter Swanson, the audiobook I got right before things went to hell. Months after I downloaded it, I finally dove in. Peter Swanson, I’m sorry I waited so long.

In true Swanson form, “Eight Perfect Murders” has a weird mystery at its heart, a narrator who is unreliable and perhaps hiding something from the reader, and a compulsively readable style that made my walks with the kid a bit longer than normal. Our protagonist is Malcolm Kershaw, a bookstore owner who finds himself being questioned in a string of murders, as the murders seem to be mimicking a blog post he made years ago where he selected ‘eight perfect murders’ from mystery fiction. The FBI agent, Gwen, knows that the theory is a bit nutty, but wants his insight after she rules him out as a suspect. Malcolm cooperates, if only to help clear his name, but also because he realizes that this is a cat and mouse game between him and the person who read his post and has started killing people. It’s pretty clear pretty early that Malcolm has some skeletons in his closet, and since Swanson has kind of made the ‘interesting and also kinda likable (or at least easy to root for) psychopath’ a bit of a trope, some aspects of this mystery were kind of predictable. Or if not predictable, not shocking when the reveals were done. I liked Malcolm a lot, actually. I also liked Gwen. And I wanted to know what was happening in the story, be it trying to see who was targeting Malcolm, or what Malcolm may have to hide. And at the end of the day, the big reveal did surprise me, which is the important thing when it comes to a mystery story.

What I liked more about this book is that it’s really a love letter to mystery books and book lovers. Swanson references so many authors, stories, series, and moments within the genre that I had a huge grin on my face basically the whole time I was listening. Swanson very clearly loves this genre and this book was a carefully crafted homage to it. I haven’t read a good number of the stories on the Eight Perfect Murders list, but because of this book I’m definitely going to look into a few of them.

On top of everything else, it is claimed on Goodreads that this is the first in a series that is implied to focus on Malcolm. I won’t go into spoilers here, but I will say that the book ends in a way that I am not totally certain how that is going to work, it it’s true. But if it is true?

“Eight Perfect Murders” was a fun and engrossing thriller mystery that (for the most part) kept me guessing. Swanson is still an author that I want more people to get on board with. If you’re looking for new authors to try in 2021, he may be a good choice!

Rating 8: A fast paced and thrilling mystery and love letter to books. Though somewhat predictable at times, I am VERY interested to see how/if Swanson will continue this series, as implied…

Reader’s Advisory:

“Eight Perfect Murders” is included on the Goodreads lists “Unreliable Narrators”, and “Books About Books”.

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

Serena’s Review: “Bridgerton Collection”

Book: “Bridgerton Collection: Volume One” by Julia Quinn

Publishing Info: Kindle Edition, May 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: own the e-book

Book Description: The first three Bridgerton books all in one e-book volume! Includes The Duke and I, The Viscount Who Loved Me, and An Offer From a Gentleman.

Set between 1813 and 1827, the Bridgerton Series is a collection of eight novels, each featuring one of the eight children of the late Viscount Bridgerton.

I’m going to do a quick mini-review for all three books in this series. I’ve reviewed a couple random books by Julia Quinn on this blog over the years, but I’ve jumped all over the place from random books in this main series to ones from the prequel series, etc. But with the Netflix show just coming out, I thought it was high time to at least familiarize myself with the first three in the correct order so that when I watched the show I wouldn’t be completely lost. Because obviously I was going to watch the show! Historical romance?? Yes, please!

The Duke and I

So I had actually read this, the first book in the series, once before years ago. I didn’t remember much about it except that, unfortunately, I had rated it fairly low on Goodreads at the time. I went in with some skepticism. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a great start to my read through of these first books in the series, and my original rating wasn’t far off for how I would rate this book now.

The strengths of Quinn’s writing is clear, and it’s easy to understand how she has become one of the most popular romance authors of the time. This book completes its most important edict: it sets the stage for a million and a half sequels, creates an interesting window in this version of British society, and has quick, snappy writing that move the story along.

Unfortunately, the actual story in this book and especially its heroine and hero’s relationship was a huge let down. Each were very toxic in their own ways, and I’m not one for throwing that word around lightly. There are some extreme inconsistencies in how knowledgeable Daphne is about certain aspects of life that stretch the point of believability to its breaking point. And the great “conflict” between the Simon and Daphne leads to each treating the other in very despicable ways, with Daphne committing a pretty unforgivable crime against Simon. I’m sure this wasn’t the intent of the author with this scene, but it’s definitely how it reads and how it would (and should!) be understood. As our first two paired up grouping, I’m sure we’ll see more of Simon and Daphne on the sidelines in other books, but I’ll try to just put this one behind me. I’m also really curious how they’ll play this particular relationship in the Netflix adaptation.

Rating 6: A good start to the series, but the horrid actions of both the hero and the heroine really drops it down.

“The Viscount Who Loved Me”

First things first: this second book was a great improvement on the first. While I still had some problems with the hero, Anthony (the Bridgerton in this little story), the heroine, Kate, was vastly better than Daphne. Not only was she not bizarrely ignorant of some pretty basic facts of life, she also didn’t assault her husband. So there’s that. But beyond all of that, Kate is just a fun character. She’s spunky, smart, and a fun character to follow through this story.

Anthony takes a bit more time to warm up. For one thing, he’s presented as the go-to historical romance leading man character type: a rake. I could probably write an entire thesis on why this type of character seems to dominate these books and why most of them get it wrong, but I’ll resist. To sum up, Mr. Darcy is considered the epitome of romance heroes, and I think many authors confuse the appeal that comes from his being a catch due to his lack of interest with the idea that rakes are a decent sit-in as they, too, have no interest in love and marriage. Big difference being that Mr. Darcy didn’t have a reputation for toying with women’s hearts. But enough on that. Anthony’s rake-ness is part of his problem, as is the fact that he has some pretty unappealing ideas about the relationship between husbands and wives initially. Thankfully, he seems to work through that and does end up being a likeable enough character.

What stood out the most about this book was the dialogue. Maybe it was just the nature of the story, Kate’s trying to spare her sister from the devious rake, but there was a lot of snappy, fun interchanges between our leading lady and leading man. There were several moments where I chuckled out loud, which was a nice reminder of why I’ve liked other books by this author in the past. Overall, I’m much more excited to see this relationship play out on the show than the first one.

Rating 8: Much better than the first, but still marked down for the hero being kind of an ass for a good chunk of the first half.

“An Offer from a Gentleman”

This book was a bit different than the two that came before it. As the cover implies, it’s a very loose re-telling of Cinderella. Sophie is an illegitimate daughter who meets our her, Benedict Bridgerton, at a ball where she’s undercover as a true lady. Sparks fly. Two years later, the two meet again, but Benedict doesn’t recognize his lady love in the servant girl before him. An intriguing enough premise and a fun twist on the more traditional retellings out there.

I, again, liked the heroine, Sophie, better than the hero (I guess Daphne goes down as the worst of the three). She was earnest and stood up for herself well enough given the situation (I’ll touch on that when I get to Benedict). But she also kept unnecessary secrets that created a bunch of angst and drama for no good reason. I always struggle with these types of narrative mechanisms that are clearly put in there to move the story one way or another but defy any understanding. There’s no good reason for Sophie to keep these secrets other than the fact that it creates the drama and fallout the author was looking for.

And Benedict. Oh, Benedict. He’s probably my least favorite hero of the three we’ve seen. When he meets Sophie again, he pressures her to be his mistress or a servant in his house. And when I say pressure, I mean he puts the screws to her over it. It’s pretty obnoxious. And from there, he goes on to warn her that somehow it is her responsibility to head him off early because if he gets too, um, excited, he wouldn’t be able to stop. Nope! Don’t like that! Throughout it all, he’s pretty self-absorbed and unable to understand Sophie or her motives. Even when the truth is revealed, somehow Benedict is the injured party in all of this. I hope the show makes some big improvements on this particular story. Well, this one and the first one.

Rating 7: Not as bad as the first one, but the hero had some big problems and the heroine created unnecessary drama.

Kate’s Review: “Redbone: The True Story of a Native American Rock Band”

Book: “Redbone: The True Story of a Native American Rock Band” by Christian Staebler, Sonia Paoloni, and Thibault Balahy (Ill.)

Publishing Info: IDW Publishing, September 2020

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

Book Description: Experience the riveting, powerful story of the Native American civil rights movement and the resulting struggle for identity told through the high-flying career of west coast rock n’ roll pioneers Redbone.

You’ve heard the hit song “Come and Get Your Love” in the movie Guardians of the Galaxy, but the story of the band behind it is one of cultural, political, and social importance.

Brothers Pat and Lolly Vegas were talented Native American rock musicians that took the 1960s Sunset Strip by storm. They influenced The Doors and jammed with Jimmy Hendrix before he was “Jimi,” and the idea of a band made up of all Native Americans soon followed. Determined to control their creative vision and maintain their cultural identity, they eventually signed a deal with Epic Records in 1969. But as the American Indian Movement gained momentum the band took a stand, choosing pride in their ancestry over continued commercial reward.

Created with the cooperation of the Vegas family, authors Christian Staebler and Sonia Paolini with artist Thibault Balahy take painstaking steps to ensure the historical accuracy of this important and often overlooked story of America’s past. Part biography and part research journalism, Redbone provides a voice to a people long neglected in American history.

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

As we all know, I am not really all that versed in Marvel movies, though I did see “Guardians of the Galaxy” once and enjoyed it overall. One of the things that made me realize I was in for a treat was when Star Lord started playing “Come And Get Your Love” on his Walkman as he went to salvage some stuff. I like that song, having first heard it via sample by Cyndi Lauper in her remix of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” for “To Wong Foo”. So I liked the song, but had no knowledge of the band Redbone, who sings it. When “Redbone: The True Story of a Native American Rock Band” was brought to my attention, I jumped at the chance to read it. I was expecting a pretty straightforward rock and roll biographic novel, but was pleasantly surprised to find out that it had a bit more to say.

“Redbone” tells two stories, one being a personal recollection and the other being of a growing movement in the United States. The book follows brothers Pat and Lolly Vegas (thought Pat’s eyes), who eventually formed Redbone, the first commercially successful Native rock band. We follow their history on the Sunset Strip in the 1960s, hanging out with famous acts like The Doors and Jimi Hendrix, and see how they formed their own band that seemed to be on the way to stardom. The other story is of the American Indian Movement (or AIM), a social justice/activist group that focuses on Native rights and formed in Minneapolis in the 1960s. As Pat, Lolly, and the rest of the band began to live the rock and roll lifestyle, the rights of other Native people started being promoted and fought for, which intertwined with their rock careers as they wanted to bring their heritage and own activism into the band.

I liked hearing the backstories of the band itself, and also seeing a broad but informative look into the Residential School system in this country, and AIM and the activism and protests that it brought to the public consciousness. I was fairly familiar with most of the activism and protests that this book covers, and found the explanations to be easy to understand and powerful in both the personal and the communal effects it had. Given that history classes neglect so much non-white history in our schools, I thought that this book would be a great resource for educators to use when wanting to give an introduction to AIM and the social justice issues it tackles both then and now. I also appreciated that this story did address the racism that Redbone had to face in the music industry because of their heritage, and how it’s very clear that their pride in their heritage and want to assert their rights as Native people is what ended their careers when they had SO much talent. I’m pretty damn mad that I didn’t know anything about this band before now, when their most famous song is one that I’ve known and liked for a long time. That’s partially on me, of course. And I’m happy that this book is out there to educate readers on their story, and the broader story of AIM.

I did have a little hard time with the graphic style at first. The images aren’t in a clear linear box design, in that a lot of the time they all bleed together into larger images. Sometimes I had a hard time parsing out which dialogue bits happened where, but I eventually adjusted. And it wasn’t exactly hard to figure it out based on context. Overall I like the unique and nontraditional style.

“Redbone: The True Story of a Native American Rock Band” is a great introduction to the greater fight for Native Rights in the U.S., and finally puts a spotlight on a band that had success taken from them. If you want to know more about an important part of Rock and Roll history, check this out!

Rating 8: A fascinating history of a long neglected band, as well as an overview of the beginnings and contributions of the American Indian Movement, “Redbone: The True Story of a Native American Rock Band” is an informative and interesting graphic novel!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Redbone: The True Story of a Native American Rock Band” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but I think it would fit in on “Native American Biography (Non-fiction)”, and “Best Books on Rock and Roll”.

Find “Redbone: The True story of a Native American Rock Band” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Not Just Books: December 2020

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

Movie: “The Devil All the Time”

Let’s be honest, I mostly watched this movie because the cover image on Netflix featured Tom Holland who can pretty much do no wrong. I didn’t even know much of what it was about! Which is probably for the best, because it was way darker than I probably would have picked at the time. But still, oh so good! Telling the winding story of young man growing up trying to save those he loves from the evil lurking all around him, this movie takes its time spinning out just how awful everyone can be. Other than Tom Holland, of course! About halfway through the movie I started getting super nervous about where it would end, but I’ll say I was pleased with how it ultimately turned out. Also, interesting note, this is yet another reminder of how good of an actor Robert Pattinson is. I’m always glad to see him in things like this where it seems he is beginning to recover from the…vampire…incident.

TV series: “West Wing”

Ok, ok, I know I said I watched “The American President” because I didn’t want to commit to a re-watch of this entire series. But I caved, alright! The election was stressful and what followed afterwards has been stress ongoing. So yes, I retreated to a fantasy world where politicians (on both sides of the aisle, for the most part!) all behaved like decent human beings. One of my favorite parts of this series is the last few seasons that focuses on the next presidential race. There, the show makes a concerted effort to portray the nominees for both parties as worthy candidates with their own strengths. It’s really the epitome of wish fulfillment! We’ll see if I make it through the entire series or, more likely, this will become the kind of thing that I revisit whenever the real world of politics begins to feel like too much noise.

TV series: “Supernatural”

Can my whole summary paragraph for this choice just be me sobbing uncontrollably? Because that’s the most accurate depiction of how I feel right now. I didn’t get around to finishing this until this month (turns out that, shocker!, two babies are more work than one!), but I managed to avoid spoilers in the meantime. My sobbing reaction is twofold: 1.) Obviously this show loves to tug on heartstrings and has been doing it for years. So there’s no way fans were going to escape unscathed from the finale. And 2.) It’s over. After 15-16 years, it’s actually over! I mean, at this point, this show has been my longest long-term relationship pretty much! I started watching this at the beginning of college, and it’s seen me through all the ups and downs of my 20s and through to my mid-thirties, married and with two kids. In a lot of ways, I feel like I was on a journey right alongside Dean and Sam. There isn’t a single other show that I’ve followed as faithfully or loved as thoroughly. It might sound cheesy, but I have a hard time seeing another show ever really replacing it as my all-time favorite.

Kate’s Picks

Netflix Show: “The Queen’s Gambit”

I’m no chess player, though I do have a nice nordic viking style set that I got back in high school. I haven’t actually played on it, however. But when I heard all the hype about “The Queen’s Gambit” from not only the Internet but also my cousin and her husband, I decided that I should give it a go. It follows Beth Harmon, an orphan in the 1960s who learns to play chess from the janitor at her orphanage, and who is a prodigy. As she grows and hones her skills, she starts competing in tournaments and making a name for herself because of her youth, prowess, and gender. But fame and winning comes with a price, as Beth struggles with her new notoriety, insecurities, and a growing substance abuse problem. Anya Taylor-Joy is fantastic as Beth, and the ways that the show depicts her process, and makes chess into a thrilling and pulse pounding event, kept me on the edge of my seat.

HBO Max Show: “The Flight Attendant”

So I read Chris Bohjalian’s thriller novel “The Flight Attendant” around the time it came out, and it never made it to the blog because I didn’t find the room for it. But when I saw that it had been adapted into a TV series, I thought that it would work a LOT better in that format, and boy does it! Cassie is a globetrotting flight attendant who likes to drink, party, and hook up all around the world. But then she wakes up in Thailand next to the body of handsome and mysterious Alex Shokolov, the man she had met on a flight the day before, whose corpse is covered in blood. No memory of the night before, Cassie panics, cleans the scene, and flees. But what she doesn’t know is that not only are the feds in the U.S. interested in what happened, so is someone else who is tailing her. My husband and I are addicted to this thrilling show, with great performances from Kelly Cuoco, Rosie Perez, and Michele Gomez.

Film: “Wonder Woman 1984”

Was it as good as the first one? No. In fact, a lot of people seem to be disappointed with “Wonder Woman 1984” But I’m not sure that it could have matched the emotional weight of the war film that was “Wonder Woman”. And since I think that trying to match that tone could have led to many inauthentic stumbles, I am okay that it didn’t try to meet that level. Instead, “Wonder Woman 1984” is more of a traditional superhero movie with a super hero and some super villains with outlandish plans, but set against an 80s back drop. Diana is now living in Washington D.C. and trying to leave the weight of her loss of Steve Trevor behind. When a mysterious stone falls into the hands of wannabe oil tycoon Maxwell Lord, people’s wishes start coming true, including Diana’s wish of getting Steve back. But when the cost of the wishes starts to spiral into chaos, Diana has to step up to try and stop Lord. Gadot was awesome as always, and newcomers Pedro Pascal and Kristen Wiig hold their own. Again, not as good as the first one, and at times it can feel a little scattered. But it is also fun and entertaining and hopeful. Which is all I wanted for the end of 2020 as my husband, baby, and I spent Christmas in quarantine.

Serena’s Favorite Reads of 2020: Picks 5 through 1

Another a year, another almost impossible task trying to each choose our Top 10 Reads of the year! For me, the word “favorite” is an important part of this list. As I go through the last year’s worth of reading, I often found that some books would strike particular chords within me more deeply than others, even if, quality-wise, another book might be stronger. Of course, this just makes it all that much harder to put them in any order. But here it goes! Today I’m going to countdown my favorites reads, five to one. And since it’s the end of the reading year, don’t forget to enter our “12 Days of Christmas Giveaway!”

#5 “Ship of Smoke and Steel” & “City of Stone and Silence” by Django Wexler

“Ship of Smoke and Steel” Review & “City of Stone and Silence” Review”

I read the first book in a military fantasy series by Django Wexler a few years back. I really enjoyed it, but was following so many other series at the time, that I still haven’t managed to get back to it. But I was gifted the first in Wexler’s YA fantasy series over Christmas and absolutely adored it. Luckily for me, the second one was slated to come out shortly afterwards, so I was able to read both of them in a short amount of time. And what a blast they were! The action is nonstop, the magic system is fun, the monsters are creepy, and the stakes are high with real teeth behind the threats to our main character(s). I liked the first one a bit more than the second, but still really enjoyed them both. I have the third all queued up on my Kindle and will have a review of it coming up here shortly in January. I’m so nervous. I’m so excited.

#4 “The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue” by V.E. Schwab

“The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue” Review

I’ve liked most everything I’ve read by V.E. Schwab to a certain extent. My favorite probably still is her “Shades of Magic” trilogy. But I was very intrigued when I saw that she was releasing a stand-alone, adult fantasy novel with a really unique concept: a young woman blessed (cursed) with the ability to live forever but to never be remembered by those around her. I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting into, but I was so happy with the story Schwab presented. It delved much more deeply into the importance of memory and identity, and explored concepts of art and individuality in a really interesting way as well. The magic was incorporated in a very natural way that felt authentic but didn’t overwhelm what was ultimately a more literary, reflective novel. There was a sweet romance at the heart, but the story also didn’t follow the trajectory I had initially thought it might, instead throwing in a few twists and turns towards the end that took my completely by surprise. Fans of Schwab’s work or literary fantasy are sure to like this one!

#3 “Chosen Ones” by Veronica Roth

“Chosen Ones” Review

Talk about a book taking you by surprise! I didn’t really care for Roth’s “Insurgence” trilogy. As a matter of fact, I’m fairly certain that I didn’t even finish it! I know she also came out with a duology since then which I also hadn’t read. But the description of this book, the story of what happens to the “chosen one(s)” after they kill the big villain, was intriguing enough that I thought I’d give it a shot. And here we have it! Number three on my Top 10 list for the year! It was everything I had wanted from this type of story and more. There was a great exploration of the type of PTSD and trauma that would be long-lasting for the heroes who survived this type of childhood and teenage period of years spent fighting some great evil on behalf of humanity. But on top of the reflective portion of the story, there was an excellent adventure and conflict that kept the pace moving at a swift clip. I really, really liked this book and am definitely more on board with checking out future books by Roth in the future.

#2 “Empire of Gold” by S.A. Chakraborty

“Empire of Gold” Review

Unlike some of the other books on this list, this one comes as no surprise. I’m pretty sure the first and second book in this trilogy also made this list each year they were released. But it’s always the scariest going into the third and final book. Will the author stick the landing? Or will it end in such a disappointing way that it taints one’s ability to appreciate the books that came before? Luckily, this one did just what it should and even more than I had hoped for. With the fall of Daevabad, Nahri and Ali have been forced to return to Cairo. But once there, it becomes clear that they can’t simply leave their other lives behind. How can they fight against the almost all-powerful Dara, though? And does Nahri even want to? Their adventures take them to new and unexpected destinations, and the story unravels an even more complicated history of mixed loyalties and broken promises that we’d had before. And yet, somehow Chakraborty manages to wind it all up in a way that is both believable and satisfying. Fans of the series so far are sure to love it!

#1 “A Deadly Education” by Naomi Novik

“A Deadly Education” Review

Novik is definitely an absolute favorite author of mine, so it’s no wonder that her new book this year is at the top of my list. Really, I think she’s moved into the “instant buy” category for me, as far as authors go. There are only a handful of them, so it’s quite the distinction! This book was marketed as a more adult “Harry Potter.” I can see where this reference comes from with the story taking place in a darker, more dangerous magical school, and it plays around with the idea of “chosen ones” and the limitations of this title. But at the same time, I think this undersells the sheer novelty and imagination to be found in this book. This is definitely not Hogwarts, and not only is our heroine, not the “chosen one,” but the “chosen one” himself is a bit of a weirdo enigma. Also, kids die left and right in this thing to the point that the reader becomes almost equally blasé about it as our main character and the other students. And yet, the book is hilarious and fun, never becoming too dark or depressing. It’s a miracle of master storytelling and balance. The story also ends in a satisfying manner, but introduces a new twist at the very end that leaves you on tenterhooks waiting for the next one. Pretty much any fantasy fan should enjoy this one!

So there’s my complete list! What were your top five reads of 2020?

Kate’s Favorite Reads 2020: Picks 5 Through 1

Another a year, another almost impossible task trying to each choose our Top 10 Reads of the year! Like past years I won’t be including re-reads, and I also realized that sometimes my opinion of a book could change and evolve after I had read it, so some surprises may be up near the top. Boy let me tell you it was a HARD year to pick ten, as it was a year of HIGH quality books. And since it’s the end of the reading year, don’t forget to enter our “Twelve Days of Christmas Giveaway”! Today I’m going to countdown my favorites reads, five to one. 

5. “This Is My America” by Kim Johnson

“This Is My America” Review

This YA thriller/mystery took a hard look at the racial disparities in the American Justice System and threw in a suspenseful mystery as well. I devoured this debut novel from Kim Johnson, in which Tracy, a Black teenage girl whose father is on Death Row for a murder he didn’t commit, now has to contend with her brother being accused of a murder he didn’t commit. As Tracy tries to find evidence to clear her brother’s name as well as bringing light to the miscarriage of justice regarding her father, she uncovers a corrupt and racist sector of her community that puts her and her family in danger. This book was fast paced, timely, and thought provoking, and I greatly enjoyed it.

4. “Grown” by Tiffany D. Jackson

“Grown” Review

Tiffany D. Jackson is one of my favorite YA thriller authors writing right now, and “Grown” is probably her best book yet. This gripping and raw look into misogynoir, rape culture, and sexual exploitation is a hard read, but again, necessary as well. Teenage Enchanted Jones has dreams of stardom, and when R and B megastar Korey Fields notices her talents and offers to make her a star, she jumps at the chance. When he romances her she thinks it’s too good to be true, but their ‘romance’ turns abusive, controlling, and dangerous. When Korey ends up dead, Enchanted has to clear her name. Inspired by true events, “Grown” shows how Black girls have to grow up too fast, and how society doesn’t protect them the way that it should. Again, hard to read. But necessary.

3. “The Glass Hotel” by Emily St. John Mandel

“The Glass Hotel” Review

Emily St. Mandel follows up her plague tale “Station Eleven” with a story about Ponzi Schemes, responsibility, and power. Lives intersect and weave in and out, as one man scams a number of people into financial ruin, another man makes a decision that costs him a job and a relationship, and a woman, before she disappears, has to confront the part she played in wrecking others lives by standing by in silence. St. Mandel pulls together a tragic yet hopeful and very haunting tale that finds the little things that keep people resilient, and how resilience can sometimes come at a terrible cost. Her writing style is lyrical and beautiful, and as a friend of mine once joked, ‘can make Ponzi Schemes seem interesting and gripping!’ What a beautiful literary tale.

2. “The Last Book on the Left” by Marcus Parks, Ben Kissel, and Henry Zebrowski

“The Last Book on the Left” Review

My favorite podcast turned into a book, and boy was it worth the wait and the hype in my mind. Marcus Parks, Ben Kissel, and Henry Zebrowski bring deep dive research, non fiction narration, and witty (and sometimes stupid) commentary to a number of stories of notorious serial killers. They manage to bring the best elements of their podcast to book form, and while I had been expecting the research and actual story aspects to translate just fine, it was the hilarious commentary that caught be my surprise in how well it worked. I would absolutely love it if these guys would do what “Lore” did and write more books within the other realms of their podcasts, and to do what “Lore” didn’t do and to continue making original and new content regarding these stories. Hail Yourselves, guys! This book was fantastic!!

1. “The Year of the Witching” by Alexis Henderson

“The Year of the Witching” Review

My number one pick of 2020 eked out “Last Book on the Left” because of the timeliness and cathartic nature of the story, as well was the theme: motherfucking witches, baby. Feminist witches at that. The story of Immanuelle Moore, a teenager in a puritanical society of zealotry and misogyny, is an outcast from society because of her mother, who ran into the woods where witches dwelled, and came back to give birth to a baby out of wedlock. Immanuelle has been drawn to the Darkwood, and after getting lost inside she encounters the dark things that live there, who give her her mother’s diary. As Immanuelle reads the diary, something inside of her starts to arise, and the hypocrisy of the Church and its leaders may not be able to silence her. The feminism! The witch lore! The damning of the Patriarchy! “The Year of the Witching” is scary, empowering, powerful, and my favorite read of 2020, a year where it was very hard to feel powerful sometimes.

So there’s my complete list! What were your top five reads of 2020?

Serena’s Favorite Reads of 2020: Picks 10 through 6

Another a year, another almost impossible task trying to each choose our Top 10 Reads of the year! For me, the word “favorite” is an important part of this list. As I go through the last year’s worth of reading, I often found that some books would strike particular chords within me more deeply than others, even if, quality-wise, another book might be stronger. Of course, this just makes it all that much harder to put them in any order. But here it goes! Today I’m going to countdown my favorites reads, ten to six. And since it’s the end of the reading year, don’t forget to enter our “12 Days of Christmas Giveaway!”

#10 “The Body in the Garden” by Katharine Schellman

“The Body in the Garden” Review

This was a book that definitely took me by surprise this last year. I had fairly randomly requested it on NetGalley just based on the fact that it was a historical mystery. The cover looked kind of derpy and I hadn’t heard of the author. But then it absolutely blew me away! Not only do I just love this type historical mystery featuring a crime-solving lady, but this one broke a lot of the molds and tropes that I had begun to tire of from other similar series I’ve been reading recently. Our main character is a widow, for one thing, and one who has only fairly recently lost her husband and is still clearly mourning him. There is, of course, a gentleman friend introduced in the story, but given the circumstances, the development of any romance will look very different and there was none in this book. I also liked the inclusion of a more racially diverse cast with one of the main character’s friends being a POC young woman. The book also featured a solid mystery and found ways for a lady such as Lily Adler to solve the crime without falling into too many traps of anachronisms in behavior for a woman of the time.

#9 “Driftwood” by Marie Brennan

“Driftwood” Review

I also read the first in Brennan’s popular “The Memories of Lady Trent” series this year, but it was this, her recently released stand-alone novel that really captured me. It’s a strange little book about essentially the afterlife where worlds go to finally die after whatever apocalyptic event took them out in the first place. There, these worlds shrink slowly and whatever people remain, must make due in a patchwork place made up of all sorts of different peoples and worlds. It’s a place where change is everything, except for one man, Last, an individual who no one seems to really know but who has been around forever. The story jumps through various people’s tales of their interactions with Last, and through these tales, we explore a taste of the wide variety of worlds and peoples that make up Driftwood. It was such a unique story, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything like it. It’s definitely a must-read for fans of science fiction/fantasy.

#8 “Mexican Gothic” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

“Mexican Gothic” Review

This was a joint review for both Kate and I, and we both enjoyed it immensely. I think I’ve included a book by Moreno-Garcia on my last two “Top 10” lists, as well, so that should demonstrate my general love for this author. All of her books have been completely different, a Regency romance/fantasy, a Mexican folklore/fable, and here we have a Gothic horror story also set in Mexico. I never know what I’m going to get, but I do know that it’s always good. This book was definitely the creepiest thing I’ve read by her. It plays with all of the Gothic horror tropes in really creative ways and even has tinges of other horror stories like “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The setting is so cool, a rural town in Mexico during the 1950s, and Noemi is an excellent heroine. Fans of the author will definitely enjoy this, and as Kate can attest, horror-lovers will likely enjoy it, too.

#7 “The Poppy War” by R. F. Kuang

“The Poppy War” Review

I’m currently reading the second book in this series, “The Dragon Republic,” and it’s bringing back all the memories of why I enjoyed the first book so much. Don’t get me wrong, both the fist and the second are tough reads, but that’s also because Kuang doesn’t shy away from the absolute horror that is warfare, especially the terrible impact it has on innocents caught in the crossfire. The series also explores the burdens that warfare places on its soldiers. Rin’s story is dark, heavy, but also completely compelling. She’s just the sort of character you can’t help but fall in love with while also wanting to constantly shake her and say “No, don’t do that!! Can’t you see??” I also really enjoy the interesting magic system and pantheon of gods that are introduced. Magic comes with a heavy, heavy price, and we see Rin’s struggle with it lead her into incredibly challenging moral areas. The third book came out this fall, so I’m a bit late to this series, overall. But fantasy lovers, especially military fantasy lovers, are sure to enjoy this.

#6 “A Memory Called Empire” by Arkady Martine

“A Memory Called Empire” Review

I think this was the most straight-up science fiction story I read this year, and it’s only fitting that it made it’s way onto this list. It’s also another one that came out a bit ago and for whatever reason, I didn’t get to until this fall. I blame long library audiobook wait lists for delaying the pure joy that was my experience reading this book. I really loved everything about it: the interesting technology that is introduced, the various cultures that we see, the exploration of topics such as colonialism, empire, and reform. And, of course, our main character Mahit Dzmare is lovely. Taking on the role as a new ambassador to the sprawling Empire, Mahit’s story is one of untangling a complex web of politics and opposing motivations. Through her eyes, we, too, get to explore the tensions that come between both loving and fearing such an immense force as an Empire that is slowly sprawling out across the galaxy and subsuming all it finds in its path. The second book in the series is coming out this spring, and I have an e-ARC all queued up, so this time I’ll be more on top of things!

So that’s ten through six. Next time I will give a countdown of my top five. What have been some of your favorite reads of 2020?

Kate’s Favorite Reads of 2020: Picks 10 Through 6

Another a year, another almost impossible task trying to each choose our Top 10 Reads of the year! Like past years I won’t be including re-reads, and I also realized that sometimes my opinion of a book could change and evolve after I had read it, so some surprises may be up near the top. Boy let me tell you it was a HARD year to pick ten, as it was a year of HIGH quality books. And since it’s the end of the reading year, don’t forget to enter our “Twelve Days of Christmas Giveaway”! Today I’m going to countdown my favorite reads, ten to six. 

10. “Superman Smashes the Klan” by Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru (Ill.)

“Superman Smashes the Klan” Review

I love me some DC as you all know, and I am still super thrilled that Gene Luen Yang will take on various titles every one in awhile. But “Superman Smashes the Klan” is above and beyond his other Superman stories, if only because of how seamlessly he weaves in themes of social justice and anti-racism along with the Superman stuff. Not only do we have some well done and nuanced takes on the difficulties of immigrant families when it comes to dealing with racism and the expectations to assimilate, we get a fantastic juxtaposition with Superman, who has his own identity hurdles that he’s facing. And who doesn’t love seeing a stand in for the Klan get their asses handed to them by one of the most beloved superheroes of all time?

9. “The Return” by Rachel Harrison

“The Return” Review

Weird hotel? Check! A strained female friendship? Check! Creepy imagery and a totally unsettling horror undercurrent that ties these things together and more? Check mate! “The Return” is an unsettling horror story about a missing woman who suddenly reappears, and her closest (but waning) friend realizes that something about her is… off. But what “The Return” is really about is how sometimes friendships slowly melt away, and how we have to come to terms with letting go of something that is no longer giving us what we need, even though it brought us joy in the past. It’s a horror story that had the right amount of pathos, frustration, and bittersweetness to go with some really scary moments.

8. “Mexican Gothic” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

“Mexican Gothic” Joint Review

A Gothic horror story set in the rural Mexican countryside, starring a Latina woman who is battling an unknown malevolent force that is inside the home of a white, Colonialist family? Hot damn, now THAT sounds interesting! And “Mexican Gothic” certainly was a wild and disturbing read that subverted a lot of Gothic tropes. Noemí enters the strange and dark setting of My Place and introduces us to some twisted body horror, a screed against colonialism, and a genuinely haunting and atmospheric tale of terror that continues the grand tradition of using horror to address issues of social justice. And now Silvia Moreno-Garcia is on my must read list of authors.

7. “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” by Holly Jackson

“A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” Review

While sometimes popular YA thrillers don’t quite catch my attention as much as I want them to, “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” completely exceeded my expectations and became one of my favorite thrillers of 2020! Plucky teen Pip’s obsession with a local murder case sucks her into a tangled web of suspects, threats, and lies, and as she works to clear the name of a suspect whose family is still grieving, she finds twists, turns, and lots of surprises. I was completely enthralled by this book, and I cannot WAIT for the sequel, which will be arriving in April (and has already been pre-ordered from my favorite indie children’s book store)! “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” is a hoot and a half.

6. “The Only Good Indians” by Stephen Graham Jones

“The Only Good Indians” Review

2020 was the year I finally got in gear and read Stephen Graham Jones, and his newest horror novel “The Only Good Indians” was quite the story to start with. This folk horror tale about four Indigenous men who did something terrible on a hunting trip, and then become hunted themselves, burrowed into my brain and kept me thinking about it for days afterwards. But again, along with the horror comes a story about identity, tradition, grief, and trauma, and the heart and hope that glimmer amongst the despair and destruction was incredibly emotional and touching. A truly visceral and haunting horror tale that may not be for the faint of heart, but should be read by horror fans everywhere.

So that’s ten through six. Next time I will give a countdown of my top five. What have been some of your favorite reads of 2020?

12 Days of Christmas Giveaway!

Happy holidays fellow book lovers! And in honor of this time of year when presents  giving is everything, we’re hosting our fourth annual “12 Days of Christmas” Giveaway. But, tricky us, it’s actually two giveaways, each one comprised of six books from our preferred genres. Read on to see what books are included in each prize package and enter for your chance to win! Both giveaways are open to U.S. residents only and end on January 1.

Serena’s Prize Package

“The Wolf in the Whale” (My Review)

“The Affair of the Mysterious Letter”

“The Good Luck Girls”

“The Wolf of Oren-Yaro” (My Review)

“The Ikessar Falcon” (My Review)

“Once Upon a River” (My Review)

Click here to enter!

Kate’s Prize Package

“White Ivy” by Susie Yang (My Review)

“Follow Me” by Kathleen Barber (My Review)

“The Book of Koli” by M.R. Carey (My Review)

“The Night Swim” by Megan Goldin (My Review)

“The Hollow Ones” by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan (My Review)

“Darling Rose Gold” by Stephanie Wrobel (My Review)

Click HERE To Enter!

My Year with Jane Austen: “Persuasion” [2007]

Movie: “Persuasion”

Release Year: 2007

Actors: Anne Elliot – Sally Hawkins

Captain Wentworth – Rupert Penry-Jones

Mr. Elliot – Tobias Menzies

Comparison – “Indulge your imagination in every possible flight.”

I really like this adaptation of “Persuasion.” I think it captures the overall tone of the book really well, and introduces a useful trick of the having Anne journal throughout the story to get at the deeper, emotional points of her story. Really, the book is all about the emotional arcs for both of our main characters. The actual events taking place around them are almost secondary. So between having the inner monologue from Anne showing her feelings throughout and the inclusion of more scenes of Wentworth on his own, we get a much better progression of this aspect of the story.

I also think the casting was much, much better here than in the 1995 version. Other than perhaps Mrs. Croft who I preferred in the older movie (though I have no problems with the Mrs. Croft here either), I liked every secondary actor they used here better than the ones from that movie. I think I also like the Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penry-Jones better, too, but I didn’t have a problem with the other actors there either. I particularly think they improved on the casting for Sir Walter and Elizabeth (they do away with the silly emotional outbursts that the other movie did), the two Musgrove sisters (Louisa seems more lively and a better fit for the character described in the book), and Captain Benwick. The Benwick we see here is all the emo-esque, dour young man that we’d expect. While it’s a fairly significant change to the story, I thought it also worked well having Anne and Benwick have the conversation about men, women, and loving longest. It fit in really well with their general conversation about morose poetry.

Heroines – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”

I really like Sally Hawkins’ version of Anne in this adaptation. Unlike the 1995 version, this Anne is clearly a do-er from the very beginning and comes across as less withdrawn overall. She’s first introduced as busy at work taking stock of the house and preparing it to be let. While her father and sister laze around, Anne is the one actually getting things done. This idea is quickly reinforced with the way this movie tackles the injury to Mary’s son. Anne quickly jumps in and diagnoses the problem, a disjointed collar bone, and then just as quickly fixes it. I’m not sure how realistic this is, really, but I think it serves a good purpose of distinguishing Anne’s character as someone who puts others before herself, is very humble, etc. (all the things that would lead her to turn Wentworth away originally), but is also ready and able to jump in when she sees a need. This then neatly sets up her later actions during Louisa’s fall.

I also like what she does with the journaling/breaking of the third wall with the camera. It’s kind of a tough thing to sell, having to look directly at the camera to express deeper emotions. It’s all well and good to pull a Jim from “The Office” and roll your eyes at the camera all the time for humorous effect. Hawkins has to express heartbreak and all of its stages while staring directly at a camera. Seems really challenging, but I think she does a good job. It really helps tell Anne’s story. As so much of it is internal and deeply personal, it’s a hard thing to convey in a movie. I don’t think the 1995 version quite managed it. But this method works well, though I think in a lesser actress’s hands it could also have gone very badly.

Heroes – “What are men to rocks and mountains?”

I also like Rupert Penry-Jones as Captain Wentworth. He doesn’t quite have the same grizzled look of a Navy sea captain that Ciaran Hinds brought to the role, but I think he also fits better to the immediate, natural charm that Wentworth was described as having. It’s easy to see why everyone around him would be immediately taken in by him. He also does a good job of balancing the humor and good manners that would attract the Musgrove girls while also giving brief glimpses into the lingering anger and hurt feelings that still bubble just below the surface whenever he’s around Anne. It’s played in just the right way that the viewer feels like only they and Anne would really catch the double-meaning behind some of his looks and words.

I also really like how this movie devotes a good amount of time to showing us scenes between Captain Wentworth and Captain Harville that give us even more insight into Wentworth’s mindset. We see the moment he realizes he may have trapped himself into an engagement with Louisa and all the horror that comes with it. And we also get a great scene later between these two when he goes on about his awakening to his true feelings about Anne. I think this was a big improvement on the way the 1995 version handled Wentworth’s story. There, his change of heart kind of seemed to come out of nowhere. Here we get to see the progression and get to use a lot more of the romantic statements and sentiments that Wentworth expresses in the book (there most of it comes out in the final few chapters after the two have reconciled, but I think it works better in a movie the way they do it here).

There’s also a really small moment where Captain Wentworth first introduces Anne to Captain Harville as “Miss Elliot.” Harville than clarifies, “Anne Elliot?” making it pretty clear that Wentworth has talked to Harville about her in the past. It’s these small things that I think really bolster this version.

Villains – “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” 

While I think that Tobias Menzies does a good job as Mr. Elliot, he’s definitely one of those actors who is type cast into villain roles. Anyone familiar with the actor can pretty easily guess that whenever he shows up, he’s not going to be a great guy. He does have good chemistry with Sally Hawkins, however, and plays up the charm of this character very well. I think there’s also something particularly unctuous about his version of the character that makes the reveal of his motives very understandable. Unlike the 1995 version, this movie sticks with the idea that he’s only really in it for the title. It’s a harder sell to modern audiences, but I think Menzies’ version of the character sells this idea pretty well. It’s easy enough to believe that he’d be all in on getting his hands on a title like this.

Romance – “A lady’s imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.”

I also like the romance in this movie. It feels like we get a lot more of it, being more privy to Anne’s inner thoughts and seeing/hearing more from Wentworth. It’s also interesting that this movie chose to include the scene with Wentworth asking Anne about whether she and Mr. Elliot will want the Crofts to move out when they become married. It’s a scene that wasn’t in the book but was added in the 1995 movie. I think it works even better here, since Anne at least as the presence of mine to more clearly refute these rumors about her and Mr. Elliot.

Unfortunately, this then leads into one of the more ridiculous sequences in the movie where Anne runs around Bath trying to chase down Captain Wentworth. It’s a bit much. She starts out running, gets caught up by Mrs. Smith who shares the truth about Mr. Elliot. Then she runs some more. And some more. Then she gets the letter from Captain Wentworth delivered by Captain Harville. Then she reads it and, you guessed, it runs some more. I think the point is to illustrate how determined she has become in the years since she was persuaded to give him up, but it becomes a bit over the top. It isn’t then helped by the ridiculous kissing scene where it takes like 30 seconds for the two to actually get there. It’s pretty awkward, really, and I’m not sure why they went this route.

It’s definitely a change from the book and probably not that believable (who really thinks that Sir Walter would sell his home to a Navy captain?), but I do like the last scene where Wentworth surprises Anne with the purchase of her home. Throughout the movie, we’ve seen that Anne values her family’s home much more than the rest of them do, so it’s a nice little button on this aspect of the story to have the happy couple settle there in the end.

Comedy – “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

Sir Walter is both funny and horrible in this version. I think the actor pretty perfectly captured the casual snobbery of the character, and his delivery on some of the classic lines (like the shrubberies being approachable) is great. And then to later see him and Elizabeth tripping all over themselves to be introduced to the Dalyrimples. Good stuff.

I also really liked Mary in this version. She’s sniveling and silly which just offsets her moments of extreme pride all the better. I particularly like the scene towards the end where she arrives in Bath and declares it to be her last hope. And then, with a burst of pure energy and healthy, jumps in to say hello to her father and invite herself to a dinner party. She also is very easy to dislike, especially in the scene where she’s essentially whining her way into Anne’s role as nursemaid to Louisa, yet again claiming that it is all due to “her condition.”

Fun facts – “Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.”

Tobias Menzies and Joseph Mawle (Captain Harville) appeared on “Game of Thrones.” I obviously recognized Menzies (yet again playing an unlikable character in that show), but I didn’t recognize Mawle as Benjen Stark.

Anne’s costuming is deliberately left simple in Bath to reflect the fact that she dislike the city and does not actively join into society or embrace the culture there.

Best Movie Gif/Meme: “I dearly love a laugh.”

I like the little moments like this that highlight the ongoing tension between the two throughout throughout the movie.

This rounds out my official year of reviewing Jane Austen books/adaptations. I’m planning one bonus post in two weeks, however, to cover a few other adaptations that didn’t make the list for full reviews.