Serena’s Review: “The Broken Kingdoms”

Book: “The Broken Kingdoms” by N.K. Jemisin

Publishing Info: Orbit, November 2010

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

Book Description: In the city of Shadow, beneath the World Tree, alleyways shimmer with magic and godlings live hidden among mortal kind. Oree Shoth, a blind artist, takes in a homeless man who glows like a living sun to her strange sight. This act of kindness engulfs Oree in a nightmarish conspiracy. Someone, somehow, is murdering godlings, leaving their desecrated bodies all over the city.

Oree’s peculiar guest is at the heart of it, his presence putting her in mortal danger — but is it him the killers want, or Oree? And is the earthly power of the Arameri king their ultimate goal, or have they set their sights on the Lord of Night himself?

Previously Reviewed: “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms”

Review: Having re-familiarized myself with Jemisin’s first novel and after discovering the joy that is the audiobook version, it was a quick hop and skip over to the library website to check out the next book in the series. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, as I didn’t read a book description beforehand and it had seemed as if the first book wrapped up fairly neatly. But I’m pleased to report that while telling a wholly unique story focused on a new cast of characters, this sequel is just as wonderful as the first book.

Set several years after the events of the first book, Oree’s world looks very different than the one that existed before. Godlings walk among humans, a gigantic tree grows at the heart of what once was the most powerful city in the land, and dark new forces grow with the rumors that a new god, a new lady, has joined the pantheon. But for Oree, life is made up of small moments as she tries to lead a peaceful life selling her artwork. For, even without eyesight, able only to see magic and its users, Oree creates wonderous works that draw the eyes of many. But this simple life is interrupted when she finds herself drawn into a dark mystery: godlings are being murdered and Oree and her strange house guest, a man who shines bright as the sun, but only at dawn, are suspected as being behind it all.

“The Broken Kingdoms” is both a quieter novel and a more complex one. In many ways, it feels like Jemisin came more into her own in this second outing. While the first one was lovely and I might have preferred it as an overall reading experience, I think this was the stronger book. All of the little glimpses into this fantastical world that were laid down in the first story seemed to blossom and weave themselves into an interlocking tapestry here in the second. The history of the gods and godlings, the politics and cultures that have warred and formed alliances throughout history, and the smaller lives of those just trying to get by while cosmic battles wage around them. Oree’s story is very much that, the story of a young woman who quickly finds herself caught up in something stronger than she is…or so she believes.

As a character, Oree has the quiet strength and inner will of iron that I find so appealing in a leading lady. She has no grand desires and spends much of the book fighting against her own involvement in the mystery surrounding the godlings and her strange houseguest whom she has dubbed “Shiny.” Readers of the first book will be quick to identify this character, and I was pleased to see that Jemisin didn’t draw out the suspense too long for Oree, as well. As fun as it is to be in the know against the main character in a book, it’s a short-lived joy and one that can also end up working against itself very quickly if drawn out too long. The main character can often be left looking unnecessarily foolish or slow to pick up on clues that seem obvious to the better-informed reader. But here, Oree learns the truth in a timely manner, and, what’s more, her reaction to this discovery adds a new layer of interest to the story and the friendship building between these two.

I was also pleased with how Jemisin used this character. From the first book, it was easy to have strong opinions of him from the start. And Jemisin doesn’t undermine those, but she also develops layers beneath this surface version that draw a picture of a complicated, flawed individual who is none the less a worthy companion for our Oree.

I also really enjoyed the expanded world building and exploration of magic and the godlings. The world has certainly changed since the events of the first book, and it is interesting to see the many small and large effects that those events have inspired. The villains, in particular, were very interesting and appropriately threatening. What makes them all the more scary is how understandable some of their motivations are. The world has changed drastically and quickly, and everyone’s reactions to that sort of upheaval would be very different.

My only ding against the book was perhaps the ending. But this is a largely personal evaluation, and I think, narratively, it works quite well. I had my own hopes for how things would go, and the ending took me by surprise, both in a good way and, a bit, in a disappointing one as well. I’m curious to see if any of these events are revisited in the third and final book!

Rating 9: While I had more fun with the first book, this might be the stronger work of the two.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Broken Kingdoms” is on these Goodreads lists: Speculative Fiction by Authors of Color and Non-Caucasian Protagonists in Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Paranormal Romance.

Find “The Broken Kingdoms” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “She’s Too Pretty To Burn”

Book: “She’s Too Pretty To Burn” by Wendy Heard

Publishing Info: Henry Holt & Co. (BYR), March 2021

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

Book Description: An electric romance set against a rebel art scene sparks lethal danger for two girls in this expertly plotted YA thriller. For fans of E. Lockhart, Lauren Oliver and Kara Thomas.

The summer is winding down in San Diego. Veronica is bored, caustically charismatic, and uninspired in her photography. Nico is insatiable, subversive, and obsessed with chaotic performance art. They’re artists first, best friends second. But that was before Mick. Delicate, lonely, magnetic Mick: the perfect subject, and Veronica’s dream girl. The days are long and hot―full of adventure―and soon they are falling in love. Falling so hard, they never imagine what comes next. One fire. Two murders. Three drowning bodies. One suspect . . . one stalker. This is a summer they won’t survive.

Inspired by The Picture of Dorian Gray, this sexy psychological thriller explores the intersections of love, art, danger, and power.

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

While I have a vague working knowledge of the main themes of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde thanks to pop culture, I haven’t actually read the book, nor have I seen any source material stringent adaptations. I figure I should probably get on that at some point, but man, the To Be Read pile is so big that it just keeps falling by the wayside. That didn’t stop me, however, from being totally interested in “She’s Too Pretty to Burn” by Wendy Heard when I read the description. Sure, the “Dorian Gray” adaptation is already kind of a tantalizing detail, but when you throw in teenage girls, sapphic romance, AND what sounds like a “Velvet Buzzsaw”-esque pretentious art scene/bloodbath? Baby, you got a stew going.

This movie is a mess, but it’s a mess that I couldn’t stop watching. (source)

“She’s Too Pretty To Burn” has two perspectives. The first is Mick, a shy, awkward, friendless teenage girl who lives with her narcissistic mother. Her self esteem is low and she hates having any attention on her. The second is Veronica, a budding photographer from a privileged home who has dreams of art school after high school, and who pals around with Nico, a passionate political performance artist who is always on the edge with his art. After Mick and Veronica meet at a party, their connection is immediately forged in passion as well as boundary treading, in that Veronica takes Mick’s picture without her knowing. This, of course, sets off a disturbing and highly readable chain of events. I liked having both Mick’s and Veronica’s perspectives, as I feel like we got a really good sense for both their passions, their hopes, and their insecurities, as well as how they both are deeply into each other, but know how to hurt each other. There were moments where I loved each of them, and moments where I would get so mad at each of them, but I was wholly invested in them, their relationship, and their fates. I also really enjoyed how Heard explored their differing levels of privilege, be it based on race, class, home life, what have you, showing that while Mick may have the upper hand in one way, Veronica may have it in another, and neither of them can see past their own issues to REALLY understand how their varying advantages manifest. Nico is a bit of a wild card in all of this at first glance, until he starts to manipulate both girls in different ways to suit his own purposes, and as that slow burn threw in a whole other dynamic to this story, I went from hooked to lined and sunk as well (does this metaphor work? I don’t care, I was all in is what I’m saying).

The plot, which I’m going to keep a little vague, is a slow build of suspense and dread as to what is going to happen. The unease is apparent from the get go, but you aren’t totally certain as to why you feel that way. Is it because of Mick’s unease with everything around her? Is it because of Veronica’s obsession with that photo she took of Mick and what it drives her to do? Is it the two of them, is it something else? Since I haven’t read “Dorian Gray” I can’t tell you as to how well it fits the narrative of that story, or how it reinterprets those themes, but what I can tell you is that this book is just off and unnerving enough that you will be on edge even before things really start to go south for all of our characters. And then when it does go that way, the tension is massive. At least it was for me. I was ripping through the final chapters, nearly breathless as I waited to see what was going to happen. I don’t know what it was about this book, but it really laid its talons in my brain and I am still shaken up. The only reason that this didn’t get a ten out of ten is because I felt like it went a LITTLE long by the end, extending past the climactic events and laying a little last minute groundwork that I don’t think was fully explored. That said, if it was laying groundwork for a potential sequel? I would be chomping at the bit to see what happens next.

“She’s Too Pretty to Burn” is going to be on my mind for awhile. Deeply disturbing but compelling as hell. Definitely check this out if you like YA thrillers, or even just thrillers in general.

Rating 9: A twisted and unnerving thriller that had me hooked almost immediately.

Reader’s Advisory:

“She’s Too Pretty to Burn” is included on the Goodreads lists “2021 Sapphic Releases”, and “Dorian Gray”.

Find “She’s Too Pretty to Burn” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Not Just Books: March 2021

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

Documentary: “Murder Among the Mormons”

What can I say, sometimes I can definitely get on board Kate’s “true crime” binge fest! And apparently by bent leans towards…bombers? But more than the bombings themselves, this documentary explores the crazy world of the Mormon church and its ongoing reckoning with its own history. As a relatively new religion, the search for primary objects from the early days of the church is a profitable business, indeed. But what happens when the best of these profiteers may not be what he seems? I had never heard anything about this particular story, so it was incredibly interesting seeing how these events unfolded. Like I said, the bombings themselves are almost the least interesting aspect of the entire affair! If you enjoy true crime documentaries and want an inside look at some of the workings of the Mormon church, definitely check this one out!

Movie: “The Disaster Artist”

Apparently this was the month where I decided to just, I don’t know, become Kate?? She watched this movie right around when it came out and highlighted it then. For whatever reason, it took me until now to get on this bandwagon. I’d never actually seen “The Room,” but like everyone else, it seems, I knew a decent amount about it and could quote all of the pop-culturally required scenes. But man, what a whacky story it was watching it play out in this film! The Franco brothers are each incredible in bringing these two characters to life. I almost have to give more credit to Dave Franco for expertly playing the more straightforward of the two while bouncing off all the craziness that James Franco was bringing to his version of Tommy. It would be really easy to be lost in the background behind all of that, but Dave Franco does a great job of portraying why his character would tolerate and go along with some of Tommy’s more crazy plans. I really enjoyed this movie, though by the end, I still felt as confused as ever about how any of this actually happened in real life. But that’s probably the point!

Netflix Series: “Maniac”

Lastly, my husband and I just finished this series on Netflix. I’m…not even sure how to explain it? I think the best way to put it was as my husband said: it’s essentially “Inception” but on acid. Jonah Hill and Emma Stone really show their acting chops in this twisty, alternative reality that explores mental illness and grief. They each play a variety of different characters throughout, and Stone’s accent work is particularly impressive. I was confused about 90% of the time and still feel like I was missing some of the metaphors and parallels throughout. But it was still a great show to watch over a week (can’t have too many breaks between episodes or the confusion just escalates!). Fans of strange, sci-fi-y stories who like darker themes to their entertainment should definitely check it out.

Kate’s Picks

Film: “Freaky”

Given how much I love the “Happy Death Day” movies, when I heard that Blumhouse was releasing another horror comedy from the same director, I was automatically interested. This month I finally watched “Freaky”, a horror movie that’s part slasher gore fest, part “Freaky Friday” shenanigans. When an awkward teenage girl named Millie is attacked and stabbed by a notorious serial killer called the Blissfield Butcher, her escape is nothing short of a miracle. But the next morning, when she wakes up, she is in her attacker’s body! And on the flip side, the Butcher wakes up in her body. Now Millie, in the body of a hulking, wanted killer, has to figure out how to switch their bodies back before it’s permanent. And the Butcher is having fun in an innocent looking body to wreak havoc in (but also dealing with the misogyny that teenage girls have to face). It’s hilarious and gory, and not only is Vince Vaughn on point, Kathryn Newton is both relatable AND terrifying in her performances.

Podcast: “Some Place Under Neith”

I’ve been trying to expand my podcast listening beyond the general two that I religiously listen to. So when there was an advertisement for “Some Place Under Neith”, a new missing women podcast, before one of the old reliables, I was very interested to check it out. This brand new show (like only a couple eps have dropped thus far) that has a focus on women who have straight up gone missing and/or haven’t been seen in years. The circumstances can range from potential kidnappings, to off the grid activity, to cults or extremist sects (the first couple of episodes have focused on Scientology and Shelly Miscavige. Hosts Natalie Jean and Amber Nelson strike a good balance of wry comedy and genuine respect and concern for the potential victims, and make the content very easy to connect to. I’m very excited to see where this series goes and what stories it tells.

TV Show: “It’s a Sin”

If you want to be completely devastated by a mini series that is incredibly relevant, look no further than “It’s A Sin”, a show that kicked me in the emotions repeatedly. And repeatedly. And repeatedly. It’s the newest work by Russell T. Davies, the creator of “Queer as Folk”, and it is by far one of the best mini series I’ve seen in awhile. Taking place in London over a span of the early 1980s to the early 1990s, it follows a group of friends, many of them gay men, who are just starting to live their dreams as the AIDS pandemic starts to take hold. As those around them get sick, the denial, government negligence, misinformation, and bigotry makes facing reality hard for many of them. Until it’s too late. It’s stark, it’s emotional, and it is absolutely devastating. It is must watch TV that has amazing performances, nuanced characters, and ever relevant messages. And I spent the majority of it sobbing uncontrollably. So not exactly light viewing. But necessary viewing nonetheless.

Serena’s Review: “Namesake”

Book: “Namesake” by Adrienne Young

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, March 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Trader. Fighter. Survivor.

With the Marigold ship free of her father, Fable and its crew were set to start over. That freedom is short-lived when she becomes a pawn in a notorious thug’s scheme. In order to get to her intended destination she must help him to secure a partnership with Holland, a powerful gem trader who is more than she seems.

As Fable descends deeper into a world of betrayal and deception she learns that her mother was keeping secrets, and those secrets are now putting the people Fable cares about in danger. If Fable is going to save them then she must risk everything, including the boy she loves and the home she has finally found.

Previously Reviewed: “Fable”

Review: I’ve really liked some books from Adrienne Young in the past, but I think “Fable” might have been my favorite in a while. For one thing, I always enjoy a good pirate/sea-faring story, and they’re fairly hard to come by, making the stand-out ones all the better when you find them. While the first book wasn’t perfect, it was definitely a solid start to the duology and the cruel cliff-hanger did its work: I picked up this one as soon as possible when it became available!

Shortly after thinking she’d finally found a place and family of her own in the Marigold and its crew, Fable is abducted and finds herself caught up in the scheming of several powerful players. Unbeknownst to her, Fable might be the clue to unlocking one of the rarest finds in the sea. And soon, Fable must risk it all to make a future for herself and her crew. But to do so, she must delve into the secrets of her family, especially her mother, a woman Fable had thought she knew up until now.

I wasn’t quite sure where this book was going to be headed when I got to the cliffhanger at the end of the first book. In many ways, most of Fable’s arcs had already been completed. She’d confronted the father who abandoned her. Found a crew. Made her fortune in a risky treasure hunt. And found love with the captain of the Marigold. And then she was abducted, with very little fanfare or clues as to why. This could have gone two ways, of course. It could have felt like a last-minute addition by an author/publisher who insisted they’d wring a sequel out of this thing come hell or highwater. Or it could be a thoughtful addition to Fable’s story that felt organic and natural in its own right. I’m glad to report that it is the second.

While much of the first book dealt with Fable’s complicated relationship with a father who refused to acknowledge her as his daughter publicly, this book dives into Fable’s relationship and understanding of her mother and her mother’s family. From the first book, Isolde is made out to be the prototypical perfect mother figure. She was everything Fable wanted to be and looked up to, while also a comforting, loving mother to Fable as a child. But this book tackles the idea that we never really know our parents, as much as we may love them and want to emulate them. Isolde, like the sea she loved, had depths and currents to her that very few understood, and it was exciting watching Fable navigate the twists and turns uncovered in her own family history through Isolde’s lingering relatives.

There were several points in this story, particularly with regards to the Isolde storyline, that could have felt very predictable. I had a number of suspicions regarding the direction the story seemed to be headed. Luckily, only one of those really played out (though that one in particular still frustrates me to no end, as I felt like at least part of it should have been more obvious to Fable and her crew). Instead, we see new layers to many characters. Villains come and go. Motivations wax and wane. It’s always a bit unclear as to who is doing what and why.

And at the heart of it, Fable is a steady, sympathetic character. The revelations about her family that rock her own understanding of herself and history, while shocking, don’t dislodge her core purpose and understanding of her place in the world. Her values, her love for her family, both found and blood, remain true even when tested by power, suspicion, and deception.

I also liked that we got to see a bit more backstory for a few of the other crew members. In the first book, many of them felt like token characters with only one or two traits to really distinguish them from each other. Here, we get a bit more history for a few of them that grounds their stories in ways that make you care about more than just Fable herself.

I still found the romance to be a bit dull. But in this different circumstance, the second book versus the first, I was almost glad for that dullness. More than anything, I hate it when authors add drama to their established romances as if that’s the only way to maintain the reader’s interest in it. If your romance can’t hold up to its characters being together, it wasn’t great to start with. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying probably forever.

Overall, I was very pleased with this sequel. It explored new areas of the duology’s central theme, that of family, while also staying true to the main character and foundations of the story that were laid down in the first book. Fans of “Fable” are sure to enjoy this second high-seas adventure!

Rating 8: Exciting but poignant, “Namesake” continues to build on the excellent foundation laid down in the first book.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Namesake” is on these Goodreads lists: OE Fiction, Fantasies & Epics Book Club and Ginger woman: Redheaded Heroine in Romance.

Find “Namesake” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Every Vow You Break”

Book: “Every Vow You Break” by Peter Swanson

Publishing Info: William Morrow, March 2021

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

Book Description: A bride’s dream honeymoon becomes a nightmare when a man with whom she’s had a regrettable one-night stand shows up in this electrifying psychological thriller from the acclaimed author of Eight Perfect Murders.

Abigail Baskin never thought she’d fall in love with a millionaire. Then she met Bruce Lamb. He’s a good guy, stable, level-headed, kind—a refreshing twist from her previous relationships. But right before the wedding, Abigail has a drunken one-night stand on her bachelorette weekend. She puts the incident—and the sexy guy who wouldn’t give her his real name—out of her mind, and now believes she wants to be with Bruce for the rest of her life.

Then the mysterious stranger suddenly appears—and Abigail’s future life and happiness are turned upside down. He insists that their passionate night was the beginning of something much, much more. Something special. Something real—and he’s tracked her down to prove it. Does she tell Bruce and ruin their idyllic honeymoon—and possibly their marriage? Or should she handle this psychopathic stalker on her own? To make the situation worse, strange things begin to happen. She sees a terrified woman in the night shadows, and no one at the resort seems to believe anything is amiss… including her perfect new husband.

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

After totally dropping the ball on getting my hands on Peter Swanson’s last book, I vowed, VOWED, that I wouldn’t let that happen again. They are just far too enjoyable. So when I saw that NetGalley had his newest book “Every Vow You Break” available, I jumped at the chance to read it, therein guaranteeing that I wouldn’t be so incredibly late this time. And, like most Swanson books, I was completely taken in by the mystery, this time taking place on a strange and isolated island as a newly married couple starts to crumble under secrets, lies, and a looming threat of a potential stalker hiding in the woods. Oh yes. This is exactly what I wanted from this book.

What I find striking about Swanson’s books is that they can hit completely different notes and feelings depending on the story. I think that were I to have no idea that Swanson wrote both “Eight Perfect Murders” and “Every Vow You Break” I’d have been gobsmacked that they were the same author. And “Every Vow You Break” also has a different feel from some of his earlier works as well. It doesn’t rely on a big early twist to set the reader off course, nor does it toss in any last moment twists and turns that feel unearned. But all that said, what I thought was going to be a pretty straight forward thriller about a woman being stalked by a man she had a single sexual encounter with turned into something far more sinister than I imagined. And I LOVED that. I pieced together a few aspects of this book, but for the most part I was kept on my toes, and fell for a couple of the red herrings that Swanson tossed out there. It felt fresh and new, and I had a hard time putting the book down once I had picked it up. Swanson took the story to places that I didn’t really anticipate, and I will say (whilst keeping it vague) that he tackles themes like misogyny, rape culture, and sexism in ways that felt responsible and biting. Which, again, I wasn’t expecting from this read. I should really learn to expect the unexpected from him, and yet….

Beyond the plot, our main character of Abigail was also a genuine and realistic protagonist. She definitely makes some poor decisions as the story goes on, as it’s really not a good idea to sleep with another person during your bachelorette party weekend, but for all of her faults you can understand why she does the things she does. And she’s probably the least screwed up protagonist that Swanson has introduced us too, or at the very least the least morally grey trending towards malevolent. I really liked Abigail by the end and was fully invested in what was going to happen to her. While the other characters didn’t feel as multi dimensional as she did, that didn’t bother me so much because even though it was in the third person, it was really her point of view that we were getting. Would I have been intrigued to get the POV of a few of the other characters, in particular Scottie, the man who she is trying to get away from? Absolutely. But at the same time, the decision to make it purely Abigail’s tale not only leaves more room for twists and surprises, it also lets her experience and perspective have the control of the narration as to what is happening to her.

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times (or at least as many times as I’ve reviewed a Peter Swanson book): if you are into thrillers and still haven’t read something by Peter Swanson, do yourself a favor. Go read one of his books. “Every Vow You Break” would be a great place to start.

Rating 8: Another fun thriller filled with twists and turns from Peter Swanson!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Every Vow You Break” is included on the Goodreads lists “Wedding Mysteries & Thrillers”, and “Domestic Thrillers”.

Find “Every Vow You Break” at your library using WorldCat or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “An Unexpected Peril”

Book: “An Unexpected Peril” by Deanna Raybourn

Publishing Info: Berkley, March 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: January 1889. As the newest member of the Curiosity Club—an elite society of brilliant, intrepid women—Veronica Speedwell is excited to put her many skills to good use. As she assembles a memorial exhibition for pioneering mountain climber Alice Baker-Greene, Veronica discovers evidence that the recent death was not a tragic climbing accident but murder. Veronica and her natural historian beau, Stoker, tell the patron of the exhibit, Princess Gisela of Alpenwald, of their findings. With Europe on the verge of war, Gisela’s chancellor, Count von Rechstein, does not want to make waves—and before Veronica and Stoker can figure out their next move, the princess disappears.

Having noted Veronica’s resemblance to the princess, von Rechstein begs her to pose as Gisela for the sake of the peace treaty that brought the princess to England. Veronica reluctantly agrees to the scheme. She and Stoker must work together to keep the treaty intact while navigating unwelcome advances, assassination attempts, and Veronica’s own family—the royalty who has never claimed her.

Previously Reviewed: “A Curious Beginning,” “A Perilous Undertaking,” , “A Treacherous Curse” , “A Dangerous Collaboration” , and “A Murderous Relation”

Review: I think I’ve started my reviews for the last several books in this series the same way: my enjoyment of these stories has been very hit and miss. The first several were all very enjoyable, but as the series progressed, it felt like the author was stalling on the romance and losing some creativity with the mysteries themselves. The book directly previous to this one, for example, very much felt like a recycled version of plot elements from several of the books before it. However, optimistic as ever, I’ve continued on. And, while this wasn’t my favorite book in the series, it did again bounce back from the previous low point.

Surprising no one but perhaps Stoker (his optimism for an end to his and Veronica’s dangerous mysteries is perhaps more endearing than it is realistic), murder and mystery has once again found Veronica Speedwell. The death of a fellow female explore, Alice Baker-Greene, a famous mountaineer, raises suspicion from Veronica, especially in light of the cagey response by the Princess of the country in which Alice died. When the Princess herself next disappears, Veronica finds herself thrust into royal company posing as a doppleganger and hoping to suss out more clues as to Alice’s fate. But are Veronica and Stoker once again straying too close to danger?

I was pleased to see that this new entry into Veronica and Stoker’s story was taking us into uncharted territory for the most part. I really enjoyed the backstory we are given for Alice, a woman of Veronica’s own ilk but whose talents were directed towards mountain climbing rather than butterflies. I was able to guess a few of the mysteries tied up in her story, but I was also flummoxed by a few others. The added twist of the Princess’s disappearance adds an interesting extra layer to the proceedings.

Veronica and Stoker are still interesting characters, but I do feel that each is beginning to run a bit dry on character development. Once again, Stoker is so far in the background of this story that I often felt like he was barely present. Over the last two books, there has been practically no growth or arch for this character and it’s definitely starting to show. And for her part, Veronica is growing only marginally. We see her here struggle with the prospect of her future and the changes that her burgeoning relationship with Stoker may have upon that. This was an interesting concept, but I don’t feel like the author really gave it enough room to grow and resolve.

Instead, we find Veronica again getting caught up into the tired story line regarding her connections to the Royal family. Seriously, knock it off with this. It was a great reveal for the first book and coming up here and there is fine. But every single book now seems to include this aspect of Veronica’s life, but without having anything new to say or any new conclusion to reach. It’s dull and starting to feel really lazy. I complained about this same thing in my last review, and I’m disappointed to be repeating myself again here.

Overall, however, I was pleased with the mystery itself. When the story started out, I had hopes that Veronica and Stoker would travel to Alpenwald to conduct their investigation. I’m starting to think that a change of location would help the series a lot. One of my favorite entries, “A Dangerous Collaboration,” took place elsewhere, and I think it helped the story get out of a few of the ruts it gets stuck in when remaining in London. If there’s a next entry in the series, hopefully a relocation like this will help breathe some new life into this series. I’ll probably still continue on, but at this point I would probably only recommend it to those who are fairly devoted. The last few entries have just been too shallow and dull to amount to a stronger recommendation to a new reader.

Rating 7: An improvement on the last book, but still stuck in some tired tropes of its own making.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Unexpected Peril” is on these Goodreads lists: Historical Mystery 2021 and Historical Mysteries and Thrillers Featuring Women.

Find “An Unexpected Peril” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Follower”

Book: “The Follower” by Kate Doughty

Publishing Info: Amulet Books, March 2021

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

Book Description: A spine-tingling YA thriller, based on a still-unfolding true story
 
Instagram-famous triplets Cecily, Amber, and Rudy—the children of home renovation superstars—are ready for a perfect summer. They’ve just moved into the site of their parents’ latest renovation project when they begin to receive chilling messages from someone called The Follower. It soon becomes clear that this anonymous threat is more than a simple Internet troll, and he can’t wait to shatter the Cole family’s perfect veneer and take back what’s his. The Follower examines the implications of what it is to be watched in the era of social media fame—as well as the lies we tell and the lengths we’ll go to uphold a perfect image, when our lives depend on it.

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

One of the things that most caught my eye about “The Follower” by Kate Doughty is that in the description it says that it’s ‘based on a still-unfolding true story’. Sure, I’ve seen ‘based on a true story’ until the cows come home, but ‘still-unfolding true story’?

Like, WHAT? (source)

I did a little digging, and found out that this book takes some inspiration from the still unsolved “Watcher” case, in which a family moved into a house, and started getting harassing and threatening letters from an unknown person. This went on for awhile, the person was never caught, the family moved out. HERE is an article about it if you want to know more, and you probably do because it’s BANANAS. But ‘still-unfolding’ may be a little misleading, as it sounds like it’s stalled out and will probably never be solved. That said, “The Follower”, though taking inspiration, does not leave the reader hanging like reality did! In fact, it captured my attention and held it, making it so I had a really hard time putting this book down.

What I liked best about “The Follower” was how fast paced and generally addictive it was. We hit the ground running in the very first pages, and we never really paused to take a breather. This made for a book that I just kept on taking in, which was great in the moment. While it’s true that sometimes this fast paced momentum meant that we’d feel like we would trip through moments that needed maybe a little bit of a slow down, this only happened a couple times and the awkward pacing wasn’t too distracting. I also liked all three of the Cole Triplets, when I assumed that at least one of them was going to fall more by the wayside. But all three of them had well rounded personalities and motivations, as well as insecurities and flaws that made them feel human in spite of their ‘influencer’ lives. I especially liked how we got to explore Amber’s drive to be a fashion master while being plus sized, and how while she was hurt by how people (specifically her mother) think that she isn’t as valuable because of her body, she herself is happy with how she is because why shouldn’t she be? Also, the snippets of the social media comments were a fun way to show how their experience at the house and with The Follower was being perceived, and how when ‘fans’ on social media get whipped up into a frenzy of perceived wrongdoing/their own entitlement and or outrage, it can be REALLY damaging. I’m not going to say that it’s going so far as to be a critique of so called ‘cancel culture’, but I will say that it raises good points about how toxic fandoms can be towards living breathing people because of the faux intimacy of social media.

In terms of the actual mystery of who “The Follower” is, there were parts that were pretty obvious from the get go if you are familiar with tropes that go with these kinds of stories. If a character has a beloved pet, it will probably meet an untimely end. If things move around and no one fesses up to doing it, that may mean something more. The family can’t leave the house in which they are being terrorized because it’s a money pit. And so forth. It’s not BAD, per se, and these tropes are familiar and cozy in a way that means that they work just fine. But it also didn’t really make for many big surprises as the story went on. There were a number of moments that should have been ‘ah HA’ in nature, but because I knew the tropes and tricks from many stories before, almost all of them were not surprising, and even somewhat predictable. That being said, I’ve been consuming these kinds of stories for many years now, so for readers who are just getting started there could be things to discover.

“The Follower” was a comfortable read for me that gave me all the reliable elements that I like of a YA thriller. I look forward to seeing what Kate Doughty comes out with in the future, and will definitely be checking it out, whatever it may be.

Rating 7: Fast paced and a page turner, “The Follower” is a pretty satisfying thriller, if at times a predictable and reliant on tropes seen many times before.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Follower” is pretty new and not featured on any Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Books Involving Stalking”, and “Unwanted Attention”.

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

Read Deliciously: Books and Food

Last week was Pi Day, a fun quirk of a holiday that celebrates the mathematical value of Pi (3.14) with pie! All this fun pie talk was certain to make us hungry, and books and food go hand in hand in many different ways! Here are just a few books that either have recipes, or food themed plots, or anything to do with food in honor of a food centric holiday!

Book: “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe” by Fannie Flagg

While this story is mostly about the power of female friendships, sapphic romance, and the unrelenting spirit of women in the face of societal roadblocks, “Fried Greed Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe” is also a book that has many food references that just sound amazing! As the characters of Idgie and Ruth run their own diner by a train stop in rural Alabama, they serve up all kinds of delicious treats like pies, hearty meals, and, of course, fried green tomatoes. And, uh, a side of cannibalism here and there, but that was never the main menu item! And it isn’t included in the recipe section that can be found in the back of the book, holding treats and delights from cafe head cook Sipsy. Highly recommended and not too hard to make either!

Book: “The Star Wars Cookbook: Wookie Cookies and Other Galactic Recipes” by Robin Davis

This cookbook is sure to be a treat for “Star Wars” fans of all ages! Pop culture cookbooks are definitely a thing, and while a lot of them will create and derive recipes from actual food that is found in the source material, “The Star Wars Cookbook” goes in a different direction and decides to make recipes that work on puns, rhymes, alliterations, and imagery. From the titular “Wookie Cookies” to “Boba Fett-ucine” to “Bossk Brownies”, you have character inspired goodies, as well as recipes that just look like things in the saga (such as the “Tatooine Twin Sun Toast”, which is essentially eggs in a basket but with two eggs that can look like the suns on Luke’s home planet). Lots of simple recipes, fun pictures, and encouragement for the whole family to get involved makes for a really fun day of cooking!

Book: “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly” by Anthony Bourdain

Many people agree that the culinary and food world lost an icon when Anthony Bourdain died due to suicide in 2018. Not only was he a lover of food and cooking, but he also was a man who had a reverence and respect for the many cultures that he explored as he traveled the world doing his culinary adventures and research. “Kitchen Confidential” is probably his best known written work, and it still remains as a go to for memoirs about cooking and cuisine. While he talks candidly about the things in his own life, he also talks about the ins and outs of restaurant kitchens, and gives advice on what to definitely order, and what to definitely avoid, when it comes to eating out at a restaurant (someday we’ll get back to that, right?). Bourdain’s mark on the food world is positive and permanent, and his voice is missed.

Book: “Redwall” by Brian Jacques

This could hold true for the entire series, but I’ll list the first book here because, well, it’s first. None of the books in this long-running fantasy series about warrior animals and a mythical abbey inhabited by monk mice are overtly about food. HOWEVER. Anyone who has read even one of these stories will immediately understand why it’s on this list. Every book includes at least one feast scene with entire pages devoted to listing out the various forest food dishes the animals are eating. It’s all so lovingly and lavishly fixated on that you begin to forget that acorn pie is not really a thing. It all sounds delicious! Now, could it be said that there is a little bit too much talk about all the ins and outs of what everyone is eating at all times? Why, yes. But if you like to revel in fantasy food scenes, this is the book/series for you.

Book: “Like Water for Chocolate” by Laura Esquirel

This is a lovely book that perfectly combines a poignant love story and also includes recipes! This was a super popular book when it came out, but as I was a kid then, I didn’t get around to reading it until much later. I also don’t typically read this sort of book, but I found it absolutely delightful. It was surprisingly witty and the installment-style of storytelling worked much better than I had anticipated. I’m also not a big cook, but I grew up in a part of the country with a lot of Mexican immigrants who opened some amazing restaurants, so I recognized a lot of the recipes and dishes they included. Perhaps now would be a good time to re-visit this one, as I might be more capable of attempting some of these. Fans who want both a lovely book as well as some fantastic Mexican cuisine recipes should definitely check this out.

Book: “Kitchens of the Great Midwest” by J. Ryan Stradal

And, of course, we could complete list this without including a book that touches on the cuisine of our beloved Midwest. Yes, we eat more than casserole here! More so than “Like Water for Chocolate,” however, this is primarily a fictional novel that also happens to touch on the food found in the Midwest. Told from a large variety of POV characters, it’s the story of a single father attempting to raise his small daughter, Eva. As she grows, her father, Lars, works to instill in her a love for the food of Minnesota, a combination of dishes ranging from the seemingly-strange Norwegian meals and to the homey, comfort foods found in an all-American meal. Each chapter introduces and focuses on a new type of food that connects to Eva’s story as she grows, highlighting how so often food is a focal point for communities and relationships. A must read for residents of Minnesota and a nice window looking in for those curious about Midwest culture and cuisine.

What are some of your favorite cookbooks or books that focus on food?

Serena’s Review: “The Mask of Mirrors”

Book: “The Mask of Mirrors” by M. A. Carrick

Publishing Info: Orbit, January 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: copy from the author!

Book Description: Renata Viraudax is a con artist who has come to the sparkling city of Nadezra — the city of dreams — with one goal: to trick her way into a noble house and secure her fortune and her sister’s future.

But as she’s drawn into the elite world of House Traementis, she realizes her masquerade is just one of many surrounding her. And as corrupt magic begins to weave its way through Nadezra, the poisonous feuds of its aristocrats and the shadowy dangers of its impoverished underbelly become tangled — with Ren at their heart.

Review: M. A. Carrick is the pen name for two authors, Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms. I’m not familiar with any of Helms’ work, but I’ve enjoyed the books by Brennan that I’ve read. Both are anthropologists as well, which I think often adds an extra layer of detail and attention to the world-building in original fantasy novels. Like so many before it, this book has been hyped with comparisons to “Six of Crows,” and based on the description alone, I can see where that would come from: any fantasy novel that features cons and has multiple POVs MUST be compared to “Six of Crows!” We all know what my record has been with those so far…

Renata is not who she claims to be, the lost cousin of a down-and-out noble family who nonetheless hold power at their finger tips. No, Renata is truly Ren, a former street urchin who has always had an eye for a con. But the plan that she and her sister conjured up, for Ren to ingratiate herself with a noble family as a long lost cousin and hence secure a future for them both, quickly goes sideways and Ren soon finds herself caught up in events that are greater than she had prepared for. What’s worse, she’s beginning to feel a bit too much like Renata, caring about and for things and people she shouldn’t.

Not only do the comparisons to “Six of Crows” feel accurate in this case, this book escapes the curse of being a massive let-down that has struck so many “wanna-be ‘Six of Crows'” imitations in the past. In a lot of ways, it’s like the adult version of that. It definitely goes to some darker places than the YA novel is allowed to, and its character more fully exist in the shades of grey between good and bad. Good people doing bad things for good reasons. Bad people doing good things for horrible reasons. It’s all deliciously complicated and prickly, making you both love and despise characters at various times and question how you, yourself, would handle certain situations.

I also liked many of the characters introduced, especially Ren. It’s always important to like the main character, and it can be especially hard to write a realistic character such as this without having her become a caricature con artist, constantly quipping and not founded in any deeper human emotion beneath it all. Not here. Through Ren’s perspective, we see the challenges she faces, trying to become part of a group of society that she also despises. And slowly grows to appreciate. And then equally begins to struggle with her own feelings towards these people and the balance between her original goals and the individual connections she’s made.

There were also a lot of twists and turns throughout the story. For much of it, the identity of the mysterious Robin Hood-like character is unknown, and it was a constant challenge trying to figure out the identity of this enigmatic force to be reckoned with. The end of the book also really kicked things up and left the story in a very primed state for the sequel.

My one ding is in regards to the length and pacing of this book. It’s over 600 pages long, which is just a lot to ask of readers taking on a new fantasy world such as this. The story did fairly well supporting this page length, but the pacing did stutter at times, and I think the entire thing would have been more approachable if it had been edited down a bit. But, in the end, I think most fantasy fans will enjoy this book, and I’m definitely curious about the sequel!

Rating 8: A complex new fantasy world bites off a bit more than it can chew in length, but makes up for it with strong characters and compelling mysteries.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Mask of Mirrors” is on, funnily enough, this Goodreads lists: The Best Random Genre List Of Books…Ever.

Find “The Mask of Mirrors” at the library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Lost Apothecary”

Book: “The Lost Apothecary” by Sarah Penner

Publishing Info: Park Row, March 2021

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

Book Description: A female apothecary secretly dispenses poisons to liberate women from the men who have wronged them—setting three lives across centuries on a dangerous collision course

Rule #1: The poison must never be used to harm another woman.

Rule #2: The names of the murderer and her victim must be recorded in the apothecary’s register.

One cold February evening in 1791, at the back of a dark London alley in a hidden apothecary shop, Nella awaits her newest customer. Once a respected healer, Nella now uses her knowledge for a darker purpose—selling well-disguised poisons to desperate women who would kill to be free of the men in their lives. But when her new patron turns out to be a precocious twelve-year-old named Eliza Fanning, an unexpected friendship sets in motion a string of events that jeopardizes Nella’s world and threatens to expose the many women whose names are written in her register.

In present-day London, aspiring historian Caroline Parcewell spends her tenth wedding anniversary alone, reeling from the discovery of her husband’s infidelity. When she finds an old apothecary vial near the river Thames, she can’t resist investigating, only to realize she’s found a link to the unsolved “apothecary murders” that haunted London over two centuries ago. As she deepens her search, Caroline’s life collides with Nella’s and Eliza’s in a stunning twist of fate—and not everyone will survive.

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

As a true crime fan worth her salt, I can tell you that a trend seen in many women killers is the use of poisons and toxins within their murders. You have Mary Anne Cotton, Belle Gunness, Giulia Tofana, and numerous others. Poison has been deemed a ‘woman’s murder weapon’ (though, to be fair, plenty of men have used it over the years as well), and while I haven’t done MUCH deep diving into it as a means of murder, I feel like I should. Even more so now that I’ve read “The Lost Apothecary” by Sarah Penner, a dual timeline and multi-perspective narrative that involves women who are wronged by the men in their lives, and an apothecary owner who creates poisons to take care of such issues. Because why do things the direct way when you can just dump a vial into someone’s food and call it a night?

“The Lost Apothecary” takes place in two different timelines. The first has two perspectives, those of Nella, the apothecary owner who mixes poisons for wronged or desperate women, and Eliza, a servant girl sent to the apothecary to fetch a poison meant to be ingested by her employer (at the behest of the woman of the house). The second is that of Caroline, an American woman who has travelled to London on what was meant to be her tenth anniversary trip, though she has just found out about her husband’s infidelity. What connects the two timelines and three perspectives is a glass vial, lost in time but found by chance by Caroline. Penner is very careful to find the strings and threads that bring the two stories and three characters together, and draws parallels between all of their lives as women who have been aggrieved in one way or another by the men in their orbits. In the modern day we see Caroline start to find the puzzle pieces about Nella and Eliza, and in the past we see the path that Nella and Eliza take that may lead to their undoing and doom. The mystery of what happened to Nella and Eliza as found out through their perspectives and that of what Caroline finds is a fun device that kept me interested, especially as things in the modern day started to harken back to some of the, shall we say, ‘themes’ of the 18th century plot line. I don’t want to spoil anything, but let’s just say that poison is timeless…. On top of all that, it did mostly keep me guessing until the end, even if there were some convenient moments that felt a little forced or hard to believe. But I was having enough fun that I could forgive it. I also just liked learning about all the women, and found all of them pretty believable in their portrayals.

But what I liked most in “The Lost Apothecary” is how these two timelines slowly unfolded not only the fates of a long lost poison shop and those who were involved with it, but how they had similar grievances across centuries about abusive and toxic men and misogyny, and what that does to women. While it’s true that the degrees of the shitbird men in this book, especially the ones that have impacted the three main character’s lives, run a gamut, we still see how even in a 21st century setting a woman can have her life upended and set adrift because of power dynamics that society has set in place in terms of expectations on how a man and a woman should be, especially in a marriage. I felt for Caroline, not just because of her husband’s transgressions, but because of how much she sacrificed for him and their relationship all because she had been told all her life that was just what you do. And while Caroline may not be turning to poison as a solution, back in the 18th century Penner paints a very clear picture as to why women from all backgrounds may see poison as the only way that they can escape a really terrible situation when it comes to the men in their lives. Some of the stories that we learn of are truly horrifying, and it makes Nella’s shop seem more like a place for justice for the forgotten, instead of a place where murderers gather their wares. I got a fun and cathartic thrill, which was ultimately what I wanted from this book.

“The Lost Apothecary” is a fun historical mystery thriller, and one that I would definitely recommend to those who want a little nasty catharsis when it comes to patriarchy smashing.

Rating 8: A wicked and satisfying historical thriller, “The Lost Apothecary” is a slow burn of a cathartic tale of revenge against the ever present patriarchy.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Lost Apothecary” is included on the Goodreads lists “Dual Time Mysteries”, and “[ATY 2021] – Female Villains or Criminals”.

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