Not Just Books: May 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

TV Show: “Victoria”

My love for romantic period pieces is ever-lasting. However, I had been long resisting checking this one out because, well, obviously the ending isn’t super happy. But in a moment of weakness, it being too long since my last period piece indulgence, I finally started it up a few weeks ago. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since! This is a beautiful show full of all the period touches that lovers of this genre look for. Gorgeous costumes! Excellent dialogue! Romance summed up in tension-filled dance sequences! It’s also gotten me down a number of historical rabbit holes as I’ve researched the real-life events the show incorporates. But I’ve still promised myself that I’m going to preview upcoming seasons/episodes so that I can “nope” right on out of there before getting to, you know…that part. Don’t judge me!

Amazon Show: “The World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji”

So, apparently this was a show from super early in the reality tv era, back in the 90s in fact! But these types of extreme races have taken place continuously since then and Amazon wisely read the room on reality competition shows and revived it. I had never heard of adventure racing before this, but man, it’s crazy. Essentially, teams of racers have to cover a massive course and have time limits on reaching certain mileposts along the way. I’m talking hundreds of miles over crazy terrain (hiking, biking, swimming, etc.) covered in a few days on very little sleep. It’s truly insane watching some of these teams go. It was also really interesting seeing teams from around the world and the various cultures and approaches they all brought to the race. If you enjoy reality competition shows, this is definitely one to check out.

Movie: “Prospect”

I’m probably in the huge minority for this opinion but…other than baby Yoda, I didn’t really like “The Mandalorian.” So much so that I haven’t even bothered to watch the second season. Part of my displeasure with it was the absolute waste of Pedro Pascal as the main character. He’s such an excellent actor, and losing the ability to watch his expressive face as he portrays a character is just such a shame. So I was really excited to check out a sci-fi movie where we get to better appreciate his skill! Add to that the intriguing, tension-filled concept of an odd-couple pair trying to escape a dangerous planet in order to catch the last ship going by. The world building was really interesting and both lead performances were phenomenal. Definitely check it out if you enjoy science fiction stories.

Kate’s Picks

TV Show: “The Serpent”

In a moment that feels classic to my mother’s and my relationship, she texted me asking if I was going to watch “The Serpent” on Netflix because it sounded like I’d like it but would be ‘too dark for her’. I immediately looked it up, and on my viewing list it went. Surprisingly to me, I had never heard of French serial killer Charles Sobraj, who murdered backpackers in South Asia along the Hippie Trail. “The Serpent” is a dramatized mini-series about Sobraj, and the Dutch Embassy investigator Herman Knippenberg who is on his trail after two Dutch tourists go missing while in Thailand. Tahar Rahim plays Sobraj with cool malevolence, his demeanor incredibly calm as he does terrible things. But honestly, it was Jenna Coleman who really shined, as she plays Marie-Andree, the wife of Sobraj who is complicit in his crimes after falling madly in love with the killer and the lavish lifestyle he uses to lure in his victims. It’s suspenseful, disturbing, and addictive as we watch Sobraj kill, and Knippenberg pursue.

Film: “Nobody”

I have loved Bob Odenkirk since his time as Saul Goodman on “Breaking Bad”. I’ve also had a not so subtle crush on him since about that time as well, which a few people have informed me is strange. So when the trailer dropped for “Nobody”, in which Odenkirk plays a former hitman and kicks a whole lot of ass and looks good while doing so, I pretty much yelled from the rooftops “WHO’S LAUGHING NOW, HUH?!” In “Nobody”, Odenkirk plays Hutch, a retired ‘auditor’ whose profession had taken out incredibly dangerous people that the Government couldn’t get otherwise. His retirement has made him feel soft and inadequate, and after his house is robbed and he doesn’t act, his frustration gets taken out on bad men with bad connections. Now Hutch has to save his family from an eccentric Russian mobster who loves karaoke. It’s a whole lot of fun, over the top, and Odenkirk looks damn good and puts in a fun performance.

Video Game: “New Pokémon Snap”

If it’s a new Pokémon game, I’m going to be on board, as relaxation and cuteness are two things that I like to indulge in from time to time. And this past month I was dealing with some frustrating medical issues (nothing dangerous, just inconvenient) that made me really want to be able to relax and relieve any kind of tension I was feeling. So I got myself “New Pokémon Snap”! Like the original game on the N64, the basic premise is that you go around taking pictures of Pokémon, and the better or more interesting the shot, the more points you get. Given that the original game only had the original 150, and this new game has ALL of them up until this point, this has a lot of potential for novelty (especially since I am not as familiar with a good chunk of the newer Pokes). It’s cute and chill and low stakes, and I love taking pictures of all these cute critters!

Serena’s Review: “The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng”

Book: “The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng” by K. S. Villoso

Publishing Info: Orbit, May 2021

Book Description: Queen Talyien is finally home, but dangers she never imagined await her in the shadowed halls of her father’s castle.

War is on the horizon. Her son has been stolen from her, her warlords despise her, and across the sea, a cursed prince threatens her nation with invasion in order to win her hand.

Worse yet, her father’s ancient secrets are dangerous enough to bring Jin Sayeng to ruin. Dark magic tears rifts in the sky, preparing to rain down madness, chaos, and the possibility of setting her nation aflame.

Bearing the brunt of the past and uncertain about her future, Talyien will need to decide between fleeing her shadows or embracing them before the whole world becomes an inferno.

Previously Reviewed: “The Wolf of Oren-Yaro” and “The Ikessar Falcon”

Review: This series started out from a fairly noncommittal position for me. I had never heard of the author before, and was, frankly, a bit put off by the series title “Chronicles of the Bitch Queen.” But, on the other hand, I have a very hard time resisting an adult high fantasy story that features a grown woman protagonist. Add to that that she’s a warrior queen. And thankfully, I let my general genre preferences rule the day, because I’ve absolutely adored this entire series. I’ll just spoil the lead here: this was the perfect conclusion to what had been an excellent series up to this point already.

The queen has finally made it home. But what had seemed like such an insurmountable challenge for the last two books was only the beginning. Her nation and its people hang together by only the merest threads. Distrusted and, often, disliked, Talyien must navigate the fraught waters full of suspicious and ruthless lords, ambitious foreign nationals, and her own perilous position as she attempts to save the son who has been stolen away from her. With the few people who remain that she trusts and depend on, Talyien must work to carve out a future for herself and her country.

Bizarrely, sometimes it’s the most hard to write reviews for a series of books where every entry is fantastic. When you’ve already raved about plotting, characters, and world-building in two earlier reviews, what do you say in a third about a book that was equally strong on all of those points?? But I’ll give it a go!

The world-building has always been fantastic in this series. But in many ways, the fantasy elements involved have been sparse and only sprinkled in here and there. We’ve heard a few mentions of dragons and the threat they had posed in times long ago, but no one thinks much about them now other than recognizing fortifications built to resist them, now crumbling with time. So I was very excited to see the dragons themselves begin to play more of a role in this book. I didn’t necessarily need this added level of straight fantasy, but I’m never going to say no to dragons!

I also liked the continued exploration of parenthood and the expectations and burdens set upon each generation from the one that came before it. We’ve seen this play out in Tali’s memories of her father, and here we get an even deeper insight into why the brutal warlord made many of the choices he did. We also see Tali and Rayyel begin to understand that they are now this generation, that their choices will shape the country and will be the bright path or heavy burden set upon not only their son but the generation of children growing up right now. It’s a very human realization and shift, and one that is strange to experience. It’s the high fantasy, grand scale version of a grown child realizing that they’re now responsible for hosting holidays! Much more complex than that, of course, but sometimes these simplest, most relatable feelings are the ones that take hold the strongest. Even when you have dragons!

I was also happy to see more of Thanh, Tali’s beloved son. For most of the series up to this point, mother and son have been separated by an ocean. And while we hear Tali’s frantic thoughts and worries over him, her deep love for him driving all of her choices, we never get to actually see their relationship in person. Not only were the two of them lovely together, but I also enjoyed Thanh as a character in his own right. There was also a shift in Rayyel, Thanh’s estranged father. Up to this point, he had been a fairly villainous character. So I was happy to see more given to his character to soften some of these aspects and make him more sympathetic.

Beyond that, everything I’ve raved about in the first two books remains true here! Tali is an excellent leading lady, flawed but constantly taking action and moving forward with the cards life has dealt her. I enjoyed the way the romantic plot line continued to unfold. And I was very impressed by the way all of the loose ends were tied together in a satisfying way here at the end of the trilogy. Fans of this series will love this thrilling conclusion! And don’t forget to enter our giveaway to win a copy of this book!

Enter the giveaway!

Rating 8: A fantastic end to this trilogy with higher stakes than ever while focusing on themes of parenthood and the burden of responsibility.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng” is a newer title, so it isn’t on that many Goodreads lists. But it is on Fantasy Books Releasing in 2021.

Find “The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Ghosted in L.A. (Vol.2)”

Book: “Ghosted in L.A. (Vol.2)” by Sina Grace & Siobhan Keenan (Ill.)

Publishing Info: BOOM! Box, September 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: NO ONE EVER SAID THAT THE AFTERLIFE WOULD BE THIS WAY! Daphne Walters is loving her new life at Rycroft Manner with her ghostly roommates – but trouble is right around the corner! Rycroft’s got new resident – the musician Zola – and she’s getting close to Daphne…and causing friction amongst the residents! Meanwhile, Daphne and Kristi, best friends since high school, might just be the ones who can’t find their way back to each other. And since trouble comes in threes, Daphne’s former college roommate Michelle threatens to cause trouble for Rycroft….because no one said moving to L.A. would ever be easy! From GLAAD Award-nominated Sina Grace (Iceman) and illustrator Siobhan Keenan (Jem and the Holograms) comes the next chapter in the hit series about friendship, love and living your (after)life to the fullest.

Review: So even though I enjoyed the first volume of the ghostly series “Ghosted in L.A.” by Sina Grace, I managed to completely miss that not only did the next two volumes come out, but they also wrapped up the series. Talk about being totally oblivious. But now is as good a time as any to catch up/complete this quirky series, so I bought the entire run and jumped right into “Volume 2”. You know the old saying.

Something like that. (source)

When we left off in Volume 1, the Rycroft Manor had just been thrown into a few drastic changes. The first was that after Maurice attacked Daphne, Aggi pretty much exorcised him from the premises. The second was that almost immediately a new ghostly resident arrived, a musician named Zola who was famous before her untimely demise. And that’s about right where we pick up. Zola is still coming to terms with her new afterlife, and as she keeps the other ghosts at bay, she and Daphne start to become close. In this arc we see Daphne relating to Zola while also fangirling over her a little bit, and while her friendship with Kristi is starting to really come apart at the seams, she’s starting to fall into another potentially unhealthy relationship with Zola. As a character Zola has a real chip on her shoulder, and as of yet hasn’t really wowed me (and with only one more volume to go I’m not convinced she’s going to get much more interesting, though I’m eager to be proven wrong). On the other ghost topics, Bernard is getting closer to Daphne’s ex Ronnie, and Shirley is starting to want to move on from Rycroft Manor. This was definitely a cool storyline thread, as we got to see a little mythology as to how ghosts function in this world, as well as a hint to a mysterious door in the manor that may be causing issues. Again, we only have one more volume to wrap it up, but I’m more confident in this thread than the Zola one.

What kind of caught me by surprise is that it wasn’t really the ghost stuff that connected with me the most in this volume, but the growing pains aspects of Daphne’s friendship with Kristi, her high school best friend. We knew in Volume 1 that they had a huge fight that stemmed from Daphne choosing to go to school in L.A. instead of staying closer to Kristi. In Volume 2, we see them try to repair their friendship when Kristi comes to visit, but it manages to only make things worse. I felt that Grace perfectly captures the angst and pain that comes with old friendships having to either evolve or die, and seeing it from both Daphne’s and Kristi’s perspectives gives the conflict a bit more grounding. It would have been easy to just make one or the other completely at fault, but given that that isn’t how things work in the real world, I appreciated the nuance that was brought to this side plot. Growing up and apart from those important to you in your youth is hard, and Grace depicted that really well.

And I still really like the artwork. It’s dynamic and vibrant, and it can also shift that vibrancy when it needs to convey something a little sadder, or more distant in the timeline. And I still love the design of the ghosts.

“Ghosted in L.A. (Vol.2)” has set up some questions going into the final volume. I’m sad that we have such a short run with all these characters, but I’m enjoying the ride and am glad that I jumped back into it!

Rating 8: A fun and intriguing continuation of a story about self discovery and ghosts, “Ghosted in L.A. (Vol. 2) is enjoyable and clever.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Ghosted in L.A. (Vol.2)” isn’t on many specific Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Comics + Graphic Novels To Read for Halloween”.

Find “Ghosted in L.A. (Vol.2)” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Giveaway: “The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng”

Book: “The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng” by K. S. Villoso

Publishing Info: Orbit, May 2021

Book Description: Queen Talyien is finally home, but dangers she never imagined await her in the shadowed halls of her father’s castle.

War is on the horizon. Her son has been stolen from her, her warlords despise her, and across the sea, a cursed prince threatens her nation with invasion in order to win her hand.

Worse yet, her father’s ancient secrets are dangerous enough to bring Jin Sayeng to ruin. Dark magic tears rifts in the sky, preparing to rain down madness, chaos, and the possibility of setting her nation aflame.

Bearing the brunt of the past and uncertain about her future, Talyien will need to decide between fleeing her shadows or embracing them before the whole world becomes an inferno.

Previously Reviewed: “The Wolf of Oren-Yaro” and “The Ikessar Falcon”

Giveaway Details: I’ve been pleased to be able to host giveaways for the first two books in this series, so I was incredibly excited to receive an extra copy to host another one for this last book in the trilogy. Given the building tension and ever-growing stakes in the story, fans of the series will likely be as eager to get their hands on this last installment as I was.

In many ways, this trilogy reads like the story that I wish “Game of Thrones” had allowed Daenerys to have. Women, especially queens who must make the same incredibly tough calls that kings have had to make for ages, balancing the weight of evils and the sacrifices necessary for the greater good, are just as capable of being as ruthless and driven as men without it indicating some sort of madness. I could rant forever about that particular choice, especially as it plays out in the show. But, thankfully, in Talyien we find a queen truly worth rooting for. She is a warrior and a woman and, simply, a person who is flawed, has insecurities, has made poor choices, but also has an inner strength and drive that sees her rising to the challenges before her.

All three books have, in their own way, seen Talyien’s situation become more and more dire. Queen though she may be, she is still vulnerable to the maneuverings of the men that surround her. Worse, in this book, we see the lingering damage that even a dead man, her own father, can wreak on her life. I’m so excited to see how everything plays out. It feels like there are a bunch of moving pieces and many issues coming in to roost.

I’ll post my full review this coming Friday. But in the meantime, make sure to enter to win a paperback copy of “The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng!”

Enter to win!

Kate’s Review: “While Justice Sleeps”

Book: “While Justice Sleeps” by Stacey Abrams

Publishing Info: Doubleday, May 2021

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

Book Description: Avery Keene, a brilliant young law clerk for the legendary Justice Howard Wynn, is doing her best to hold her life together–excelling in an arduous job with the court while also dealing with a troubled family. When the shocking news breaks that Justice Wynn–the cantankerous swing vote on many current high-profile cases–has slipped into a coma, Avery’s life turns upside down. She is immediately notified that Justice Wynn has left instructions for her to serve as his legal guardian and power of attorney. Plunged into an explosive role she never anticipated, Avery finds that Justice Wynn had been secretly researching one of the most controversial cases before the court–a proposed merger between an American biotech company and an Indian genetics firm, which promises to unleash breathtaking results in the medical field. She also discovers that Wynn suspected a dangerously related conspiracy that infiltrates the highest power corridors of Washington.

As political wrangling ensues in Washington to potentially replace the ailing judge whose life and survival Avery controls, she begins to unravel a carefully constructed, chesslike sequence of clues left behind by Wynn. She comes to see that Wynn had a much more personal stake in the controversial case and realizes his complex puzzle will lead her directly into harm’s way in order to find the truth. While Justice Sleeps is a cunningly crafted, sophisticated novel, layered with myriad twists and a vibrant cast of characters. Drawing on her astute inside knowledge of the court and political landscape, Stacey Abrams shows herself to be not only a force for good in politics and voter fairness but also a major new talent in suspense fiction.

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

Back in November of 2020, when it was clear that Georgia was going to go into a run off for their senate seats in January of 2021, my parents were expressing hesitance that Georgia could possibly go blue. While I didn’t want to get my hopes up, of course, I just kept saying ‘don’t underestimate Stacey Abrams’. I then got to tell them that not only is Abrams a political dynamo, but that she is also a published author of romance novels (as well as a fan fiction writer too, because she is also a great big nerd, which is great). Shortly thereafter, I saw that Abrams had a new book coming out, but this time it was going to be a thriller. I was VERY interested in seeing what that was going to be like, and assumed that at the very least it would be well written and entertaining, as well as a fun read given how well versed in the ups and downs of the political world she is.

Abrams takes it even further than I anticipated, and what I found was a very complex and intricate legal and political thriller. Given that I don’t usually gravitate towards thrillers that involve politics (sometimes I’ll go the legal route, if it’s soapy enough), “When Justice Sleeps” was a fairly new experience for me. I’m glad that it was Abrams’s vision and story that took me down this road, because I think that had it been in anyone else’s hands I may have given up. But the biggest strength for this story for me was our protagonist, Avery Keene. For one, it’s always nice to see a woman protagonist in stories that perhaps have gravitated more towards male characters in the past. For another, Avery is a biracial woman whose merits and talents are sharp just as her personality and personal life have relatable highs and lows. Watching her have to not only deal with her boss and mentor be suddenly thrown into a coma, but also have to deal with the scrutiny of being a young, biracial woman thrown into the spotlight because of being named his power of attorney, was riveting in and of itself. She is very easy to root for, and works well as an entry point for the reader to take on some really complex issues in the legal world, the political world, and the medical world.

In terms of the plot and the mystery that Avery has to take on, it’s a doozy. We have a lot of different components, from corporate mergers to the reaches of the Supreme Court to genetics testing to the White House to chess metaphors. As mentioned above, I wasn’t expecting it to be as complicated as it is, and keeping all of the moving parts in order was, at times a little hard for me to do. But Abrams always veers us back on track, bringing in reveals at the right times and finely connecting all of the puzzle pieces, no matter how far flung they are from each other. For someone like me, who doesn’t usually take on this kind of carefully and masterfully woven conspiracy thriller, it was a lot, and it led to brain overload on more than one occasion. But for someone who loves these kinds of wide reaching and well oiled conspiracy thrillers that dabble in lots of themes (like my Dad, for instance)? This will probably hit all the right notes for that kind of reader. I am considering looking into some of her romance work, because my guess is that it is also super well done, which just solidifies the point that Stacey Abrams is an amazing human being who can really do just about anything.

I definitely recommend giving “While Justice Sleeps” a go if you like political and legal thrillers. If you’re like me and are not as versed, you will still find things to like, even if you have a hard time keeping up. Now which of her romance novels should I try on for size?

Rating 7: A complex and intricately crafted thriller that has a deep conspiracy theme, “While Justice Sleeps” was a little too serpentine for me, but almost assuredly will be a hit for political and legal thriller fans.

Reader’s Advisory:

“While Justice Sleeps” is included on the Goodreads lists “Mysteries/Thrillers by BIPOC Authors”, and “Reading Women Challenge 2021 #17: Women in Politics”.

Find “While Justice Sleeps” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Another Take: Spring 2021

Don’t just take it from us, other readers like these books, too! And we have decided that we would like to showcase other reviewers and bloggers that have their own thoughts and feelings about books that we have loved. Here are a few of the books we’ve enjoyed recently and what other bloggers have to say about them.

Book: “Dustborn” by Erin Bowman

Book Description: Delta of Dead River has always been told to hide her back, where a map is branded on her skin to a rumored paradise called the Verdant. In a wasteland plagued by dust squalls, geomagnetic storms, and solar flares, many would kill for it—even if no one can read it. So when raiders sent by a man known as the General attack her village, Delta suspects he is searching for her. 

Delta sets out to rescue her family but quickly learns that in the Wastes no one can be trusted—perhaps not even her childhood friend, Asher, who has been missing for nearly a decade. If Delta can trust Asher, she just might decode the map and trade evidence of the Verdant to the General for her family. What Delta doesn’t count on is what waits at the Verdant: a long-forgotten secret that will shake the foundation of her entire world.

Serena’s Review (Rating 9)

Reader Voracious

Books in the Skye

Pacific Northwest Bookworm

Book: “A Desolation Called Peace” by Arkady Martine

Book Description: An alien armada lurks on the edges of Teixcalaanli space. No one can communicate with it, no one can destroy it, and Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is running out of options.

In a desperate attempt at diplomacy with the mysterious invaders, the fleet captain has sent for a diplomatic envoy. Now Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass—still reeling from the recent upheaval in the Empire—face the impossible task of trying to communicate with a hostile entity.

Whether they succeed or fail could change the fate of Teixcalaan forever.

Serena’s Review (10 Rating)

A Fox’s Wanderings

Wishfully Reading

Literature Science Alliance

Book: “The Only Good Indians” by Stephen Graham Jones

Book Description: The creeping horror of Paul Tremblay meets Tommy Orange’s There There in a dark novel of revenge, cultural identity, and the cost of breaking from tradition in this latest novel from the Jordan Peele of horror literature, Stephen Graham Jones.

Seamlessly blending classic horror and a dramatic narrative with sharp social commentary, The Only Good Indians follows four American Indian men after a disturbing event from their youth puts them in a desperate struggle for their lives. Tracked by an entity bent on revenge, these childhood friends are helpless as the culture and traditions they left behind catch up to them in a violent, vengeful way.

Kate’s Review (Rating 9)

Drizzle Review

Tiny Navajo Reads

Horror Bound

Book: “You Love Me” by Caroline Kepnes

Book Description: Joe is done with the cities. He’s done with the muck and the posers, done with Love. Now, he’s saying hello to nature, to simple pleasures on a cozy island in the Pacific Northwest. For the first time in a long time, he can just breathe.

He gets a job at the local library—he does know a thing or two about books—and that’s where he meets her: Mary Kay DiMarco. Librarian. Joe won’t meddle, he will not obsess. He’ll win her the old-fashioned way… by providing a shoulder to cry on, a helping hand. Over time, they’ll both heal their wounds and begin their happily ever after in this sleepy town.

The trouble is… Mary Kay already has a life. She’s a mother. She’s a friend. She’s… busy.

True love can only triumph if both people are willing to make room for the real thing. Joe cleared his decks. He’s ready. And hopefully, with his encouragement and undying support, Mary Kay will do the right thing and make room for him.

Kate’s Review (Rating 9)

The Bookworm’s Fantasy

Book Rant Book Reviews

FanFiAddict

Serena’s Review: “The Midnight Bargain”


Book: “The Midnight Bargain” by C.L. Polk

Publishing Info: Erewhon, October 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Beatrice Clayborn is a sorceress who practices magic in secret, terrified of the day she will be locked into a marital collar that will cut off her powers to protect her unborn children. She dreams of becoming a full-fledged Magus and pursuing magic as her calling as men do, but her family has staked everything to equip her for Bargaining Season, when young men and women of means descend upon the city to negotiate the best marriages. The Clayborns are in severe debt, and only she can save them, by securing an advantageous match before their creditors come calling.

In a stroke of luck, Beatrice finds a grimoire that contains the key to becoming a Magus, but before she can purchase it, a rival sorceress swindles the book right out of her hands. Beatrice summons a spirit to help her get it back, but her new ally exacts a price: Beatrice’s first kiss . . . with her adversary’s brother, the handsome, compassionate, and fabulously wealthy Ianthe Lavan.

The more Beatrice is entangled with the Lavan siblings, the harder her decision becomes: If she casts the spell to become a Magus, she will devastate her family and lose the only man to ever see her for who she is; but if she marries—even for love—she will sacrifice her magic, her identity, and her dreams. But how can she choose just one, knowing she will forever regret the path not taken? 

Review: I requested this one last fall, mostly because I always like historical fantasy novels and because of the simple, but beautiful, cover art. Romance is always a plus too! But here we are in the spring of 2021 before I finally got around to it. Part of that is due to my own poor management of my TBR pile, of course. But my recent enjoyment of “Sorcerer to the Crown,” a title to which this one sounds similar, was really the kick in the pants I needed top finally pick this one up. Unfortunately, that same comparison that spurred my renewed interest is also the thing that ultimately hurt this book for me in the end.

For Beatrice, the life path laid out before her is as set-in-stone as it is unwanted. With a destitute family depending on her, she unhappily looks ahead to a life where she will be forced to give up her magic in order to marry well and restore her family’s prospects. In her efforts to avoid this life, Beatrice pursues a powerful, magical book that will unlock her abilities and make her a Magnus. But as she gets closer and closer to this opportunity, the choices before her become harder and harder. When she meets an intriguing young man, she begins to realize that she will have to lose one of her loves: a beloved husband or her magic.

While I didn’t love this book, there were a few things that stood out to me on the positive side. I thought the integration of the magical system and the Regency world-building was interesting and unique. It was fairly simplistic, but in some ways I think that worked well for this book that was trying to span at least three different genres: fantasy, historical fiction, and romance. And what included was interesting in its own right, with the grimoires and the summoning of spirits at the heart of the fantasy. I also thought the complication of the dangers magic posed to childbearing was an interesting, if a bit heavy-handed, wrinkle to throw in the fold.

However, there were a few too many things that got in the way of my enjoying those aspects of the story too much. Immediately, I struggled with the writing. There is a lot of telling and a distinct lack of showing in the style of the story. And this is especially tedious in the beginning of the story where many bits of information are rather inexpertly dumped on to readers with very little done to obscure this goal. This is a personal preference, of course, but I also found myself becoming increasingly distracted and annoyed by the use of exclamation points in the writing. Not simply in dialogue, but in the actual description of events. It made many of these passages read as juvenile and a bit ridiculous.

I also found the main character fairly unlikable, coming across more annoying than fierce. The love story was also very superficial. It’s pretty much your typical insta-love story, and from there all the “drama” feels artificial and contrived. None of which helps the main character’s likability in the least. The conflict between her (instant) love with the hero, who seemed like obviously a genuinely good guy right from the start, and retaining her magic began to lose its weight fairly early.

The story itself had strange pacing, seeming to drag for long periods in the middle only to pick up again, briefly, towards the end. This wasn’t helped by the fact that, all told, it’s a fairly straight-forward and predictable affair. I struggled quite a bit to maintain interest, which is always a fairly bad sign when I reflect back on my feelings on a book. Overall, I think there are likely better examples of books like this, “Sorcerer to the Crown” (obviously) and also “The Dark Days Club” and its sequels come to mind.

Rating 6: A unique idea falters under poor pacing and a plot that veers to closely to predictable tropes.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Midnight Bargain” is on these Goodreads lists: Fantasy of Manners and Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Find “The Midnight Bargain” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Later”

Book: “Later” by Stephen King

Publishing Info: Hard Case Crime, March 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: The son of a struggling single mother, Jamie Conklin just wants an ordinary childhood. But Jamie is no ordinary child. Born with an unnatural ability his mom urges him to keep secret, Jamie can see what no one else can see and learn what no one else can learn. But the cost of using this ability is higher than Jamie can imagine – as he discovers when an NYPD detective draws him into the pursuit of a killer who has threatened to strike from beyond the grave.

Later is Stephen King at his finest, a terrifying and touching story of innocence lost and the trials that test our sense of right and wrong. With echoes of King’s classic novel IT, Later is a powerful, haunting, unforgettable exploration of what it takes to stand up to evil in all the faces it wears. 

Review: I’ve spent twenty plus years of my life reading Stephen King, and I imagine that I will keep on going for another however many years he continues to write. He rarely lets me down (even when I come across the occasional clunker I still feel like it was generally worth my time), and it’s even MORE exciting when he tries out other genres beyond his usual horror fare. This brings us to “Later”, his most recent work and also his most recent title he’s done with Hard Case Crime, an imprint which tends to focus on gritty crime fiction. Hey, sign me up regardless, but one thing that I can count on when it comes to King is that he is probably going to throw SOME kind of supernatural spin into most of his books. “Later” is no exception, and King melds the hard boiled crime and supernatural horror paths seamlessly.

“Later” is a fast paced crime tale told through the perspective of Jamie Conklin, a young man who has had the ability to see and speak to ghosts ever since he was a kid. This story focuses on his youth, from how he first realized he had this power (told in a gruesome scene involving a dead bicyclist), to how his power scared but also helped his single mother Tia, to how it was exploited by Liz, Tia’s onetime girlfriend and NYPD detective. King has always had a true talent for capturing the minds and personalities of kids, and while narrator Jamie is an adult, the story is his childhood, and boy does it feel realistic in its voice. Like other kids in King’s works, Jamie is slightly precocious but not too forced, and his childhood interactions with his mother, his friends, and the ghosts that he sees range from the charming to the heartbreaking to the terrifying. I’m a true sucker for any story that has to do with people who can speak to the dead, and Jamie’s story really hit all of the notes that I like in this trope. I also liked how we get to know Tia through Jamie’s eyes, with King throwing in enough details about her that their relationship is well thought out and quite lovely. Our antagonists, primarily Liz and a spectre named Therriault (maybe a sly reference to Roch Thériault? SUPER creepy if so!), are menacing in their own ways. For Therriault it’s the obvious, being a malevolent spirit that has started to harass Jamie whose stalking and description will surely send chills up anyone’s spine. But Liz is far more insidious, as she is a corrupt cop who uses her power, her charm, and her authority to manipulate, and hurt, those around her. Her renegade nature could have been used to prop her up as an anti-hero, as some hard boiled detective stories do. But King just shows us what so many of these ‘renegade’ cops are: super, super dangerous.

And as we’ve learned, King has a real delight in calling back to some of his previous works (and also the works of his son, Joe Hill, those easter eggs are especially fun to spot). For some people this may seem hokey, but I eat it up and revel in it whenever it happens. And this time, King pulls out a heavy hitter, one that I didn’t expect from a story that has been published with a crime imprint. SPOILER ALERT HERE!!! Skip to the last paragraph if you don’t want to know! I won’t go into TOO much detail, but if you know, you know (and thanks to a certain recent film franchise, you probably know): One of the characters asks Jamie if he’s ever heard of something called “The Ritual of Chüd”. THIS IS IN THE “IT” UNIVERSE, FOLKS!!!

I can assure you, the amount of excited screeching I did was copious. (source)

Like I said, I don’t want to give too much away, but King takes a concept that feels like it couldn’t work outside of “It”, and applies it to this story without it feeling too forced or hackneyed. I mean, he made a revisit to “It” work in “11/22/63”, so I shouldn’t be surprised that he made it work here as well. And none of this is to say that you have to have read “It” for this entire aspect to work. You don’t. King gets you caught up to speed quickly, and it feels like its own thing in these pages. It totally works.

If there is a qualm I had with this book, there is a quick curveball thrown in at the end that made me go ‘wait, WHAT?’. It doesn’t derail anything or totally throw the entire story out of whack, but it was a momentary blip that felt unnecessary. Superfluous may be the better word. But overall, I found “Later” to be enjoyable and unsettling. For a fast read with a kid who can talk to ghosts, this is the book to check out!

Rating 8: A fast paced and at times very creepy thriller, “Later” has a hard boiled feel to it while harkening back to one of King’s most beloved stories.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Later” is included on the Goodreads lists “I See Dead People”, and “Books About People with Strange Powers”.

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

Serena’s Review: “Black Water Sister”

Book: “Black Water Sister” by Zen Cho

Publishing Info: Ace Books, May 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Jessamyn Teoh is closeted, broke and moving back to Malaysia, a country she left when she was a toddler. So when Jess starts hearing voices, she chalks it up to stress. But there’s only one voice in her head, and it claims to be the ghost of her estranged grandmother, Ah Ma. In life Ah Ma was a spirit medium, the avatar of a mysterious deity called the Black Water Sister. Now she’s determined to settle a score against a gang boss who has offended the god–and she’s decided Jess is going to help her do it.

Drawn into a world of gods, ghosts, and family secrets, Jess finds that making deals with capricious spirits is a dangerous business. As Jess fights for retribution for Ah Ma, she’ll also need to regain control of her body and destiny. If she fails, the Black Water Sister may finish her off for good.

Review: I was obviously on a bit of a Zen Cho kick recently. In reality, I had requested this one from Edelweiss+ thinking it was part of her “Sorcerer Royal” series. And with that in mind, thought to myself “Oh, shoot! I need to read the second one before this one comes out!” So, off I went to read/review that book. Only to get to this one and discover that this is not, in fact, part of the series and is instead a modern, stand-alone fantasy. Little peak behind the oh, so exciting review process, and my own inability to properly research the books I request!

Sometimes the voices in your head are real. Sure, Jess figured it was just the stress of moving back to a homeland she doesn’t remember, not having two cents to rub together, and feeling locked away from her true self. But when mediums run in your family, there just might be another cause to strange voices. When Jess’s deceased grandmother begins speaking to her about feuds and powerful deities, Jess finds that uncovering her true identity may be much more complicated than she had thought.

First off, props to the cover artist. It’s a beautiful work of art, and it fits the overall feel of the book perfectly. Silly me should really have been able to pick up on the fact that of course this wasn’t in the “Sorcerer Royal” series just based on that, but…yeah, I have no excuses here.

It’s hard to evaluate this book because I was honestly a bit disappointed that it wasn’t part of her historical fantasy series. But that’s on me and not the book. I also don’t typically read a lot of contemporary fantasy. However, the story of a young woman getting tangled up in a feud between gang leaders and a centuries-old deity? Heck yeah! Like Cho’s work in her other series, the magical elements in this book were excellent. I particularly liked the god-like being at the heart, the titular Black Water Sister. I also liked the ghosts and how they were described/used in the story.

However, the characters and writing, two aspects of Cho’s “Sorcerer” series that I found particularly compelling, were less strong here. The tone and style used in that series, the type of “historical” writing that you see in Jane Austen novels and other books of that time, is incredibly challenging. It relies on long, drawn-out sentences and an extensive vocabulary. It’s hard to master, but Cho excelled. So, here, with the much more straight-forward style of writing found in any old contemporary book…it all kind of just fell flat. There were a few lines of dialogue that were witty and clever, but the descriptions, actions, general prose didn’t really stand out or capture me in any way.

I also had a really hard time liking Jess herself. There’s a reason I don’t typically read contemporary books. I’m not very interested in family dramas or the coming-of-age stories you often find in these types of stories. Jess is definitely going through one of these “needs to find herself” moments, and I really struggled to care. As a character, she didn’t feel very distinct or unique, and any actions she took were often forced upon her. Her relationship with her secret girlfriend flounders because of this very thing: Jess’s inability to take action in her own life and come out to her parents. That on its own is understandable, as it’s a very tough thing for those in the LGBT community. But when it is just one example of an ongoing, central trait for the main character in this book? It made for some dull reading.

In the end, this book wasn’t really my thing. Fans of contemporary fantasy will likely enjoy it more. The real strength to be found here was in Cho’s descriptions of Malaysia, and Jess’s experiences returning to a homeland she didn’t recognize. But the characters and writing felt a bit flat. Those looking for a book that is similar to Cho’s “Sorcerer” series should be warned that that is definitely not what’s in store here. Take it or leave it as to whether that’s a good thing for you or not!

Rating 6: An interesting look into Malaysia with a unique fantasy overlay, but the main character was too frustrating for me to fully enjoy this read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Black Water Sister” can be found on these Goodreads lists: 2021 Books by Women of Color and 2021 Queer SFF.

Find “Black Water Sister” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Bury the Lede”

Book: “Bury the Lede” by Gaby Dunn & Claire Roe (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Boom! Studios, October 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Twenty-one-year-old Madison T. Jackson is already the star of the Emerson College student newspaper when she nabs a coveted night internship at Boston’s premiere newspaper, The Boston Lede. The job’s simple: do whatever the senior reporters tell you to do, from fetching coffee to getting a quote from a grieving parent. It’s grueling work, so when the murder of a prominent Boston businessman comes up on the police scanner, Madison races to the scene of the grisly crime. There, Madison meets the woman who will change her life forever: prominent socialite Dahlia Kennedy, who is covered in gore and being arrested for the murder of her family. The newspapers put everyone they can in front of her with no results until, with nothing to lose, Madison gets a chance – and unexpectedly barrels headfirst into danger she never anticipated.

Review: As I continue to try and up my graphic novel stats after a few months of a whole lot of novels, I found “Bury the Lede” by Gaby Dunn on a list about dark graphic novels with LGBTQIA+ themes and characters. Both wanting to get out of the fantasy realms of graphics, and always wanting to read more books by LGBTQIA+ authors about LGBTQIA+ characters, I found it at my library and placed it on hold. When it came I was a little shocked to see how short it was, but hey, a story about a young wannabe reporter getting close to a potential murderer in hopes of solving a baffling case? That could be covered in a trade paperback collection sized graphic, right? Right. Then it was too bad that “Bury the Lede” had far more plot points and aspirations than just that, because it’s a lot to cram into one thin book.

In terms of what did work for me, there were some really cool ideas in this book. I love the concept of a budding journalist wanting to prove herself getting in a bit over her head. I really liked the sapphic obsessive relationship that our journalist, Madison, starts up with accused murderess and socialite Dahlia. On paper it sounds very “Silence of the Lambs”, with a prisoner perhaps manipulating an investigator, but also leading them to a much bigger case nonetheless. I thoroughly enjoyed every scene that Madison and Dahlia had together, the weird sexual chemistry oozing and crackling when you aren’t exactly certain if this is something you’re supposed to be cool with. That works so, so well. I also enjoyed the ‘ripped from the headlines’ character of Raquel Stief, a woman in an education position that is being considered for a place in the President’s circle of advisors and administrators, and who is CLEARLY based on that demon Betsy DeVos. There may have been some living vicariously going on here as I read, given that one of the true monsters in this story is Stief, and Madison is hoping to take her down. And hell, I liked that there was a broader conspiracy afoot, because something like that is a really good idea that has a lot of potential to explore. And as mentioned earlier, this book does have numerous LGBTQIA+ characters and themes, and any time we get some diversity in graphic novels written by Own Voices authors, it’s going to be positive.

But oh, the stumbles within the good ideas and broad themes. While the idea of a sweeping political conspiracy theory with implications that could go all the way to Washington D.C. is very interesting, this isn’t a very long book, and it all feels like it goes VERY fast. Madison uncovers connection after connection at break neck speed, and it gave very little space to breathe by the time we get to the big reveal and climax of the book. And while the book pulls you in with the mystery of Dahlia, the murder of her husband, and her missing child, by the time we do get to the revelations involving that whole thing, it feels like a bit of a cobbled together afterthought. So does the connection that Dahlia has to Stief. By the end it feels more like Dunn wanted to have an “All the President’s Men” kind of story, but thought that the only way to get people to read such a thing in graphic novel form was to throw in a nice carrot on a stick in the form of murder. And by the end, neither aspect felt wholly explored. Hasty plot points aside, in terms of the characters, there really isn’t anyone to root for. I like that Madison is determined, but not only do we really only get to see this one side of her, she is also wholly, WHOLLY unethical in her journalistic ways. I’m sure that it was meant to establish her as a morally gray character whose drive to do ANYTHING for a story is damaging, but that’s not exactly a new theme to stories about journalists. And if anything, she left the morally gray area and went into straight up villain territory (mild spoiler alert: she roofies someone to get information out of them. Like, holy shit.), but it never seemed to be treated as such.

But, I did like the artwork and the character designs. Claire Roe uses some effective shadows and colors to establish mood, and it definitely felt neo-noir in her illustrations.

I had expectations for “Bury the Lede” that weren’t met. Though it had glimmers of really cool ideas, the execution didn’t get off the ground.

Rating 5: Definitely has a well conceived plot with some good ideas, but it just felt like it was executed a little too quickly with not enough focus. Throw in unlikable characters, and it’s just meh.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Bury the Lede” is included on the Goodreads lists “Journalists, Photographers, Etc. in Comics”, and “Novels with Bisexual Protagonists”.

Find “Bury the Lede” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!