Serena’s Review: “Whispers of Shadow and Flame”

Book: “Whispers of Shadow and Flame” by L. Penelope

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Griffin, October 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: The Mantle that separates the kingdoms of Elsira and Lagrimar is about to fall. And life will drastically change for both kingdoms.

Born with a deadly magic she cannot control, Kyara is forced to become an assassin. Known as the Poison Flame in the kingdom of Lagrimar, she is notorious and lethal, but secretly seeks freedom from both her untamed power and the blood spell that commands her. She is tasked with capturing the legendary rebel called the Shadowfox, but everything changes when she learns her target’s true identity.

Darvyn ol-Tahlyro may be the most powerful Earthsinger in generations, but guilt over those he couldn’t save tortures him daily. He isn’t sure he can trust the mysterious young woman who claims to need his help, but when he discovers Kyara can unlock the secrets of his past, he can’t stay away.

Kyara and Darvyn grapple with betrayal, old promises, and older prophecies—all while trying to stop a war. And when a new threat emerges, they must beat the odds to save both kingdoms.

Previously Reviewed: “Song of Blood and Stone”

Review: It’s been quite a while since I reviewed the first book in this series. I remember really enjoying it, but I’ll be honest, I had to go back and read my review to really catch up on the world and characters before requesting this one. However, given how positively I’d reviewed that book, I felt fairly confident in this second one, even if, sadly, it was following a separate set of characters than the ones I had grown to love. And while I did find this a quick read, it didn’t really hit home in the same way as that first entry.

Due to the powerful magic within her, Kyara’s life has not been her own. Instead of choosing her own path, she’s been forced to become an assassin, a notorious one at that, known as the Poison Flame. But when her most recent target turns out to be more than he seems, Kyara sees an opportunity to begin reclaiming her own power. For his part, Darvyn is also uniquely powerful, but has begun to sink under the weight of guilt and regret over those he wasn’t able to save. Together, Kyara and Darvyn will uncover truths and mysteries that have long been kept in the shadow. But to make their way forward, they will have to learn to trust each other.

While this book didn’t hit the same sweet spot as the first one, there were still several things to like about it. For one, I still really enjoy the world-building. The last book really delved into the way this world’s history and the magical barrier that has divided it in two has affected the various groups of people living on either side. We explored how history is told by the winner and how the responsibility for the welfare of people expands beyond borders and one’s own patriotism to one’s own homeland. But by the end of that book, that barrier was coming down. That left a lot of interesting new pathways open for this book to explore, and the worldbuilding and continued fleshing out of the various cultures and peoples of this world didn’t disappoint.

I also still really enjoy Penelope’s writing style. It’s quick, clear, and engaging. There are a number of magical elements and, of course, an entirely fictional world. It takes a strong writer to really ground those sorts of unknowns into an understandable and approachable block of text. Even while some parts of this story didn’t work for me, I still blazed through it in a few short days.

Surprising no one, perhaps, where this book stumbled for me was with the characters. Of course, I knew going in that we’d have a new batch of characters, but I was disappointed to not even see our original two in passing. Beyond that, the way the book is summarized leads readers to believe that the book will unfold in a similar way to the first, alternating between two lead characters’ POV. Sadly, no. There were way more characters than that! Somewhere between four and six, I’d say. Not only do I generally not prefer books with large ensemble casts of POV characters (it takes a really master-level hand at writing to make that many characters feel distinct and worthy of a reader’s interest and investment), but it also reduced the page time for the two characters who were still mean to be read as “main” characters. In the first book, there was plenty of time to become attached and invested in our leads. Here, I found myself really struggling to care overly much about either Kyara or Darvyn.

And while the author’s writing is up to the task of creating vast, complicated worlds and systems, it faltered with characterization. The overall tone of writing didn’t change from character to character, leaving Kyara and Darvyn, very different characters not only because of gender but also life experiences, reading almost identically to one another. There was also another character’s POV chapter that was writing in a completely different tense than the reset of the book, a HUGE pet peeve of mine. It always feels overly tricky and rarely is there any payoff for this choice (a notable exception and an excellent example of intentional use of this writing method would be N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy).

So, while I’m still intrigued by the world and the larger-scope conflict that has been brewing, I struggled to enjoy this book as much as I did the first. I’ll likely continue to the third, however, as I’m curious to see how the bigger mysteries will resolve.

Rating 7: Weak characterization let down a book with strong world-building and magical intrigue.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Whispers of Shadow and Flame” is on these these Goodreads lists: Black Women Heroines in Urban Fantasy, Paranormal Romance, and Science Fiction and Best Diverse Speculative Fiction.

Find “Whispers of Shadow and Flame” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Survive the Night”

Book: “Survive the Night” by Riley Sager

Publishing Info: Dutton Books, June 2021

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

Book Description: It’s November 1991. George H. W. Bush is in the White House, Nirvana’s in the tape deck, and movie-obsessed college student Charlie Jordan is in a car with a man who might be a serial killer. Josh Baxter, the man behind the wheel, is a virtual stranger to Charlie. They met at the campus ride board, each looking to share the long drive home to Ohio. Both have good reasons for wanting to get away. For Charlie, it’s guilt and grief over the murder of her best friend, who became the third victim of the man known as the Campus Killer. For Josh, it’s to help care for his sick father. Or so he says. Like the Hitchcock heroine she’s named after, Charlie has her doubts. There’s something suspicious about Josh, from the holes in his story about his father to how he doesn’t seem to want Charlie to see inside the car’s trunk. As they travel an empty highway in the dead of night, an increasingly worried Charlie begins to think she’s sharing a car with the Campus Killer. Is Josh truly dangerous? Or is Charlie’s suspicion merely a figment of her movie-fueled imagination?

What follows is a game of cat-and-mouse played out on night-shrouded roads and in neon-lit parking lots, during an age when the only call for help can be made on a pay phone and in a place where there’s nowhere to run. In order to win, Charlie must do one thing–survive the night.

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

One of the things I’ve looked forward to every summer for the past few years is that, like clockwork, Riley Sager has written a new thriller novel. I’ve been reading Sager since his debut, “Final Girls”, and I have genuinely enjoyed every book he has come out with. Sometimes with varying degrees of enjoyment, but enjoyed nonetheless. Sager is a reliable thriller author for me; I know what to expect, I know I will probably like his characters, and I know that he will find ways to surprise me. So, of course, I’ve been looking forward to “Survive the Night” since I first heard of it. I wanted to savor it, saving it on my Kindle for awhile, knowing that it would probably be devoured right up as soon as I began but hoping I’d restrain myself. And I didn’t, really, as I read it in two big chunks over the course of two days. But hey. That’s reliable as well.

The book is mostly from Charlie’s point of view, as while it’s in the third person, it is mostly from her perspective. Charlie is a fairly typical protagonist for a book like this; she has a lot of baggage stemming from childhood trauma, which has been compounded by the fact that her roommate and best friend Maddy was brutally murdered by The Campus Killer, and Charlie blames herself. It’s the kind of thing we’ve seen before, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just worn. Adding into this well worn treading into overdone territory is that Charlie’s unreliability as a quasi narrator is partially based in some mental health issues, in that she has hallucinations and dissociative states she calls ‘going to the movies’. So of course, a scene that could be one thing, will end up not being real. There are a lot of things to be said about using mental health as a plot point in this way, and while I don’t necessarily think that it’s damaging or offensive, I do think that it’s something we’ve seen before. I LIKE Charlie, she’s just not really reinventing the wheel. Josh is our other main character, who has a few moments of perspective, but most of what we see is what we get from Charlie, and her paranoia and trauma could make her unreliable when it comes to him. Again, things we’ve seen before. It works out fine, Sager does it well, and I enjoy Josh as a character too. But again. We’ve seen it.

The plot, however, is a true rollercoaster from beginning to end, and Sager sprinkled little clues in here and there that I definitely missed. It could have been a healthy mix of sleight of hand on his part and me being so engaged with wanting to find out what happened next, but missed them I did, and it made some of the surprises all the more fun. I talked above about how using dissociative episodes in fiction to make someone unreliable is a bit old hat and overused, but there were lots of other well done tricks and twists that obfuscated details and solutions that I wasn’t too put off. The cat and mouse elements between Charlie and Josh slowly build and build, and even when one reveal happens a new conflict or danger will start to slowly build almost immediately after, so the release doesn’t last too long. It makes for a very tense and addictive mystery at hand, and it hooked me from start to finish. And while Sager sometimes tends to tread a bit towards outlandish twists nearing the end of the book, I felt that “Survive the Night” never quite overdid itself in that regard. And I’m not going to spoil anything, really, but I will say that the sappy romantic in me who gets invested in fictional relationships had a lot to work with in this story.

Yes, I find ways to swoon in a story with a plot like this, sue me. (source)

So while I thought some of the character choices were slightly underdeveloped or tropey, overall I found “Survive the Night” to be a really fun thriller novel. Riley Sager hasn’t failed me yet, and this is definitely the kind of book you should pick up if you like suspense.

Rating 8: Suspenseful, cinematic, and highly addictive, “Survive the Night” is another entertaining rollercoaster of a book by Riley Sager!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Survive the Night” is included on the Goodreads list “Mystery and Thriller 2021”.

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

Not Just Books: June 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: “Lucifer”

I’ve highlighted this one before, but it finally, finally, dropped the second half of episodes for its two-part fifth season. I was particularly excited for the musical episode that had been promised in the promotions, and boy, did it deliver! The show came up with a clever excuse for this sort of episode and it, of course, played perfectly to Tom Ellis’s strengths as a singer. My favorite song was his spectacular rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.” As a whole, I’m still enjoying the heck out of this show. It’s been particularly good in recent seasons as it has embraced the supernatural aspects of its concept and moved further and further away from its strictly procedural beginning. The sixth season has already been filmed, so I’m hopeful that the wait won’t be as long before we get our next set of episodes!

Documentary: “This is a Robbery: The World’s Greatest Art Heist”

My husband and I took a break from watching documentaries about bombers and instead dived into this interesting piece about a robbery that took place in 1990 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Neither of us had even heard about this robbery, but the documentary is quick to point out that, by price, it was the largest art theft to have ever taken place (a bigger one happened only in 2019). There are many curious events all wrapped up in this robbery, from the strange selection of pieces that were taken to the baffling fact that none have been recovered in thirty years, despite massive rewards being continuously posted. I don’t have any unique interest in art theft, so it speaks to the quality of this documentary that I was completely absorbed by the story and still think about it fairly often. Definitely check it out if you’re looking for an interesting documentary series that isn’t focused on a serial killer!

TV Show: “The 12 Monkeys”

I never watched the 90s movie “The 12 Monkeys.” For some reason, I had it in my head that it was a horror movie? Thusly, when I saw that there was a tv show inspired by it, I assumed that, also, was horror. Well, I randomly looked into it a bit more recently and discovered, nope, it’s pretty much just a straight up time-travel/post-apocalyptic story, the exact kind of thing that’s right up my alley. So far, I’ve really been enjoying it. The best that can be said is that the show is entertaining enough that I’m not getting too caught up in the mechanics of time travel, something that is always the biggest challenge for any story featuring that device. Instead, the use of time travel so far has been very clever and interesting. We’ll see how it resolves in the end, though, since I think that’s always the biggest challenge with time travel: how do you finally close the loop?

Kate’s Picks

TV Show: “Loki”

I’m definitely not at all caught up when it comes to the MCU, and I’m not really in a hurry to be (my one regret: I still haven’t watched “Wandavision” and I know I need to!). But I’ve always had a soft spot for Loki, and I DEFINITELY have a thing for Tom Hiddleston, so I bumped the new TV series “Loki” to the top of my MCU priority list. Am I a little lost? Sure. But it doesn’t matter! It’s still fun! Loki has found himself detained by The Time Variant Authority, a bureaucratic organization that monitors the Timeline to make sure nothing messes it up. Which Loki has. Now he has to work with them to stop a more dangerous time ‘variant’, and perhaps earn his freedom. Hiddleston is great, and the show is both really funny, and also a snappy crime thriller procedural. And Owen Wilson is a fun TVA agent named Mobius who is a mentor to Loki, and is utterly not phased by his histrionics.

Film: “The Conjuring 3: The Devil Made Me Do It

This selection is partially about the film itself, but partially about the context in which I watched this film. I have vaguely mixed feelings about “The Conjuring” franchise, as while I really love Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as Ed and Lorraine Warren, the real life Warrens were manipulative, overzealous con artists. I also have a really hard time with the fact that these films are, in a lot of ways, Evangelical Conservative propaganda. BUT ALL THAT SAID, they’re pretty fun as well as kinda gross. And my friends in my Terror Tuesday horror movie club decided that we should get together in my backyard to watch it so some of us could meet in person for the first time. In this one, Ed and Lorraine investigate the case of a man who is accused of murder, and claims that he is possessed and the demon was the one who killed his victim. It has some fun scares, and some creepy content. So “The Conjuring 3: The Devil Made Me Do It” was not only a fun film, horror movie wise, but also it was a wonderful time with dear friends who could finally get together and see each other.

Film: “Moana”

This is definitely not a ‘new to me’ film, as I have loved “Moana” since around the time that it came out. It is making this list because my kid just discovered it, and therefore we have been watching it almost every day together. But as I’ve been watching it, again and again (and again and again) it hasn’t lost any of it’s shine or charm. I really love the story of Moana, the daughter of an island leader who is chosen by the ocean to return a magical stone to a goddess. For if she doesn’t, the entire world, including her island, will fall to waste and rot. The songs are phenomenal, the main character is well drawn out, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is always a joy, this time as Maui, the demi-God who inadvertently set off the chain of events. I suppose I’m lucky that my kid’s obsession is a movie that holds up after repeated viewings. Because I have a feeling this is going to be a thing for awhile…

Serena’s Review: “The Stolen Kingdom”

Book: “The Stolen Kingdom” by Jillian Boehme

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, March 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: For a hundred years, the once-prosperous kingdom of Perin Faye has suffered under the rule of the greedy and power-hungry Thungrave kings. Maralyth Graylaern, a vintner’s daughter, has no idea her hidden magical power is proof of a secret bloodline and claim to the throne. Alac Thungrave, the king’s second son, has always been uncomfortable with his position as the spare heir—and the dark, stolen magic that comes with ruling.

When Maralyth becomes embroiled in a plot to murder the royal family and seize the throne, a cat-and-mouse chase ensues in an adventure of dark magic, court intrigue, and forbidden love.

Review: I’m always down for some good ole court intrigue, which is why I initially requested this book. Of course, that’s also one of those phrases that book blurbs often use that more often than not simply translates to “unrealistic drama” of the sort that reduces me to eye rolls. Sadly, that was the case here.

Maralyth has grown up helping to run her father’s renown vineyard. Though she is skilled at tending the vines (more so than her family even knows, with a magical ability to help plant flourish), she finds herself minding the kitchen and serving the workers meals after her mother dies, leaving this role vacant. But Maralyth knows there is a bigger future before her. Bigger even that she could have expected, when she is snatched away from this lowly life and finds herself caught up in plots to overthrow the throne. As for Alac, the second son of the king, he, too, is uncomfortable with his lot and life. And when a mysterious young woman shows up in court, he finds he, too, has an unexpected future before him.

Sigh. So, this wasn’t what I had hoped it could be, and I always struggle with these types of reviews. I don’t like to just spend an entire post ragging on a book, but sometimes it really is hard to come up with things I liked about some of these. Perhaps, if you’re appetite for fairly generic YA fantasy (super light on the fantasy and more heavy on the romance), this book could appeal to you. The writing is competent enough, and while the plot is very “write-by-numbers,” is also comfortingly predictable, if that’s what you’re looking for. Unfortunately, it was decidedly not what I was looking for.

The biggest problem for me was the characters. I’m definitely a reader whose experience of a book is largely defined by how I feel about the characters. Of course, I like the magic and mystery, but if the characters feel flat, it’s really hard for me to get past that. And here, there was nothing really going for either of the two leads (another ding against this was the fact that there even were two leads to begin with, as, more and more, I’m growing to dislike these fantasy romance stories that feature both love interest’s perspective). Sadly, each character falls into the worst tropes of the YA genre. The leading lady (dumb name Maralyth) is essentially a special snowflake who is plucked out of her ordinary life to discover that she has a magical and wonderous heritage. The leading man (dumber name/spelling Alac) regularly demeans the looks of the women around him (at one point going so far as to mentally fat shame a young woman) and only falls for Maralyth because she’s “not like other girls.” If you’ve been reading this blog for long, you’ll know that the “not like other girls” motivation for love is probably one of my absolute biggest pet peeves. It’s pretty much a guaranteed “out” for me. That’s not even getting into some of his violent thoughts when he gets angry with Maralyth, a fact that is glossed over and somehow even romanticized.

The world-building and plot were perhaps better in that they weren’t actively enraging, but that’s not saying much. Like I said above, the story follows a fairly predictable path, with many of the character’s choices being easily predicted early in the story. And, while I appreciated that the author wrote a stand-alone story, it also ended up crippling much of the world-building. There is a religion that is included but given very little depth or explanation. Wars and other countries/regions are mentioned, but the story never takes the time to fully flesh any of this out. It left the entire reading experience feeling fairly flat, relying too heavily on its main characters who weren’t up to the task of carrying the story on their own.

This book was a pretty big disappointment. The main characters were incredibly unlikable, proving that some tropes are too persistent to die in the fiery pit from whence they should be thrown. It’s really too bad, especially because stand-alone YA fantasy stories are so hard to find.

Rating 5: The main characters were too rage-inducing for me to focus on much else.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Stolen Kingdom” is on this Goodreads list: Female fantasy authors – Children’s, YA and adult.

Find “The Stolen Kingdom” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Darkness and Grace”

Book: “Darkness and Grace” by Kathryn Schleich

Publishing Info: Self-Published, March 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from Book Publicity Services

Book Description: Even the strongest of families aren’t immune to malice, betrayal, and deceit. Supportive, loving, and affluent, the Pierson family is delighted to celebrate the marriage of sensitive middle son Paul Pierson and his wife, Pamela. Everyone rejoices that Paul has finally recovered from the tragic loss of his beloved first wife and looks forward to Paul and Pamela’s new life together. But just as family members are celebrating his happiness, they start noticing that his beautiful bride may not be what she seems.

As the strain between siblings and spouses worsens, the Piersons discover that neither their money nor their considerable influence can keep the family safe from one woman’s malicious intent. When the true nature of this family member is revealed, each of the Piersons is confronted with the quandary of human conduct and moral responsibility.

Darkness and Grace is a compelling story of the classic struggle between good and evil, as well as the violent undercurrent running beneath the illusory serenity of a close-knit Midwestern family. 

Review: Thank you to Book Publicity Services for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

It wasn’t until very recently that I saw the Scorsese film “Casino”, which is admittedly strange as it is my husband’s favorite Scorsese feature. I’m sure that he loves it for the Vegas aspect as well as the interesting mob entanglements, but I think that for me the strongest feature is Sharon Stone, who plays Ginger, the narcissistic and potentially psychopathic wife of Robert DeNiro’s Sam. Stone puts in a powerhouse performance of a charming and vivacious woman who slowly turns into a nightmare as she is overtaken by drugs, alcoholism, and her sociopathic tendencies, which makes DeNiro’s life a bit of a nightmare. But Stone also brings a sad bit of vulnerability to Ginger, and even though you absolutely want her to have to face responsibility for her actions, you do feel a little sorry for her. As I was reading “Darkness and Grace” by Kathryn Schleich, I felt like I was reading about Ginger, only taking place in Minnesota, and without any of the vulnerability and empathy.

Our first person protagonist, Kay Pierson-Scott, is telling the story of how her family got entangled with Pamela, her brother Paul’s wife who turns out to be a psychopathic manipulator who runs an emotional mac truck through their happy family. Pamela is relentless, Paul is beaten down, and Kay and her family are running out of patience and the wherewithal to deal with it. As a family drama with a lot of suds to go around, it is entertaining as hell, making my blood pressure rise as Pamela’s manipulations and machinations run amok and Kay becomes more and more harried and the Pierson clan is targeted more and more. I liked Kay as a protagonist, who is a devoted and somewhat doting oldest sister who wants to protect her brother and the rest of her family as best she can. It’s all from her POV, so there are definitely some blind spots as to the other characters, deliberate or not, but she was enjoyable enough that I was okay with focusing on her. Pamela is the other big character in this book, and she is pretty much a cartoony villain in a lot of ways, though that said I know people who have dealt with people like her in their lives. So I’m not about to say that she’s unrealistic. You definitely spend the entire book waiting for her to get what is coming to her, and holding your breath in suspense as to whether or not she will do something REALLY terrible along the way (oh how I was SCARED for her daughter, Kaitlin!). All of this makes the plot easy to consume, and the side of me that lives for this kind of over the top drama was definitely entertained.

One of the hurdles “Darkness and Grace” faces is that the writing style is very simple, almost conversational, as though Kay is telling this story to a person over cocktails or brunch. I do think that this CAN work if done well, but it felt kind of stunted and a bit informal in this case, and therefore distracting. But it’s important to note that this was the first novel from Schleich, and that this is a re-release. Given that the other book of hers I read “Salvation Station”, didn’t have these issues, it’s really just a sign that this is a debut, or at least very early, work for an author who has time to grow and evolve.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t shout out to the numerous, NUMEROUS Minnesota references peppered throughout this book. I know that Schleich is local, and that aspects of this story are loosely based on something her family had to deal with in the 1990s, so it’s not too surprising to see all the MN moments. For me, a Minnesotan born and raised, it was fun to be like “I know what neighborhood that is!” or “I’ve been to that place!”. It may be laid on pretty thick for other readers, but trust me, us Minnesotans LOVE to have our state acknowledged in media, so this was a-okay by me.

“Darkness and Grace” is an entertaining and soapy thriller that kept me interested. It doesn’t reinvent any wheels, but it gets the job done, and sometimes that just what you want in a suspense novel.

Rating 7: The story is engaging and easy to invest in, even if the writing style felt a little rudimentary to me at times. But the Minnesota references were top notch!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Darkness and Grace” isn’t on any Goodreads lists as of yet, but I think it would fit in on “Family Drama Books”.

Find “Darkness and Grace” at

Serena’s Review: “The Other Side of the Sky”

Book: “The Other Side of the Sky” by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, September 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley!

Book Description: Prince North’s home is in the sky, in a gleaming city held aloft by intricate engines, powered by technology. Nimh is the living goddess of her people on the Surface, responsible for providing answers, direction—hope.

North’s and Nimh’s lives are entwined—though their hearts can never be. Linked by a terrifying prophecy and caught between duty and fate, they must choose between saving their people or succumbing to the bond that is forbidden between them. 

Review: While the latest book in the “Lady Janies” series fell flat for me, overall, I’ve enjoyed collaborations between these two authors. Plus, the cover on this book looks amazing! There’s a cat. Yes, that is all it takes to get me to pick up your book; be on notice, publishers. Unfortunately, while the book had some things going for it, it ended up falling in the “less enjoyable” camp for me of books I’ve read by these authors.

Long ago the world split in two. The wealthy and privileged fled the ground to make cities in the sky. This is North’s world, one made up of technological advancements like racing gliders to travel through the clouds and powerful engines to run rail systems between the floating systems. On the ground, those who were left behind have forgotten these advancements. Instead, their religion speaks of the Gods who rose above and they look to the Goddess who always walks among them to show them the way. And in this generation, that role has fallen upon Nimh. When North falls from above in a glider accident, these two worlds collide. Each world has forgotten the other, but together, will Nimh and North be able to merge these two once again?

There are a few things that always stand out in books written by this author collaboration. Firstly, the characters are always interesting and well-rounded. Here, too, Nimh and North were both compelling characters. Perhaps Nimh more than North due to the more strife in her past and the particular challenges of her present. North, as a comparison, felt younger and, for being the one from the more scientifically advanced portion of the world, much less knowledgeable about the challenges of life. However, this made for an interesting clash of worlds when the two meet up together, with his knowledge of science and progress up against her ground-level understanding of human nature and struggle.

However, I also started to fall a bit out of the book when these two met up. The questions began to pile up, and that’s never a good sign for my enjoyment of a book. I wasn’t quite sure how the exact world-building worked. On one hand, it felt like a fairly straight forward “technology being confused for magic” storyline, with North diligently disproving many of the aspects of Nimh’s religion that pointed towards magic as present in her world. But on the other hand, there were more than enough instances where it seemed that the authors were also indicating that there was, in fact, magic involved as well as technolgy.

I also struggled with the messages regarding religion. I wasn’t sure exactly what the authors were getting at here, but it began to feel like a point I didn’t fully understand was still being bashed over my head. Again, North was persistent in attacking and disproving many of Nimh’s beliefs. Part of this makes sense as, yes, he does have a more full understanding of the technological side of the world. But much of religion is based on faith in spite of more obvious explanations. So were the authors debunking religion as a whole? I also began to feel bad for Nimh under this ongoing demonstration. But also, there, I started to become frustrated with her own persistence in the face of some of the more clear examples presented by North that disproved her beliefs. It all was too confusing and any greater point felt muddled and difficult to identify.

The story was still well-paced and a fast read. These authors have worked together many times in the past and their writing style feels well-balanced at this point, playing to each of their different strengths. However, it did begin to feel a bit too childishly YA at times, and I wish the entire thing had been a bit more elevated with a stronger message at its heart. Fans of these authors should probably check it out, since they’re still doing what they do best. But for me it was a bit too little.

Rating 7: Confusing themes and over-arching messages brought down a story with solid characters and an interesting concept.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Other Side of the Sky” is on these Goodreads lists: Castles/Cities/Islands in the Sky and Young Adult Novels 2020.

Find “The Other Side of the Sky” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “That Weekend”

Book: “That Weekend” by Kara Thomas

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, June 2021

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

Book Description: Three best friends, a lake house, a secret trip – what could go wrong?

It was supposed to be the perfect prom weekend getaway. But it’s clear something terrible happened when Claire wakes up alone and bloodied on a hiking trail with no memory of the past forty-eight hours. Three went up the mountain, but only one came back. Now everyone wants answers – most of all, Claire. She remembers Friday night, but after that… nothing. And now Kat and Jesse – her best friends – are missing.

That weekend changes everything. What happened on the mountain? And where are Kat and Jesse? Claire knows the answers are buried somewhere in her memory, but as she’s learning, everyone has secrets – even her best friends. And she’s pretty sure she’s not going to like what she remembers.

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

Kara Thomas is one of those authors who has never disappointed me. I have genuinely enjoyed and been surprised by all of her books, and she has easily been one of the authors whose works I am guaranteed to read as soon as I possibly can. I admit that the pessimist in me tends to worry whenever I pick up a book by one of these ‘can do no wrong’ authors, as I am always wondering ‘is this the book that is going to disappoint me?’ Thus far, with her newest novel “That Weekend”, Thomas has never done so. Hell, when I was reading this book and I was enjoying it and trying to figure out what was going on, I had an epiphany moment in the tub (when I wasn’t even reading the book) in which I thought that no, THIS was going to be the big reveal that was going to change everything. I wasn’t even mad about it, as it was, to my mind, a great reveal and surely that was what was going to happen because that would be genius.

And then, like she always does, Kara Thomas went and pulled the rug out from under me and my expectations of what was to come.

SHE DID IT AGAIN! (source)

But I am so ahead of myself. “That Weekend” is a YA thriller that could have used some tried and true tropes to tell a pretty familiar story. Thomas is a talented enough writer and mystery weaver that she could have done this and still made it work and feel fresh, but no, instead she takes it to other places that make it all the more interesting and suspenseful. We mostly follow Claire, a girl who went on a camping trip with her best friends Kat and Jesse, and woke up in the wilderness with a head injury, blood on herself, and no memory of what had happened for the past twenty four hours. On top of that, Kat and Jesse are no where to be found. From the jump we are in the weeds as much as Claire is, as she is the perfect unreliable narrator in that she has memory loss AND has some issues with Kat and Jesse that she is only starting to work through (specifically, the fact that they are now a couple, and she has been in love with Jesse for years). The mystery of what happened to Claire and what happened to Kat and Jesse seems pretty straight forward at first, with familiar beats and plot points, but never fear; Thomas has much more in store. What happens next is an engaging and very addictive mystery about friendship, secrets, trauma, and the things we don’t know about the people we love most. I really liked Claire’s storyline trajectory, as she goes from victim of something, to scrutinized potential suspect, to hard boiled amateur detective, all while realistically dealing (or perhaps not dealing) with the horrifically traumatic experience she went through and continues to go through as time moves on. Her characterization felt realistic in it’s messiness, and her resentment and determination was organic and never forced. Because of this, she was easy to root for, even if she was sometimes hard to like. We do get to see into the minds of other characters a little bit, and while they are all done well too, it’s really Claire that shines as a flawed but mostly empathetic protagonist.

And as I was gushing above, the mystery is so well plotted that I was always a few steps behind. Thomas has all the clues laid out so that you can trace everything back, but she knows how to keep them close to the vest. The reveals and surprises are all pretty darn rewarding because of this, and the pacing was such that I found it very hard to put this book down. And even one kind of out there late game twist that could have been seen as overkill was done in a way that I really didn’t hate it. It didn’t necessarily ADD to anything, but it worked well enough that the late revelation wasn’t the cheap moment that it could have been. Thomas also brings up some good, damning points about true crime tourism and media, as not only are there some armchair detectives online who come off as pretty terrible, there is a VERY clear nod to that horrible trauma scavenger Nancy Grace in one of the characters whose only goal is to get ratings by turning the public against literal teenagers. It’s one of the things that the true crime community really needs to reckon with, as people like Grace (and this character) see blood in the water and exploit it for ratings, even if they make chum of innocent people in the process.

“That Weekend” continues the streak that Thomas has had from the get go. It may be my favorite of her books. Thriller fans of all ages should definitely check it out.

Rating 9: Thomas has once again written a suspenseful, engaging, and surprising YA thriller!

Reader’s Advisory:

“That Weekend” is included on the Goodreads list “2021 YA Mysteries and Thrillers”.

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

Beach Reads: Summer 2021

Back for 2021, here is a list of some more favorite beach reads! “Beach read” is a very fast and loose term for books people read over the beautiful summer months when we really should be outside “doing things” but are instead reading…maybe outside. Some people see these months as an opportunity to slog through long classics (we’re looking at you “Moby Dick”) before the busy-ness of of the fall starts up, but for the sake of this list, we’re limiting our choices to stand alone, mostly feel good books (though there’s some obvious leeway here for Kate’s horror tastes!) that could be easily brought along on vacations. So, still a very loose definition, but hey, we had to start somewhere! We will select one title for each of the genres we most read.

Serena’s Picks

Fantasy Title: “Spinning Silver” by Naomi Novik

I highlighted “Uprooted” in this list several years ago, but I think now is as good a time as any to return to the well and select Novik’s follow-up fairytale fantasy, “Spinning Silver.” In theory, these two books exist in the same world. In practicality, they each can be read as complete stand-alones. This time, Novik tackles “Rumpelstiltskin,” but her complete expansion and unique take on the fable leaves only the barest hints of the original story. Miryem is the daughter of a moneylender, and when forced to take up the role herself, find she has has a particular talent for the role. So much so that she draws the eyes of powerful magical beings who would put her skills to an even greater use. But this isn’t simply Miryem’s tale. We also follow the path of a nobleman’s neglected daughter and a peasant girl who is trying to protect her family. Honestly, it’s hard to say which I like better between this book and “Uprooted,” so just go ahead and read both.

Science Fiction Title: “Driftwood” by Marie Brennan

This was a favorite sci-fi read from last summer, and a perfect book for this summer’s beach read list. Not only is it a stand-alone title, but it’s also a short, quick read. Driftwood is the world where all other worlds go to die. After whatever apocalypse took them out, the final scraps of the land and its inhabitants find themselves mashed up against other failed worlds, slowly grinding themselves into oblivion. But even here, life flourishes and civilizations rise and fall. But where everything eventually comes to end, one being endures, a man named Last. Weaving through a variety of tales and worlds, Last’s story slowly unfolds, though there, too, histories and mysteries are layered one upon another. This was such a unique read that I’ve been raving about it pretty much since the moment I set it down. Definitely check it out if you want a quick, science fiction read.

Mystery Title: “Crocodile on the Sandbank” by Elizabeth Peters

I actually had to look past through our Beach Reads posts of the previous summers, because I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t featured this one yet! It’s been a while since I’ve read a book in the “Amelia Peabody,” series, but I will never forget the sheer joy of reading this first book for the first time. I was sitting outside a coffee shop in the summer, and I ended up sitting there for like four hours just blowing through this book and laughing out loud. Oh, the days before children! Of all the books I’m featuring this go-around, “Crocodile on the Sandbank” is by far the best fit for a Beach Read in that it’s just a sheer joy to read. Fans of historical mysteries have to check it out, and if you like intrepid heroines, this one’s also for you!

Historical Fiction Title: “Kindred” by Octavia E. Butler

Technically, this book could fall under sci-fi/fantasy as well, as it features time travel at the heart of the story. But as most of it is focused on the historical aspects of time travel rather than the science fiction behind it, I thought it would work well here. Dana, a young African American woman, suddenly finds herself wrenched from her life in 1976 back to antebellum Maryland. She saves a young white boy from drowning and only barely escapes with her life. The story jumps back and forth through time as Dana’s life continues to intertwine with this same young man. This book is a staple of science fiction literature and, obviously, Butler is one of the genre’s most beloved authors. If you’re looking for good historical fiction novel as well as one to check off on many “must read” lists, definitely get your hands on “Kindred.”

Kate’s Picks

Horror Title: “Feed” by Mira Grant

I reviewed one of the spin off books on this blog, “Feedback”, which takes place in the same zombie tech universe, but I haven’t touched much upon the original story that started it all. In a world where cures for the common cold and cancer became a reality, the solutions merged into a virus that turns people into zombies. Now society has figured out ways to adapt and move on, and bloggers and vloggers act as sources of news. We follow Georgia and Shaun Mason, sibling reporters who are in high demand, and who have been hired by a Presidential candidate to cover his campaign. But as they get deeper into the politics, they start to find disturbing connections to the zombie hordes. It’s savvy, it’s fun, and it’s wholly unique, and a great read for a vacation.

Thriller Title: “Help for the Haunted” by John Searles

When Serena and I and some of our friends stumbled upon an Alex Award presentation about this book at ALA in 2014, we hadn’t heard of “Help for the Haunted”. But it became clear almost immediately that it would be a thriller that is right up my alley. Sylvie Mason is one of the daughters of a famous ghost hunting duo, and after a call in the middle of the night takes her and her parents to an abandoned church, her parents end up dead. A year later, Sylvie is living with her older sister Rose, who may know more than she’s saying about their parents’ deaths. On top of that, the family basement, which houses the haunted artifacts left over from their parents cases, has been acting up. Sylvie wants to find out the truth about her parents… no matter what that truth may be. Given that this is loosely based on Ed and Lorraine Warren, and that “The Conjuring 3” is now released, this thriller is a timely choice.

Graphic Novel Title: “Ms. Marvel (Vol.1): No Normal” by G. Willow Wilson and Adrial Alphona (Ill.)

While my reactions to the “Ms. Marvel” stories have had their ups and downs, I absolutely loved the very first book, “Ms. Marvel: No Normal”. In this first volume we meet Kamala Khan, a teenage Muslim girl living in Jersey City who suddenly has super powers thrust upon her. She becomes Ms. Marvel, and her life of fighting crime as well as trying to survive high school begins. “No Normal” has the perfect set up which introduces Kamala, as well as her family and friends, and shows us a dynamic and engaging superhero that gives voice to those who aren’t as represented in comics. And while the series does have moments of being a little aggressively quirky, “No Normal” is pretty much on point and excellent from start to finish. Definitely check this one out if you are looking for a comic series with a lot of heart.

Non-Fiction Title: “The Last Black Unicorn” by Tiffany Haddish

Non-fiction is such a broad swath of genres, but I thought that for beach reading you probably want to keep it lighter! So instead of going for my usual true crime pick, we turn to humorous memoirs, and there we find “The Last Black Unicorn” by Tiffany Haddish! Haddish has established herself as a gifted comedienne in the past few years, and her memoir is a collection of reflections about her life. Some of it is VERY funny (naturally), while other parts of it are poignant and at times hard to read. But through it all Haddish has wry self awareness and some really fun stories about her life. “The Last Black Unicorn” feels like a good mix of the fun and the painful, and I found myself laughing and shedding a few tears throughout. It’s the kind of memoir that you won’t want to put down, and will make you root for Haddish the whole way through.

What books are you taking to the beach with you this summer? Let us know in the comments!

Serena’s Review: “For the Wolf”

Book: “For the Wolf” by Hannah Whitten

Publishing Info: Orbit Books, June 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher

Book Description: As the only Second Daughter born in centuries, Red has one purpose-to be sacrificed to the Wolf in the Wood in the hope he’ll return the world’s captured gods.

Red is almost relieved to go. Plagued by a dangerous power she can’t control, at least she knows that in the Wilderwood, she can’t hurt those she loves. Again.

But the legends lie. The Wolf is a man, not a monster. Her magic is a calling, not a curse. And if she doesn’t learn how to use it, the monsters the gods have become will swallow the Wilderwood-and her world-whole.

Review: Here we are with “Red Riding Hood” themed book number two of the month! As I said before, I always get a bit nervous when there are many books coming out around the same time that explore a similar fairytale or theme. They can’t all be good. Right?? Well, second verse same as the first with this one! Except, I think I liked this book even better than “The Wolf and the Woodsman!”

For centuries it has been know: the first daughter is for the throne, the second daughter is for the wolf. It has been many decades since the last second daughter was born and sent duly to her fate in the dangerous Wilderwood. But it is Red’s fate to once again live out this piece of history. While her sister, Neve, the heir to the throne, is aghast at the future before her beloved Red, Red herself is thankful to be locked away from the people she loves, people she fears she may injure with the dark magic growing within her. But once she finally makes her way beneath the shadowy bows of the forest, she begins to learn that the tales have twisted throughout the years and not everything is as she once thought. Neve, for her part, works diligently to save her doomed sister, and between these two, long-sleeping forces will begin to awaken.

Well, that was something else! I really like how this is now the second of these books I’ve read this month and both have had very little to do with the original “Red Riding Hood” tale. Not that I have any problems with that story, but it would have been a challenge to read three re-tellings in a month. So far, I’ve actually read zero retellings! Both of these books have only resembled that story in their use of names and the infamous red coat. Instead, imagine my surprise and joy when I got a bit into this and realized that not only was I not reading a “Red Riding Hood” retelling but I was, in fact, reading a “Beauty and the Beast” adaptation? And, like the best retellings, it was also unique and fully its own.

Much of what made it similar to “Beauty and the Beast” could be found in the basic concept and in the small call-backs littered throughout the story. You have the mysterious, other-worldly love interested, locked away in a gloomy castle, forgotten (or in this case, warped) by history. There’s the unknowing heroine, thrust into this magical world with no compass to guide her, missing a beloved family member back home (this time a sister rather than a father). And then there were small details, like the use of a glass mirror to view other places and the placement of a library as central to much of the interaction between the heroine and hero. So, very much Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” hints.

But this is not a kid’s fairytale. The woods itself was a character, and a dark, unknowable one at that. The violence of the woods’ history is clear from the beginning and the painful measures that are required to contain it sap the strength from the Wolf, the guardian of this place. Red’s own connection to the woods and the Wolf is no less comfortable. While she begins to understand the toll the woods takes on the Wolf, she sees that any help she has to offer will come with a similar price.

I was also surprised to see that Neve had her own POV chapters in this book. While Red definitely has the majority, Neve has a distinct arch and story of her own. It was equally compelling, if also frustrating in that we, the reader, have more information than Neve does and can see the pitfalls before her. But, as always, I love a book that focuses on a strong sisters relationship, and I like that Neve was not a passive character here, simply accepting her sister’s loss as fact but instead working against it.

The romance was also very sweet. The book took its time to develop this relationship properly, devoting appropriate page time for each party to work through their own personal challenges. The pieces of the puzzle and mystery behind the Wolf and the Wilderwood also only come together slowly as the story plays out. Overall, this slow pacing worked well, balanced out by the high stakes tension that looms in the ever-present danger presented by the woods itself. My one mark against the book, however, is that towards the end, the story seems to come to a head but then regroups and ramps up for what feels like a second ending tacked on. Both are necessary for the story itself, but it just read a little strange, erring a bit too close to feeling resolved to let the reader really easily step back in for heightened action all of a sudden.

I really enjoyed this book. Fans of fairytale re-tellings, particularly “Beauty and the Beast,” should definitely check it out. It’s the first in (I think) a duology, so expect another book to come, but it’s not a killer cliffhanger either.

Don’t forget to enter the giveaway and win an ARC copy of “For the Wolf!”

Rating 9: Dark, twisty, and romantic. Just how I like it!

Reader’s Advisory:

“For the Wolf” is on these Goodreads lists: Adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2021 and Villain/Monster Romance.

Find “For the Wolf” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Ghosted in L.A. (Vol.3)”

Book: “Ghosted in L.A. (Vol.3)” by Sina Grace & Siobhan Keenan (Ill.)

Publishing Info: BOOM!Box, December 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: The critically-acclaimed series concludes as Daphne Walters must confront her former roommate Michelle, discover the mystery of just who’s behind that basement door and decide her entire future – this should be totally easy, right?


Daphne Walters’ life is complicated enough, living at Rycroft Manor with her ghostly friends and trying to figure out why everyone in LA is always 30 minutes late for everything important. So it’s TOTALLY the perfect time for Daphne to lose one of her friends, for the mystery of the ghost behind the basement door to be revealed and for Daphne to decide her entire future, RIGHT? And did we forget to mention that Daphne’s former roommate Michelle just unveiled a scheme to exorcise the friendly ghosts from Rycroft? Yeah, there’s that too.

GLAAD Award-nominated Sina Grace (Iceman) and illustrator Siobhan Keenan (Jem and the Holograms) conclude the acclaimed series that proves true love and friendship never dies!

Review: We find ourselves once again coming to the end of a series, and this time we are saying goodbye to the living and the dead at Rycroft Manor. “Ghosted in L.A.” is a very different beast from “The Sandman”, the other big conclusion in graphics I’ve had as of late, but one of the charms was its simplicity and heart that is content to just be a fun, funny urban fantasy. But that said, even something light and airy still needs to have due diligence done if it wants to end well. And, unfortunately, “Ghosted in L.A. (Vol.3)”, the last volume of the series, stumbles.

We’ll start with the good. As someone who found herself invested in Daphne, Ronnie, and the ghosts of Rycroft Manor, I was mostly happy with how things turned out for all of them. I thought that Daphne’s arc, from aimless young adult to competent ghost friend and in general friend, was well done and realistic within what we know about the character. I liked seeing how she changed and adapted her relationships with her ex boyfriend Ronnie, and how she grows after living with the spirits at Rycroft Manor and learning from them. In terms of how her arc ends, and how the arc of the ghosts and Ronnie and everything else ends, I enjoyed the trajectory and found it to be funny, sweet, and just a nice ending to a nice series. I also appreciated that we did get SOME glimpse into Daphne’s roommate Michelle’s background, as she has mostly been a surly and grumpy foil who is very religious up until this point. This volume tries to show a little bit more to her, and I like that there was some context for her behaviour.

But here is the problem with everything getting wrapped up right now, albeit in a mostly satisfying kind of way. There is SO MUCH GROUND to cover, from plot points to character growth to relationship strife to general conclusions and climaxes, that cramming it all together in this one volume feels stuffed, rushed, and haphazard. Like, what all happened in the last volume that needed to be resolved? Let’s see: Daphne and Kristi had a huge fight; Zola is creating tension in the house; a strange door has started causing issues in the house; Ronnie is feeling caught between his human friends and his ghostly ones; Michelle is starting to get suspicious. That’s just to name a few. I don’t know if this series was cancelled early (as we’ve seen in other graphics reviews on this blog), or if it was always planned to end like this, but “Ghosted in L.A. (Vol. 3)” needs to pull together a lot in just one volume, and it suffers for it. What could have been drawn out mysteries and plot points (specifically the mystery of what is going on behind the mysterious door) end up being explained and solved nearly in succession, which completely undercuts the tension and impact of the story. We also find ourselves a bit cheated out of really getting to know some of the ghosts at Rycroft, as characters like Ricky and Pam are waylaid in favor of Zola since she is now a love interest for Daphne (also thrown together I might add). New conflict is tied up way too fast, and character exploration isn’t given its due. It was supremely disappointing, as I felt like this series has a lot of potential to dig into interesting things, especially given the ghost roster. I don’t want to take off too many points for this kind of thing, as perhaps this was all a bit of a surprise and things just had to be concluded on a shorter timeline. But it definitely made this the weakest of the three volumes.

But the artwork by Siobhan Keenan is still utterly charming. Along with the same designs that we’ve seen in the series, we dabble a bit more into some horror moments in this volume, which are reflected well in the drawings themselves.

I still think that “Ghosted in L.A.” as a whole is worth checking out if you like some lighter ghostly fare. It has humor, an inclusive cast, and a lot of heart. The end may be a bit of a stumble, but the sum of it’s parts is enjoyable.

Rating 6: A mostly satisfying end to the series, though it feels rushed and thrown together.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Ghosted in L.A. (Vol.3)” isn’t on any Goodreads lists as of yet, but it would fit in on  “Paranormal Romance/Urban Fantasy Set in California”.

Find “Ghosted in L.A. (Vol.3)” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed:

%d bloggers like this: