Serena’s Review: “Curses”

Book: “Curses” by Lish McBride

Publishing Info: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, July 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Merit Cravan refused to fulfill her obligation to marry a prince, leading to a fairy godling’s curse. She will be forced to live as a beast forever, unless she agrees to marry a man of her mother’s choosing before her eighteenth birthday.

Tevin Dumont has always been a pawn in his family’s cons. The prettiest boy in a big family, his job is to tempt naïve rich girls to abandon their engagements, unless their parents agree to pay him off. But after his mother runs afoul of the beast, she decides to trade Tevin for her own freedom.

Now, Tevin and Merit have agreed that he can pay off his mother’s debt by using his con-artist skills to help Merit find the best match . . . but what if the best match is Tevin himself?

Review: A cover can go a long way. More often than not, I get sucked into reading books that have summaries that don’t really speak to me but have covers that I can’t resist. But sometimes it cuts the other way. This isn’t an awful cover, but it also looks a bit cheap and like something that was quickly drawn up on Photoshop without much great thought. I almost passed the book up based purely on this, judging the entire book to be of a similar lack-luster quality. Luckily, my obsession with “Beauty and the Beast” forced my hand, because the cover in no way represents the absolute blast of a time I had reading this story!

Fairy gifts and curses can look much alike, often to the detriment of the poor human on whom its cast. But Merit’s experience is very much that of a curse, stuck in the form of a beast except for the few hours that a rare medicine can grant her. And, unless she marries for love or marries a strategic gentleman selected by her mother, this form will become a permanent state. Luckily, Tevin, a con man with his own agenda, is on the case. Together, they hope to break Merit’s curse by finding her a truly perfect match. Soon enough, however, each begins to find their own feelings getting in the way of this task. Will it be enough to break the curse in time?

This was such a fun and funny story. It’s definitely a light-hearted fairytale retelling, but it’s not shallow, like so many stories tend to be when they go for a lighter tone. There were several moments that had me laughing out loud, with witty dialogue and clever, insightful takes sprinkled within the text. On the more serious side, there are a bunch of mothers in this book whose failures as a parent range from general obtuseness to outright neglect and maliciousness. Most of it is still played for comedic affect, but there are some interesting nuggets buried in there regarding the complicated nature of parent/child relationships. How, even if a parent is abusive, there can be a desire to please and impress them on the child’s part, even a grown child.

I really enjoyed both Merit and Tavin as characters. Tavin, perhaps, in particular, was an interesting take on a gender-swapped “Beauty.” His looks are an established part of his way of operating in the world, for better and worse. There’s also a mixture of magic, with his ability to charm those around him. I like that the author didn’t simply say “oh, he’s handsome” and leave it at that as far as the Beauty adaptation worked.

Merit’s beastly nature is also interesting. Unlike many other versions of the story, she’s not left brooding in some dark castle. Instead, while she may prefer to linger in the countryside, her mother likes to keep her in town and participating in society. Merit can go in her human form at times, but also goes out and about in public in her beastly form as well. In a land that is blessed/stricken with people affected by fairy magic, while Merit’s form is unique, she’s not the only person with such an affliction. There were a couple of other characters with interesting curses/blessing, especially the nods at other fairytale characters, a few of whom are on the lesser known side of things.

There’s was also an interesting commentary on the freedom that Merit finds in her beastly form. Not only is she physically more capable, but at times she is seen to appreciate some of the other animalistic characteristics of that form, such as having her emotions closer to the surface and the freedom to express them as such. It was also refreshing to have all of the horror/fear of the beast essentially not even play a part in the story. By not having this aspect, it allowed for the story to develop the romance in a different way and for the story to explore different challenges and aspects of the curse itself.

The world-building and magic all fell heavily in the “light and fluffy” category. There wasn’t tons of detail given into how any of it works or any nuanced history of the world. Instead, readers are left to simply enjoy the ride, with discussions about flying badgers and pompous boys being casually turned into ostriches. The side characters were also all fantastic and added a lot of flair and amusement to the story.

I definitely recommend this one to fans of fairytale re-tellings. Had we not already done our “Beach Reads” lists for the summer, this is exactly the sort of book I’d throw up in my fantasy category. Who knows? Perhaps next summer it will make an appearance!

Rating 8: Perfectly fun in every way, with a well-balanced mixture of romance and humor sure to appeal to any romantic comedy fan.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Curses” is on these Goodreads list: Fairy tales & Retellings.

Find “Curses” at your library using WorldCat!m

Kate’s Review: “Just One Look”

Book: “Just One Look” by Lindsay Cameron

Publishing Info: Ballantine Books, July 2021

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

Book Description: Eyes aren’t the windows to the soul. Emails are.

Cassie Woodson is adrift. After suffering an epic tumble down the corporate ladder, Cassie finds the only way she can pay her bills is to take a thankless temp job reviewing correspondence for a large-scale fraud suit. The daily drudgery amplifies all that her life is lacking–love, friends, stability–and leaves her with too much time on her hands, which she spends fixating on the mistakes that brought her to this point. While sorting through a relentless deluge of emails, something catches her eye: the tender (and totally private) exchanges between a partner at the firm, Forest Watts, and his enchanting wife, Annabelle. Cassie knows she shouldn’t read them. But it’s just one look. And once that door opens, she finds she can’t look away.

Every day, twenty floors below Forest’s corner office, Cassie dissects their emails from her dingy workstation. A few clicks of her mouse and she can see every adoring word they write to each other. By peeking into their apparently perfect life, Cassie finds renewed purpose and happiness, reveling in their penchant for vintage wines, morning juice presses, and lavish dinner parties thrown in their stately Westchester home. There are no secrets from her. Or so she thinks.

Her admiration quickly escalates into all-out mimicry, because she wants this life more than anything. Maybe if she plays make-believe long enough, it will become real for her. But when Cassie orchestrates a “chance” meeting with Forest in the real world and sees something that throws the state of his marriage into question, the fantasy she’s been carefully cultivating shatters. Suddenly, she doesn’t simply admire Annabelle–she wants to take her place. And she’s armed with the tools to make that happen.

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

Given that Caroline Kepnes is one of my favorite authors, anything that she recommends I am going to jump all over. So when I saw that she had put a blurb on a book called “Just One Look” by Lindsay Cameron, I was definitely interested to see what it was about. If the blurb piqued my interest, the description totally reeled me in: a woman who is overseeing emails for a large fraud issue stumbles upon personal emails between a married couple, and starts to obsess about them and covet their life. Oh hell yeah, that sounds right up my alley! I figured I knew what I was in for. But boy, I was wrong. And in this instance that was a good thing.

“Just One Look” is a slow burn of a creepy tale of obsessive love and wanting, as a woman who has lost everything starts to covet a life that is laid out in front of her in emails. Cassie lost a very prestigious position at her previous firm, and her downfall was viral and well known enough that she has been reduced to humiliating drudgery. We slowly get to see just what Cassie did, and we do this as we watch her start to obsess over Forest and Annabelle Watts thanks to private emails between them that have been caught in this email review. As Cassie obsesses more and more and starts building up a narrative of their lives in her head, she starts to see herself there as well, and creeps ever closer to Forest as she pieces his life together. But I can tell you that this plot isn’t what you think it is. Cameron does a really good job of building up a lot of tension along with a very unreliable protagonist, so anything she says could be completely false, even if she doesn’t know it. I thought that this story was going to be one thing, but it took many different directions that I didn’t expect, and I really, really enjoyed being surprised at a new moment or reveal. It’s so unsettling watching Cassie seep more and more into Forest and Annabelle’s life, and Cameron yanks it so taut that it could easily snap. Especially when she pulls the rug out from under you.

But what I liked the most about this book was our protagonist, Cassie. I went into the book with some preconceived notions about how it was going to go, and just what kind of person Cassie was going to be. I mean, in my defense, since Kepnes was used as a blurb on the cover, I figured ‘okay, so it’s gonna be like ‘You’ but with a woman creepazoid’. And hey, I was here for that, don’t get me wrong! But Cameron has other tricks up her sleeves, and Cassie is a very interesting protagonist with a lot of layers. Some of those layers are incredibly sympathetic, and others are very, very disturbing. In some ways, there are definitely similarities to Joe Goldberg, but Cassie has more of a broken feeling to her, and in some ways that makes her all the creepier. But along with that, Cameron affords her some interesting exploration that female characters don’t often get. While it’s true that the things that Cassie does in this book are super, super unethical and also absolutely stalker behavior, it was kind of nice to see the background as to why she is this way, without excusing any of her behavior or making it okay. Cameron walks that fine line between romanticizing a dangerous obsessive, and making her a cartoonish caricature.

I really enjoyed “Just One Look”. It got under my skin, and surprised me in a lot of ways. Don’t sleep on this one, thriller fans! And be careful about what you put in emails that others can potentially see..

Rating 9: A slow burn of a suspense thriller with a creepy protagonist and some really well done twists!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Just One Look” is included on the Goodreads list “Mystery and Thriller 2021”, and would fit in on “Thrillers ft. Stalkers or Obsessive Love”.

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

Serena’s Review: “Cry of Metal and Bone”

Book: “Cry of Metal and Bone” by L. Penelope

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Griffin, August 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley!

Book Description: Six weeks after the fall of the Mantle, centuries-old enemies Elsira and Lagrimar struggle to unite. The will of the goddess is that the two nations become one, but while the war may be over, peace is still elusive. As desperate Lagrimari flee their barren land for a chance at a better life in Elsira, a dangerous faction opposed to the unification rises.

When a shadowy group with ties to the Elsiran government takes responsibility for the attack and promises more, an unlikely crew is assembled to investigate. Among them are Lizvette Nirall, a disgraced socialite seeking redemption for past mistakes, and Tai Summerhawk, a foreign smuggler determined to keep a promise he made to a dead man. Powerful Earthsinger Darvyn ol-Tahlyro is sent with a secret assignment, one that Queen Jasminda can’t know about. And in a prison far away, Kyara ul-Lagrimar searches for a way to escape her captors and save a family long thought dead.

It’s a race against time in this world of deadly magic, secret agendas and court intrigue to discover those responsible for the bombing before the next attack. And in another land a new enemy awakens—one that will strike terror into the hearts of gods and men.

Previously Reviewed: “Song of Blood and Stone” and “Whispers of Shadow and Flame”

Review: While it may have taken me quite a while to get to “Whispers of Shadow and Flame” after reading “Song of Blood and Stone” over a year earlier, I was much more prompt in my continuance of the series this time. It took reading the second story to really remind me how fantastic this series really is! The fact that each book centers around a new set of characters while continuing the overall plot of two countries needing to come together in a new world just adds to the appeal. And not for nothing, but I also really like the cover on this one. Let’s dive in!

After so long kept separate by the magical barrier known as the Mantle, it’s no wonder that the countries of Elsira and Lagrimar have struggled to come together. Thing only get worse when there’s an attack on an Elsiran holy site. The King and Queen, desperate to hold their country together and with a shared vision of the prosperous land that could be these two countries united, bring together a small group of individuals to seek out the culprits. Darvyn, still working to find Kyara, his love who has been captured, joins a smuggler and an ex-socialite. For her part, Kyara works to begin to understand and control her powerful magical abilities.

This series seems to just get better and better! Like I mentioned already, one of the things I’ve liked so far has been that each book has introduced a new set of characters/romantic pairing. But as the series continues, this also becomes a more challenging task to undertake as the previous, now four, other characters still exist in the story, some with active storylines playing out. Darvyn and Kyara, for example, from the previous book, ended their story on somewhat of a cliffhanger. They were separated, and Kyara was still learning how to manage her magic. So I was thrilled to see them given the time and page count needed to continue their stories in a satisfying way.

At the same time, these characters can’t outshine the new characters introduced. I really like both of the new character we got here. They each had distinct voices and backgrounds that set them apart from the characters we’ve seen before. I also really liked the romance that developed between them (I’ve really liked all the romances in these books, another feat!). I was perhaps a bit, a bit, less interested than in others just because I was still very distracted by Darvyn and Kyara’s drama that was still unfolding. But that is barely a complaint at all.

I also really liked the continue exploration into the magic of this world and the various powerful players working behind the scenes. The history of the land also continues to unfold in new and surprising ways, keeping you constantly guessing at who was in the wrong or the right. I really like this type of nebulous story-telling that reflects history so well: it’s often told by the winners and so much is lost to time. My only real criticism here is that the villains in all of the books, including this one, have felt rather one dimensional with unclear motivations.

Fans of the series should definitely check this one out. Each book can technically be read as a stand-alone, but I think this one, even more than the second, would suffer as a first entry for new readers. There’s too much of Darvyns and Kyara’s story that would be lost. I’m excited to see where the story will go from here.

Rating 8: Another great entry with a new set of compelling characters and a sweet romance.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Cry of Metal and Bone” is on these Goodreads lists: Black Heroines 2020 and Diversity in Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Find “Cry of Metal and Bone” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Sinful Lives of Trophy Wives”

Book: “The Sinful Lives of Trophy Wives” by Kristin Miller

Publishing Info: Ballantine Books, July 2021

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

Book Description: Meet the trophy wives of Presidio Terrace, San Francisco’s most exclusive–and most deadly–neighborhood in this shrewd, darkly compelling novel from the New York Times bestselling author of In Her Shadow.

Mystery writer Brooke Davies is the new wife on the block. Her tech-billionaire husband, Jack, twenty-two years her senior, whisked her to the Bay Area via private jet and purchased a modest mansion on the same day. He demands perfection, and before now, Brooke has had no problem playing the role of a doting housewife. But as she befriends other wives on the street and spends considerable time away from Jack, he worries if he doesn’t control Brooke’s every move, she will reveal the truth behind their “perfect” marriage.

Erin King, famed news anchor and chair of the community board, is no stranger to maintaining an image–though being married to a plastic surgeon helps. But the skyrocketing success of her career has worn her love life thin, and her professional ambitions have pushed Mason away. Quitting her job is a Hail Mary attempt at keeping him interested, to steer him away from finding a young trophy wife. But is it enough, and is Mason truly the man she thought he was?

Georgia St. Claire allegedly cashed in on the deaths of her first two husbands, earning her the nickname “Black Widow”–and the stares and whispers of her curious neighbors. Rumored to have murdered both men for their fortunes, she claims to have found true love in her third marriage, yet her mysterious, captivating allure keeps everyone guessing. Then a tragic accident forces the residents of Presidio Terrace to ask: Has Georgia struck again? And what is she really capable of doing to protect her secrets?

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

Soapy trashy stories about potentially villainous men and women who are hiding and spilling secrets is something of a guilty pleasure of mine, and I mostly try to own that fact. I loved the first few seasons of “Desperate Housewives” (after season 4 it went downhill VERY fast, in my honest opinion), and while I haven’t been able to bring myself to consume reality TV like “The Real Housewives” or anything like that, I do enjoy watching drama porn like “Untucked” when watching “RuPaul’s Drag Race”. So a book with the title and description of “The Sinful Lives of Trophy Wives” by Kristin Miller absolutely caught my attention. I’ve found some really fun books involving bored housewives behaving badly (Hello, “Big Little Lies”!), and if you have some potential murder and whodunnit elements to go with it, I am absolutely there! I went into this book with high hopes for soapy thrills. And I got that. But I also remembered why sometimes that isn’t enough.

But, as I always try to do, I will start with what I did like about this book. It was a very fast, very entertaining read in the moment. I picked it up over the Fourth of July weekend, and basically read it over the course of two days. It has some really good moments of sudsy drama, and there were pretty well done moments of shocking reveals as well as a build up to a nutty and soapy climax that is hinted at right at the start. So it tantalized me as a reader, and definitely gave me that “Desperate Housewives” vibe of manipulation, bitchiness, and over the top whodunnit/who are these people really and what are they hiding. A breezy read it always a plus in my book, as it makes the experience enjoyable in the moment.

But there were a few things that really bogged down “The Sinful Lives of Trophy Wives” and made it a pretty meh book once all is said and done. The first is the cast of characters. Our main focus are on the perspectives of Erin, the neurotic and (horror and shock!) aging news anchor who is trying to keep her allure and lost youth at the forefront, lest her husband Mason stray, and Brooke, a mystery writer who is trying to keep up appearances for her much older husband, but is sniffing out a potential new plot with Georgia, the supposed Black Widow. Both Erin and Brooke have things that they are hiding, but getting into their heads doesn’t make them all that interesting, nor does it let them branch out from their two dimensional character tropes (admittedly there is a bit of a twist here, but I’m not going to go into that because spoilers). We see Georgia through their eyes, and while we do learn a bit about her through various reveals that each character has through action in the moment and past actions, she TOO is very flat and predictable. On shows like “Desperate Housewives” this kind of thing can work for awhile, but that is because we also get to see characters complexities come out as stories go on (well, in some cases; Teri Hatcher’s Susan was always two dimensional). But in this book, we don’t really get to see any growth. Even aforementioned twist couldn’t save it in the end. The other issue is that once I was done and I was no longer in the moment, upon reflection there wasn’t really much new or interesting to the story and how the mystery all shook out. It felt a bit like it was trying to be similar to “Big Little Lies”, but never really hit the emotional plot beats that that book did. The problem with gooey sudsy tales is that in the moment I really enjoy them, but without some solid foundation and substance to keep it up I look back and realize that there wasn’t really much to work with.

“The Sinful Lives of Trophy Wives” could be a good read if you just need something to pass the time. Pass the time it will! But I found it to be middling when all was said and done.

Rating 5: The read itself was quick and breezy, but the characters were middling and the story upon reflection was a bit ho hum.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Sinful Lives of Trophy Wives” is included on the Goodreads lists “Mystery & Thriller 2021”, and I think it would fit in on the list “Desperate Housewives”.

Find “The Sinful Lives of Trophy Wives” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Not Just Books: July 2021

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

Serena’s Picks

Documentary: “The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young”

After watching “Eco Challenge” and reveling in my own laziness as I watched teams complete ridiculous feats of strength and endurance, it was only natural to jump into another such story. This time, a documentary on the strange, bewildering world of The Barkley Marathon, a crazy-pants race that embraces all the weirdness. For one thing, you have to be invited to participate. And then there are a bunch of random rules, like the fact that on the day of the race’s start, no one actually knows when it will begin until they hear the sound of a Conch shell being blown. And once the race actually begins, its a cross-over between endurance cross-country racing and one’s ability to navigate a largely unmakred trail. Oh, and it’s five loops of a brutal, uphill and down 20 mile track that must be completed within 60 hours. The thing is so crazy that it went years and years before anyone even completed it, and only 15 people have completed it in the race’s 35 year history. The documentary is not only a great look in the the history of the marathon, but it follows a particularly interesting year for the race itself. Definitely check it out if you want to be amazed at what the human body can do!

Reality Websites: Zillow/

This is only being included because there’s finally a happy ending to what was a grueling spring for me and my family. After our second son was born last fall, our cozy little house was suddenly way too small, so we got into the housing market. At THE WORST TIME EVER! Anyone who’s looked for a house this last year can attest to how crazy the market has been. We looked at around 50 hours and made double digits’ worth of offers on houses before finally getting one. We move in about three weeks, so really what I’m highlighting here is my absolute joy to NEVER look at Zillow or again (at least not for the foreseeable future!)

Movie: “Ford v. Ferrari”

Lastly, a movie that I really enjoyed (though there were more tears than I was expecting from a moving about car racing, something I’m actively uninterested in for the most part). This movie had been on my radar for a bit, mostly because I like Matt Damon in practically anything. However, I’m not a huge Christian Bale fan (though I recognize his talent) and, as I said, car racing…But I enjoyed the heck out of this movie! I didn’t know anything about this story or the car companies behind it and their connection/process with race cars. Most likely, I enjoyed this history side of the story more than anything. But if you’re into car racing, this is definitely a movie to check out. And even if not, the strength of the story and acting are enough to elevate it to appeal to most everyone, especially those who appreciate movies with connections to true stories.

Kate’s Picks

TV Show: “Cold Case”

Right after I graduated college into a recession and limited employment options, I would spend my days job searching and watching reruns of cop procedurals on cable. One of my favorites was “Cold Case”, a show about homicide detectives who would reopen unsolved cases that could span back decades, and also deal with their own personal issues. For years I figured that it would never be released on DVD or streaming, as every episode used popular songs from the era of the case, and therefore licensing would be a nightmare. Well either it’s different with streaming or HBO ponied up, but regardless “Cold Case” is on HBOMax WITH THE ORIGINAL SONGS! That was my one caveat on a rewatch: it had to have the music, as the music really sells the emotional punches and beats (there are actually a few episodes I know I can’t watch because they are so sad, no small part due to the music selections). I also like that we get to know the victims a bit because of the flashback format, which makes it feel more personal and resonant. I’ve cried MANY times on my rewatch, so you know it still packs a wallop.

Podcast: “I Pray You Put This Journal Away”

I’ve mentioned the podcast “Some Place Under Neith”, and when they did a series on the Institute on Basic Life Principles cult with a focus on the Duggar family, I was both deeply fascinated and also completely horrified (especially when they went into a deep dive on predator Josh Duggar; my God. LOCK HIM UP AND NEVER LET HIM OUT). One of the podcasts that they recommended was “I Pray You Put This Journal Away”, and I knew I had to listen to that next. It is a podcast by a man who not only grew up in the IBLP, but was also friends with Josh Duggar, and left the church when he was older and realized how oppressive and predatory this fundamentalist Christian lifestyle was. This podcast is partially him talking about the Duggars, but is mostly him reading through his journal at the time and reflecting about what it was like to grow up in this kind of culture, especially as someone with undiagnosed autism. It’s personal and very reflective, and I enjoyed his insight into the IBPL’s fucked upness, as well as how he and his wife (also an ex-fundamentalist) went on journeys of self discovery and empowerment.

Film Trilogy: “Fear Street”

Trust and believe, I am going to go into full deep dive reviews on all three movies in this trilogy to complement my “Revisit to Fear Street” series on here, but I just want to give a shout out to it as a whole. Because AHHHHH, this trilogy is SO DAMN FUN! As you all probably know, I grew up reading “Fear Street” books, and couldn’t have been more pleased to find out that Netflix was releasing movies based on the books. Well, sort of. They’re a lot gorier than anything on the page, but that works out just fine for me because I love me a good slasher film! A group of teens in 1994 accidentally awaken the dark powers of long dead witch Sarah Fier, and to save themselves they need to figure out what she wants. This happens to involve a curse that goes back centuries, and therefore they are going to need some help from those who have dealt with it before. With homages to the original series and some new mythos, as well as really enjoyable characters and gnarly death scenes, the “Fear Street” Trilogy is a blast. Look for more comprehensive reviews in a couple weeks!

Serena’s Review: “Cast in Firelight”

Book: “Cast in Firelight” by Dana Swift

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, January 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Adraa is the royal heir of Belwar, a talented witch on the cusp of taking her royal ceremony test, and a girl who just wants to prove her worth to her people

Jatin is the royal heir to Naupure, a competitive wizard who’s mastered all nine colors of magic, and a boy anxious to return home for the first time since he was a child.

Together, their arranged marriage will unite two of Wickery’s most powerful kingdoms. But after years of rivalry from afar, Adraa and Jatin only agree on one thing: their reunion will be anything but sweet.

Only, destiny has other plans and with the criminal underbelly of Belwar suddenly making a move for control, their paths cross…and neither realizes who the other is, adopting separate secret identities instead.

Between dodging deathly spells and keeping their true selves hidden, the pair must learn to put their trust in the other if either is to uncover the real threat. Now Wickery’s fate is in the hands of rivals..? Fiancées..? Partners..? Whatever they are, it’s complicated and bound for greatness or destruction.

Review: Before we get into the actual review, we interrupt my regular, meandering, usually skip-able intro paragraph to dive into another segment of “Nonsense in YA Covers!”, a semi-regular bit where I shake my head at the cover art of YA books. Today’s example isn’t so much anything overtly wrong with this book’s cover, but with the inexplicable resemblance it has to another. See if you can spot the similarities!

They are both by the obviously very gifted Charlie Bowater. I’m not coming after her, but I can’t decided whether it’s laziness or brilliance that these titles look so similar! Did she hoodwink the publishers into essentially buying the same image slightly re-tooled six months later? The male characters, especially, look almost identical. And then you have the character position, the colors, the entire thing really. One of my librarian friends, Alicia, found it so amusing that she routinely placed them side-by-side on the “New Arrivals” shelf at her library just to troll patrons. But enough of that, on to the review!

Though they were betrothed as children after a particularly…eventful…first meeting, Adraa and Jatin’s entire relationship since has been made up of a few letters and a secret competition of magical abilities. However, now that they are each about to come into their own roles as the upcoming leaders of their countries, they suddenly find themselves thrust into each other’s company. But neither know it, having each taken on alternate identities for different reasons when they first re-unite. Thrown into adventure and intrigue, the two begin to each learn that this strange new person isn’t so bad. If only they weren’t already engaged to someone else…

This book is another one of those tough books that seems to fall into the category of aggressively fine. It was a quick, snappy read, and I was entertained enough while reading it, easily caught up in the fast-moving plot. But when I think back on the book, characters, and world as a hole, there simply isn’t a lot there. The magic system is barely described and while the resulting abilities serve the action-packed plot well, there’s no intricacies to be found or, indeed, many details of any kind. If you asked me to tell you anything about it, all I’d have is something about tattoos and that the number of magical abilities you master has a direct connection to your status in society. Which…I’ve seen before.

As for the world-building, I appreciated that there was a map included in the story, but I almost felt like the map did more of the heavy lifting than anything in the book. This very much read like one of those overly simplistic YA novels that treat their worlds like big green screens that their character simply run across. Like the cover, almost, the mental images that came to mind were almost cartoonish in their simplicity.

The writing was probably the strongest part. Like I said, the pacing was excellent, keeping the plot and character moving at a steady clip. Some portions of it were also incredibly funny. However, here, too, I had some troubles. Mostly with the dialogue which was bizarrely modern. This is clearly a second-world fantasy story, so there are no rules about how characters should speak. But at times the dialogue was so very much of this world and time that it simply didn’t seem to fit here. I often found myself pulled back out of the story once the characters started speaking overly much. There was also an over-reliance on “quippiness” as a stand-in for real character development and connection.

As a debut, it was a fun ride, but it also showed the areas in which the author still has room for improvement. If you’re looking for a fast, light read and don’t mind kind of random-feeling modern dialogue, this could be a fun book for you! But those looking for a more serious or layered story will be disappointed.

Rating 7: Fast-paced and fun, but too light in any real depth, both in its world and characters.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Cast in Firelight” isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on 2021 YA with Male POV.

Find “Cast in Firelight” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “For Your Own Good”

Book: “For Your Own Good” by Samantha Downing

Publishing Info: Berkley, July 2021

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

Book Description: Teddy Crutcher has won Teacher of the Year at the esteemed Belmont Academy, home to the best and brightest. He says his wife couldn’t be more proud—though no one has seen her in a while.

Teddy really can’t be bothered with the death of a school parent that’s looking more and more like murder or the student digging a little too deep into Teddy’s personal life. His main focus is on pushing these kids to their full academic potential.

All he wants is for his colleagues—and the endlessly meddlesome parents—to stay out of his way. It’s really too bad that sometimes excellence can come at such a high cost.

USA Today bestselling author Samantha Downing is back with her latest sneaky thriller set at a prestigious private school—complete with interfering parents, overeager students, and one teacher who just wants to teach them all a lesson…

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

I don’t know about you, readers, but I definitely had a high school teacher who probably had no business teaching students. He was the type that would stand at the cafeteria door, hands behind his back in full blocking stance, and then would inspect kids to make sure they weren’t taking food out of the lunch room. He once fully kicked me out of class for the day because I realized that I left my homework in my locker. Another run in involved him taking down signs for a student band for Battle of the Bands, and when I asked him why he said that it was a vulgar picture. It was a picture of a kid with a bag on his head, and his hand maybe sort of in the vicinity of his crotch, but just kinda resting on his thigh. I told him I didn’t see it, and I got screamed at for being deliberately obtuse (though frankly, HE was the one projecting masturbation connotations onto that of a minor, but hey, what do I know?). As I was reading “For Your Own Good”, I kept thinking back to good ol’ Mr. E, sociopathic bully that he was. But even Mr. E never went so far as to commit murder. At least, not that I know of. Given that soapy thrillers that take place at elite public schools usually involve students behaving badly, this was a fun change of pace!

“For Your Own Good” is a soapy and murderous new thriller from Samantha Downing, and like her other works it hits all the right notes without straying too far from well worn territory. We have a few different third person perspectives we are following, the most significant being that of Teddy Crutcher, Teacher of the Year and psychopath, who tells himself he only wants his students to be the best they can be as he wreaks havoc in their lives. He hides behind a mask of tough but fair mentor, though he targets those that he thinks are undeserving or smug. And given that he’s a teacher at a wealthy prep school, well, he feels that way a lot. He’s a fun character in his villainy, and it’s entertaining following him around and watching him plot and scheme. Other perspectives include that of Zach, one of his students that he has been especially cruel to (in subtle, unprovable ways), as well as other teachers and past victims. Teddy is definitely the person that we get to know the best, and while Zach is a close second, the rest have their parts to play and don’t really go outside their intended tropes and foil moments. And that being said, while Teddy is fun to read, he too isn’t very complicated in his psychopathy. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you, as sometimes you just want to read an over the top sudsfest with murder and asshole characters without having to think about it. In that way, “For Your Own Good” succeeds.

The plot itself is also a bit predictable, at least in how you see things playing out for various characters. Sure, there were some surprising moments and reveals here and there, and I enjoyed the ride of getting from start to finish. But it’s kind of things that we’ve seen before. And since our characters are pretty run of the mill, there isn’t as much tension because we aren’t as invested in them, and therein aren’t as invested in how things shake out for them. It is, however, a very readable book, and I definitely had a hard time putting it down because of that. And this is why I don’t really want to knock books that don’t think outside the box, because sometimes familiarity is a really good thing for the reading experience. Downing definitely as written a book here that I kind of knew what to expect as I read through, and I found it to be a fun experience because of that. And again, how fun was it to see the teachers being the assholes this time around?

“For Your Own Good” isn’t reinventing the wheel, but it’s super entertaining and addictive. It’s the kind of book you should take to the pool or beach in these waning summer months.

Rating 7: Entertaining, if a bit predictable at times, “For Your Own Good” is a breezy page turner that kept my interest until the end.

Reader’s Advisory:

“For Your Own Good” is included on the Goodreads lists “Dark Academia”, and “Mystery and Thriller 2021”.

Find “For Your Own Good” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “The Queen Will Betray You”

Book: “The Queen Will Betray You” by Sarah Henning

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, July 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley!

Book Description: To stay together forever, Princess Amarande and her stableboy love, Luca, must part: Amarande to reclaim her kingdom from usurpers, and Luca to raise a rebellion and find his destiny. Arrayed against them are all the players in the game of thrones for control over the continent of The Sand and Sky. Facing unspeakable betrayals, enemies hidden in the shadows, and insurmountable odds, their only hope is the power of true love…

Previously Reviewed: “The Princess Will Save You”

Review: I read the first book in this duology last summer purely because it was hyped as being a gender-swapped retelling of “The Princess Bride.” While that premise may technically have applied, I found it to be more distracting than helpful in my read of the story. Too often, I found myself trying to match up characters from the book to characters from the original or to line up plot points in a similar way, rarely to much success. But the story was charming enough, and I enjoyed the straight forward romance at its heart. I was excited to check out this second entry in the story, however, as I’ve been hopeful that now that the author has moved past the original “Princess Bride” retelling, the story might come more fully into its own.

Each with a powerful destiny before them, Amarande and Luca must part after spending so long trying desperately to be reunited. But the kingdoms are restless and political power plays for them to separate to reclaim their birth rights. Unaware of what awaits them, they must untangle the various different factions, each with their own long-game and plans for Amarande and Luca. With so many unknowns, all they truly know anymore is their deep love for one another and their will to be together again.

As I said, I was excited to see where this book went after it firmly left behind its “retelling” status in the first book. Luca’s storyline, for example, now doesn’t remotely resemble any portion of Buttercup’s arc in the original story. With a kingdom and history of his own, I was particularly interested in where his storyline would go. While he still played a distinctly second fiddle to Amarande, I was overall pleased with what we had from Luca here. It was nice to see him in a more proactive light and freed from being simply “the love interest.” His increased characterization also helped make the love story more compelling, giving us both sides to root for.

However, the love story itself takes a marked step back into the shadows in this book. It was a fairly prevalent part of the first, but here the story veers much more into political machinations. I was a bit disappointed by that, as the love story was probably what I liked most about the first book. And while I expected a portion of the story to focus on Amarande’s and Luca’s individual stories, I also wished their storylines had converged earlier in the story. As it is, we don’t get to see over much interaction between these two characters at all.

The story was also a bit slower than the first. I’m not sure if this was perhaps just the mood I was in while reading or what, but it felt like it was harder to become invested in the plot and towards the middle the story seemed to drag a bit. I still really liked Amarande, though, which helped carry the book when things seemed to slow down. I also liked that we got more world-building and exploration in to the various choices that Amanrade and Luca’s parents made before they were born (some of the bigger reveals in the first book came on this front, so I was glad to see that given attention here).

Overall, it was a perfectly adequate story. I didn’t love the duology as a whole, but I also enjoyed my experience while reading them. I’m not sure the “Princess Bride” comparisons ever helped the story, frankly, and I do think the duology might have been better served with no connection to that beloved work. But if you’re looking for a sweet, fun YA fantasy, this duology delivers. Especially for readers look for a mostly drama-free romance, something that is definitely hard to find!

Rating 7: A solid second entry, though not ground-breaking in any way.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Queen Will Betray You” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists. But it is on Epic High Fantasy/Romance/Mythology in 2021.

Find “The Queen Will Betray You” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Book of Accidents”

Book: “The Book of Accidents” by Chuck Wendig

Publishing Info: Del Rey, July 2021

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

Book Description: A family returns to their hometown—and to the dark past that haunts them still—in this masterpiece of literary horror by the New York Times bestselling author of Wanderers.

Long ago, Nathan lived in a house in the country with his abusive father—and has never told his family what happened there.

Long ago, Maddie was a little girl making dolls in her bedroom when she saw something she shouldn’t have—and is trying to remember that lost trauma by making haunting sculptures.

Long ago, something sinister, something hungry, walked in the tunnels and the mountains and the coal mines of their hometown in rural Pennsylvania.

Now, Nate and Maddie Graves are married, and they have moved back to their hometown with their son, Oliver. And now what happened long ago is happening again . . . and it is happening to Oliver. He meets a strange boy who becomes his best friend, a boy with secrets of his own and a taste for dark magic. This dark magic puts them at the heart of a battle of good versus evil and a fight for the soul of the family—and perhaps for all of the world. But the Graves family has a secret weapon in this battle: their love for one another

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

After reading Chuck Wendig’s post-apocalyptic tome “Wanderers” back in 2019, I told myself that I wanted to give him another go, even if there were bits of that book that didn’t work for me so well. After all, while I had my issues with the book, I ultimately liked the writing style that Wendig has, as well as a few of the characters that he created. So when I found out that his next novel, “The Book of Accidents”, was being touted as straight horror with a creepy house on the cover, I was absolutely game to hop right back into one of his stories. Sure, I was a little nervous about having issues with the story overall again, but definitely was willing to take the risk. And hey, as it turns out, that risk mostly reaped rewards this time around!

“The Book of Accidents” is touted as a horror novel by a lot of people, and while it definitely has horror elements, I would say that it’s also a bit of a dark fantasy. These genres can happily coexist, and Wendig combines them into something pretty unique. While there are elements of a haunted house story to be sure, we also have magic, inter-dimensional timelines, and a little bit of cosmic horror to top it all off. It’s a lot to cover, thematically, and you can see that in the length of the novel. It’s a bit of a double edged sword, because while I do think that Wendig did a good job of balancing all of it, it also made the read to be a little long at times. But a slight case of bloat aside, I found “The Book of Accidents” to be rewarding in all of the marks that it hits, and it still felt like a fast read overall when I got past some of the laggy parts. Wendig has a good sense for intricate plotting and build up, and he lays out clues that come to fruition and make sense when joined together. He also knows how to create a creepy scene, be it because you know that someone has ulterior, dangerous motives, or because he is putting you in the shoes of someone who has experienced something that is unsettling, or simply unexplainable, even if it isn’t immediately horrifying. It was moments like these that hit hardest as I was reading, and I found them to be pretty darn effective.

But what I liked most about “The Book of Accidents” is the family at the heart of it, Nate, Maddie, and Oliver. I felt that Wendig really developed all of these characters with care and meticulousness, and I found myself adoring all of them in similar amounts, something that doesn’t happen too often for me in books with multiple perspectives. Sure, I could like all of them, but there would be one stand out, and yet Nate, Oliver, and Maddie all had sections and moments that I was always chomping at the bit to get to. Wendig makes you care for all of them, and while he makes sure that they all have their flaws or bits that are rough around the edges, it’s easy to relate to all three. It’s easy to invest in this family, so when they find themselves in grave danger, the stakes for all of them are high and you need to know what happens to them. There were supporting characters who also stood out (I’m thinking mostly of Fig, Nate’s partner in the Fish and Wildlife Department, who is no nonsense and really enjoyable), but the heart is definitely the Graves family. The villainous characters are a little less drawn out (I found Oliver’s friend/foe Jake in particular to be a little cartoony), but in the case of this book I wasn’t too put off by that if only because so many of the others were well done.

“The Book of Accidents” is enjoyable and creepy! It’s a great choice if you are looking for horror with some kind of unique elements to the genre. Chuck Wendig has officially landed on my ‘gotta read what he comes out with next’ list with this one.

Rating 8: An entertaining horror/dark fantasy novel with enjoyable characters, “The Book of Accidents” is a quick read with some great unsettling scares.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Book of Accidents” is included on the Goodreads lists “Horror To Look Forward To In 2021”, and “Celebrate Horror 2021”.

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

Giveaway: Omnium Gatherum Mini Reviews/Prize Package

Hello horror fans! It’s been awhile since I’ve run a giveaway on the blog, and I am coming back to the giveaway game with a very fun prize package! Omnium Gatherum is an indie press that has a focus on horror and dark fantasy stories, and they were kind enough to send me a few titles that have lots of scares and bumps in the night! And not only that, I want to share them with a lucky winner! So let’s talk about the titles for the Omnium Gatherum Prize Package!

Book: “Bergdorf & Associates” by Thomas C. Mavroudis

After a suicide attempt, Abe has been working for Bergdorf & Associates, beings that are otherworldly and similar to djinn. They ask him to retrieve items or to complete tasks, and he doesn’t pry too deeply. But when a fellow contractor named Rayne manipulates him, takes his quarry, and puts him in serious danger, Abe has to find a way to complete his task. So he turns to the help of his twin nieces who seem to be telepathic, and a friend named Cruz who knows a little magic of his own. This novella is unique and strange, but Abe is a fun character to follow and his nieces are both adorable and a little creepy! Also, while Rayne is absolutely an antagonist, she has a very fun personality and at one point wears a delightfully geeky geology shirt that I won’t spoil here. It’s a quick and fun read, and one that dark fantasy fans will probably enjoy.

Book: “Entangled Soul & Other Stories” by Gene O’Neill and Chris Marrs

This is a bit of a hybrid collection, in that it features short stories from authors Gene O’Neill and Chris Marrs, as well as a novella collaboration that is the title piece. My favorite story by O’Neill is “Surfing Is My Life: Fear and Loathing on the Northern California Coast”. A reporter tags along with a surfer girl who is planning on entering a competition, and hopes to write a gonzo column about it for Rolling Stone. But while he has seen a lot of strange things during his writing, nothing can prepare him for what he encounters on this assignment. As someone who LOVES Hunter S. Thompson, this homage to one of my favorite writers is both well done, as well as unsettling in a way that sneaks up on you. For Marrs, I enjoyed “Paper and Pencil Skin and Ink”. A woman in an abusive relationship meets a mysterious man with strange tattoos all over his body, and she realizes that the tattoos aren’t just normal tattoos. The dark fantasy elements with ties to historical mysteries really worked for me, and I thought that it was properly mysterious and strange. And their collaborative novella, “Entangled Soul”, tells the story of a down and out boxer and an agoraphobic woman who are separated in many ways, but realize that their souls and consciousnesses are overlapping. They blend their voices together very well to tell this story, which feels part Sci Fi ‘what if’, and possession tale. I got a good feel for both their styles in this collection, and the collaboration is a nice way to finish it off.

Book: “Night Terrors & Other Tales” by Lisa Morton

This collection of short stories by Stoker Award Winner Lisa Morton span decades in her career, and were personally picked by her. From monsters to medical horror settings to magic, there is a little something for every horror fan. The two stories that really stood out for me were “Sparks Fly Upward”, a dystopian tale of a woman living in a Colony with limited resources. When she finds herself pregnant, she knows that she has to have an abortion, as a second child would tax the community. But when she and a party venture out to the abandoned clinic, zombies of former anti-abortion protestors still roam the property. This story is both a cathartic tale about the lingering obsession of the anti-abortion crowd, but also a bittersweet story about a person who may want another child at some point, but at the moment literally cannot afford to have one. I really, really loved it. The second story that grabbed my attention was “Black Mill Cove”, the tale of a man who goes searching for abalone and other creatures in tide pools, leaving his wife behind. But then he finds a human arm…. And realizes that this isn’t just a hunting ground, but a dumping ground as well, for a different kind of hunter. The tension in this one really builds, and I will definitely say that the end had me saying ‘oh SHIT’. I will say that there are definitely some stories in here that need content warnings, specifically “Poppi’s Monster”, which has depictions of child sexual abuse.

And here is a chance for you to get your hands on these fun books from Omnium Gatherum! It may be a little ways before Halloween season, but these books will give you a lot of spooky material in the mean time! Thanks again to Omnium Gatherum for sending these books my way!

The giveaway is open only to U.S. residents and ends on July 26, 2021.

Enter The Giveaway Here

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