Serena’s Review: “Wildwood Whispers”

Book: “Wildwood Whispers” by Willa Reece

Publishing Info: Redhook, August 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher!

Book Description: At the age of eleven, Mel Smith’s life found its purpose when she met Sarah Ross. Ten years later, Sarah’s sudden death threatens to break her. To fulfill a final promise to her best friend, Mel travels to an idyllic small town nestled in the shadows of the Appalachian Mountains. Yet Morgan’s Gap is more than a land of morning mists and deep forest shadows.

There are secrets that call to Mel, in the gaze of the gnarled and knowing woman everyone calls Granny, in a salvaged remedy book filled with the magic of simple mountain traditions, and in the connection, she feels to the Ross homestead and the wilderness around it.

With every taste of sweet honey and tart blackberries, the wildwood twines further into Mel’s broken heart. But a threat lingers in the woods—one that may have something to do with Sarah’s untimely death and that has now set its sight on Mel.

Review: I don’t often much magic realism fiction (or women’s fiction…not sure how I feel about that even being a subgenre category…), but the book description for this book was giving me major “Practical Magic” vibes, so I thought it was worth checking out. The cover art was also beautiful, and my mood fit well for a more quiet, reflective read. This one wasn’t a perfect fit for me, but I think it’s a solid entry for fans of these genres.

Growing up bouncing around in the system, Mel could never find her home. That is until she met Sarah, a young girl who had recently been orphaned. Together, the two made a home for one another in their enduring bond. Years later, Mel once again feels the sand shifting beneath her feet when Sarah dies. To fulfill a promise, she travels to Sarah’s childhood home. There, she discovers there was much more to Sarah than she had understood. And as the dark woods whispers and family secrets swirl through the town’s quiet streets, Mel begins to see a new place for herself.

I liked the idea of this book more than the book itself, in the end. Those familiar with the blog will know that I love a sisters book, which this is. I also really liked the imagery of a small, quiet town in the mountains, having grown up in one myself. There’s something compelling about the quirks and histories that come out in places like this, strange to all but those who have grown up with them. Mel’s exploration of the two, people, and woods was particularly poignant for me in this way.

I also liked Mel herself, especially the brief flash we see of her as a child when she first meets and bonds with Sarah. She was definitely started out on a strong note here, a defiant loner who discovers kinship with a younger girl. But the adult Mel was more difficult for me to handle. The flashes of defiance and strength seemed muted, and there were many early moments between characters that left me scratching my head. Mel comes to the town, a complete stranger, and then strikes up some really bizarre conversations with various locals. I couldn’t figure out what was going on here. Was it poor writing that made these portions of dialogue read as odd? Was it on purpose? Either way, it hurt Mel’s characterization as I couldn’t understand her lack of human reaction to these weird happenings.

I also struggled to identify with several other plot elements. The antagonist was easily spotted from the beginning of the story (even if the motives were left murky for a bit longer). And the romance felt tacked on and, again, unnatural. I didn’t feel any real chemistry between these characters other than the fact that the author simply designed them to be together, so they were. r

I liked the magical elements that were interspersed throughout the book, but was left wanting more. This is a point that is particular to my taste, however, as a lot of magical realism stories are light on the magic. The exploration of grief, family, and home had moments of depth, but, again, never struck any real chords for me. Ultimately, it was a bit too sentimental for me.

Readers who enjoy quiet, thoughtful books and magic realism will likely enjoy this story. If you’re looking for a fast plot, strong romance, or strong characterization, this might be more of a disappointment. I don’t regret reading it, but it’s enough to prove that a little goes a long way for me with this kind of stuff.

Rating 7: Decent for what it is, a sentimental story of a woman processing her grief and discovering a new sense of self and roots.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Wildwood Whispers” is on these Goodreads lists: Fantastic Women’s Fiction with Magical Elements and August 2021 Book Releases.

Find “Wildwood Whispers” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Locke & Key (Vol. 1): Welcome to Lovecraft”

Book: “Locke & Key (Vol. 1): Welcome to Lovecraft” by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodríguez (Ill.).

Publishing Info: IDW Publishing, 2008

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Locke & Key tells of Keyhouse, an unlikely New England mansion, with fantastic doors that transform all who dare to walk through them. Home to a hate-filled and relentless creature that will not rest until it forces open the most terrible door of them all…

Review: Back when I was still in graduate school, I decided to look into Joe Hill’s comic series “Locke and Key”. I didn’t know that much about it outside of the fact that I loved Joe Hill, and I checked out Volume 1, “Welcome to Lovecraft” from the library with very little to go off of. I eventually tore through the whole series, with my husband giving me the complete set as my graduation present in 2015. Since I’ve had a good time re-reading graphic series that I’ve loved, I thought that I would make my next re-read “Locke and Key”. I remembered how much I enjoyed the series overall. But I had forgotten how bleak the first volume is. Like, holy shit this is relentless in its bleakness bleak.

Had it been a weekend evening as opposed to a midday during the week that I finished this volume, I would have been Roy Kent upon finishing. (source)

“Welcome to Lovecraft” introduces us to the Locke family, which has just experienced an unspeakable tragedy. The family patriarch Rendell was a principal of a high school, and two of his students broke into his home, raped his wife, murdered him, and attempted to hunt down his three children Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode. Now the surviving family members are moving back to Rendell’s childhood home out east, a humungous and strange mansion called Keyhouse where Rendell’s brother Duncan lives. What appears to be a couple of psychopathic teenagers run amok is, anything but, however, as the surviving assailant, Sam, is communicating with something otherworldly that is living in the well of Keyhouse from his prison cell across the country. This first volume does a lot of heavy lifting, from giving voice and perspective to all of the Locke kids (and how they are all faring after this tragedy), to slowly unfolding the demonic presence in the well, to staring to sprinkle in the magical systems and objects that Keyhouse has hidden within its walls. It is a LOT, but Hill manages to fit it all in without it feeling overwrought or hurried. Granted, the magical systems are barely touched upon as of yet, but I am a-okay with building up the family members and their dynamics first. Hill isn’t in a rush, and I think that the characterizations benefit.

The magical elements we do have remain shrouded in mystery. We know that there are keys, and we know that they can do different things, like make you be able to leave your body and travel in a ghostly manner, or change from male to female. But where they come from, and what the deal is with the demon in the well, who is communicating with both murderer Sam and youngest Locke, Bode. They keys are important, and we get a taste as to why. I loved how we slowly see how the demon in the well (unnamed as of yet) inserts itself into both Sam’s consciousness, and the role that it plays in Sam’s violence AND how it manipulates Bode because of his age and naivete. Again, we don’t know much about this demon yet. The creepiness is well established through other means.

But I had really forgotten how freakin’ dark this first volume is. From the attack on the Locke Family at the beginning to Sam’s cross country murder spree after he is set free by the well demon, I found this volume harder to read now than it was the first time I dove in. I will say that some of the worse stuff is left off page in terms of graphic content (specifically Nina Locke’s rape, and it is a relief that we didn’t have to see it), but Hill absolutely pulls out the horrors in the aftermath of it all. I don’t remember the rest of this series being this upsetting, but who knows, maybe I blocked it out? My point is that there are lots of content warnings here. None of this seems exploitative to me in how Hill writes it, but it’s still disturbing.

And finally, I had forgotten about how much I really like the art of Gabriel Rodríguez. It definitely has a ‘cartoon-y’ vibe, but he really knows how to capture pain, sadness, joy, and all things macabre in his designs.

Even though diving back into “Locke and Key” was a bit rough with “Welcome to Lovecraft”, I have a feeling that this is once again going to be a successful re-read. This is old school Joe Hill, and it was clear even then that he was a horror and dark fantasy force to be reckoned with.

Rating 9: A fantastical and incredibly grim start to a dark fantasy series I love, “Locke and Key (Vol.1): Welcome to Lovecraft” will suck you in from the get go.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Locke & Key (Vol.1): Welcome to Lovecraft” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Horror Comics/Graphic Novels”, and “Comics + Graphic Novels To Read for Halloween”.

Find “Locke & Key (Vol.1): Welcome to Lovecraft” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “The Bronzed Beasts”

Book: “The Bronzed Beasts” by Roshani Chokshi

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, September 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: After Séverin’s seeming betrayal, the crew is fractured. Armed with only a handful of hints, Enrique, Laila, Hypnos and Zofia must find their way through the snarled, haunted waterways of Venice, Italy to locate Séverin.

Meanwhile, Séverin must balance the deranged whims of the Patriarch of the Fallen House and discover the location of a temple beneath a plague island where the Divine Lyre can be played and all that he desires will come to pass.

With only ten days until Laila expires, the crew will face plague pits and deadly masquerades, unearthly songs and the shining steps of a temple whose powers might offer divinity itself…but at a price they may not be willing to pay.

Previously Reviewed: “The Gilded Wolves” and “The Silvered Serpents”

Review: So far, my enjoyment of this series has been very on again, off again. My general likes and dislikes have remained consistent throughout the first two books. But as one of the “likes” is the characterization of the, arguably, two main characters, I’ve stuck around. I’m very much a character-driven reader, so if you’ve tackled that portion well, there’s a good chance you’ll hook me. That said, this author’s style of writing has never been my favorite. But I made it through the first two, so I was excited enough to see how it would all wrap up!

The race is on, with the Divine Lyre, a seemingly all-powerful magical device, within sight at last. But the group of friends is broken and distrusting. To many, Severin seems to have revealed himself as a betrayer and cold-hearted being to his core. But as they follow a few scattered clues, the group begins to wonder if all is not as it seems there. For her part, Laila can’t reconcile a Severin who would abandon his friends (and her) so easily with the man she’s grown to love. But her time, too, is limited as the clock that rules her life ticks down. For them all, the end is coming. What will it bring?

This was a pleasant surprise. The first book had been enjoyable enough, but I really struggled with the second one. So there were really only two options here. But luckily, it went the good route and ended on a strong note. Strong enough, even, for me to feel pretty good about reading the entire series, even with its low points.

Much of my enjoyment, again, came down to the character arcs. The middle book had felt like a lot of treading water and forced angst for our group, with emotional conflicts coming left and right that felt neither earned or natural. But here, with the end in sight, it was clear the author felt more comfortable again with these characters and their paths, while not devoid of twists and turns, felt stable and satisfying across the board.

Obviously, I’m mostly here for Severin and Laila, and I really, really loved what we got from them. It was incredibly cathartic to read some of the later scenes between them after the roller coaster ride that had been the first two books. That said, I was incredibly pleased to see their story take a few turns that took me completely by surprise. The ending, in particular, was very unexpected, full of bittersweet but cathartic notes.

I still struggled with some of the writing, with certain scenes and descriptions not painting a clear, crisp image. Chokshi’s style is now well-established, so I wasn’t surprised to see this. But it is probably the biggest reason why her books will likely never be huge hits for me. Too much emphasis is put on pretty sounding turns of phrase even if the words themselves fail to convey much of anything, sometimes even making things murkier and more difficult to follow.

Fans of this series will likely be completely satisfied with this book. Chokshi delivers on everything that she’s set up for the first two books. There is action aplenty and enough twists and turns to keep readers on the edge of their seats. The romance finally pays off in a big way, as well. I was pleased to end on this high note.

Rating 8: A definite improvement on the second book, including a strong, surprising ending for our beloved characters.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Bronzed Beasts” is on these Goodreads lists: Series Ending in 2021 and 2020 YA/MG Books With POC Leads.

Find “The Bronzed Beats” at the library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “White Smoke”

Book: “White Smoke” by Tiffany D. Jackson

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, September 2021

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

Book Description: The Haunting of Hill House meets Get Out in this chilling YA psychological thriller and modern take on the classic haunted house story from New York Times bestselling author Tiffany D. Jackson!

Marigold is running from ghosts. The phantoms of her old life keep haunting her, but a move with her newly blended family from their small California beach town to the embattled Midwestern city of Cedarville might be the fresh start she needs. Her mom has accepted a new job with the Sterling Foundation that comes with a free house, one that Mari now has to share with her bratty ten-year-old stepsister, Piper.

The renovated picture-perfect home on Maple Street, sitting between dilapidated houses, surrounded by wary neighbors has its . . . secrets. That’s only half the problem: household items vanish, doors open on their own, lights turn off, shadows walk past rooms, voices can be heard in the walls, and there’s a foul smell seeping through the vents only Mari seems to notice. Worse: Piper keeps talking about a friend who wants Mari gone. But “running from ghosts” is just a metaphor, right?

As the house closes in, Mari learns that the danger isn’t limited to Maple Street. Cedarville has its secrets, too. And secrets always find their way through the cracks.

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

Tiffany D. Jackson is one of my must read authors, whose books I clamor to get my hands on as soon as they come out. It comes as no shocker that when I heard she was writing a horror novel I was even more eager, insofar as I not only requested it from NetGalley, but I also pre-ordered it so that I could just have a copy for my own physical collection. That book is “White Smoke”, a YA horror novel that is described as “The Haunting of Hill House” meets “Get Out”, two big horror flexes if there ever were some. I dove in with high hopes, and Jackson didn’t disappoint.

I’m not going to to into spoilers here, as “White Smoke” is a book that greatly benefits from letting all of its twists and turns jump forth when they are ready to do so. But what I will say is that it is a haunted house story that has a bit of a twist. Mari and her (newly blended) family move into a new house, strange things start happening, and she has to figure out if these things are real, or if they are manifestations of her high anxiety and/or her history with drug use. These themes are, of course, the perfect recipe for a Gothic horror story, and if it was just this it would have been golden. But Jackson takes it a few steps further and not only has a potentially ghostly horror, but also the horrors of systemic racism that takes down communities and holds Black people down under the boot of white supremacy. Mari and her family are part of a neighborhood revitalization project, as they have moved into a long abandoned house in hopes of bringing people back to the neighborhood, but all is not what it seems in the community of Cedarville, which has a dark history of racial disparities and injustice, from prison pipelines to property discrimination. I loved how Jackson wove in these themes along with the strange and terrifying things that are happening in Mari’s house. She also addresses the issues of race and racism in Mari’s own family, as Mari’s mother, Raquel, has married a white man named Alec who has moments of not considering the experiences and grievances of his wife and stepchildren, as he as a white man has never had to deal with it. Jackson makes sure to give all the members of this family moments of being less than optimal, but also gives them all moments of grace to show that they are all adjusting to a new family situation, as well as a new home (WHICH MAY BE HAUNTED!). Mari is also a character whose experiences as a Black teenage girl have shaped some of her as a person, from being criminalized more easily due to her race to being expected to be strong when she has plenty of perfectly reasonable fragilities, like mental health issues and past trauma. All of these real world horror themes work very, very well.

And now the haunted house aspect. Mari’s new house is notorious in Cedarville, specifically in her Maplewood neighborhood, for supposedly being haunted by The Hag. The moment I saw reference to “The Hag”, I could have exploded in excitement, as this is one of my favorite ghost stories/pieces of folklore of all time. The Hag is a spirit that supposedly sucks your essence out of you as you sleep, and will ride you until you have nothing left. The Hag will then take your skin and appearance and wreak havoc. I first heard of this when I was visiting Savannah, Georgia the first time, and it scared the shit out of me. So Jackson using The Hag folklore in this story as the thing that is maybe haunting Mari’s house is SO perfect, as not only is it a bit unique, it is also said that The Hag targets young women who are especially susceptible to mental and emotional problems. And Jackson captures every aspect of the tale and makes it INCREDIBLY scary in this book, from strange shadows and noises to vocal mimicry and manifestations. There were moments where I was on the edge of my seat with suspense, and happy that I still had the lights on as I was reading on my eReader. Not that I was completely spared from jumping out of my skin.

At one point my cat jumped on the bed and I could have fainted. (source)

“White Smoke” is a great horror novel from Tiffany D. Jackson. You don’t want to miss this one with the upcoming Halloween season being right around the corner.

Rating 9: Tiffany D. Jackson effortlessly crosses into the horror genre, and presents a haunted house story that also takes on systemic injustices in American society.

Reader’s Advisory:

“White Smoke” is included on the Goodreads lists “Black Heroines 2021”, and “ATY 2022: Gothic Elements”.

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

Joint Review: “Certain Dark Things”

Book: “Certain Dark Things” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Publishing Info: Tor Nightfire, September 2021

Where Did We Get This Book: Received an eARC from NetGalley;

Book Description: From the New York Times bestselling author of Mexican Gothic comes a pulse-pounding neo-noir that reimagines vampire lore.

Welcome to Mexico City, an oasis in a sea of vampires. Domingo, a lonely garbage-collecting street kid, is just trying to survive its heavily policed streets when a jaded vampire on the run swoops into his life. Atl, the descendant of Aztec blood drinkers, is smart, beautiful, and dangerous. Domingo is mesmerized.

Atl needs to quickly escape the city, far from the rival narco-vampire clan relentlessly pursuing her. Her plan doesn’t include Domingo, but little by little, Atl finds herself warming up to the scrappy young man and his undeniable charm. As the trail of corpses stretches behind her, local cops and crime bosses both start closing in.

Vampires, humans, cops, and criminals collide in the dark streets of Mexico City. Do Atl and Domingo even stand a chance of making it out alive? Or will the city devour them all?

Kate’s Thoughts

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

As someone who loves, but is VERY picky about, vampire mythology, I was very interested in seeing what Silvia Moreno-Garcia would do with a vampire story. She has consistently impressed me within multiple genres, and I figured that even if I didn’t care for her take on vampirism, I would at least find something to enjoy about “Certain Dark Things”. But good news! I not only liked the story as a whole, I also really liked her take on vampirism!

I greatly enjoyed our vampire protagonist Atl, a Tlāhuihpochtl vampire whose ancestors trace back to the Aztecs, and whose family is in a vampire gang war with the Necros, Central European transplant vampires who have been infesting Mexico for awhile. As Atl flees into Mexico City (where vampires are not allowed), she meets Domingo, a young man who is a bit aimless… until he meets Atl. Moreno-Garcia does a great job of bringing these two together and bringing in various vampire mythologies of vampires and servants to make their relationship both easy to like, but also a little hard to swallow. Which is almost certainly intentional, and completely appropriate in a vampire romance if we are being quite honest. I liked Domingo fine for his can do attitude, but it was Atl, with her hard exterior and suppressed pain for her lost family (and in turn violent motivations) that really sucked me in. I also LOVED how Moreno-Garcia brought colonialism into a vampire story, as the Tlāhuihpochtl are the now waning vampires that were in Mexico initially, and have been clashing with the Central European Necros, who came into Mexico and started throwing their weight around. Boy do I love social commentary in my horror, and this is how you execute it properly. And to make things even better, there is an entire encyclopedia of vampire factions within this universe at the end of the book!

It is, Deacon. It really is. (source)

“Certain Dark Things” was very fun vampire fiction! Silvia Moreno-Garcia continues her streak of genre jumping.

Serena’s Thoughts

I, too, really liked this book! I’m continuously impressed by how effortlessly (seemingly) Moreno-Garcia jumps from genre to genre, and this book is yet another example of it. Though, to be fair, this is a re-release of this book. Back when it was originally published, many publishers were cautious that “Twilight” had ruined vampire books for a good long time. But slowly and surely, this book gained a sort of cult following, strong enough to, years later, revive the book entirely (though I’m sure Moreno-Garcia’s spate of very successful recent releases has also played a part). Reading the book now, it’s hard to imagine how any publisher could ever equate this to “Twilight.”

Like Kate mentioned, in some ways, yes, this is a vampire romance. But when the romance in question is so highly questionable, with moving dynamics dependence and power inequalities, there’s no way it can be compared to the saccharine mess that was Edward and Bella. Atl and Domingo are each such incredibly complex characters, and their respective backgrounds are so rich (her recent loss of her powerful, native family to a encroaching gang of foreign vampires, and his perilous life on the streets as a trash collector). All of this plays into the slowly-built friendship and romance they develop.

It’s also incredibly dark and bloody. People die. Like, a lot of people. There are the nameless victims that one expects to find in true vampire stories, but there is also a larger cast of POV characters, each with their own compelling arcs, and their endings are also not guaranteed. I really enjoyed the action sequences and horror aspects of this story. It was just tense enough to keep me on the edge of my seat, but also too much for my non-horror-reading self.

This was another win by this author. At this point, she’s pretty much on my auto-read radar and nearing my auto-buy cateogry!

Kate’s Rating 8: A fresh take on vampire mythology with Mexican folklore as a guide, “Certain Dark Things” is a fun dark fantasy thrill ride!

Serena’s Rating 8: An excellent entry into vampire lore bringing with it an entire host of different vampires with the added bonus of the Mexican setting and history.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Certain Dark Things” is included on the Goodreads lists “Aztec, Maya, & Inca – Fiction”, and “Horror To Look Forward To 2021”.

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

Serena’s Review: “A Song of Flight”

Book: “A Song of Flight” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Random House, September 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Bard and fighter Liobhan is always ready for a challenge. So when news arrives at Swan Island that the prince of Dalriada has gone missing after an assault by both masked men and the sinister Crow Folk, she’s eager to act.

While Liobhan and her fellow Swan Island warriors seek answers to the prince’s disappearance, the bard Brocc, Liobhan’s brother, finds himself in dire trouble. His attempts to communicate with the Crow Folk have led him down a perilous path. When Liobhan and her comrades are sent to the rescue, it becomes clear the two missions are connected–and a great mystery unfolds.

What brought the Crow Folk to Erin? And who seeks to use them in an unscrupulous bid for power? As Liobhan and Brocc investigate, it will take all their strength and will to continue pursuing the truth. With the safety of their loved ones in the balance, the risks they must take may cost them everything.

Previously Reviewed: “The Harp of Kings” and “A Dance with Fate”

Review: This was another of my highly anticipated reads for this fall. Overall, I haven’t loved this trilogy as much as I did the “Blackthorn and Grim” trilogy that preceded it. But that’s kind of been my experience with Marillier’s work recently. I tend to really like one trilogy and then be less thrilled with the next. For example, I didn’t love the “Shadowfall” trilogy that came before “Blackthorn and Grim” as much as I did that one, either. So, on and off it goes! That said, I’ve always enjoyed Marillier’s work in general (I’m doing an entire series of reviews of all of her books, for heaven’s sake!), so I was excited to see how she concluded this trilogy.

About a year has passed since the events of the last book, and everyone is more or less where we left them. Liobhan is training a new recruit to become a Swan Island warrior, balancing her relationship with Dau who is now located on the mainland from the island. The two’s untraditional arrangement is only allowed due to this distance and the fact that they are not allowed to go out on missions together. But when a prince of the realm goes missing, and Dau is sent out to locate him, Liobhan finds this distance challenging. All the more so when they begin to suspect the involvement of the Fae, an area of expertise much more for Liobhan than Dau. Brocc, for his part, is living in the Fae realm with his young daughter and Fae wife. But his secret work with the Crow Folk draws tensions in this small family, and soon enough Brocc finds himself walking a lonely path.

I really liked this conclusion. There were a few things about it that really stood out. For one, Brocc’s story became more compelling. He was the character I struggled to connect to the most in the previous books, but here, his storyline becomes much more important. I was also relieved to see the direction the story went with his relationship with Eirne, his Fae wife. In my review of the second book, I was fairly scathing towards this relationship, and I was relieved to find here that that dislike on my part was justified and clearly part of Marillier’s overall plan.

The Crow Folk have played a big role in the series so far, but it’s also been very unclear what they are and why they do what they do. Brocc has slowly uncovered pieces of their story up to this point, but here he really dove into it. There was some really interesting magic and backstory involved, and I really liked the direction it went.

We also saw the return of my beloved Blackthorn and Grim. Naturally, the two play only very small roles, but I’ll take any crumbs I can get as far as those two go! It was fun to see some familiar locations and to get a closer look at what their lives look like now, so many years after the end of their trilogy. The one downside here was the fact that it did only remind me how much I preferred these two to these main three characters. Blackthorn, especially, was an excellent character and far out shown Liobhan, Dau, and Brocc.

I was also pleased with Dau’s story. There were some loose ends that seemed a bit strange in the second book but were solidly tied up here. There were a few instances in Dau’s story that felt a bit to contrived, with people and clues showing up right when they needed to, but I still enjoyed his arc and the resolutions of his ongoing family drama.

Liobhan probably fell the most into the background, which did make me rather sad. Her story was still good, but this was definitely more the Brocc/Dau show. Luckily, I think she’s the strongest character of the three, so her storyline was best able to take a hit in the plot department and still be compelling based solely on her characterization. I thought that the romance between her and Dau was done pretty well, though I do wish these two hadn’t be separated for quite so much of the story.

Everything else was kind of what we’ve come to expect from Marillier: very atmospheric writing, a strong reliance on stories with stories and folklore, and a solid, heartfelt conclusion. If you’re a fan of this trilogy and Marillier’s work, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this one.

Rating 8: Overall, this wasn’t my favorite set of books by Marillier, but this was a strong conclusion to the hole and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Song of Flight” is a new book, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists. Funnily enough, it’s on this one: Julie, Julie, Julie.

Find “A Song of Flight” at your library using WorldCat!

A Revisit to Fear Street: “Fear Street Part 3: 1666”

Given that I did a re-read of R.L. Stine’s original “Fear Street” series, as well as a few “Super Chillers” and a couple special Trilogies within the Universe, when I saw that Netflix was going to make some “Fear Street” movies I knew I was game. And because that re-read series was chronicled on this blog, I figured that I ought to give my thoughts on these new movies as well, as nostalgia bombs and a new way for people to connect with a classic series in YA horror literature! So let’s see what the Netflix “Fear Street” Trilogy does for the series when introducing it to a new generation!

Film: “Fear Street Part Three: 1666”

We have come to the final installment of Netflix’s “Fear Street” Trilogy, and that means that everything is coming to a head. When we left off at the end of “1978”, Deena had tried to reunite Sara Fier’s hand with her body to save Sam and Shadyside (as the curse is interpreted as being done once they’ve been reunited), but then found herself transported back to the town of Unity in 1666, and experiencing Sara Fier’s final days before she was hanged as a witch. I figured we had to get the backstory to Sara and the curse somehow, and this was how we were going to do it.

I found this choice to be a bit risky, but only because period pieces can be difficult to pull off. But I felt that everyone involved (as cast members from previous movies came back to play members of the town of Unity, before it was split into Shadyside and Sunnyvale) did a pretty okay job, accents notwithstanding. We get a little bit of a historical thriller here a la “The Crucible” or “The Witch”, as once things start going bad in the town Sara and her friend/potential lover Hannah are seen as the obvious culprits due to their rebellious (and Sapphic) ways. You know I was steaming the whole time, as Puritanical bullshit really steams me, and it was interesting watching Sara Fier go from strong willed but generally affable townsperson to reviled by her community, and then consumed by her rage at the injustice of it all, willing to do anything to save Hannah and herself, even if that means making a deal with the Devil. That said, things aren’t always as they seem, and I feel a bit sheepish to admit that I wasn’t always totally in tune to what the movie was doing. Which was nice, actually. I fully appreciated the tried and true themes of ‘women being oppressed because they won’t tow the line’ within this flick, as well as ‘injustice can lead to very bad things that repeat over the years’. Throw in some really gruesome moments in the flashback (ugh, a couple actively made me gasp in disgust) and you have an effective historical horror section.

We also get the wrap up of the entire trilogy as a whole as Deena and Josh, with the help of familiar faces from the previous movies, try and stop the curse upon Shadyside once and for all. This felt less like a historical thriller and more like the slasher genre that the previous two movies had, which made it fit a little bit better within the trilogy. And like in the other two movies, the various Shadyside slashers get to show off their creepiness for one more big fight scene. I would love it if we could get backgrounds for all the slashers we haven’t seen origins of (especially that of Ruby Lane, the teenage girl who went on a murder spree the night of the Prom in the 1950s. Ruby was my girl!), as the tastes in these movies were fun and creepy, but definitely making me want more. I think that my only qualm is that in some ways it felt like it wrapped up a little neater than the other two movies. I’m not saying that I wanted more blood and guts, necessarily, but the balls to the wall stakes didn’t feel as high when all was said and done. Not to say it wasn’t fun and satisfying! It just didn’t go as far as previous installments when it came to emotional dread and fallout.

Overall, “Fear Street Part Three: 1666” was a satisfying end to a really fun trilogy. I think that “1978” is still my favorite, but they are all quite enjoyable in their own ways. As a whole, “Fear Street” is nostalgic slasher goodness, and if they wanted to continue exploring R.L. Stine’s stories I would definitely be on board!

Serena’s Review: “The Last Graduate”

Book: “The Last Graduate” by Naomi Novik

Publishing Info: Del Rey Books, September 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: At the Scholomance, El, Orion, and the other students are faced with their final year—and the looming specter of graduation, a deadly ritual that leaves few students alive in its wake. El is determined that her chosen group will survive, but it is a prospect that is looking harder by the day as the savagery of the school ramps up. Until El realizes that sometimes winning the game means throwing out all the rules . . .

Previously Reviewed: “A Deadly Education”

Review: Yep, definitely couldn’t wait until September to read this one! But I also wanted to time my review in a better manner than just randomly throwing up here three months before anyone can get their hands on it. I’m not a monster to torture you all like that! Sadly, there is still several weeks left before it’s available even posting it now. But I wanted to give everyone plenty of time to get their pre-orders in early, because, yes, it is that good.

El, Orion, and their friends have successfully helped the previous class graduate with (hopefully) few casualties. This year it will be there turn. But as they prepare, a grueling ordeal of classes and a killer (literally) obstacle course, it becomes clear that their actions last graduation are having a ripple effect on the school itself. Things are not behaving as they should, and El is frantic to find a way to save this small group of people who have, shockingly, become her friends. As her relationship with Orion grows as well, despite the warning from her mother, El begins to realize she will need to chart her own course, even if it’s one totally unexpected.

So, obviously, I loved this book. I was a bit nervous (really only the tiniest bit, since Naomi Novik has never let me down yet!) when I heard that this series had been conceptualized as a duology but then was extended into a trilogy. For further insight into my thoughts on this strategy, see my scathing review of “Blood & Honey.” Luckily, this series had a few things going for it that made this type of extension not only possible, but supremely enjoyable.

First, I’d probably be happy enough to just read a non-fiction style textbook about the world that Novik has created here, especially the Scholomance itself. The first book had some massive infodumps (I remember being several chapters in and coming up for air only to realize that practically no action had taken place), but this book proves that Novik was only scratching the surface of her imagination. Here, we get even more details about how the school was created, how it runs, and how it functions as an individual entity with “intentions” and “will” of its own. We also looked closer at the divided society that makes up those with magical abilities in this world. The “haves” and “have nots” are starkly divided, and we see how this happened, how it continues, and how it’s not really good for anyone.

The other thing that makes this “extender” book work is the characters. They’re all so very real and compelling. El, of course, is a masterpiece of a main character. She’s very human in her flaws, her only partial understanding of herself, and her will to keep moving forward and adapting even when the world, quite literally, is against her. As a narrator, she’s also hilarious, with witty observations of the world and those in it that had me cackling out loud more often than not.

The supporting characters are equally good, especially Orion himself. In the first book, he was very much portrayed as a “Harry Potter on steroids” type savior character. Here, we still have that. But we also get a closer look into how this image of himself has shaped Orion’s worldview and value of himself. There were a few reveals here that really fleshed him out. If I had any criticisms of the first book, it might have been the fact that we seemed to only scrape the surface on what makes Orion tick. But that was fully rectified here and in some truly interesting ways.

I also love the romance that continues to develop between El and Orion. It was very believable in its slow crawl of progress. Even better, it was clear that while it was important to each of them, their romance didn’t consume their attention or lives. Indeed, it’s very much a secondary consideration at almost every moment. I can’t say how much I appreciated this presentation of a teenage love story, or any love story, really. Yes, love makes the world go round and all of that. But other things, people, and important decisions exist as well, and filtering everything through the narrow lens of one’s current love affair is by no means healthy (or realistic.)

This book is again heavy on the descriptions of the world/magic and lighter on the action. But that said, there was more action in this book than the first. It builds steadily towards a very tension-filled climax. Major warning here: there is a serious cliffhanger at the end of this book. Much more so than the first. So if you’re the type of reader who can’t stand that sort of thing, you might want to hold off until the third and final book comes out. Heaven knows, I couldn’t hold out even two days, but there are stronger people than me out there! Fans of the first book are sure to love this one and now I’m back, once again, anxiously waiting for the next installment.

Rating 10: I loved it so, so much. My pre-order has been in place for months now.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Last Graduate” is on these Goodreads lists: Best Adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy Trilogies and Fantasy Books Releasing in 2021.

Find “The Last Graduate” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Nice Girls”

Book: “Nice Girls” by Catherine Dang

Publishing Info: William Morrow, September 2021

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

Book Description: A pulse-pounding and deviously dark debut, written with the psychological acuity and emotional punch of Luckiest Girl Alive and All the Missing Girls, that explores the hungry, angry, dark side of girlhood and dares to ask what is most dangerous to a woman: showing the world what it wants to see, or who she really is?

What did you do?

Growing up in Liberty Lake, Minnesota, Mary was chubby, awkward, and smart. Earning a scholarship to an Ivy League school was her ticket out; she was going to do great things and never look back. Three years later, “Ivy League Mary” is back—a thinner, cynical, and restless failure. Kicked out of Cornell at the beginning of senior year, she won’t tell anyone why. Working at the local grocery store, she sees familiar faces from high school and tries to make sense of the past and her life.

When beautiful, magnetic Olivia Willand, a rising social media star, goes missing, Mary—like the rest of Liberty Lake—becomes obsessed. Best friends in childhood, Mary and Olivia haven’t spoken in years. Everyone admired Olivia, but Mary knows better than anyone that behind the Instagram persona hid a willful, manipulative girl with sharp edges. As the world worries for perfect, lovely Olivia, Mary can’t help but hate her. She also believes that her disappearance is tied to another missing person—a nineteen-year-old girl named DeMaria Jackson whose disappearance has gone under the radar.  

Who was the true Olivia Willand, and where did she go? What happened to DeMaria? As Mary delves deeper into the lives of the two missing girls, old wounds bleed fresh and painful secrets threaten to destroy everything. Maybe no one is really a nice girl, after all.

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

Though I know that my home state does have a fair amount of problems in some ways, ultimately I love being a Minnesota girl. I am always tickled when I’m reading a book that takes place here, and if that book falls into my preferred genres then it will almost assuredly get some priority on my reading list. Enter “Nice Girls” by Catherine Dang, a suburban (maybe exurban?) thriller written by a local woman. I can honestly say that I was drawn in because of 1) setting, 2) general plot, and 3) the title lettering on the cover of the book. I’m not usually one who takes cover into account (I know Serena loves a good cover!), but the hot pink glowy neon of the book title made me go ‘now THIS is a design!’ Okay, I’m done gushing about the cover. Let’s get into the nitty gritty of “Nice Girls”, a thriller that oozes potential but never quite reaches it.

But I’m going to start with what did work for me, as is tradition. Dang captures the place and setting of Liberty Lake, Minnesota (a made up city/exurb), a community that’s a bit out state and small town-esque with a commanding lake and an insulated population. As I read it I was thinking about the lake town I found myself driving out to to get my COVID shots back when that shit was in demand (p.s., PLEASE get vaccinated if you can, folks). Liberty Lake feels fleshed out in terms of the community itself and how the people view each other, with the expected underbelly of not spoken of racism, misogyny, and stifling community repression. Our main character, Mary, wanted to get out of Liberty Lake, and exceeded the town’s expectations when she was accepted to Cornell. But the usual theme of pride mingling with resentment is there, as when she returns to town after being expelled there is a certain sense of ‘though you were better than us, but look at you now’ that she has to face. Though a fair amount of that may also be her own resentments about being unable to escape a community that she never quite fit into. Along with that, Dang compares and contrasts our two missing women through the lens of the missing white woman syndrome, a theme that is always important to note when it comes to whose stories get picked up and paid attention to when they are potential victims of violent crimes. The victim we hear of first is Olivia, a town darling who is white, blonde, and a social media influencer whose lifelong popularity makes her disappearance front page news. Search parties are going out day after day, the headlines are dominated by her disappearance, and everyone is praying for her safe return. But before Olivia disappeared, DeMaria disappeared, with far less fanfare, even as her body parts are found in the lake. DeMaria is a lower income, Black, single mother, and no one seems to be interested in what happened to her. It’s a comment on systemic and ingrained racism that we’ve started to see more of in fictional stories, but I still welcome the topic because it’s still a huge problem.

But here is where things don’t work as well in “Nice Girls”. Mary as a character is something we have seen before in a thriller like this: she’s damaged, she returns home with a dark secret, and she starts to spiral more and more when she gets embroiled in the local secrets. This kind of thing can work if the main character is compelling in other ways, but Mary is fairly two dimensional who is defined by her dourness, and her deep seated insecurities make her a very unlikable person and hard to root for. She doesn’t really have any growth during this book, and she makes huge missteps that feel convenient to the plot while feeling a bit haphazard even for her slightly unhinged personality. And Mary isn’t the only unlikable character, as there are very few people in this book that I actually liked and wanted to know more about, and those who I did like were relegated to the sidelines for the most part. These kinds of things could be easier to overlook if the mystery itself was addictive, but overall it was pretty standard, with a reveal that felt shaky in the laid out groundwork that held it up. There were a few moments that were genuinely surprising, but the pay off was rushed.

I have no doubt in my mind that I will be picking up the next book by Catherine Dang, as her ability to write and create a setting filled with rich descriptions was definitely there. “Nice Girls” is probably worth the read for casual thriller fans, but if you’ve been steeped in the genre for awhile it may not have the pay off you want.

Rating 6: I saw a lot of potential here and there were some good themes, but the characters were two dimensional and the mystery itself was fairly average.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Nice Girls” is included on the Goodreads list “Mystery and Thriller 2021”.

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

Highlights: September 2021

Summer is starting to wind down, and we can start dreaming about fall. The time to be overwhelmed with all things pumpkin. But there are still some warm days ahead, good excuses to sit outside and read some books. Here are a few titles that we’re looking forward to this month!

Serena’s Picks:

Book: “The Last Graduate” by Naomi Novik

Publishing Date: September 28, 2021

Why I’m Interested: Confession: I received an ARC for this book back in the spring and, yeah, I couldn’t wait to read it. So I’m not so much looking forward to reading it at this point, but I am looking forward to sharing my review with you! After the dramatic events of the first book, El, Orion, and their friends have one more year in the dangerous Scholomance school before their own treacherous graduation ceremony. But it soon becomes clear that the school is not operating as usual, and El will quickly need to come up with a new approach if she and her friends have any chance of surviving. I’ll give you a super hot preview of my review: I loved the heck out of this book!

Book: “A Song of Flight” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Date: September 21, 2021

Why I’m Interested: September is a real banger of a month, as not only does the second “Scholomance” book come out, but also the third and final book in Juliet Marillier’s “Warrior Bards” trilogy. About a year has passed since the end of the previous book, and Liobhan, Dau, and Brocc are more or less where you’d expect them. Liobhan and Dau attempt to balance their burgeoning relationship with the challenges posed as Swan Island warriors. Brocc continues to live in the Fae realm, attempting to puzzle out the secrets of the strange and dangerous Crow Folk. After a prince goes missing, the three all see their lives become upended, and mysteries both new and old begin to demand answers. I’m excited to see how this trilogy is going to wrap up!

Book: “The Bronzed Beasts” by Roshani Chokshi

Publishing Date: September 21, 2021

Why I’m Interested: This is probably one of the more buzz-y books of the month. I’ve been a bit tepid on this series overall, but I’ve still enjoyed parts of both of the first books. I definitely have favorite characters, and I’m curious to see how their stories will play out. At the end of the previous book, the crew believe Severin has betrayed and abandoned them. Instead, Severin has a long-game plan that will not only fulfill his promises to his friends, but hopefully save the life of his beloved Laila. The second book introduced a lot of bigger magical components, so I’m excited to see how they come into play here. I really have no idea how this one will wrap up, but I’m optimistic for a good ending.

Kate’s Picks:

Book: “Slewfoot: A Tale of Bewitchery” by Brom

Publication Date: September 21, 2021

Why I’m Interested: I love a “Beauty and the Beast” (romantic or not) tale, and if you have it take place during Puritanical times and involving some kind of devil-y creature and a woman who is out of place I am almost assuredly going to trip all over myself to read it. “Slewfoot: A Tale of Bewitchery” by Brom sounds like it’s going to be just that. Abitha is a young wife, sent to the colonies two years ago to marry a man she didn’t know, who now lives in a small Puritan community she doesn’t like. When he dies suddenly and unexpectedly her only ally is gone, and she is left to fend for herself in a community she doesn’t fit into. Slewfoot is an ancient entity that has only recently revived from a long sleep, and he isn’t sure what his place is in this new world. As both try to find their places in a new and strange world, they also find themselves targeted by the people in the community. On top of all this, there are beautiful illustrations to boot. It seems like the perfect read to gear up for the upcoming Halloween season!

Book: “White Smoke” by Tiffany D. Jackson

Publication Date: September 14, 2021

Why I’m Interested: Tiffany D. Jackson is one of my must read authors, whose thrillers have kept me on the edge of my seat and knocked me down, emotionally. So when I read that she was going into full on horror mode with “White Smoke”, I was absolutely on board and not only requested it from NetGalley, but also put a preorder in at my local bookstore. I’m just that excited. Marigold and her newly blended family have moved to a new house, which has been provided by them through her mother’s new job. Sure, it’s a little run down, and sure, the contractual agreement to stay for three years seems odd. But Marigold has her own problems, like high anxiety and bratty stepsister Piper, that concern her more. Until strange things start happening in the house. Objects start moving around. The sound of footsteps can be heard late at night. And a rancid smell pops up, though Mari is the only one who can smell it. As things get more dire, Mari has to try and figure out what is going on. But the problem is that it may not just be the house, but the whole community that is the problem. I’ve been looking forward to this one for awhile, and am ready for Jackson to scare me!

Book: “As Good As Dead” by Holly Jackson

Publication Date: September 28, 2021

Why I’m Interested: We have finally come to the end of Holly Jackson’s “Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” series, and while I figured it would just be a trilogy I am not sure I am ready for it to end. Enter “As Good As Dead”, the third and final book. When we left off, our teen detective Pippa was on a bit of a downhill spiral. A trial she had connections to ended up going poorly, and an acquaintance was murdered right in front of her eyes, with her feeling a bit responsible. And now, as she’s getting ready to head off for college, she starts getting threats online, where someone is implying that SHE is going to be the next person to disappear. Will she be able to figure out who is after her? And will she be able to reconcile her guilt? I look forward to seeing how things work out for Pip, and I can’t wait to see how “As Good As Dead” wraps everything up.

What books are you looking forward to this month? Let us know in the comments!