Serena’s Review: “All of Us Villains”

Book: “All of Us Villains” by Amanda Foody and Chrstine Lynn Herman

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, November 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: The Blood Moon rises. The Blood Veil falls. The Tournament begins.

Every generation, at the coming of the Blood Moon, seven families in the remote city of Ilvernath each name a champion to compete in a tournament to the death.

The prize? Exclusive control over a secret wellspring of high magick, the most powerful resource in the world–one thought long depleted.

This year, thanks to a salacious tell-all book, the seven champions are thrust into worldwide spotlight, granting each of them new information, new means to win, and most importantly: a choice – accept their fate or rewrite their story.

But this is a story that must be penned in blood.

Review: I was late to the game requesting this book. For some reason I wasn’t feeling the cover. That, plus the title. In theory, the title should be good, but I’ve been burned too many times by these morally grey protagonists books where I go in expecting villainous characters and all I get are totally-justified-in-their-actions heroes. And, while this book did largely turn out to be that, I think the fact that I was resigned to that from the start helped. Plus, it was just super well-written and enjoyable!

The world is full of magic but its sources of high magic have all been tapped and drawn by their respective nations. All but one, a secret source that has been passed down to various families for generations. However, for the privilege of wielding this powerful supply, the families must all sacrifice a son or daughter to a battle royale where the only survivor wins access for their family for the next twenty years. But for the first time, this secretive competition has become known to the world and this year’s contestants face a level of scrutiny and pressure that none have known before. With all eyes on them, who will survive?

I really enjoyed this book! Like I said, I really wasn’t sure that I would when I started out. But, it turns out, after more than a decade, I was more than ready for a new “Hunger Games” style story! And really, that’s what this is. There are even powerful objects that drop periodically from the sky that help the contestants. That said, the rest of the set-up is incredibly unique and well thought out. The magic itself, created and directed through the use of spell-rings. The history of the various families who participate in this competition. The effect of the sudden revelation of a new source of high magic to a world that had thought it all run out. Very compelling stuff.

And, on top of all of that, all of the POV characters were interesting and unique. I’m a tough sell on multiple POV stories, as has been well-documented on this blog. All too often, they either all blend together with voices that sound all too similar, or there are one or two particularly strong characters who take over the story, leaving the remaining characters feeling bland in comparison. Here, however, I was equally intrigued by all four main characters. I may have still had a preferences, but I was never disappointed to start a new character’s chapter.

Each of the four had such distinct, personal arcs that had been so well laid out at the start of the book that I was equally invested in each of their stories. We have Briony, the girl who has prepared her entire life for this moment, but when it comes, discovers that her goals may have changed. Isobel, the young woman who has become the face of the competition to the public but whose struggles with her family and her magic leave her on the back foot when the competition begins. Gavin, the young man from a family who has never won and whom no one expects anything from but who push himself beyond the limits of magic to do what he must to survive. And Alistair, the young man from the family most known for its wins and for its villainy. Each were so, so interesting and had stories that seemed to naturally weave in and out of one another’s.

The story was also appropriately dark and graphic when it needed to be. As I mentioned earlier, none of the four were as villainous as the title would imply. But they each did have their moments, and the general set-up of the competition and the world was grim and bloody. There were a number of real surprises where the book “went there” when I didn’t expect it to.

This book was an excellent surprise! I went in expecting little and came out with a front-runner for my “Top 10” list. I definitely recommend this for all fantasy lovers, especially those looking for a book with a compelling cast of characters and a darker take on magic.

Rating 9: A magical “Hunger Games” that delivers on all fronts: excellent characters, a dark world, and exciting fantasy elements.

Reader’s Advisory:

“All of Us Villains” is on these Goodreads lists: Fantasy Frenemies and If You Like ‘Squid Game,’ You Should Read….

Find “All of Us Villains” at the library or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “All These Bodies”

Book: “All These Bodies” by Kendare Blake

Publishing Info: Quill Tree Books, September 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Sixteen bloodless bodies. Two teenagers. One impossible explanation.

Summer 1958—a string of murders plagues the Midwest. The victims are found in their cars and in their homes—even in their beds—their bodies drained, but with no blood anywhere.

September 19- the Carlson family is slaughtered in their Minnesota farmhouse, and the case gets its first lead: 15-year-old Marie Catherine Hale is found at the scene. She is covered in blood from head to toe, and at first she’s mistaken for a survivor. But not a drop of the blood is hers.

Michael Jensen, son of the local sheriff, yearns to become a journalist and escape his small-town. He never imagined that the biggest story in the country would fall into his lap, or that he would be pulled into the investigation, when Marie decides that he is the only one she will confess to. As Marie recounts her version of the story, it falls to Michael to find the truth: What really happened the night that the Carlsons were killed? And how did one girl wind up in the middle of all these bodies?

Review: Back in October I found myself in a super stressful situation. The pipes in our house were continuously backing up, with supposed solutions being trotted out and then falling through, all while my husband was out of town for a week for work. After a third plumbing misadventure led to pipes backing up into even MORE sinks than previously, I eventually packed our daughter up and went to stay with my parents until it could all be sorted out. But since they live near my favorite children’s bookstore, I took an excursion one day to do some book retail therapy, and that was where I saw “All These Bodies” by Kendare Blake on a Halloween display. And that was how a book about a number of murders with bloodless bodies at the forefront was added to a self care regimen. I’d read Blake before, be it in short story form or her book “Anna Dressed in Blood”, and felt that it was high time to dive back in. Bonus: this book takes place in Minnesota, and as a typical Minnesotan I LOVE media that references my home state. And if you combine that with a story that takes influence from Starkweather and Fugate AS WELL AS the Clutter Family Murders, AND THROW IN SOME VAMPIRE LORE TOO?

You betcha I’m interested in that kinda thing. (source)

“All These Bodies” is a horror novel when it comes down to it, but it takes a couple of horror themes and smashes them together. The first is the small town loss of innocence post murder horror theme, one that usually is seen more in thrillers, but if implemented properly can be full on horror. Blake is clearly influenced by two huge American cases from the middle of the 2oth Century that I mentioned above: the murder spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, and the Clutter Family Murders. The first involved a young man and his teenage girlfriend who traveled on the interstates randomly killing people, the second was an entire family killed in their home in the middle of the night by intruders looking for cash. Both completely obliterated the idea that rural America is totally safe from violence at the hands of strangers. Blake captures the absolute fear and disillusionment of Black Deer Falls, Minnesota, as tension builds up and neighbors question all they believed about their safe community. When the only suspect is a teenage girl covered in blood named Marie, our protagonist Michael wants to find out what happened, not only because he’s a budding reporter, but also because he just wants to make sense of something so senseless. Everyone else in town is convinced that Marie is the perpetrator, as are authorities from Nebraska, where other victims were found. Blake does a superb job of creating a rapport between that of a naive teenage boy, and a teenage girl who knows the horrors of the world and what will ultimately become of her, even if she, herself, is a victim of something very, very dark and supernatural in nature. Marie is a combination of creepy in her own right, but also vulnerable and tragic. She knows that she’s going to be the bad guy because of hysteria, because of her gender, and because of her background, even though someone much worse is out there, no matter her role. Because someone has to pay for this, and she fits the bill. It’s eerie and sad, and Blake mastered blurring the lines between potential murderer and potential victim.

And the other horror element is that a vampire is quite possibly the real culprit of all of this, and continues to stalk Black Deer Falls and Michael as he tries to get the truth from Marie. Vampires have been a bit neutered in recent YA stories, and since a lot of iconic vampire lore is so closely tied to sensuality and eroticism it’s hard to be mad about it. But Blake taps into the idea of a vampire being a predator through and through, be it when it comes to feeding on people and draining them of their blood, or manipulating a desperate girl to possibly do unspeakable acts. This vampire is mostly off page in this book, and that just made the tension all the more freaky as the book went on, as unseen threats just give me the willies in a primal way. There is one particular moment in the woods while Michael and a friend are tracking a deer, and Michael starts to get the feeling that it isn’t just the deer being tracked, and let me tell you, it is UNSETTLING AS HELL.

But that is the best thing about “All These Bodies”: the ambiguity of it all. Instead of deciding to be clear cut in her story and what is going on, Blake instead opts to leave some things a bit open ended so the reader has to draw their own conclusions as to what happened to all the bodies drained of blood. Sometimes the need for ambiguity made the story run a bit long, however, and while I like the due diligence of trying to make things grey, there were sometimes that it got repetitive as Michael contemplates if Marie is a monster or a damsel in distress. But that aside, I’m pretty sure I know where I fall in terms of conclusions, but you could make the argument for it to go the other way. Healthy debate in horror is always welcome, and I would love to hear what others think, if you’ve read this!

“All These Bodies” brings bittersweet pathos to a vampire tale, and I think it’s a nice way to explore vampirism and what it symbolizes in a YA setting. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Rating 8: A creepy, ambiguous, and somewhat tragic story about small town innocence lost and predatory men, vampires or not, “All These Bodies” is melancholy and unsettling.

Reader’s Advisory:

“All These Bodies” is included on the Goodreads lists “2021 Horror Releases”, and “2021 YA Horror Written By Women (Cis and Trans) and Non-Binary Femmes”.

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

Serena’s Review: “The Kingdom of Gods”

Book: “The Kingdom of Gods” by N.K. Jemisin

Publishing Info: Orbit, October 2011

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

Book Description: For two thousand years the Arameri family has ruled the world by enslaving the very gods that created mortalkind. Now the gods are free, and the Arameris’ ruthless grip is slipping. Yet they are all that stands between peace and world-spanning, unending war.

Previously Reviewed: “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” and “The Broken Kingdoms”

Review: So, I didn’t let the time between books go nearly as long between this one and “The Broken Kingdoms,” a win! I also managed to get my hands on the audiobook, as I’ve really been enjoying the narration for this series. But I have to say, sadly, this was by far my least enjoyable book in the series.

The book description for this book is so, so poor! Not only does that description barely give any hint as to what’s actually going on in this book, but it doesn’t even tell you who the main character is. Turns out, the main character is Sieh. After seeing himself and the other gods freed and a new god joining their ranks, Sieh has found himself restless of late, unsure where he fits in this new world. Like him, the world itself is still stumbling, and the powerful Arameri family have found themselves in a tough spot. But perhaps, together, Sieh and an unexpected pair of siblings can, once again, change the world.

I was so sad to find myself not enjoying this book! It was almost like the world and characters got away from Jemisin, something that I didn’t think I’d ever say. I think the first mistake was centering the book around Sieh, the child-like god of fun and tricks. This is the kind of character who serves as an excellent side character, dishing out laughs and the necessary unexpected twists that keeps a reader on their toes. But when you make him the main character, these same traits make him a difficult character to root for. His capriciousness and childlike brattiness were less endearing and more frustrating when he’s the head I was in through most of the book. And while the book is seemingly about Sieh growing older, he tended to just grow into teenage angst, a phase I find equally annoying to read as that of the bratty child.

I also felt like the structure of the story suffered. There were time jumps all over the place which, again, left me feeling unstable and unable to fully immerse myself in the world and story. The pacing just felt jolting and like Jemisin wasn’t exactly clear on what her story was actually going to be. Instead, it felt like she had a lot of ideas for progressing the world and the magic system, an end goal that she wanted to land on to finalize the series. But there wasn’t an effective story to get her there, and so we were left with this messy little thing.

I was also disconnected with the romance, an unconventional love triangle. The other characters involved were interesting enough, but the entire thing made me feel uncomfortable at times, and I just was never invested in it in the same way I was with the romances in the first two books.

Jemisin’s writing and way with words were as strong as ever, and I think the endpoint she had in mind for this trilogy was great. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem like she had a story to get her there. Fans of this series might want to check it out just to finish it all up, but for casual fans, I’d say stick to the first two and leave it at that.

Rating 6: A big come-down from the first two books; some characters should just stay side-characters, I think.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Kingdoms of Gods” is on these Goodreads lists: Fantasy That Isn’t Fantastic Straight White Men Doing Epic Things… and Best Fantasy God Type books.

Find “The Kingdom of Gods at the library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “A Lesson in Vengeance”

Book: “A Lesson in Vengeance” by Victoria Lee

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, August 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Felicity Morrow is back at Dalloway School.

Perched in the Catskill mountains, the centuries-old, ivy-covered campus was home until the tragic death of her girlfriend. Now, after a year away, she’s returned to graduate. She even has her old room in Godwin House, the exclusive dormitory rumored to be haunted by the spirits of five Dalloway students—girls some say were witches. The Dalloway Five all died mysteriously, one after another, right on Godwin grounds.

Witchcraft is woven into Dalloway’s history. The school doesn’t talk about it, but the students do. In secret rooms and shadowy corners, girls convene. And before her girlfriend died, Felicity was drawn to the dark. She’s determined to leave that behind her now; all Felicity wants is to focus on her senior thesis and graduate. But it’s hard when Dalloway’s occult history is everywhere. And when the new girl won’t let her forget.

It’s Ellis Haley’s first year at Dalloway, and she’s already amassed a loyal following. A prodigy novelist at seventeen, Ellis is a so-called “method writer.” She’s eccentric and brilliant, and Felicity can’t shake the pull she feels to her. So when Ellis asks Felicity for help researching the Dalloway Five for her second book, Felicity can’t say no. Given her history with the arcane, Felicity is the perfect resource. And when history begins to repeat itself, Felicity will have to face the darkness in Dalloway–and in herself.

Review: You give me a YA thriller that involves a boarding school with a bloody history, and I am one hundred percent here for that kind of narrative. And if you throw in witches, or even the rumor of them, I’m even MORE interested. So obviously when I read about “A Lesson in Vengeance” by Victoria Lee, I definitely wanted to give it a read.

The thing that worked best in “A Lesson in Vengeance” was the eerie setting and atmosphere of Dalloway School, the prestigious boarding school that our protagonist Felicity attends. It has a long history of educating women, but a notorious past involving five students who were supposed witches, and who died under strange circumstances. Lee builds this history up through Felicity’s perspective, as well as research that she and new student/prodigy author Ellis are conducting. We know that Felicity has been through some kind of trauma involving her former girlfriend Alex, who also died, and whose death is haunting Felicity for various reasons. As she and Ellis start to dig into the occult rumors, the tension builds at a well paced rate. I was definitely wondering just what Felicity was hiding, both from the reader as well as herself, and while I kind of figured out some of (okay, a lot of) the twists and reveals that we had along the way, the creepy setting and atmosphere that Lee had in place made the journey work for me. I also thought that the tension between Felicity and Ellis was nice and taut, as they are playing a game of sexual and romantic desire and want, while also perhaps not being able to trust each other for various reasons that are slowly peeled back as the book goes on.

But that brings us to the characters themselves. “A Lesson in Vengeance” has a harder time with keeping the characters interesting as the story goes on, as I felt that both Felicity and Ellis were pretty two dimensional. Or at the very least, tropey in their characterizations. Felicity is the unreliable poor little rich girl, whose toxic relationship with her now dead ex girlfriend has damaged her, but also perhaps has her hiding something. Ellis is the cold and blunt child prodigy whom everyone loves due to her fame (as she is a published author) but who is also potentially hiding secrets and ulterior motives. They have a slow building romance that may or may not be dangerous, but it isn’t anything we haven’t seen before in thrillers where characters are potentially fatales, femme or otherwise. The tension is there, and it is effective, but at the end of the day neither Felicity nor Ellis had much unique to their characters, and came off more flat than anything else.

“A Lesson in Vengeance” is definitely an effective Dark Academia thriller, but it doesn’t reach the high levels I was hoping for.

Rating 6: A creepy and atmospheric thriller involving a history of witches, dangerous romance, and a school full of secrets. The characters, however, are a little flat for the tale they inhabit.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Lesson in Vengeance” is included on the Goodreads lists “Dark Academia”, and “2021 Sapphic Releases”.

Find “A Lesson in Vengeance” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Diving Into Sub-Genres: Cozy Mysteries

We each have our own preferred genres of choice. Kate loves horrors and thrillers, really anything that will keep her up at night! And Serena enjoys escaping through hidden doors into realms of magic and adventure. We also read mysteries, historical fiction, graphic novels, etc. etc. And that’s not even counting the multitude of sub-genres contained within each greater genre. In this series, one of us with present a list of our favorites from within a given sub-genre of one of our greater preferred genres.

I’ll be the first to admit that cozy mysteries get a bad rap. Even I am sometimes prone to dismissing this sub-genre as a bit fluffy and insubstantial. But…why should fluff or light-heartedness be looked down on? Mystery is a broad genre and the carrying over enjoyment factor would seem to be readers getting a chance to piece together small clues to solve a mystery. Why should there then be a rule that said mystery must be extremely violent, gory, or unsettling? Surely there are readers who enjoy solving puzzles but would prefer to avoid some of these more graphic or gloomy topics. Enter: cozy mysteries.

Part of the reason this sub-genre is so often looked down upon is likely due to a very specific sort of cozy mystery that often comes to mind when the sub-genre is referenced. Picture a mystery series where every book has a title featuring a different baked good or craft item. And while these fluffy concept series are definitely a solid example of a cozy mystery, they are certainly not the only type out there. Indeed, several of the historical mystery series I’ve read and reviewed on this blog would qualify. An emphasis on characters, humor, and a lighter touch on the darkness around the mystery (a murder can be involved, but no gory descriptions please!) is really all that is required. So, here is a list of a few cozy mysteries that serve as good example of the types of books that are found in this sub-genre.

Book: “Meet Your Baker” by Ellie Alexander

This is kind of your classic cozy mystery: a series based on a comfy theme (this time baking), a bright colorful cover, and a punny title. But the story goes beyond that! Set in Ashland, Oregon, home of the Shakespeare Festival (I’ve attended this, and yeah, the town goes all out!), Juliet Capshaw (get it??) returns home to help her mother run the family bakery. But of course, murder comes calling and Juliet quickly finds herself drawn in, searching to discover the killer. She also meets a high school sweet-heart who is also attempting to solve the case. The book has a bunch of quirky characters, an emphasis on Juliet’s emotional arc, a little love story, and, oh yeah, the mystery. This is a long-running series and is chock full of these pun-ridden titles. “Fudge and Jury” and “A Batter of Life and Death” are just a few other examples.

Book: “Crocodile on the Sandbank” by Elizabeth Peters

Those familiar with this blog will be quite familiar with Elizabeth Peters’ “Amelia Peabody” series. It’s one of my tried and true mystery series that I return to regularly, whenever I’m in need of a light-hearted historical mystery. This is the sort of book that I think less often comes to mind when people mention cozy mysteries. However, it still fits perfectly within the category. The mysteries often involve murder, but there isn’t a focus on the more grizzly aspects of the crime scenes. Instead, much of the focus of the story is on the familial relationships between Amelia, her husband, and their children. There are a rotating cast of side characters who make various appearances, as well. And while our characters may face danger around every corner, the reader can rest assured that Amelia and co. will prevail in the end, and many laughs will be had along the way!

Book: “Murder at the Vicarage” by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie is one of the OG cozy mystery authors. She’s prolific and one of the most recognizable names in the larger mystery genre itself. And one of the best examples of her work in cozy mysteries is her Miss Marple series. This is the first book which features, as may be guessed, a murder at the vicarage. And the next door neighbor is none other than Miss Marple herself, a sharp, self-deprecating woman who handily takes the case in hand, stringing together the many clues dropped by the colorful cast of characters. Christie’s “Poriot” is perhaps her better known detective, but Miss Marple fits the mold perfectly for a leading lading in a cozy mystery.

Book: “The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie” by Alan Bradley

This is another historical cozy, set in England in the 1950s, but it stands out for its unique protagonist: a genius 11-year-old girl named Flavia de Luce. Flavia is the heart and soul of this series, with her quirky personality and dazzling brilliance, being much more perceptive and intelligent than the adults who surround her. This book starts out with the cover image, a dead bird delivered to a door with a postage stamp pinned to its beak. But there are more than dead birds at stake, and soon enough, a human body appears on the scene. Flavia suddenly discovers a calling, putting her keen knowledge of chemistry, especially, to the task. This is another long series, with something like ten books published, the latest in 2019.

Book: “How to Wash a Cat” by Rebecca M. Hale

This is kind of everything you’d expect from the title and cover art: a woman and her two cats solve mysteries! There is also a decent about of San Francisco history in this first book. It seems to be generally understood that this first of the series isn’t one of the weaker installments, but the series as a whole seems to be well-received. Readers could perhaps start with later books, but I always like highlighting the fist in a series for lists like this, for those completionists out there. There are a lot of wacky side characters, but the two cats probably steal the show. So, this is definitely the kind of series/book that will appeal to a very specific sort of person!

Do you have a favorite cozy mystery?

Serena’s Review: “Six Crimson Cranes”

Book: “Six Crimson Cranes” by Elizabeth Lim

Publishing Info: Knopf, July 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Shiori, the only princess of Kiata, has a secret. Forbidden magic runs through her veins. Normally she conceals it well, but on the morning of her betrothal ceremony, Shiori loses control. At first, her mistake seems like a stroke of luck, forestalling the wedding she never wanted, but it also catches the attention of Raikama, her stepmother.

Raikama has dark magic of her own, and she banishes the young princess, turning her brothers into cranes, and warning Shiori that she must speak of it to no one: for with every word that escapes her lips, one of her brothers will die.

Penniless, voiceless, and alone, Shiori searches for her brothers, and, on her journey, uncovers a conspiracy to overtake the throne—a conspiracy more twisted and deceitful, more cunning and complex, than even Raikama’s betrayal. Only Shiori can set the kingdom to rights, but to do so she must place her trust in the very boy she fought so hard not to marry. And she must embrace the magic she’s been taught all her life to contain—no matter what it costs her.

Review: Here’s the second “Seven Swans” retelling, right after the fist! What a strange thing. But after seeing three different versions of “Red Riding Hood” this summer, should I really be surprised? This one, however, folds in many other fantasy elements and stories, so while the “Seven Swans” framework is still there, it’s less of a straight-forward thing than “A Rush of Wings.” Let’s dive in!

While once close, Shiori has since fallen out with her mysterious step-mother Raikama. But when Shiori discovers Raikama’s secret, that she, like Shiori, possess a forbidden gift for magic, Shiori finds herself and her brothers cursed. Now, outcast from the comfortable court that was her home, with no voice and no ability to be recognized, Shiori must find a way to return her brothers to their human form, freeing them from the daily transformation to cranes that they must now endure. While struggling in this endeavor, Shiori comes across yet another challenge, uncovering a plot to overthrow her father’s throne. Will her magic, so long hidden, be the thing to save her and her brothers?

While this book had some definite highs and lows, there were a few things it immediately had going for it. I really liked that the author brought together two different fairytales and seamlessly wove them together. We have the obvious “Seven Swans” story with brothers being turned into swans/cranes and one, single sister left voiceless to complete a painful task to save them from this curse. But on top of that, Lim tied in the Japanese folk tale. “Hachikazuki,” a “Cinderella”-like story featuring a beautiful young girl cursed to wear a bowl over her head that disguises her beauty before she is found by a prince. It was really neat seeing how these two different stories were paired up so well. not only does Shiori lose her voice, but the bowl covering her head makes her unrecognizable to everyone around her and disrupts her magical abilities.

Shiori is also a strong main character. We see early on her strength and stubborn mindset, two traits that lead her into some rebellious and rather thoughtless actions. But as the story progresses and she falls to the curse, we also see how these two weaknesses can also turn into her greatest strengths, especially when now paired with the sense of purpose and love for her brothers that the curse has drawn out. I also thought the brothers and love interest were all interesting. I had a decent understanding of all of the brothers as individuals, a difficult task when there are many of them and you only meet them all briefly. The love interest was also fine, though I didn’t find myself overly invested in his story or the romance of the story, overall.

However, the book did have a few points where I began to struggle. First, the pacing felt all over the place. The first half, especially, felt like it played out in a set of fits and starts, strangely broken by supreme lulls in the action. There is one particular chunk that almost felt like it had come from a different draft and didn’t fit in well at all with the rest. There were a few important things that took place during this chunk, but the entire thing felt like a vehicle to get these plot points in, rather than an organic part of the story.

Lastly, while I liked the combination of two different fairytales, there were a lot of other magical elements piled on top of these two stories. We have a bunch of lore and legend about dragons, a history of magic that bas been banned from this land for various reasons, and a rebellion against the king and his court. It all began to feel like a bit too much. The middle part of the book especially began to feel weighted down by all of this. Because there were so many elements at play, I found myself beginning to lose interest in them all together. There were a few twists to the end of the story that paid off some of these storylines, but I still feel like the sheer number of story elements hurt the main thrust of the story.

While I still struggled with portions of this book, I did enjoy it more than “A Rush of Wings” that I read early. So if you’re looking at the two and trying to decide which to go with, I would recommend this one first. There is also a sequel in the works, and I’ll likely check that out.

Rating 7: Pretty ok. Not blowing my mind in any way, but a few clever twists and turns held it together for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Six Crimson Cranes” is on these Goodreads lists: Covers by Tran Nguyen and The Wild Swans/The Six Swans Retellings.

Find “Six Crimson Cranes” at the library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Mary Shelley Club”

Book: “The Mary Shelley Club” by Goldy Moldavsky

Publishing Info: Henry Holt & Company, April 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: New girl Rachel Chavez is eager to make a fresh start at Manchester Prep. But as one of the few scholarship kids, Rachel struggles to fit in, and when she gets caught up in a prank gone awry, she ends up with more enemies than friends.

To her surprise, however, the prank attracts the attention of the Mary Shelley Club, a secret club of students with one objective: come up with the scariest prank to orchestrate real fear. But as the pranks escalate, the competition turns cutthroat and takes on a life of its own.

When the tables are turned and someone targets the club itself, Rachel must track down the real-life monster in their midst . . . even if it means finally confronting the dark secrets from her past.

Review: Though Halloween is over, we all know that it lives on in my heart year round, and that I’m always into reading something creepy and crawly no matter the time of year. But I am definitely kicking myself a bit for not reading “The Mary Shelley Club” by Goldy Moldavsky during the Halloween Season, because it would have been SO PERFECT. I was basically able to read it in one day, for one, and for another it wraps itself up in the comfort and familiarity of horror movies, and those who love them. Honestly, that sounds like a great Halloween read. Kicking myself just a little bit here for sitting on it.

When it comes to the foundation and bare bones of this book, we have Rachel Chavez, a teenage girl who survived a traumatic home invasion that left her attacker dead, and her psyche on edge. She’s moved to a new school for a fresh start, but is having trouble fitting in outside of her one friend Saundra, so she turns to horror movies to try and control her anxiety. Rachel as a main character is great. I thought that her characteristics have all the boxes you like to see for a ‘final girl’, so following her made narrative sense. I also liked how her trauma is introduced early, but parsed out over time and shows actual mental and emotional fallout for her. And her love for all things horror is so, so endearing, as I am always for stories that have spooky girls whose love for scary things may be more about exploring the horrors of life in a safe way (because I feel this on a deep cellular level). I also liked seeing her interact with various members of The Mary Shelley Club, a secret group that specializes in all things horror as well as setting up elaborate and scary pranks on unsuspecting targets. From the sarcastic and catty Thayer to charismatic and charming Freddie, Rachel has her allies and people she can bond with, while making the usual mistakes that someone desperate to fit in may make. Especially when other members, like sullen Felicity and mysterious Bram aren’t as warm to her presence as a new member.

The plot and mystery itself is a little bit weaker. The big question about this story is who is starting to target the members of the Mary Shelley Club as their pranks start to go wrong, and there may be an outsider who is hoping to take one of them out. While I thought that Moldavsky has the pacing down well, and while there were a couple moments of surprise as the mystery continues, overall I thought it was kind of easy to see what was happening in terms of red herrings and reveals. But some of those weaknesses were easy to overlook, because what I liked best about “The Mary Shelley Club” that elevated it from mere ‘okay’ status is the love of horror movies that is displayed on the page. Moldavsky has made a cast of characters, especially in Rachel, that showcase a wide range of horror movie affection, and the references are ample and peppered throughout the narrative. And while they aren’t as in depth or expansive as, say, “My Heart Is a Chainsaw”, there are still so many that made me smile from ear to ear. Rachel and the other club members debate the merits of the original “Black Christmas”, they dress up as various horror movie icons for Halloween, the movies on their watch lists are fun to spot, and even when I didn’t agree with the things Rachel said about various horror movies, I still appreciated the references(but seriously, “Sleepaway Camp” being described as the worst horror movie of all time is a BIT much. Cheesy, yes. Inadvertently transphobic, probably. But the WORST?).

When stupid trying to be funny but completely unwatchable dreck films like “ThanksKilling” exist, there is no way “Sleepaway Camp” is the worst horror film of all time, (source)

Overall, “The Mary Shelley Club” is a fun book because it has such an earnest love of horror and all the beautiful things and people that come with it. Goldavsky has set up for potential sequels, and I would probably read them with relish.

Rating 7: A fun tribute to horror movies and the people who love them, “The Mary Shelley Club” isn’t super unique narrative wise, but has a couple surprises, and some good moments of suspense.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Mary Shelley Club” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books in Academia”, and “2021 YA Horror Written by Women (cis and trans) and Non-Binary Femmes”.

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

Serena’s Review: “A Rush of Wings”

Book: “A Rush of Wings” by Laura E. Weymouth

Publishing Info: Margaret K. McElderry Books, November 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Rowenna Winthrop has always known there’s magic within her. But though she hears voices on the wind and possesses unusual talents, her mother Mairead believes Rowenna lacks discipline, and refuses to teach her the craft that keeps their Scottish village safe. When Mairead dies a sinister death, it seems Rowenna’s one chance to grow into her power has passed. Then, on a fateful, storm-tossed night, Rowenna rescues a handsome stranger named Gawen from a shipwreck, and her mother miraculously returns from the dead. Or so it appears.

This resurrected Mairead is nothing like the old one: to hide her new and monstrous nature, she turns Rowenna’s brothers and Gawen into swans and robs Rowenna of her voice. Forced to flee, Rowenna travels to the city of Inverness to find a way to break the curse. But monsters take many forms, and in Inverness Rowenna is soon caught in a web of strangers who want to use her raw magic for their own gain. If she wishes to save herself and the people she loves most, Rowenna will have to take her fate into her own hands, and unlock the power that has evaded her for so long.

Review: I’m always down for a fairytale retelling of “The Seven Swans.” I have a pretty solid favorite in Juliet Marillier’s “Daughter of the Forest,” but there have been a few surprising contenders of the years. This month, strangely enough, I’ll be getting through two very different versions of the story! First off is “A Rush of Wings” featuring a very pretty cover! Alas, the story didn’t quite hold up to that promising start.

With latent magical abilities, there is nothing Rowenna wants more than to follow in her mother’s footsteps, using her gift to protect her family and the land. But where her mother is calm and serene, Rowenna’s spirit is wild and rebellious. So much so that her mother refuses to teach her, worried that Rowenna would lack the discipline to use such a gift wisely. But when Rowenna’s mother dies before teaching her, and then, disturbingly, returns changed for the worse, Rowenna is left without the tools to combat this powerful enemy. Now, with her loved ones trapped as swans and deprived of her voice, Rowenna must fight to understand and control the powerful magic within herself.

Obviously, I love the bare bones fairytale at the heart of the story: the young woman proving that strength comes from within, willing herself to keep going to save those she loves, pushing through pain and fear until the end. And that story can be found in this book. However, I was already struggling before we even got to that point, unfortunately.

For one thing, Rowenna was a difficult character for me to like. I understand her arch, one of coming to realize her own strengths and temper her more reckless moments. But that story seemed to mesh awkwardly with the typical character arch to be found in this fairytale. In the originally, you need to be wholly behind the heroine, to feel her pain with her, to urge her onwards and feel completely involved in the challenge before her. But with Rowenna, because she is set up originally in weaker position character-wise, I struggled to care for her story. She wasn’t outright unlikable, but she also didn’t have any particular aspects to her character that made her quickly appeal to me. Right there, the entire story was a bit hobbled going forward.

Beyond that, I found the writing to be stilted and awkward. Dialogue didn’t feel natural, and, worst of all, there was an abysmal lack of descriptive additions to scenes and characters. I couldn’t describe what almost any of the characters looked like or what their world truly held. It almost felt like the author was in such a rush to get to the action of her story, that she forgot to fully flesh out the world her story took place within. Without being grounded in any clear world or attached to the main character, the book felt like a rather sterile plot machine rather than a story.

One example of this problem came when fairly early in the story a few fantastical creatures were casually mentioned. I had no idea we were fully operating in this type of second world fantasy! Obviously there was magic, but the story went full on “magical creatures” on me, and without any descriptions of the world given to me, I had already established the world as largely based on our own. This is the kind of mental disconnect that can happen between a reader and a book when the author hasn’t done enough to establish the world firmly.

I was so sad to find myself struggling to finish this book. I think the author had some interesting ideas, but her characters and unclear world let the story itself down. Fans of fairytale re-tellings could perhaps add this to their list, but I think there are better versions of the story out there.

Rating 6: A bland main character and stilted writing left me feeling disconnected from the story overall.

Reader’s Advisory: “A Rush of Wings” is on these Goodreads lists: “Rowena” and YA Releases of November, 2021.

Find “A Rush of Wings” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Our Violent Ends”

Book: “Our Violent Ends” by Chloe Gong

Publishing Info: Margaret K McElderry Books, November 2021

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

Book Description: Shanghai is under siege in this captivating and searingly romantic sequel to These Violent Delights, which New York Times bestselling author Natasha Ngan calls “deliciously dark.”

The year is 1927, and Shanghai teeters on the edge of revolution. After sacrificing her relationship with Roma to protect him from the blood feud, Juliette has been a girl on the warpath. One wrong move, and her cousin will step in to usurp her place as the Scarlet Gang’s heir. The only way to save the boy she loves from the wrath of the Scarlets is to have him want her dead for murdering his best friend in cold blood. If Juliette were actually guilty of the crime Roma believes she committed, his rejection might sting less.

Roma is still reeling from Marshall’s death, and his cousin Benedikt will barely speak to him. Roma knows it’s his fault for letting the ruthless Juliette back into his life, and he’s determined to set things right—even if that means killing the girl he hates and loves with equal measure.

Then a new monstrous danger emerges in the city, and though secrets keep them apart, Juliette must secure Roma’s cooperation if they are to end this threat once and for all. Shanghai is already at a boiling point: The Nationalists are marching in, whispers of civil war brew louder every day, and gangster rule faces complete annihilation. Roma and Juliette must put aside their differences to combat monsters and politics, but they aren’t prepared for the biggest threat of all: protecting their hearts from each other.

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

Last year I took a bit of a chance on the book “These Violent Delights”, Chloe Gong’s historical fiction fantasy romance thriller retelling of “Romeo and Juliet”. That’s a true mouthful for a genre description, but it’s the only way to truly describe the wide breadth that this book had. I ended up enjoying it, and found myself waiting anxiously to find out what happened next. Well great news! The conclusion, “Our Violent Ends”, has been released, and let me tell you, the year long wait was worth it. Juliette and Roma are back, and I happily dove into the sweet, sweet agony that was sure to follow.

Me fully ready to watch things go horribly south for all my favorite characters in 1920s Shanghai. (source)

Just as a quick additional refresher, this “Romeo and Juliet” retelling takes place in 1920s Shanghai, as two rival gangs, the Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers, have a blood feud that has led to constant tension and violence. Juliette is the heir to the Scarlet Gang, Roma is the heir to the White Flowers, they had a passionate love affair and in the last book teamed up to try and stop a monster from wreaking pure havoc on the city they love. When we finished the first book, Juliette had just killed Roma’s best friend Marshall, though she hadn’t REALLY killed him, it was all a ruse to keep Roma safe vis a vis his hatred of her.

Plot wise, Gong balances the source material with a lot of new themes and plot points, as well as an update to the time and place that the story takes place. There are still threats from monsters in this one, which makes the Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers have an uneasy truce/team up in hopes that Juliette and Roma can find the vaccine that is rumored to stop the monsters (and of course the tension is off the charts in all kinds of ways). But there are also threats of the time period, like the simmering tensions between the Nationalists and the rising Communists. And we are still dealing with the two gangs having conflicts, which could be ceasing due to a common enemy of the monsters, but is always on the precipice. It’s a lot to cram in there, and while sometimes it felt like it was a little too much (and that we’d gloss over aspects of the plot because of it), overall Gong still managed to have a clear connection to the original play through things that would happen in the story. Even when she would twist some things around to better fit the story that she was telling. These moments were done in such a way that usually felt more true to the circumstances, however, and never like she was just trying to fit square pegs into round holes.

It is still the characters, however, that are the books greatest strengths. While the original cast of “Romeo and Juliet” has a kind of charisma to a degree (I mean, I don’t like the play but I recognize the appeal of the characters), Gong continues to draw far more complexity from her versions of the players. With Roma you have a brooding and brokenhearted Romeo, who is mourning the supposed death of his friend Marshall at the hand of his former lover. With Juliette you have a woman who is being torn up by her feeling of duty to her family as the heir to the Scarlet Gang, as well as her deep love for a man that she had to pretend to betray. And oh how I continued to love this version of Juliette. She gets shit done and isn’t given ANY credit for it, and I loved her inner turmoil even as she has to hold EVERYTHING together to be the strongest player in the whole damn story. It gives both the main characters FAR more pathos than the play did, and I really enjoyed how Gong gave both of them a lot more agency, smarts, and will than their inspirations were ever given. I was actively rooting for both of them, but especially Juliette, who is constantly trying to prove herself as worthy, though as a woman she is never going to be seen as such (and her psychopathic cousin Tyler is given more glory than she ever gets). But it’s also side players that are highly enjoyable, be it Juliette’s cousins Kathleen and Rosalind, or Roma’s younger sister Alisa. For me, though, I LOVED Marshall and Benedikt, the two lovers who have been separated due to Marshall faking his death, and Benedikt’s agony over it. Oh these two. You cannot help but root for them.

“Our Violent Ends” finished out the duology on a perhaps expected but still satisfying high note. Chloe Gong made me into a “Romeo and Juliet” fan, at least the way she tells it, and I definitely recommend checking it out if you want to see a really unique twist on the original tale!

Rating 8: A complex and satisfying end to a truly unique Shakespeare retelling.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Our Violent Ends” is new and not included on any Goodreads lists yet, but it would fit in on “Rewriting Shakespeare (YA Edition)”, and “YA Fiction Set in the 1920s”.

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

Previously Reviewed: “These Violent Delights”.

Joint Review: “Comfort Me With Apples”

Book: “Comfort Me With Apples” by Catherynne M. Valente

Publishing Info: Tor.Com

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

Book Description: Sophia was made for him. Her perfect husband. She can feel it in her bones. He is perfect. Their home together in Arcadia Gardens is perfect. Everything is perfect.

It’s just that he’s away so much. So often. He works so hard. She misses him. And he misses her. He says he does, so it must be true. He is the perfect husband and everything is perfect.

But sometimes Sophia wonders about things. Strange things. Dark things. The look on her husband’s face when he comes back from a long business trip. The questions he will not answer. The locked basement she is never allowed to enter. And whenever she asks the neighbors, they can’t quite meet her gaze

But everything is perfect. Isn’t it?

Kate’s Thoughts

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

I will be the first to admit that, unlike Serena, I haven’t really found myself connecting with the works I’ve read by Catherynne M. Valente. I know that fantasy readers really love her stories, and I recognize the talent there, though the content itself hasn’t ever wowed me. But when Serena asked if I’d be interested in joint reviewing Valente’s new horror/dark fantasy novella “Comfort Me With Apples”, I was totally game. After all, the description was mysterious, with hints of Bluebeard and suburban horror, and I figured that all those things combined would make for an interesting tale. And then Valente went and shocked me with a whole other element that TOTALLY WORKED… and that I can’t really talk about because I don’t want to spoil anything.

Frustrating I know, but really, you should go in a bit blind. (source)

But here is what I will say about “Comfort Me With Apples”: Valente has created a very well plotted novella that slowly builds the unease from the jump, and it eventually escalates to dread, and hope, and frustration, and a bit more dread. We get two different ways of telling this story: the first is the story of Sophia, a young wife living in the perfect community of Arcadia Gardens, with a perfect husband that she feels completely devoted to and defined by, who shouldn’t have any care in the world as everything is so laid out and, well, perfect. As she lives her day to day life of perfection, she starts to have niggling doubts due to how secretive her husband can be, and small, creepy discoveries she’s making in her home that imply that someone was there before her. We also have the rules of this community interspersed in the narrative, as they go from general (if not incredibly stiff) HOA guidelines, to things that sound far more punitive and threatening. I loved how Valente used both these ways to clue you in to what Sophia was slowly discovering about herself, and the secrets her husband, and neighbors, are keeping. And boy did it build up and seep into my veins. I don’t know what I expected from this short story, but it definitely blew past them, and hit every single thing that I wanted it to hit when the big picture was finally clear for all to see.

I enjoyed this novella quite a bit. If you want a quick, creepy, and in some ways frustrating (in a good way?) read, definitely look into “Comfort Me With Apples”.

Serena’s Thoughts

I’ve really liked Valente’s books before, most especially her “Fairyland” series. Knowing her writing style, very lyrical and and fanciful style, I was really curious to see how that would adapt to a more chilling tone and story. I had high hopes, which is why I brought in our resident horror expert! But even with that in mind, I was still struck with just how well her unique use of words and phrasing would work to draw an increasingly disturbing picture. The build is slow, but the tension and dread wrap around you from quite early on, even if you can’t put your finger on just what is wrong.

Like Kate mentioned, this book is incredibly hard to review without spoiling the many secrets that are slowly unveiled as the story progresses. I think it is particularly interesting, though, having both Kate and I read it, because in some ways, we both came at this book from very different perspectives. Kate is more familiar with general horror and thrillers, giving her a unique perspective on the story. And I….

More like, I have a particular background knowledge set that I can’t mention because it will spoil the story. That said, those who have the same history will be quick to pick up on some elements of the story and can see where things are going a bit early on. Not to brag, but I was even able to put names to characters who never make the page. Yeah, be impressed. But that’s really neither here nor there in the end, as I don’t think being able to predict some of these twists or not really affects the reading experience too much. It was still super creepy and a very unique twist on some familiar elements.

Kate’s Rating 8: Unexpected and creepy, and hits all the right buttons for the kind of story it ends up being!

Serena’s Rating 8: A quick but creepy read that wraps up some familiar (and less familiar) elements into a brand-new tension-filled tale.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Comfort Me With Apples” is included on the Goodreads lists “Suburban Gothic”, and “2021 Horror Novels Written by Women (Cis and Trans) and Non-Binary Femmes”.

Find “Comfort Me With Apples” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!