Kate’s Review: “You’ll Be the Death of Me”

Book: “You’ll Be the Death of Me” by Karen M. McManus

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, November 2021

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

Book Description: Ivy, Mateo, and Cal used to be close. Now all they have in common is Carlton High and the beginning of a very bad day.

Type A Ivy lost a student council election to the class clown, and now she has to face the school, humiliated. Heartthrob Mateo is burned out–he’s been working two jobs since his family’s business failed. And outsider Cal just got stood up…. again.

So when Cal pulls into campus late for class and runs into Ivy and Mateo, it seems like the perfect opportunity to turn a bad day around. They’ll ditch and go into the city. Just the three of them, like old times. Except they’ve barely left the parking lot before they run out of things to say…Until they spot another Carlton High student skipping school–and follow him to the scene of his own murder. In one chance move, their day turns from dull to deadly. And it’s about to get worse.It turns out Ivy, Mateo, and Cal still have some things in common. They all have a connection to the dead kid. And they’re all hiding something.

Now they’re all wondering–could it be that their chance reconnection wasn’t by chance after all?

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

It’s almost guaranteed by now that whenever Karen M. McManus releases a new book, I’m going to have a helluva fun time reading it. So when I saw that “You’ll Be the Death of Me” was coming out at the end of 2021, I was absolutely hyped. And I am so happy to say that this one MIGHT be my favorite of hers yet. Which is high praise, since I enjoyed all of her previous books. And it’s kind of funny that it’s my favorite, because it has a lot of winks to “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, a movie that I don’t particularly enjoy outside of Cameron and Jeanie. But that said, one of our main characters is basically a Jeanie, so maybe it’s not surprising after all.

Look, if you don’t like Jeanie Bueller, I don’t have time for you. (source)

“You’ll Be The Death of Me” centers on three former friends. The first is Ivy, a high strung Type A overachiever who tries to be the best at everything because she feels her brother is favored over her due to his intelligence. There’s Mateo, a quiet kid who lives with his cousin and his newly out of work mother, who is dealing with a medical condition that is prohibitively expensive in its treatment. And there’s Cal, a wise ass loner who is pining after someone he shouldn’t be. When they spontaneously decide to ditch out of school one day, they stumble upon the dead body of a classmate. On top of that, they all have a connection to the crime, and they all have dark secrets. The question isn’t so much if any of them did it, as we know they didn’t. The question is who did, and what secrets ARE they hiding that could be related. We alternate between first person perspectives of all the characters, and we get into their personalities as well as the complications of their former friendship that kind of fizzled out over the years, as friendships sometimes do. I had a true affection for all of them as we got to know them, and I thought that they were all pretty realistic in some of the choices they made and how they reacted to the situation they were in. I especially liked Ivy, as her desperation to be a high achiever and her insecurities were very relatable. It’s a character type we’ve seen a couple of times in McManus’s books, and I thought that Ivy was the most well rounded version of the trope in both her character strengths and weaknesses. And I thought that the way she portrayed all of them together felt very real, especially as we slowly find out the reasons that they stopped hanging out. Let’s just say it’s all very mundane, but in a good, true to life way.

And as for the mystery and the various reveals, be they connected to the murder or not, I was genuinely surprised and stumped for basically the most of the book! There are some really good twists and turns in this book, and when I thought that I had something figured out, or pegged something for a red herring, I was never quite on point. We get the clues interspersed with insight into how the community, specifically the school community, starts to theorize and start rumors about what happened, and how dangerous that kind of thing can be in terms of misinformation. And the mystery is quite complex, with threads reaching out to other characters that I didn’t expect, and going to some pretty dark places, involving the opioid crisis and grooming. And McManus made these themes fit into the overall story pretty well, and handled them in responsible and empathetic ways. And the best part? There is the possibility of a sequel that’s been set up here. If it doesn’t happen, that’s fine, of course. But I would absolutely read to see what happens next.

“You’ll Be the Death of Me” is supremely entertaining and a good mystery. With winter setting in, add this to the reading pile to get through these upcoming, colder months!

Rating 9: Supremely entertaining and a well crafted mystery with likable characters. McManus is still a titan in the YA thriller community!

Reader’s Advisory:

“You’ll Be the Death of Me” is included on the Goodreads list “YA Suspense/Thriller/Mystery”.

Find “You’ll Be the Death of Me” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Not Just Books: November 2021

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

Serena’s Picks

Movie: “Dune”

It was a rare day when my husband and I looked at each other and realized we an entire afternoon free from children with nothing planned to do. And so ushered in our grand return to theater going and “Dune” was the perfect film to reinforce the additional experience that is seeing a movie on a huge screen with all of the sound effects and ambiance that comes with that. This movie was gorgeous and the use of the sound effects in the theater were particularly effective. I haven’t read the original book or watched the David Lynch adaptation, so I knew only a few basic facts going in. That said, the movie does an excellent job of setting itself up for new viewers while also not dumbing down any of its story. If you have a safe way of doing so, I definitely recommend checking this one out in a theater if you have the opportunity!

Documentary series: “The Last Dance”

This is a bit of an odd one fore me. While I am a pretty big sports fan, basketball and the NBA have always been way, waaaay down on my list of priorities or interests. That said, as someone who grew up in the 90s, there’s no deny the absolute phenomenon that was Michael Jordan on the culture of my childhood. This is a ten part series, so it’s quite a commitment, but it was well worth the time. I knew most of the bullet points of Jordan’s career and life, but this added so much detail to his life and time in the NBA. It also went well beyond Jordan, diving into the experiences of many of the others involved in the Bulls’ historic run in the 90s. Here, there was a lot I didn’t know which threw a lot of new light on just how remarkable that entire time period was. Fans of sports documentaries, especially, should check this one out, though I think it might also be of interest to many who remember Jordan and the Bulls well.

TV Show: “Australian Survivor”

I’ve been pretty disappointed with the current season of U.S. “Survivor.” While there are interesting characters, the game is too bogged down with random twists and advantages to be much fun to watch. Enter: “Australian Survivor.” There are three seasons available on Paramount+ and man, what a refreshing experience they were! The show is largely the same, but it runs over 50 days instead of 39 (29 this season). This leaves it with a lot more emphasis on camp life and the interactions and strategies of the contestants. There are also a much more reasonable number of twists and turns. On top of that, all three of these seasons had fantastic casts. The last two had winners who I think are probably my favorite two winners of ANY “Survivor” season, so that’s really saying something. I definitely recommend it to fans of the show.

Kate’s Picks

Video Game: “Animal Crossing: New Horizons”

While it is true that I highlighted this game back in March of 2020, when it dropped, I’m coming back to it as a non-book highlight this month. I’ve been playing AC:NH since it came out, though it had been far more casually than it had been in the first few months. And then, Nintendo dropped a significant update at the beginning of November! And boy was there a lot to explore! My character’s island has a bunch of new things to toy with, from a coffee shop, to a new island tour involving a boat captain, to a new shopping and services feature where you can get your fortunes told, to my favorite new thing, FARMING AND COOKING! Yes, you can now grow your own crops, something the game kind of had already with fruit trees and pumpkins, but now it’s added more vegetables as well as recipes you can create with the bounty you grow. And given that November saw the start of explosive COVID growth here in Minnesota, having this escape to help soothe my anxiety has been much appreciated.

TV Show: “CSI: Vegas”

Back in high school my family had the TV shows that we would all sit down as a family and watch, specifically “The X-Files” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”. But there were a couple that were uniquely shows that were for me and my Dad to watch together, and one of those was the original “CSI”. He recently told me that they had rebooted the show with new people called “CSI: Vegas”, and when I started it I was immediately a high schooler again, obsessed with this techy (if super unrealistic) procedural involving a crime lab in Las Vegas. As mentioned it’s a new lab team this time around, but we do have extended appearances from Gil Grissom and Sara Sidle, two of the original characters who are now married and helping the lab go through some old cases in order to help exonerate the lab from accusations of malfeasance. I love seeing Gil and Sara, but I also like the new team members. Especially Allie Rajan, a CSI who is determined, sweet, and possibly harboring feelings for a colleague. Sounds a lot like Gil and Sara, to be honest. Hope this show sticks around, because I’m loving it.

Podcast: “National Park After Dark”

I talk a lot on here about how I’m not really an outdoors person, but I do have to make exceptions when it comes to the National Park System. I LOVE OUR NATIONAL PARKS! I’ve been to a handful across the country and hope to visit many more. I also love real life mysteries and true crime stories, so “National Park After Dark” is obviously a podcast that I fell in love with. It’s hosted by National Park enthusiasts Cassie and Danielle, and covers stories of survival, tragedy, and the just plain unexplained in our National Parks. From the Yosemite Killer to haunted trails to a plane crash on Mount Rainier/Tahoma, they cover a lot of interesting stories that I am eating up like popcorn. And I’m adding more and more parks to my list of ‘must sees’. Well, they’re ALL must see, but perhaps bumping a few up in terms of priority.

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!

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