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!

Serena’s Review: “Jade Legacy”

Book: “Jade Legacy” by Fonda Lee

Publishing Info: Orbit, November 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher!

Book Description: Jade, the mysterious and magical substance once exclusive to the Green Bone warriors of Kekon, is now known and coveted throughout the world. Everyone wants access to the supernatural abilities it provides, from traditional forces such as governments, mercenaries, and criminal kingpins, to modern players, including doctors, athletes, and movie studios. As the struggle over the control of jade grows ever larger and more deadly, the Kaul family, and the ancient ways of the Kekonese Green Bones, will never be the same.

The Kauls have been battered by war and tragedy. They are plagued by resentments and old wounds as their adversaries are on the ascent and their country is riven by dangerous factions and foreign interference that could destroy the Green Bone way of life altogether. As a new generation arises, the clan’s growing empire is in danger of coming apart.

The clan must discern allies from enemies, set aside aside bloody rivalries, and make terrible sacrifices… but even the unbreakable bonds of blood and loyalty may not be enough to ensure the survival of the Green Bone clans and the nation they are sworn to protect.

Previously Reviewed: “Jade City” and “Jade War”

Review: This has been one of the biggest break-out, surprise fantasy trilogies I’ve read in a while. I went in with pretty much zero expectations and have come out having read something so unique and so precisely written that I struggle to find apt comparisons. With my expectations sky high, I was both really excited to start this final chapter and incredibly nervous. The end really makes the entire thing, and what a tragedy would that be for it to crash?

What had been distinct and local to Kekon has blown up the outside world: Jade and it’s incredible powers to enhance human abilities. Not only does this type of powerful substance shift political powers and economies, but the tradition and regulation that grew up around it on Kekon is shaken by exposure to outside forces. The Green Bone way of life teeters on a perilous balance, and the Kaul family feels the threat to their clan and way of life. The walls are closing in and soon they may be forced to make a terrible choice to ensure their continued existence.

It has become increasingly clear as this trilogy has continued that it is largely a political fantasy. Arguably, the first book has more of an action-feeling and is largely concentrated on smaller, more individual stories, thus making it feel like a more straight-forward urban fantasy story. But the second book blows the scope outwards, landing several of our characters in other countries. On top of that, we begin to see Jade trickling out into this greater world. But here, in the last book, all of that comes fully into its own. All of the pieces that were laid down into the foundation of the political struggles ahead come to fruition, and the story fully embraces the larger, political clashes as the focal point of the story. Depending on your enjoyment of political fantasy, this will either be a boon or a bit of a let-down. I feel like it has built steadily in the first two books, and as I enjoy political fantasy, I was more than down to read a book that really delved into the complicated political maneuverings required in this new world order that involves Jade.

This switch in focus is even more apparent given the story’s generational approach. While the first books focused on smaller chunks of time and a fairly steady cast of characters, here the story jumps in huge leaps and bounds. Readers are left to either keep up or fall behind. I typically don’t enjoy stories that involve huge jumps in time. And while I think it worked here (indeed, I’m not sure how the same story could have been told without using this device), I will say that I did miss the closer character work that I had seen in the first two books. I’m a very character-driven reader, however, so this is definitely a subjective perspective.

The ending is everything the trilogy deserves. I think it may also be a bit divisive. There are a lot of twists and turns within the story, with it rarely going the direction I had anticipated. And the ending is no different. I think it ties everything up perfectly, but throughout the story, Lee doesn’t shy away from getting her hands dirty with the realities of the world she has created. I, for one, found this book to be a surprising, yet pitch perfect, end to a fantastic urban fantasy trilogy.

Rating 8: Magnificent. With this incredible conclusion to the Green Bone Saga, Lee has vaulted herself into the realms of the likes of N.K. Jemisin and other award-winning fantasy authors of the day.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Jade Legacy” is on these Goodreads lists: Best Asian Diaspora Sci-fi and Fantasy Books and Best Adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy Trilogies.

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

Kate’s Review: “The Keeper of Night”

Book: “The Keeper of Night” by Kylie Lee Baker

Publishing Info: Inkyard Press, October 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I won an ARC in a contest run by the author.

Book Description: Death is her destiny.

Half British Reaper, half Japanese Shinigami, Ren Scarborough has been collecting souls in the London streets for centuries. Expected to obey the harsh hierarchy of the Reapers who despise her, Ren conceals her emotions and avoids her tormentors as best she can.

When her failure to control her Shinigami abilities drives Ren out of London, she flees to Japan to seek the acceptance she’s never gotten from her fellow Reapers. Accompanied by her younger brother, the only being on earth to care for her, Ren enters the Japanese underworld to serve the Goddess of Death… only to learn that here, too, she must prove herself worthy. Determined to earn respect, Ren accepts an impossible task—find and eliminate three dangerous Yokai demons—and learns how far she’ll go to claim her place at Death’s side.

Review: Thank you to Kylie Lee Baker for the ARC she sent me through a contest!

As well all know by now, for the most part fantasy as a genre isn’t my jam. There are a couple of exceptions to this rule: “The Lord of the Rings” is my favorite book series of all time, and if there are dark elements or things that have to do with creepy things in the story, I am definitely all in. And this brings me to “The Keeper of Night” by Kylie Lee Baker, a dark fantasy novel about demons, death collectors, and the trauma of being rejected due to one’s identity. When I read the description I knew that this would be one of my exceptions. And given that I had recently read another book that talks about Yokai and Japanese folk lore (and wanted more), “The Keeper of Night” was a great follow up to “Nothing But Blackened Teeth”.

First and foremost, I loved our main character Ren. Right from the start she’s a bit rougher around the edges than I was expecting. Since she grew up being targeted by other Reapers due to her Shinigami heritage, and since her father has merely tolerated her but favored her half brother Neven, Ren has dealt with constant Othering and emotional abuse. It makes sense that she is desperate to find a place where she fits in, so going to Japan in hopes of allying herself with the Shinigami is a logical choice. Of course, Ren soon realizes that in Japan she is also out of place due to her Reaper heritage. It makes for a protagonist who has to internalize a lot of self loathing, and as her journey to find acceptance goes on she makes harder and harder decisions, which push her more and more morally grey. I liked seeing this progression, and I felt that Baker was careful to show the reasons why someone who has dealt with so much oppression, pain, and harm could turn to violence and cruelty, without necessarily condoning some of the darker choices Ren made. And without spoiling anything, the place that she ended up not only set up for the sequel in a really well done manner, it also took me by surprise in where it went, I will DEFINITELY be picking up the next in the series to see where Ren is going to go next.

The one constant better angel with her is Neven, whose genuine goodness has two effects on Ren: the first is that she wants to be better, because she loves her brother and he’s the only person who has shown her true warmth and kindness. The other is that she resents him, because his naïveté is not only hard to deal with, but it also reflects the comparatively privileged existence he has had compared to her. Things become more complicated when they meet Hiro, a disgraced Shinigami who offers to help Ren prove her worth to the Goddess of Death to serve her. Ren feels connected to Hiro due to their heritage, and this causes tension between her and Neven, as he can’t understand some of the things Hiro, as a former Shinigami, does. And this of course, makes Ren feel judged by the one person who never judged her BECAUSE it’s based in cultural differences. It’s no surprise that a lot of this can serve as allegories to sexism, racism, and privilege, and while I think Neven probably could have used a bit more of a dressing down from Ren on occasion, overall the dynamic was enjoyable. And treaded towards heart wrenching in some moments.

As for the fantasy elements, Baker uses a lot of Japanese folk lore, exploring Death mythology as well as a litany of Yokai, from fox spirits to fish spirits to very disturbing and threatening creatures. We got to see these things act out within the story, as well as got some actual folk lore stories to give the various characters Ren meets along the way context. And a lot of it is very dark and creepy, which made it all the more enjoyable for me, as someone who does love dark fantasy within the fantasy realm.

I definitely enjoyed “The Keeper of Night”, and will be waiting on pins and needles for the next book. And if you like dark fantasy, you should definitely seek this one out.

Rating 8: A unique and dark fantasy that threw me for a loop by the end, and makes me excited for the next in the series!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Keeper of Night” is included on the Goodreads lists “Monsters and Magic Society”, and “Awesome Swordswomen”.

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

Giveaway: “Jade Legacy”

Book: “Jade Legacy” by Fonda Lee

Publishing Info: Orbit, November 2021

Book Description: Jade, the mysterious and magical substance once exclusive to the Green Bone warriors of Kekon, is now known and coveted throughout the world. Everyone wants access to the supernatural abilities it provides, from traditional forces such as governments, mercenaries, and criminal kingpins, to modern players, including doctors, athletes, and movie studios. As the struggle over the control of jade grows ever larger and more deadly, the Kaul family, and the ancient ways of the Kekonese Green Bones, will never be the same.

The Kauls have been battered by war and tragedy. They are plagued by resentments and old wounds as their adversaries are on the ascent and their country is riven by dangerous factions and foreign interference that could destroy the Green Bone way of life altogether. As a new generation arises, the clan’s growing empire is in danger of coming apart.

The clan must discern allies from enemies, set aside aside bloody rivalries, and make terrible sacrifices… but even the unbreakable bonds of blood and loyalty may not be enough to ensure the survival of the Green Bone clans and the nation they are sworn to protect.

Giveaway Details: I’ve really been enjoying this fantasy series by Fonda Lee. It’s such a complicated, interesting world filled with complicated, interesting people. At various points in both of the first books I would be actively disliking a character only to have the entire board be flipped and finding that character to be one of the most compelling.

The story is also vast, tackling big concepts such as globalization, generational change, and the tenuous relationship between history and culture. Between the actual individual conflicts (full of fantasy action that feels nonstop) and the larger conflicts between the various gangs and countries at play, the story is full of tension and escalating consequences as the series has progressed. With this increasingly grand scale in mind, I’m really curious to see where this story is headed. It seems to be setting up a story that will move beyond the generation that we’ve mostly followed in the first two books. My full review is coming out this Friday. But in the mean time, make sure to enter to win a copy! The giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and ends Nov. 17.

Enter to win!

Kate’s Review: “Getaway”

Book: “Getaway” by Zoje Stage

Publishing Info: Mulholland Books, August 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: It was supposed to be the perfect week away . . . 

Imogen and Beck, two sisters who couldn’t be more different, have been friends with Tilda since high school. Once inseparable, over two decades the women have grown apart. But after Imogen survives a traumatic attack, Beck suggests they all reunite to hike deep into the Grand Canyon’s backcountry. A week away, secluded in nature . . . surely it’s just what they need.

But as the terrain grows tougher, tensions from their shared past bubble up. And when supplies begin to disappear, it becomes clear secrets aren’t the only thing they’re being stalked by. As friendship and survival collide with an unspeakable evil, Getaway becomes another riveting thriller from a growing master of suspense and “a literary horror writer on the rise” (BookPage).

Review: We’ve established this again and again, but I’m not really a camping person. While I am absolutely down for going up North to a remote location, more often than not I want that location to have a hotel that I can rest my weary head in. But I do love thrillers and horror stories that involve being out in the wilderness, as it probably lights up a deep seated fear that I have that prompts me to go for a cabin versus a tent. “Getaway” by Zoje Stage caught my eye for two reasons: 1) I read her previous novel “Wonderland”, and while it didn’t really connect with me as much as I’d hoped, I knew that I wanted to read more of her work, and 2) I am always, ALWAYS going to be on board for a danger in the wilderness story!

Let’s be real, this movie is why I’m not a camper. (source)

Stage creates the perfect set up for this danger in the wilderness story, and at first glance it sounds a lot like the film “The Descent”, in terms of motivation. Imogen is a woman who survives a mass shooting at her synagogue, and has been experiencing PTSD on top of OTHER PTSD that stems from another trauma in her life (known as ‘The Thing’ at first). Her older sister Beck and their long time friend Tilda (who has a somewhat strained relationship with Imogen) think that a backpacking trip into the Grand Canyon would be beneficial for Imogen’s mental health and great way to reconnect, but, as the description says, once they are in the thick of their trip, it’s clear that someone else is out there with them. Stage has a good blend of personal strife to go along with the slowly building unease, as the three women, all friends at one point but now drifting for multiple reasons, may not really trust each other as much as they should in a situation like this. We slowly start to learn the dynamics of this group, and how they have gotten to the point of mistrust, and I liked that Stage makes sure to be careful in how she portrays sticky themes while still giving all of these women room to grow, room to be messy, and room to adapt as their situation becomes more and more dire. I fully expected the characters to mostly stick to tropes (and Beck kind of does, as the reliable and logic minded doctor), but by the end they all have well explored characterizations that made them complex and realistic. This made it so I was all the more attached to them as the story progressed, which in turn made the tension all the more dire as they find out just who it is that is nearby (I’m being vague! I’m sorry! I just don’t want to spoil anything).

And let’s talk about that tension. “Getaway” absolutely touches on every point that I love in a wilderness thriller story, from the unrelenting apathy of nature to the elements being a danger to the foreboding sense of being watched in the dark. And even when Stage kind of showed her cards earlier than I was expecting and made it clear as to what Imogen, Beck, and Tilda were dealing with, I was still totally immersed even though I probably would have been happier to string it out even longer. By the end things were going at a breakneck speed, and the suspense was making me unable to put the book down so easily. It was also pretty cool that the tension wasn’t just limited to the danger that they didn’t calculate for. Because there are plenty of moments of suspense that just involve being on a backpacking hike in the Grand Canyon, given that rough trails and narrow paths overlooking cliffs are things that the characters DO know about, and have to maneuver through even when they don’t realize they are being tracked. I love it when stories can incorporate the actual horrors of these kinds of things. I mean, going back to “The Descent” again, some of the scariest moments involve the claustrophobia and unpredictability of caving, and “The Blair Witch Project” milks a lot of terror from being lost in the woods. “Getaway” has plenty to work with when it comes to The Grand Canyon and how dangerous it can be on its own.

“Getaway” is a tense and satisfying thriller that doesn’t relent on the suspense once it gets going, and the characters likability makes it all the more stressful. In a good way. I’m glad I went back to Zoje Stage, because this one really worked for me.

Rating 8: Incredibly tense and filled with realistic characters and dramatic moments, “Getaway” doesn’t let up on the intensity of being in danger in the middle of nowhere.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Getaway” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Wilderness Horror Stories”, and “2021 Horror Novels Written By Women (Cis and Trans), and Non-Binary Femmes”.

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

Book Club Review: “Front Desk”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Award Winners”, in which we each picked a book that has won an award of some kind.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Front Desk” by Kelly Yang

Publishing Info: Arthur A Levine Books, May 2018

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Award: Asian/Pacific American Award for Children’s Literature

Book Description: Mia Tang has a lot of secrets.

Number 1: She lives in a motel, not a big house. Every day, while her immigrant parents clean the rooms, ten-year-old Mia manages the front desk of the Calivista Motel and tends to its guests.

Number 2: Her parents hide immigrants. And if the mean motel owner, Mr. Yao, finds out they’ve been letting them stay in the empty rooms for free, the Tangs will be doomed.

Number 3: She wants to be a writer. But how can she when her mom thinks she should stick to math because English is not her first language?

It will take all of Mia’s courage, kindness, and hard work to get through this year. Will she be able to hold on to her job, help the immigrants and guests, escape Mr. Yao, and go for her dreams?

Kate’s Thoughts

I don’t usually seek out Middle Grade fiction unless it’s in graphic novel form. There are always exceptions to this, but Young Adult is about as young as I go these days. So when our book club picked “Front Desk” by Kelly Yang, I was interested to see what the Middle Grade landscape was looking like, and it also just so happened that this book was being targeted by angry white adults completely scandalized that a children’s book would dare talk about racism. Talk about timely!

I enjoyed “Front Desk” as a children’s book to be sure! I think that Yang did a really good job of making our protagonist Mia super relatable to her target audience, as Mia has some pretty familiar hang ups and anxieties, all while having to work the front desk at the motel her parents have found themselves working at. It’s definitely true that this book follows a lot of Middle Grade patterns in terms of how certain scenarios set up and play out, and that isn’t a bad thing for the target audience, it still made my reading of this an exercise in suspending my disbelief here and there. But all that said, I thought that Yang also does a great job of tackling the relevant social issues of the difficulties immigrants face, to racism, to exploitative labor practices, to how life in America has a lot of problems for a lot of people. And she does this in a way that makes it very easy to understand for the age group that is going to be reading this book.

“Front Desk” is a good book to give to kids who are starting to learn about certain injustices of the world, as while it doesn’t sugar coat them, it has a hopeful story through Mia, and one that will probably be enjoyable for lots of the kids that do pick it up.

Serena’s Thoughts

Like Kate, Middle Grade isn’t an age-range of books that I read very often. Even in the last few years I’ve noticed my inner curmudgeon coming out more and more with Young Adult, so the prospect of reading even younger was a bit daunting. That said, objectively, I think “Front Desk” succeeds at all it sets out to do and will appeal perfectly to its target audience (as demonstrated by the many very worn-down copies our bookclub members have checked out from the library).

I knew going in that “Front Desk” set out to tackle a lot of important, touch topics. That said, I was surprised by the level of emotion and depth it went into. The work “dark” is too strong for a Middle Grade book like this, but if you tone that word down some, you get to what I’m talking about. The author is definitely setting out to challenge her readers while still creating a safe environment in which to engage with these topics. Mia’s good-hearted, self-starting persistence is just the sort of character strengths that are sure to appeal to middle graders and allow the story to not let any of these bigger topics weight down to the story too much.

As an adult reading this, like Kate mentioned, there was a decent amount of suspension of disbelief needed. Some of the problems seemed to be tidied up much too easily and the solution to many of these situations was often the same. After the first couple of rounds, it began to feel fairly repetitive and predictable. The ending was also a bit too fairytale-like for my taste, especially given the very real challenges the rest of the book tackled. But, again, I think these are the kinds of flaws that stand out to me as an adult reader but will not read as flaws at all to the target audience.

Kate’s Rating 7: A well done children’s book that has enjoyable characters and tackles a lot of good and important issues in a way that kids can understand.

Serena’s Rating 7: The perfect combination of fun characters and important issues, a very good book for middle grade readers. Perhaps less so for an adult.

Book Club Questions

  1. Did you have expectations going into “Front Desk”? If so, were they met as you read the book?
  2. Did you think that Mia was a realistic ten year old?
  3. What did you think about Mia’s parents? Was there anything about their portrayals that stuck out to you?
  4. What were your thoughts on the portrayals of Mr. Yao and Jason?
  5. How did you think Yang did when it came to talking about some themes that are sometimes hard to talk about?
  6. Who would you recommend this book to?

Reader’s Advisory

“Front Desk” is included on the Goodreads lists “Middle Grade Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion”, and “Middle Grade Books Featuring Characters of Color”.

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

Next Book Club Book: “Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman

Monthly Marillier: “Shadowfell”

“Monthly Marillier” is a review series that is, essentially, an excuse for me to go back and re-read one of my favorite author’s back catalog. Ever since I first discovered her work over fifteen years ago, Juliet Marillier has been one of my favorite authors. Her stories are the perfect mixture of so many things I love: strong heroines, beautiful romances, fairytale-like magic, and whimsical writing. Even better, Marillier is a prolific author and has regularly put out new books almost once a year since I began following her. I own almost all of them, and most of those I’ve read several times. Tor began re-releasing her original Sevenwaters trilogy, so that’s all the excuse I needed to begin a new series in which I indulge myself in a massive re-read of her books. I’ll be posting a new entry in this series on the first Friday of every month.

Book: “Shadowfell” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Knopf Books for Young Readers, September 2012

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Sixteen-year-old Neryn is alone in the land of Alban, where the oppressive king has ordered anyone with magical strengths captured and brought before him. Eager to hide her own canny skill–a uniquely powerful ability to communicate with the fairy-like Good Folk–Neryn sets out for the legendary Shadowfell, a home and training ground for a secret rebel group determined to overthrow the evil King Keldec.

During her dangerous journey, she receives aid from the Good Folk, who tell her she must pass a series of tests in order to recognize her full potential. She also finds help from a handsome young man, Flint, who rescues her from certain death–but whose motives in doing so remain unclear. Neryn struggles to trust her only allies. They both hint that she alone may be the key to Alban’s release from Keldec’s rule. Homeless, unsure of who to trust, and trapped in an empire determined to crush her, Neryn must make it to Shadowfell not only to save herself, but to save Alban.

Review: I remember being really excited when this book was slated to come out. I had mostly read Marillier’s “Sevenwaters” books at this point, so I was excited to see a new world molded under her hands. And I was curious to see how she would translate her work to a YA audience (many of the “Sevenwaters” books tackle some pretty serious subjects). And while it surprised me in many ways, it also fell a bit on middling ground as far as my overall rankings of Marillier’s work.

The land has become a dangerous place for those with anything resembling the uncanny. But there are rumors of those who still fight, hidden away in a place called Shadowfell. It’s there that Neryn sets off in search of, all the while trying to hide her own magical abilities. But as she travels, she gains aid from small, magical folk who are even more at risk than she and hint at a future much greater than one Neryn had ever imagined for herself. With this perilous task ahead of her, Neryn’s world is rocked. She finds herself even more unbalanced when she runs across a young man named Flint whose mysterious origins and loyalties keep her guessing at every turn. Will Neryn make it to Shadowfell? And will this place hold the answers to all of her questions?

“Shadowfell” demonstrates some of the standard strengths and weaknesses of her writing. Her world-building, evocative writing, and well-researched to folktales are just as effective and appealing here as they have been in her previous books. Alba felt unique from the Irish setting that we’ve seen so much of in the “Sevenwaters” series. The tales and songs, from what I could tell, were all based in historically accurate traditions of the area. As well, the magical creatures were distinct from the Fae we’ve seen in her other work. The small, creature-like animals and the land-based beings were all fascinating and immediately compelling. And, like always, her writing is lush and immersive, drawing the reader in to the point where you feel the mists and chills that Neryn so often travels through.

On the other hand, if there’s one complaint I’ve routinely had about Marillier’s work it has been the overwhelming “goodness” of her heroines. The extent to which I enjoy them often depends on whether this goodness is balanced out by other actions that they take on the world (often the more pro-active heroines get a bigger pass from me.) But Neryn ends up being one of the more passive heroines we’ve seen for a while. Not only does she fall into the trope of being essentially a “chosen one,” but she is routinely is incredibly naïve about the world she exists within. Her thoughts turn in what quickly becomes a tiresome circle of worries and renewed determination. On top of that, she spends a significant amount of time ill and needing help from others, effectively making her the most passive of passive characters.

I also struggled with the “romance,” such as it is. Flint’s attachment to Neryn seems to come out of nowhere and is based on next to nothing. For her part, Neryn’s naivete is incredibly frustrating with regards to Flint. He’s obviously an untrustworthy party when she first meets him, and yet she quickly seems to fall in love with him. From there we enter yet another circular train of actions between her distrusting and trusting Flint. It gets old fairly quickly.

This book was a struggle for me when I first read it and a struggle the second time around as well. I can see the strong story at the heart of it, but Neryn’s passive presence and the frustrating treadmill that is her thought process about her mission and/or her feelings towards Flint became very frustrating. But, that said, it’s still a nice YA fantasy and Marillier’s strong writing save it from itself for the most part.

Rating 7: Not the best, but not the worst, “Shadowfell” introduces an interesting new fantasy story but hobbles itself with a passive heroine.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Shadowfell” is on these Goodreads lists: YA Second World Fantasy and Everything Fae.

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

Kate’s Review: “Locke & Key (Vol. 2): Head Games”

Book: “Locke & Key (Vol. 2): Head Games” by Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodríguez (Ill.)

Publishing Info: IDW Publishing, 2009

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Following a shocking death that dredges up memories of their father’s murder, Kinsey and Tyler Locke are thrown into choppy emotional waters, and turn to their new friend, Zack Wells, for support, little suspecting Zack’s dark secret.

Meanwhile, six-year-old Bode Locke tries to puzzle out the secret of the head key, and Uncle Duncan is jarred into the past by a disturbingly familiar face.

Open your mind – the head games are just getting started.

Review: I am definitely enjoying going back and reading “Locke and Key” if only because of how it still manages to surprise me on my second read through. I’m curious to try and give the Netflix series a chance again, as I watched the first few episodes and then kinda lost interest. But reading “Head Games” has reminded me that Joe Hill was laying groundwork for so many things early on, and while it’s a slow process, you can see that it’s all going to fall into place as time goes on. “Head Games” takes its time. But it is definitely laying a lot of foundation, while still hitting emotional beats.

There is still a fair amount of groundwork to be laid out in this series, and “Head Games” continues to slowly peel back the origins of the demon Dodge, who has taken on the form of a teenage boy named Zack, and gone to the high school gym teacher, Ellie Whedon to be used as cover. Because this form is the exact replica of Rendell Locke’s high school friend Luke Caravaggio, who was Ellie’s boyfriend at the time. We don’t know as of now what happened to Luke, nor do we know when we start what hold Dodge has on Ellie, and Hill carefully and methodically starts to reveal various elements of Ellie, Rendell, and their connections to Dodge and the keys. Ellie’s story is particularly sad, as she is wracked with guilt over the unknown thing that happened in high school, and is trying to care for her special needs son Rufus. Dodge/Zack knows just how to manipulate and terrify her, and it reinforces the insidiousness of Dodge, as well as some dark secrets that Rendell and his friends may have been hiding.

We also get to see Dodge/Zack start to realize that staying incognito may not be so easy. After all, Duncan Locke, Rendell’s brother and the uncle to Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode, was a little kid during the time that Rendell et all were headed on an unknown dark path to Dodge and the keys, and seeing this new teenager hanging out his nephew and niece could be tricky for the demon should he put two and two together. This also opens up the door to see a little bit more about Duncan’s life now, having to step in as a parent to his nephews and niece given that his sister in law is incredibly traumatized and unable to care for them too well at the moment. We also see his romantic life at the front of a subplot, as he and his boyfriend Brian find themselves targets of homophobic violence. It’s not super great that this is the big storyline for Duncan, but I will say that it does flow into a bigger picture storyline with Dodge and the keys, so that’s something anyway.

But in terms of straight up fantasy world building, “Head Games” starts to dig into the depths of another one of the keys that the Locke siblings have discovered. The focus this time is on the Head Key, in which a person can insert the key into their head, and open up their consciousness and imagination to add things, or remove them. Bode stuns his siblings with this trick, and while Tyler is interested in what you can add (after all, inserting a book makes it so you know all the contents within that book), Kinsey, still deeply feeling the trauma of her Dad’s murder and the family attack, is more concerned about what you can remove. And decides to remove her ability to fear, and her ability to cry. Going through the first time I didn’t think too much of it, as there was still so much going on that I was trying to wrap my head around, but now that I’m going through again with a lot more knowledge, I could appreciate just how utterly heartbreaking Kinsey’s arc is. While Bode was probably too young to understand everything that happened as of now, and while Tyler has been pushing it down, Kinsey’s deep pain has made it so she just doesn’t want to deal with any of it anymore, and decides to remove crucial parts of herself to do so. It’s such a fascinating place to take this Head Key storyline, and I think it’s so well done.

And the illustrations are still excellent. Gabriel Rodríguez really gets to let loose in this volume, since the Head Key is so abstract and outside the box.

A look into Bode’s mind. (source)

Rating 8: Still a lot of groundwork being laid into the mythos, but “Locke & Key (Vol. 2): Head Games” is starting to slowly unravel all the secrets of Key House.

“Locke & Key (Vol. 2): Head Games” continues to bring a strong dark fantasy/horror feel to a cerebral and funky series. I am very stoked to go back and revisit the next volume, as I’m sure I will continue to be surprised at what I do and don’t remember.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Locke & Key (Vol. 2): Head Games” is included on the Goodreads lists “Graphic Novels That Are Quality”, and “Best Horror Comics/Graphic Novels”.

Find “Locke & Key (Vol. 2): Head Games” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed:

Serena’s Review: “Miss Moriarty, I Presume?”

Book: “Miss Moriarty, I Presume?” by Sherry Thomas

Publishing Info: Berkley Books, November 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: A most unexpected client shows up at Charlotte Holmes’s doorstep: Moriarty himself. Moriarty fears that tragedy has befallen his daughter and wants Charlotte to find out the truth.

Charlotte and Mrs. Watson travel to a remote community of occult practitioners where Moriarty’s daughter was last seen, a place full of lies and liars. Meanwhile, Charlotte’s sister Livia tries to make sense of a mysterious message from her beau Mr. Marbleton. And Charlotte’s longtime friend and ally Lord Ingram at last turns his seductive prowess on Charlotte–or is it the other way around?

But the more secrets Charlotte unravels about Miss Moriarty’s disappearance, the more she wonders why Moriarty has entrusted this delicate matter to her of all people. Is it merely to test Charlotte’s skills as an investigator, or has the man of shadows trapped her in a nest of vipers?

Previously Reviewed: “A Study in Scarlet Women” and “A Conspiracy in Belgravia” and “The Hollow of Fear” and “The Art of Theft” and “Murder on Cold Street”

Review: I was extra excited for this book (beyond my typical excitement for any book by Sherry Thomas) when I saw the title. Moriarty has been a player in most all of the books so far, but he’s always been in the background. “The Art of Theft” was the closet we got, and we still never actually saw the character on the page. But with a Moriarty, if not the Moriarty referenced in the title, we had to finally see the character, now right?

Charlotte and her friends have known that Moriarty’s attention has been turning towards them for some time. What she didn’t expect was for Moriarty himself to turn up on her doorstep, ostensibly to hire her for a job of his own. But Charlotte suspects that Moriarty is rarely the type of man to not attempt to kill (perhaps quite literally) two birds with one stone. So when she and Mrs. Watson head out to locate Moriarty’s wayward daughter, she’s on alert for signs of other purposes. She soon discovers that the apple does not fall far from the tree, and the disappeared Miss Moriarty seems to have had as many secrets and alternative motives as her dangerous sire. With potentially two Moriarties on the board, will Charlotte be up to the task of outmaneuvering them all?

I think it’s rather unfortunate that the book description itself confirms that Moriarty is, indeed, in this book. He shows up early enough (quite, quite early in fact) that it’s not a drawn out wait for the reader wondering when he’ll arrive. And even then, it’s still thrilling seeing Thomas’s rendering of this classic villain. I probably shouldn’t be surprised by this fact. One of the things that has most stood-out in this version of Sherlock Holmes is the creativity Thomas has had with re-imagining these characters. They are all very unique from the originals, and yet there are just enough tidbits included to make them instantly recognizable. It’s not just gender-swapping, the most simple of changes. Moriarty, too, gets this treatment. Here, his abilities are more differentiated from Charlotte’s. It’s clear that he is also a mastermind, but his particular skills are different than hers. Her ability to observe and reason are without comparison, even to Moriarty. For his part, he has a magnetic presence that he wields like a scalpel. Even Charlotte feels the threat of it. It was such a clever twist on the character, giving him a coiled, snake-like feeling and allowing the threat he poses to seep out of the pages.

I also really enjoyed this mystery on its own. It’s always nice when our group has to travel outside of London and into new settings. The remote community they travel to is filled with interesting (and suspicious) characters. And the setting itself, with its imposing walls and buildings filled with occult imagery were perfect landscapes for our heroes to travel through. With so many new characters and moving parts, it was difficult to grasp all of the mysteries at hand. I was able to figure out one of the central secrets, which has been a rare thing for me with this series, as I’m mostly completely in the dark still by the time we get to the reveals. But there were still a number of plots and twists that I didn’t fully untangle myself and were exciting to see come to fruition.

The over-arching problem I’ve had with this series has sometimes been the lack of use for all of its character. They tend to move forward and backward in prominence as the story requires, something that largely works. However, Livia is one of the constants as a POV character, and I do think she would be better served to move forward and backward like the other more secondary characters. Often, her plots have been the ones I struggle with, and here, too, that was my one hold-up in not completely enjoying this story. Her storyline seemed to exist almost solely disconnected from the rest of the action, and I always found myself becoming impatient with her sections. Part of me simply struggles to become truly attached to this character, for whatever reason. .

But that said, I still feel like this was one of the strongest outings in the series yet. Obviously, finally seeing Moriarty in person was a huge step. And the book also takes a few massive swerves that will have a lasting impact on any books in the future. Fans of this series are sure to enjoy this one and shouldn’t hesitate to pick it up!

Rating 9: Our classic villain finally arrives and with him a game-changer of a story!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Miss Moriarty, I Presume?” is on these Goodreads lists: Victorian Lady Detectives and Asian Authored Books in 2021.

Find “Miss Moriarty, I Presume?” at the library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!