Serena’s Review: “A Song of Wraiths and Ruin”

Book: “A Song of Wraiths and Ruin” by Roseanne A. Brown

Publishing Info: Balzer + Bray, June 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: For Malik, the Solstasia festival is a chance to escape his war-stricken home and start a new life with his sisters in the prosperous desert city of Ziran. But when a vengeful spirit abducts Malik’s younger sister, Nadia, as payment into the city, Malik strikes a fatal deal—kill Karina, Crown Princess of Ziran, for Nadia’s freedom.

But Karina has deadly aspirations of her own. Her mother, the Sultana, has been assassinated; her court threatens mutiny; and Solstasia looms like a knife over her neck. Grief-stricken, Karina decides to resurrect her mother through ancient magic . . . requiring the beating heart of a king. And she knows just how to obtain one: by offering her hand in marriage to the victor of the Solstasia competition.

When Malik rigs his way into the contest, they are set on a course to destroy each other. But as attraction flares between them and ancient evils stir, will they be able to see their tasks to the death?

Review: I’ve had this book on my TBR list since way back when it first released. And then when I took a second look, BAM! The second book was already out. So that shamed me into making it more of a priority, so here we are. I was able to check out both books from the library at the same time, so we’re going to have a bit of a double feature this week. Let’s dive in!

Torn by grief, Karina, the Crown Princess, is desperate to bring her mother back to life. Not only was the Sultana life cut unnaturally short by assassination, but Karina’s life as the new ruler is a hell of defiant courtiers and a constant fear of mutiny. The only way to return her mother is through a dark spell that requires the heart of a king. And how does a queen find a king? By marrying as quickly as she can. Malik, a young man looking for a brighter future, finds his path forward usurped when his younger sister is captured and the price of her life is the death of the young queen. To do so, he enters a grand contest, the winner of which has been promised said queen’s hand in marriage, the perfect way to get close enough to pull off such a heinous deed. But as the two begin to circle one another, each with the other’s death in their sight, they begin to find their hearts standing in the way of their plans.

This book was a strange mixed bag for me. I had read descriptions of it as a sort of West African “Aladdin” retelling, and I can sort of see that with the caged princess and the young man who comes from nothing but reaches towards a throne. But this expectation didn’t really serve me well, as I don’t think there’s much here that’s too similar to that story. On the other hand, I really enjoyed the West African setting. The descriptions of the clothes, buildings, and, most especially, the food was all excellent and really created a sense of place in which to tell its story. I also liked the West African folklore that we had in the book, and, again, I wish that had been enough without needing “Aladdin” comparisons to somehow familiarize the story to readers who might not have know what to expect. Half the fun of reading is discovering new worlds and new stories, no need to compare them all to something so well-trodden as “Aladdin.”

However, while all of that was good, I struggled to feel truly invested in the story. There was nothing overtly bad about any of it, but it did feel very “paint by numbers” YA fantasy. The writing was very straight-forward and no challenging. There were limited truly imaginative expressions or reflections. And the plot and romance followed the same beaten path that we have seen a million times before in YA romance stories. While I appreciate that publishers are adding more diversity to their catalog, I do wish they’d challenge their authors to push past these tired, very flat stories and writing styles.

I did like the two main characters, however. Malik was allowed to be softer and more emotionally available than the typical heroic male character. And the author explored mental health struggles in Karina’s storyline. Overall, I think this book was just ok. I wish the author had pushed herself to go a bit further, perhaps straying a bit further from the tried and true path. But I did think it was a fun enough read that I’m happy to pick up the second book I already have from the library.

Rating 7: The West African setting and folklore were by far the best parts of a book that otherwise played it rather too safe.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Song of Wraiths and Ruin” is on these Goodreads lists: Black Heroines 2020 and The Blank of Blank and Blank.

Find “A Song of Wraiths and Ruin” at your library using Worldcat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “My Sweet Girl”

Book: “My Sweet Girl” by Amanda Jayatissa

Publishing Info: Berkley Publishing, September 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Paloma thought her perfect life would begin once she was adopted and made it to America, but she’s about to find out that no matter how far you run, your past always catches up to you…

Ever since she was adopted from a Sri Lankan orphanage, Paloma has had the best of everything—schools, money, and parents so perfect that she fears she’ll never live up to them.

Now at thirty years old and recently cut off from her parents’ funds, she decides to sublet the second bedroom of her overpriced San Francisco apartment to Arun, who recently moved from India. Paloma has to admit, it feels good helping someone find their way in America—that is until Arun discovers Paloma’s darkest secret, one that could jeopardize her own fragile place in this country.

Before Paloma can pay Arun off, she finds him face down in a pool of blood. She flees the apartment but by the time the police arrive, there’s no body—and no evidence that Arun ever even existed in the first place. Paloma is terrified this is all somehow tangled up in the desperate actions she took to escape Sri Lanka so many years ago. Did Paloma’s secret die with Arun or is she now in greater danger than ever before?

Review: I was first made aware of “My Sweet Girl” by Amanda Jayatissa during one of the virtual conferences I attended last summer. It sounded like it had a lot of buzz, as it definitely was mentioned a couple of times and highlighted at least once. By the time I finally sat down with it, I was fresh off a weekend of a reading frenzy due to no plans whatsoever, and figured that I would probably meander through it right in time for it to be returned a couple days later on the due date. But even though my brain was residually soupy, I still plowed through “My Sweet Girl” in about one evening. Yep. It’s one of those: super addictive and highly readable.

“My Sweet Girl” is a thriller about Paloma, a woman adopted by a wealthy white couple in the U.S. from an orphanage in Sri Lanka when she was a tween. She has lived up to their expectations as best she could, though the fact she’s been harboring a dark secret the entire time has made it so she is nearly at the breaking point, with an alcohol abuse problem, high risk taking choices, and a cynical and cutting personality. Well, that and the microaggessions and racism she has had to live with ever since she moved to the U.S., being a South Asian woman trying to live up to the model minority stereotype while trying to function as a brown woman in a deeply racist society. This was the first theme I thought worked very well in this book. Usually these kinds of stories are reserved for messy white women protagonists, but not only is Paloma given the freedom to be messy, she is also incredibly easy to root for as she tries to figure out what is happening. There are also two mysteries at work here. The first is what happened to Paloma’s roommate, Arun, as after blackmailing her she found him dead in their apartment…. but before she could report it, she blacked out and his body disappeared. The second mystery is just what this ‘dark secret’ is, dating back to her days in the Christian run orphanage, where Paloma and the other orphan girls were living in grim conditions, and would see the spectre of a ghostly woman they called Mohini. I loved how both stories intersected, and I loved how Jayatissa slowly revealed what happened at that orphanage, how it relates to Paloma’s trauma and guilt, and how it relates to what is happening to her now. All of this is fantastic, and has moments of genuine terror, specifically when dealing with the potential for an angry woman ghost Paloma is now seeing everywhere.

But I once again found myself with a story that had such great promise and such great build up and action only to be knocked down a few pegs by the ending. Obviously I’m not going to spoil it here, because the ride itself makes it worth the read. But I will touch on a few broad issues I took with it. For one, it’s the kind of ending I’ve seen a few times in a narrative similar to this one (a woman with a dark secret trying to hide the darker elements of her identity, who is a complete mess and slowly unraveling OR IS THERE SOMETHING ELSE GOING ON?), which means that it didn’t feel super original to me. For another, one big twist is revealed in a way that makes the reader believe one thing is true, only to undo that in the blink of an eye or the turn of a page, therein meaning to shock the reader… even though it’s not all that shocking because it’s kind of cliche at this point. I mean, I opted NOT to review a book on here that I read that had a similar ending because I was so frustrated by the gotcha. Having said that, “My Sweet Girl” does get a review because while I didn’t like the ending, at least this story worked its ass off in a way that it felt like it had earned it, no matter how irked it made me. But it did drop my rating a bit.

Like I said, I think that “My Sweet Girl” is ultimately worth the read, because the build up to the climax was creepy as hell and very addictive. I will absolutely be checking out the next book that Jayatissa writes, because the thriller genre is in good hands with her.

Rating 7: Incredibly readable and a well crafted mystery are the high points, but the ending was a bit of a let down.

Reader’s Advisory:

“My Sweet Girl” is included on the Goodreads lists “2021 Books by Women of Color” and “Mystery and Thriller 2021”.

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

Serena’s Review: “The Midnight Girls”

Book: “The Midnight Girls” by Alicia Jasinska

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Fire, December 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: It’s Karnawał season in the snow-cloaked Kingdom of Lechija, and from now until midnight when the church bells ring an end to Devil’s Tuesday time will be marked with wintry balls and glittery disguises, cavalcades of nightly torch-lit “kuligi” sleigh-parties.

Unbeknownst to the oblivious merrymakers, two monsters join the fun, descending upon the royal city of Warszów in the guise of two innocent girls. Newfound friends and polar opposites, Zosia and Marynka seem destined to have a friendship that’s stronger even than magic. But that’s put to the test when they realize they both have their sights set on Lechija’s pure-hearted prince. A pure heart contains immeasurable power and Marynka plans to bring the prince’s back to her grandmother in order to prove herself. While Zosia is determined to take his heart and its power for her own.

When neither will sacrifice their ambitions for the other, the festivities spiral into a wild contest with both girls vying to keep the hapless prince out of the other’s wicked grasp. But this isn’t some remote forest village, where a hint of stray magic might go unnoticed, Warszów is the icy capital of a kingdom that enjoys watching monsters burn, and if Zosia and Marynka’s innocent disguises continue to slip, their escalating rivalry might cost them not just the love they might have for each other, but both their lives.

Review: I love this cover artist (looked up, her name is Charlie Bowater)! Whenever I see a cover by her, the book seems to immediately climb up my TBR pile. It doesn’t hurt that this seemed like the perfect wintery/Christmas fantasy story that gives off hints of “The Night Circus” with its story of dueling sorcerers. And luckily the whole “fighting for the heart of a prince” thing seems like it is just a clever ruse for the true romance at the heart of the story.

Two powerful women find their new friendship quickly put to the test when they discover they each are after the same prize: the pure heart of the young, hapless prince. But nothing is what it seems, and this heart isn’t sought for such soft things like love. No, instead Zosia and Marynka each want the rare power that comes from a heart so pure. As their magical competition grows, so too does the risk they each take in being discovered, for magic is feared and persecuted. But Zosia and Marnka are both discovering that as equal as their determination is to win the prince’s heart, so too may be their growing attraction.

This was a bit of a tough read for me. Mostly because I definitely didn’t dislike it, but I also struggled to really get through it for some reason. There was a lot to like here, but it just didn’t seem to land right. One of the things I liked the most was the story’s roots in Polish culture and fairytales. The descriptions of the town, the fables and legends seen in the festivals, and the food were all lovely and refreshing. I also particularly liked the fact that it was set in winter during a winter festival, a time of year and setting that one doesn’t often see in fantasy stories. There’s definitely something uniquely cozy about reading books featuring others dealing with the winter weather while you are snuggled up in a blanket with hot tea.

I also didn’t mind the two POV characters. But again, I just didn’t mind them. This was another duel POV story, and while I didn’t have a strong preference for one POV over another (usually my problem with this format of storytelling), they also simply read as very similar voices. They each had unique goals and approaches to their task of winning the prince’s heart, but if you plopped med own into a random chapter, it would take some mention of these fact for me to know whose head I was in. The writing was fine for both of them, just not particularly strong overall.

I also struggled with the pacing of the story. I felt like it not only started out rather slowly, it all wrapped up quite quickly in the end. Things fell together much too easily and, overall, the plot seemed to rely far to heavily on the romance to carry the reader through. It wasn’t a huge problem, and I’m sure most readers will be there for the romance mainly anyways, but it did feel a bit rushed and a bit of a let down. Overall, however, I think this book will appeal to readers looking for a wlw fantasy story to c0zy up with this winter!

Rating 7: A fairly middling story in itself, but a sweet fantasy love story that will still likely appeal to many who are looking for a romantic read for the winter season.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Midnight Girls” is on these Goodreads lists: Sci-fi & Fantasy with a main sapphic/wlw romance and Covers by Charlie Bowater (cuz I seem to love all of her covers!)

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

Kate’s Review: “The Ex Hex”

Book: “The Ex Hex” by Erin Sterling

Publishing Info: Avon, September 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: New York Times bestselling author Rachel Hawkins, writing as Erin Sterling, casts a spell with a spine-tingling romance full of wishes, witches, and hexes gone wrong.

Nine years ago, Vivienne Jones nursed her broken heart like any young witch would: vodka, weepy music, bubble baths…and a curse on the horrible boyfriend. Sure, Vivi knows she shouldn’t use her magic this way, but with only an “orchard hayride” scented candle on hand, she isn’t worried it will cause him anything more than a bad hair day or two.

That is until Rhys Penhallow, descendent of the town’s ancestors, breaker of hearts, and annoyingly just as gorgeous as he always was, returns to Graves Glen, Georgia. What should be a quick trip to recharge the town’s ley lines and make an appearance at the annual fall festival turns disastrously wrong. With one calamity after another striking Rhys, Vivi realizes her silly little Ex Hex may not have been so harmless after all.

Suddenly, Graves Glen is under attack from murderous wind-up toys, a pissed off ghost, and a talking cat with some interesting things to say. Vivi and Rhys have to ignore their off the charts chemistry to work together to save the town and find a way to break the break-up curse before it’s too late.

Review: Though on this blog I’m known as the resident horror, thriller, and graphic novel reviewer (with non fiction on occasion), Serena is fully the romance reader in terms of blog content. But this past year I’ve been reading more romance, if only because of the pure escapist good feeling vibes it has. I mean, during these past couple of years we could all use as many good vibes as we can get, right? So I told myself that I should review at least ONE romance book for the blog, especially if it could fall into the parameters of my other genres. Enter “The Ex Hex” by Erin Sterling, a romance about witches, hexes, lost love, and talking cats. I got it from Book of the Month Club, feeling like it would be a good fit for the month of October, and finally sat down to read it recently. I had made up my mind that it would be a good way to combine my recent genre adventures with the old reliables, so that I would review it on the blog. After all, witches, right? Well…. the results were mixed.

Solidly meh. (source)

But I will start with the good. Because I like to start on positive notes most of the time. “The Ex Hex” is absolutely cute, and has a fun premise that I just ate up. The idea of a broken hearted witch half seriously casting a hex on a man who broke her heart, and therein cursing him and causing havoc that they have to solve together is a solid premise. I also liked Vivi, said broken hearted witch, as she is plucky, and relatable, and comes from the typical supportive and kooky but ultimately powerful witch family that consists of sarcastic cousin Gwyn and wise aunt Elaine. I also liked Gwyn as a banter-y side character, as her cousinly relationship with Vivi is fun to read about, mostly because Gwyn is clearly the bad girl of the two. I would probably be super into a spin off book with Gwyn, as I see a lot of potential with her. And once the magic in the town of Graves Glen starts to go awry, there are some genuinely entertaining fall out consequences, like a cat that can now talk bust mostly just screams ‘TREATS!’. Because of course that’s exactly what a cat would do if it could talk.

But I think that the rest of the book didn’t really click with me as well. For one, the other half of our romance, Rhys, wasn’t nearly as endearing as Vivi. Like, he was fine as a character, but he was pretty darn boring in my opinion. We have the usual ‘he broke her heart but had no choice and didn’t really want to’ trope, and that’s fine, but it means that the reunification of the two characters really needs to pay off. And this one didn’t. One reason it didn’t bounce back is because I didn’t feel like Rhys did enough apologizing for the way he treated Vivi back in the day, in which they had a very intense romance and he neglected to tell her that he was betrothed to someone else (hence the broken heart and hex). The other reason is that I didn’t really feel the chemistry between the two of them. We are told that they were deeply, deeply into each other, and yes, there are sexy moments and scenes to convince us of this, but I wasn’t ever really into the two of them as a couple, as there weren’t enough little moments of romantic build up for me, or moments of actual resolution of their past issues that felt real and productive. On top of that, I think that the magic aspects of the book probably could have used some more fleshing out, but I mean at the same time we all know that my grasp on fantasy elements can be tenuous as best. But it all just seemed cobbled together to be magical without much thought into how it would actually need to work.

Honestly I feel a little bad, because while “The Ex Hex” didn’t really move beyond the ‘meh’ for me in the romance department, I’ve read some really good romances this year! And also, don’t let my general ambivalence towards this book deter you! It has cute moments and a fun premise. I mean, who doesn’t like witches going on misadventures with sexy results? This could be a good holiday read if that sounds fun, even if the holiday it best matches was over two months ago.

Rating 5: Cute for the most part, but not the highest tier romance I’ve read this year, “The Ex Hex” brings witches into a rom com setting with some mixed results.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Ex Hex” is included on the Goodreads lists “All Hallows Reads”, and “Feel Good Rom Coms”.

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

Book Club Review: “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing book club 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: “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman

Publishing Info: Pamela Dorman Books / Viking, May 2017

Where Did We Get this Book: An audiobook from the library; print book from the library.

Award: Costa Book Award

Book Description: No one’s ever told Eleanor that life should be better than fine

Meet Eleanor Oliphant: she struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding unnecessary human contact, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy.

But everything changes when Eleanor meets Raymond, the bumbling and deeply unhygienic IT guy from her office. When she and Raymond together save Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen, the three rescue one another from the lives of isolation that they had been living. Ultimately, it is Raymond’s big heart that will help Eleanor find the way to repair her own profoundly damaged one. If she does, she’ll learn that she, too, is capable of finding friendship—and even love—after all.

Kate’s Thoughts

I am the type to try and spread my literary interests across multiple genres, and because of this I usually find myself reading buzzworthy or hyped books from contemporary and literary fields. But somehow, I missed “Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine”. I mean, I’d seen it around, of course, as it came out right at the tail end of my permanent hours library job where I did a lot of request processing and shelving. But I never really looked into it. So thanks to Serena for picking it for book club, as it landed on my book pile after not being at the forefront of my mind!

And I can see why this was hyped and buzzy, honestly. “Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine” surprised me a bit, as I expected one thing and got something that didn’t line up with those expectations. I thought that Gail Honeyman did a really good job of balancing a lot of things: an unreliable and kind of unlikable narrator (until you get to know her better), a humorous tone, and some really dark themes involving trauma and PTSD. But like I said, with a humorous tone! I think that it may have been a hard task for some authors, but Honeyman had me feeling just utter sadness for Eleanor, but then chuckling to myself about one thing or another, and it wasn’t ever in a discordant way, or a way that felt like the seriousness of the issues at heart was being undercut. Also, I loved Raymond, Eleanor’s first real friend. He is sweet and patient but not a pushover, and I thought he was just a delight (and kind of a fun swap of the usual way this kind of story works: it’s rare that a woman is allowed to be the surly and kind of unlikable protagonist while the man is the warm and caring one who helps the other grow. I liked the reversal). While it didn’t have any moments that totally wowed me or spoke to me overall, I enjoyed my time reading it.

Another thanks to Serena for picking “Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine” for book club! I thought that it was completely fine and a little bit more.

Serena’s Thoughts:

I must pass the thanks on, as it was my mom who raved about this book to the point that I selected it for book club. Unlike Kate, I rarely read outside of the three main genres I enjoy (mostly because I can’t keep up with books I want in even those genres, let alone more!), so this book was completely out of my wheelhouse. But in the end, my mom was completely right, and I really enjoyed this read!

I read the audiobook, and, if it’s available, I highly recommend checking that version of the book out. The narrator has a Scottish accent that does wonders to really bring Eleanor to life and ground the book in its setting. And as Eleanor is such a unique character, the narrator’s voice helped humanize some of her more odd antics and perspectives.

Like Kate mentioned, one of the most impressive things about this book was the balance the author was able to strike between humorous moments (think “Bridget Jones’s Diary”) and some really tough, grim topics. I was not at all prepared for how dark this book really got at times. But that said, when I closed the story, it left a hopeful, fun aftertaste, even more surprising considering some of these topics. I also really liked the exploration of mental health and therapy. Most books that deal with therapy have it happen off-page or don’t really go into how it really works for the character. Here, we get a very good look at an excellent therapeutic setting and outcome.

The book was also peopled with excellent characters. Eleanor herself is unlike any character I’ve ever read, and she makes a few friends along the way who stand out as well. I was also pleased that the story didn’t take a few of the more predictable turns, and on top of that, there are a number of fairly major surprises (or less surprising for some, our book club was a bit half/half on who predicted what).

Kate’s Rating 7: A nice story that balances a tragic foundation with humor and heart.

Serena’s Rating 9: I really liked this book! It was surprising in many ways and addressed some important topics without being overwhelmed with a grim tone.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you make of Eleanor in the beginning of the book? How (or did) your opinion of her change as the story went along?
  2. This book tackles some dark subjects. How do you think it handled these?
  3. What did you make of Eleanor’s relationship with Raymond? Where do you think it will go in the future?
  4. There are some surprises towards the final third of the story? Were you able to predict any of them? What clues were given early on that pointed to these outcomes?
  5. Many people around Eleanor shaped her journey through this book. Which ones stood out to you and why?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” is on these Goodreads lists: 2017 Librarian Recommended Books and Best Up Lit (uplifting reads).

Find “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” at the library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “Take A Hint, Dani Brown” by Talia Hibbert

Serena’s Review: “The Liar’s Knot”

Book: “The Liar’s Knot” by M. A. Carrick

Publishing Info: Little, Brown Book Group, December 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher

Book Description: In Nadezra, peace is as tenuous as a single thread. The ruthless House Indestor has been destroyed, but darkness still weaves through the city’s filthy back alleys and jewel-bright gardens, seen by those who know where to look.

Derossi Vargo has always known. He has sacrificed more than anyone imagines to carve himself a position of power among the nobility, hiding a will of steel behind a velvet smile. He’ll be damned if he lets anyone threaten what he’s built.

Grey Serrado knows all too well. Bent under the yoke of too many burdens, he fights to protect the city’s most vulnerable. Sooner or later, that fight will demand more than he can give.

And Ren, daughter of no clan, knows best of all. Caught in a knot of lies, torn between her heritage and her aristocratic masquerade, she relies on her gift for reading pattern to survive. And it shows her the web of corruption that traps her city.

But all three have yet to discover just how far that web stretches. And in the end, it will take more than knives to cut themselves free…

Previously Reviewed: “The Mask of Mirrors”

Review: I really enjoyed the first book in this series. It was a fairly massive undertaking: a long book with multiple POV characters and a lot of world-building that needed to be done to set the scene. That said, I felt like the book was fast-going and I was excited to pick up this one, the second in the series. And while this one was a bit slower than the first, I still found myself enjoying it quite a lot.

Lies and secrets crisscross and tangle in Nadezra. And with so many spiders spinning their own webs, knots are sure to form when one too many plots intersect with another. Derossi, Grey, and Ren know all too well the struggle that comes with trying to push forward one’s own agenda when to do so means running across a million others with their own plots and plans. And while steps have been made, each feels their own particular knots begin to slip further and further from their grasp. What truths are out there to be discovered? And will these exposures save or destroy them?

While you definitely got hints of the type of story this series is setting out to be, it really feels like it comes into its own here in the second: world-building, world-building, world-building! The first book had a decent amount of plot action at the heart of the story, what with introducing our main trio of characters and also Ren’s ongoing con. We also were waiting to learn the true identity of the Rook. With both of those plotlines played out, this book was much, much lighter on the action and pacing. This could be a struggle for some readers who want to see a faster moving story, but for those who really like to explore and sink into the details of a unique world and society of people, this is definitely the series for you! I loved all of the intricacies we got to see of the city itself and of the inner workings of the secret societies that exist within it (all, of course, with their own plots and purposes).

I still really liked our three main characters. I will admit, I did start to become frustrated when they began to fall into the traps where as a reader you’re just yelling at them to talk to each other a bit and they’d finally understand what was actually going on! But, of course, that would leak out a lot of the tension of the story early on. I was pleased that the author didn’t push this trope past the point of believability, and our characters would catch on to things here and there when they would have had to be supremely obtuse to continue in ignorance. Sadly, I’ve seen stories play out that way before all too often, so it was a relief to see the author

I really enjoyed this book. With its slower pacing and focus on world-building and the smaller, personal stories of our main characters, it may not be for everyone out there, especially not the more plot-focused readers. But I love this type of immersive fantasy story, and I definitely recommend it to readers who enjoy the same!

Rating 8: A slower story firmly rooted in its dedication to building out an intricate world and filling it with complicated, well-rounded characters.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Liar’s Knot” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on “Books with Secret Identities.”

Find “The Liar’s Knot” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Girl from the Sea”

Book: “The Girl from the Sea” by Molly Knox Ostertag

Publishing Info: Graphix, June 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: From the author of The Witch Boy trilogy comes a graphic novel about family, romance, and first love.

Fifteen-year-old Morgan has a secret: She can’t wait to escape the perfect little island where she lives. She’s desperate to finish high school and escape her sad divorced mom, her volatile little brother, and worst of all, her great group of friends…who don’t understand Morgan at all. Because really, Morgan’s biggest secret is that she has a lot of secrets, including the one about wanting to kiss another girl.

Then one night, Morgan is saved from drowning by a mysterious girl named Keltie. The two become friends and suddenly life on the island doesn’t seem so stifling anymore. But Keltie has some secrets of her own. And as the girls start to fall in love, everything they’re each trying to hide will find its way to the surface…whether Morgan is ready or not.

Review: It has been a long time, like a LONG time, since I’ve watched “Splash”, a romantic comedy about an uptight land dweller (Tom Hanks) and a whimsical mermaid (Daryl Hannah), but it was the first thing that came to mind when I read the description for “The Girl from the Sea” by Molly Knox Ostertag. An isolated or lonely person on land finds love with a gentle and kind sea creature? I mean, that’s a trope that is timeless in and of itself. But to make things a little more unique, Ostertag went a bit more in the direction of “The Secret of Roan Inish”, as instead of the tired mermaid being used, we instead are given a story with a selkie, a mystical creature that can take on seal form as well as human form.

“The Girl from the Sea” is a gentle fantasy story, one that charmed me almost immediately and kept a smile on my face as I read. I felt that Ostertag did a really good job of portraying the turmoil within Morgan, and how her relationship with Keltie, a human disguised selkie, helped her open up and accept herself. Keltie is as simplistic and genuine as you would expect her to be, but I thought that Morgan has a lot of nuance and complexity in which she does have her reasons to not come out to her loved ones, but some of it may very well be a bit of projection on her part. Having her encounter with Keltie and be drawn to her, and perhaps start to fall in love with her, is a nice dynamic, as Keltie is incredibly free in herself, while Morgan is not. I also thought that Ostertag was good about showing how complicated coming out can be for a person, even when her friends and family are, for the most part, loving and supportive. Morgan is not only dealing with her own identity and how to express it, but she is also dealing with a recently split up family dynamic, and how that pain is affecting her and her mother and brother. The undercurrent of that trauma is always present, either through Morgan’s insecurities, or through implied anger and aggression issues her brother has been displaying. Morgan has a lot on her plate, and she compartmentalizes in a fairly realistic way.

And on the flip side, there is Keltie. She is a selkie, and while she is free in some ways, there are constraints that could very easily be applied to her life that Morgan could never understand. I thought it was neat that Ostertag took the mythology of the selkie and incorporated it into this story in the way she did. It brings in themes of identity and transformation, but it also makes other themes like environmentalism and conservation relevant to the story at hand. Keltie isn’t as interesting and Morgan, but then, that kind of makes sense, since she is a fantasy creature and therefore has a lot of fantastical elements. She also balances out Morgan, and makes their romance feel all the more sweet.

I really like the artwork. I’ve read other stories by Ostertag, and while I wasn’t as into those tales as I was this one, I have always appreciated her style and aesthetic, and that translates to this story pretty handily.

“The Girl from the Sea” is a lovely romance about finding the person who accepts you for who you are, realizing they may not be the only ones, and finding out how to accept yourself. It’s gentle and sweet and I highly recommend it for anyone who likes a love story with fantasy flair.

Rating 8: A sweet and emotional love story with themes of transformation and being true to yourself.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Girl from the Sea” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Pride Graphic Novels”, and “Gay Pirates and Sea Creatures”.

Find “The Girl from the Sea” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Silence in the Library”

Book: “Silence in the Library” by Katharine Schellman

Publishing Info: Crooked Lane Books, July 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library

Book Description: Regency widow Lily Adler has finally settled into her new London life when her semi-estranged father arrives unexpectedly, intending to stay with her while he recovers from an illness. Hounded by his disapproval, Lily is drawn into spending time with Lady Wyatt, the new wife of an old family friend. Lily barely knows Lady Wyatt. But she and her husband, Sir Charles, seem as happy as any newly married couple until the morning Lily arrives to find the house in an uproar and Sir Charles dead.

All signs indicate that he tripped and struck his head late at night. But when Bow Street constable Simon Page is called to the scene, he suspects foul play. And it isn’t long before Lily stumbles on evidence that Sir Charles was, indeed, murdered.

Mr. Page was there when Lily caught her first murderer, and he trusts her insight into the world of London’s upper class. With the help of Captain Jack Hartley, they piece together the reasons that Sir Charles’s family might have wanted him dead. But anyone who might have profited from the old man’s death seems to have an alibi… until Lily receives a mysterious summons to speak with one of the Wyatts’ maids, only to find the young woman dead when she arrives.

Mr. Page believes the surviving family members are hiding the key to the death of both Sir Charles and the maid. To uncover the truth, Lily must convince the father who doesn’t trust or respect her to help catch his friend’s killer before anyone else in the Wyatt household dies.

Previously Reviewed: “The Body in the Garden”

Review: Somehow I missed this coming out way back in July! This just goes to show how out of control my TBR list is, since I had been eagerly awaiting a new installment in this series almost since the moment that I finished the last page of the first book. “The Body in the Garden” was such a supreme pleasure to read and a great discovery that my expectations were quite high for this next book. Luckily, those expectations were met in every way!

Fairly recently I found myself complaining about the lack of information given in a book description, but here we have the opposite case! This intro spoils events that don’t happen until almost halfway through the book! I couldn’t believe it (though, luckily, I didn’t read this description until after reading the book, so I wasn’t actually spoiled, but only through sheer laziness on my part). Given how much information (for better or worse) is laid out in the official book description, I won’t waste anyone’s time re-reading my attempts at a summary here.

I was so excited when I saw that this book was out already and that my library had a readily available audiobook copy! I had read the first book as an ebook, but I really enjoyed the story through this medium and the narrator was excellent.

The mystery was another great one. I had a few theories early on, but only one of those turned out to be right, with many more surprises and reveals along the way. It was a clever murder with only a small cast of characters up for suspicion, all of whom had both motives for conducting the murder as well as strong evidence pointing towards their innocence. I also really enjoyed the way the mystery was wrapped up, with cleverness behind both putting the clues together and catching the murderer themselves.

We had two angles on the mystery, as well. One, of course, was our heroine Lily Adler. Alongside her burgeoning mystery-solving career, here, we see her begin to further emerge from her shell of mourning. Rightly, a number of potential love interests and suitors begin to circle, and I enjoyed the exploration of the complicated feelings this new return to non-mourning brought to Lily. Overall, the series has been such an excellent examination of grief and the long journey the loved ones left behind must travel. We also see more adventures from Lily with her taking things into her own hands and putting herself in situations that are unusual for a woman of her station and life. At the same time, all of these choices were still restrained enough to be believable, with the author neatly side-stepping the too-often anachronistic “strong woman” tropes that can pop up when trying to write this sort of character.

We also got to see a few chapters from the perspective of Simon Page, the constable in charge of solving the murder. It was lovely to see him much more respectful and appreciate of Lily, and I really enjoyed seeing his unique take on the murder, as well as the detective work that only he could complete. He was rather unlikable in the first book, but I really enjoyed what we got from him here.

We also had a return of several familiar faces, as well as an introduction of new characters. Lily’s father was all the villain the summary makes him out to be. If anything, he was much, much worse than the typical “disapproving parental figure” that one sees in these stories. I also liked the addition of a young boy who was growing up with autism (or something like this, obviously it was unnamed at the time.) With additions like this, the series continues to do its excellent work at highlighting how you can write a historical novel while also including a diverse cast of characters. It’s very well done.

This was another stand-out mystery novel, and this next go around, I WILL NOT miss the publication date of the next story. Fans of the first book and fans of general historical fiction mysteries are sure to enjoy it.

Rating 9: Excellent all around, a great mystery paired with a diverse cast of characters.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Silence in the Library” is on these Goodreads lists: Cozy Mystery/Romance/History and Books with Library in the Title.

Find “Silence in the Library” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “A History of Wild Places”

Book: “A History of Wild Places” by Shea Ernshaw

Publishing Info: Atria Books, December 2021

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

Book Description: Travis Wren has an unusual talent for locating missing people. Hired by families as a last resort, he requires only a single object to find the person who has vanished. When he takes on the case of Maggie St. James—a well-known author of dark, macabre children’s books—he’s led to a place many believed to be only a legend.

Called Pastoral, this reclusive community was founded in the 1970s by like-minded people searching for a simpler way of life. By all accounts, the commune shouldn’t exist anymore and soon after Travis stumbles upon it… he disappears. Just like Maggie St. James.

Years later, Theo, a lifelong member of Pastoral, discovers Travis’s abandoned truck beyond the border of the community. No one is allowed in or out, not when there’s a risk of bringing a disease—rot—into Pastoral. Unraveling the mystery of what happened reveals secrets that Theo, his wife, Calla, and her sister, Bee, keep from one another. Secrets that prove their perfect, isolated world isn’t as safe as they believed—and that darkness takes many forms.

Hauntingly beautiful, hypnotic, and bewitching, A History of Wild Places is a story about fairy tales, our fear of the dark, and losing yourself within the wilderness of your mind.

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

I read the book “The Wicked Deep” by Shea Ernshaw, and while I thought that a story of three witch sisters who were executed and now have a curse upon the town that wronged them would be my jam, I didn’t really care for it. I didn’t really think about it again, but when I saw the description for “A History of Dark Places”, her adult fiction debut, I was incredibly intrigued by the premise of missing people and a possible forest cult. And boy am I glad I picked this up, because this? This WAS my jam!

“A History of Wild Places” pulled the wool over my eyes and totally tricked me. And I went into it sniffing out the twist and the surprises, which I know probably isn’t the BEST way to go into a novel with twists, but hey, it still managed to take me by surprise. So kudos! Ernshaw balances an elephant in the room mystery with another, incredibly intense mystery, and manages to interconnect them in ways that felt satisfying and that pay off. The first mystery is what happened to missing novelist Maggie St. Clair, as well as the man looking for her Travis Wren. The second mystery has to do with the town that St. Clair and Wren found themselves within, an isolated wilderness commune called Pastoral, as some years after their disappearances, the villagers are cut off from the world due to a plague… or is it? In that storyline we follow the perspectives of married couple Theo and Calla, and Calla’s blind sister Bee, who is in love with Levi, the leader of Pastoral. The comparisons to “The Village” are well earned on many levels, but I felt like this book did a good job of actually pulling off what “The Village” was trying to do. I mean, I knew that something was off, and as Theo, Calla, and Bee all got closer and closer to the secrets of Pastoral, the secrets of evidence of Maggie’s and Travis’s presence, and the secrets that they keep from each other as well, the intensity goes higher and higher until it’s completely through the roof. I found myself charging through a good chunk of the book in one sitting because I needed to know what was going to happen, and if my predictions were right. Side note: they rarely were. Ernshaw pulled almost all of her twists off, and they all felt earned.

I also liked all of the characters. Theo, Calla, and Bee are all well thought out and seeing all of them start to question Pastoral, and start to unlock mysteries and memories, was deeply satisfying. I think that Bee was probably my favorite, as she is intrepid, incredibly caring, and a little bit psychic (a trait that she shares with Travis; this wasn’t really explored as much as it could have been, however, and that’s one of the few qualms I had with this book). As he deeply in love with Pastoral leader Levi, but after Levi makes a decision that supposedly keeps the community safe at the expense of the life of one community member, she starts to question everything about the town, and Levi himself. Ernshaw writes a woman who is devoted to her sister and her community, and whose love for a man is starting to crack apart as she begins to realize that he may not be what he seems to be. It’s a woman who is realizing that she is in a cult, and it’s heartbreaking and a little bit scary, as it becomes clear that she is very possibly in serious danger.

“A History of Wild Places” also has a very dreamy quality to it that makes it feel like a dark fairy tale as much as a bone chilling thriller. We have people who have walked into the woods and seemingly disappeared, we have people with the power of visions and deep empathy, and we have a dark and disturbing wood both in an overlapping narrative of Maggie St. Clair’s “Eloise” books (which we get excerpts from here an there), and in the forest surrounding Pastoral that may contain a deadly disease for those who try and cross its borders. A strange and eerie presence is on the pages of this book, and it worked so well for me that I closed the book and let out a long sigh when I was done. It is such a satisfying tone to go with a creepy cult story with a hint of missing person mystery, and it combines to make something so unique and enjoyable.

“A History of Wild Places” is a great dark fairy tale of a thriller. I’m so glad I decided to try out Ernshaw again, because this one worked SO well for me. It’s a wonderful read for a cold winter’s night.

Rating 9: Strange and dreamy, but unsettling and tense, “A History of Wild Places” is a surprising thriller that kept me guessing.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A History of Wild Places” is included on the Goodreads lists “Cults and Communes in Fiction”, and “2021 Horror Novels Written by Women (Cis and Trans) and Non-Binary Femmes”.

Find “A History of Wild Places” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Highlights: December 2021

As of writing this, we still do not have any snow here in good old Minnesota. By mentioning it, however, I’m sure we’ve cursed it to come soon! However, the holiday cheer is all around and we’re both appreciating the extra lights to help lessen the short days and long nights. Good books also help with that, so here is a list of the ones we’re looking forward to this month!

Serena’s Picks:

Book: “The Liar’s Knot” by M. A. Carrick

Publication Date: December 9, 2021

Why I’m Interested: I really enjoyed last year’s “The Mask of Mirrors.” While there are only three true main characters, each have such a plethora of secret identities that it often felt like much more. Their lives and plots all crisscrossed to the extent that even I had trouble tracking it. Given the title we have for the second book, I’m guessing that all of these secrets may come home to roost for our characters, all of whom are immersed in several layered lies. These are hefty books, full of intrigue and adventure, and I can’t wait to see what awaits me in this latest tome!

Book: “The Excalibur Curse” by Kiersten White

Publication Date: December 7, 2021

Why I’m Interested: I know, I know, I haven’t even read/reviewed the second one in this trilogy! But White has yet to ever let me down, so I still feel confident that I will be eventually finishing off this trilogy with “The Excalibur Curse.” Hopefully sooner rather than later! Honestly, I haven’t even looked at the book description for fear of spoiling myself for book two. That said, there are enough intriguing aspects of this cover alone to have me anxiously placing holds at the library for both the second one and this book. I have a few theories about Guinevere’s past, and this cover featuring her drawing what must be Excalibur itself only have me more curious!

Book: “The Midnight Girls” by Alicia Jasinska

Publication Date: December 28, 2021

Why I’m Interested: “Two girls compete for the heart of a prince.” OUT. “Only to find they may be falling for each other.” Annnnnd I’m back in, baby! Plus, this cover is pretty cool. It’s very “Frozen” but Elsa and Anna aren’t sisters and may be into each other. Plus, dueling sorceresses sounds pretty neat. My December TBR list is looking pretty monstrous at this point, but I hope to get to this one soon!

Kate’s Picks:

Book: “A History of Wild Places” by Shea Ernshaw

Publication Date: December 7, 2021

Why I’m Interested: While the previous Ernshaw book I read didn’t really connect with me, I was immediately interested in her adult fiction debut. I mean, you have a cult, two sisters who are starting to question what is happening in their community, and some missing people! All things I enjoy! When Travis Wren is sent to look for missing author Maggie St. Clair and tracks her to the woods where commune Pastoral resides, he soon disappears into the trees as well. A couple years later, sisters Calla and Bee, and Calla’s husband Theo, start to find evidence of the missing people, as well as the part that community leader Levi may have had to play. But Levi has told the commune that venturing out of the area is dangerous, as a plague has overcome the trees. Or has it? It sounds like it has hints of “The Village” meets some kind of Jonestown creepiness!

Book: “If This Gets Out” by Sophie Gonzales and Cale Dietrich

Publication Date: December 7, 2021

Why I’m Interested: 2021 was the year that I gave romance a try in earnest, looking for any way to add some light fluffy elements to a stressful time to be alive. And while romance isn’t going to be covered by me on this blog (though look for some exceptions this month, as a treat!), I was still eager to read “If This Gets Out” when I first heard of it. Contemporary romance is fun, and if that romance involves two guys in a popular boy band? Oh yes! Ruben and Zach are members of the well adored boy band Saturday, though both are feeling the pressure of the facade they have to uphold. Ruben especially is having a hard time, as he is gay, but is being kept in the closet for the band’s image. And when Ruben and Zach start to realize that their friendship may be more than just friendship, it gets all the more complicated. As someone who loved NKOTB when she was in kindergarten and the Backstreet Boys in middle school, this premise tickles me.

Book: “The Coldest Touch” by Isabel Sterling

Publication Date: December 7, 2021

Why I’m Interested: Okay, take a look at Serena’s description of “The Midnight Girls”, because it’s basically the same kind of deal here. When you say vampire romance, I will almost certainly say HARD PASS these days. But if you take that vampire romance and make it between two ladies, and neither of them are helpless nor broody? Oh that changes EVERYTHING! Elise is a girl who can see the future deaths of anyone she touches, and when she couldn’t save her brother she was desperate to be rid of her gift. But then she meets Claire, a vampire who has been assigned by other paranormal folks to help her harness her powers as a Death Oracle. As they work together to hone Elise’s powers, and perhaps to prevent the upcoming murder of one of Elise’s teachers, they start to grow closer, no matter how dangerous it could be. I MEAN, this is the kind of vampire romance I can get behind.

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

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