Serena’s Review: “Sin & Chocolate”

Book: “Sin & Chocolate” by K.F. Breene

Publishing Info: Hazy Dawn Press, Inc, October 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: Some people are ordained for greatness…

Those people usually have a lot of drama in their life. Drama I happily do without. I live in a forgotten corner of nowhere for a reason: there is safety in anonymity. I have enough problems just trying to get by.

But when Kieran, a sinfully sexy demigod at the pinnacle of power, crashes into my life, suddenly my whole world is turned upside down.

He’s harboring a deadly secret, one that could destroy all he holds dear. He thinks I’m the key to his salvation, and he wants me to help him claim vengeance.

He also wants me with a passion that burns my body from the inside out.

To ignore him is impossible, but to give in to my desires, even for a night, would thrust me into danger I might not survive.

Can I resist the temptation?

Review: So, I started reading this book under a bit of a false pretense. Mostly, that I thought it fell fairly purely under the subgenre “urban fantasy.” I typically only have a few urban fantasy series that I follow, and now that a few of them have ended and few other have become disappointments, I was hankering for a new series. And this title appeared on a few lists, so I thought, let’s give it a shot! And it’s not bad, by any means. But I’d definitely have went in with different expectations if I had seen this cover when I picked it up (or, frankly, read the description above):

Yeaaaah, definitely looks more like a romance novel cover than an urban fantasy cover!

Existing between worlds, that is between the magical and the “normal” world, is both the most dangerous place to be but also one of the few places where one can fully disappear. This is where Lexie exists, trying to keep her head down and provide for her two wards, each with their own unique needs. But her quiet existence is rudely interrupted by Kieran, a powerful magical being who very much does not exist in the shadows. And in Lexie he sees someone much more powerful than she claims or suspects.

I think my confusion about this book is also kind of fair. A lot of romance “series” are books linked by a shared world/group of people but focus on different main characters and couples in each. Urban fantasy, on the other hand, usually follows one or two main characters over the course of a series, similar to other fantasy genres. So, while this one does have the romance novel cover and a lot of the romance novel plot/language, it also fits into the urban fantasy genre.

For one thing, this book is clearly the first book in a series and as such spends much of its time developing the world in which Lexie and Kieran exist. There were a lot of interesting elements involved in this world where magic and magical beings have been living out in the open for quite a while. We see the political nature of it, with various groups coming down as either supportive or discriminatory towards magical beings. There’s also the pull and push of the power players on both sides of the magical and nonmagical line. And with this struggle comes the cracks that the vulnerable fall into. Through Lexie’s eyes, we see how both the magical and nonmagical communities have let down those who they don’t see as important. It’s a narrative that is very easy to take out of the fantasy genre and apply to the world around us.

That said, this focus on world-building, while interesting enough on its own, also very much slows down the pace of the story. That was probably my biggest problem with the book: the pace. I struggled to maintain interest, even within a book that was introducing what should be exciting new fantasy elements every which way. But for some reason, the plot itself felt plodding. There were witty conversations, but much of it felt like it wasn’t really leading to anything or illuminating anything new about the characters themselves.

I felt like I knew who these characters were the moment I met them, and that was also a bit disappointing. Lexie was ok, but I also feel like I’ve read variations of her a million times before and I, personally, can’t relate to some of her fixations with shopping and other things. Not that those are not worthy hobbies or interests, they’re just not really my thing so I couldn’t really invest in some of her fixations there. And Kieran was your typical arrogant, powerful hero who also has a heart of gold towards the woman he briefly meets and immediately becomes intrigued with.

In the end, this was just ok. It didn’t blow me away, but it was also solid enough for what it was trying to do. I do think that if I had had it in mind as more heavily focused on the romance side of things before I started I would have at least been in the right mindset. However, I’m still left looking for another urban fantasy series to get started on!

Rating 7: This book walks a strange line between romance novel and urban fantasy but doesn’t quite fit in either category.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Sin & Chocolate” is on these Goodreads lists: Under the Radar Page-Turners and NEW ADULT fantasy & paranormal romance.

Find “Sin & Chocolate” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Mestiza Blood”

Book: “Mestiza Blood” by V. Castro

Publishing Info: Flame Tree Press, January 2022

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

Book Description: From the lauded author of The Queen of the Cicadas (which picked up starred reviews from PW, Kirkus and Booklist who called her “a dynamic and innovative voice”) comes a short story collection of nightmares, dreams, desire and visions focused on the Chicana experience. V.Castro weaves urban legend, folklore, life experience and heartache in this personal journey beginning in south Texas: a bar where a devil dances the night away; a street fight in a neighborhood that may not have been a fight after all; a vengeful chola at the beginning of the apocalypse; mind swapping in the not so far future; satan who falls and finds herself in a brothel in Amsterdam; the keys to Mictlan given to a woman after she dies during a pandemic. The collection finishes with two longer tales: The Final Porn Star is a twist on the final girl trope and slasher, with a creature from Mexican folklore; and Truck Stop is an erotic horror romance with two hearts: a video store and a truck stop.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this short story collection!

I wrapped up 2021’s Horrorpalooza with a review of V. Castro’s “The Queen of the Cicadas”, and while I thought it had some great moments I found myself wanting more. So when I saw that Castro had a new collection of short horror stories coming out called “Mestiza Blood”, I was more than willing to jump past my hot and cold relationship with short story anthologies to give her another chance. And I’m glad that I did, because “Mestiza Blood” had a lot of really great stories that cover a huge variety of horror themes! I’m going to do the usual format I do with short story collections, by showcasing my favorite three stories first, and then doing a wrap up of the collection in general (but I MUST say that I had a hard time choosing just three favorites… Yep, that’s how strong this collection is).

“Donkey Lady Bridge”

The set up grabbed me from the jump: A woman named Jackie is walking home drunk from the bar, and finds herself crossing a notorious local bridge that has the urban legend of the Donkey Lady attached to it. A deformed and screaming spectre, the Donkey Lady has a lot of potential origin stories, and lots of people who hope to see her. Jackie has never believed in her…. until she has an encounter with The Donkey Lady that changes the course of her life. I’m a huge sucker for urban legend horror as we all know, and there was one particular moment in this story where I said out loud ‘Jesus CHRIST’ because it was so unsettling and scary. Castro’s descriptions of the Donkey Lady are terrifying and disturbing, and the story goes in a direction that I totally didn’t expect. For me this was probably the scariest story in the book.

“The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”

Christmas wasn’t so long ago, and I found myself relating a LOT to this story about a stressed out mother during the holidays who finds herself propositioned by a demon to make her life easier. At a price, of course. This past Christmas was a stressful one for me, between getting back together with family, taking on a number of cooking tasks, and having to coordinate rapid testing to keep my ineligible to be vaccinated kid as protected as possible in a sea of uncertainty about Omicron. So yeah, I REALLY felt how the Mother in the story would be tempted by a demon who promises lofty things. There are also a lot of really funny moments in this tale, as well as vulnerable ones that really nail how hard motherhood can be during a time of year where everything has to be magical. This story definitely feels more heartwarming than I expected, which fit pretty well since it’s a Christmas story. Even if it looks at Christmas like it’s the flawed and high stress holiday that it is.

“The Final Porn Star”

A little bit of a ‘cabin in the woods’ tale, a little bit of Mexican folklore, and a lot of slasher fun come together to make “The Final Porn Star”. Thalia Sanchez is a well loved and popular porn star who is nearing retirement, hoping to spend more time with her daughter and to settle into a less harried life. Her last shoot is in a large, glamorous house in the middle of nowhere, and it seems like a standard shoot with colleagues she loves. But then they start finding mutilated animals on set. And it becomes clear that none of them are safe from a creature that is stalking them. I loved Thalia as our protagonist, and I loved seeing the cast and crew slowly realize that they are in danger as something hunts them. Castro hits a lot of fun slasher tropes but makes them feel fresh by using La Lechuza, a monstrous bird with the head of a crone, as the monster in the tale. It’s bloody, it’s fun, it’s sex positive, and it achieves everything it wants to.

And as mentioned above, there were lots of great stories to pick from! Even the ones that didn’t quite connect (there were only two or three at most) were more because of the genre choices as opposed to the storytelling itself. Castro has a really diverse collection here that truly has something for just about any horror fan.

“Mestiza Blood” is a lot of gory and scary fun. If you are a horror lover and haven’t looked into V. Castro yet, this may be the moment to do so.

Rating 8: A varied and creepy collection of stories that range from scary to funny to touching, “Mestiza Blood” is an enjoyable compilation by V. Castro.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Mestiza Blood” is included on the Goodreads list “Horror To Look Forward To in 2022”.

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

Serena’s Review: “The Amber Crown”

Book: “The Amber Crown” by Jacey Bedford

Publishing Info: Daw Books, January 2022

Where Did I get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: The king is dead, his queen is missing. On the amber coast, the usurper king is driving Zavonia to the brink of war. A dangerous magical power is rising up in Biela Miasto, and the only people who can set things right are a failed bodyguard, a Landstrider witch, and the assassin who set off the whole sorry chain of events.

Valdas, Captain of the High Guard, has not only failed in his duty to protect the king, but he’s been accused of the murder, and he’s on the run. He’s sworn to seek justice, but his king sets him another task from beyond the grave. Valdas doesn’t believe in magic, which is unfortunate as it turns out.

Mirza is the healer-witch of a Landstrider band, valued and feared in equal measure for her witchmark, her scolding tongue, and her ability to walk the spirit world. When she’s given a task by Valdas’ dead king, she believes that the journey she must take is one she can never return from.

Lind is the clever assassin. Yes, someone paid him to kill the king, but who is to blame, the weapon or the power behind it? Lind must face his traumatic past if he’s to have a future.

Can these three discover the real villain, find the queen, and set the rightful king on the throne before the country is overcome?

Review:: Yet another fantasy book with the title “The ‘something’ Crown.” I have another book with a type of crown in the title coming up in a week or so! I don’t know what it is about crowns that seems to be seen as the go-to in fantasy, but I do miss the days of more creative titles. Please, no more “crowns,” “queens,” or “the BLANK of BLANK and BLANK” for a solid five years please. Anyways, that mini rant aside, let’s dive in!

Valdas is in disgrace. As Captain of the guard, his one duty is to protect the monarch, and when the king is killed under his watch, there cannot be a failure more profound. But his duty does not end there, and when he’s tasked with finding the missing queen and heir, he finds himself in mixed company: a healer with powerful magical abilities (something that Valdas didn’t even believe in until it was forced upon him recently) as well as the assassin who seems responsible for the king’s death itself. But who was the power behind the order? And can they save the queen and heir before they, too, are harmed?

One of the reasons I found myself initially intrigued by the premise of this book was how much it sounded like a fairly traditional fantasy story. The world-building and magical system didn’t seem overly complex, and the plot itself followed a fairly standard “group goes on a quest” storyline. Most of these things have a long history behind their “trope-y-ness” because they can be implemented easily to tell fantastic stories (“Lord of the Rings,” anyone?). Sadly, here, there too many other things working against the story for me to really revel in these sorts of classic fantasy features.

To start with what I liked, however. All three main characters were fairly interesting. Each had a decent amount of time given to establish their unique personalities and, more importantly, their motivations going through this journey. All three of them were nuanced characters, none falling neatly inside a black or white box. However, even here, I do wish we had seen just a bit more. It’s hard to really describe what I mean, but, in their own way, each character felt like it fell just short of really coalescing into a complex, compelling character.

On to some of my struggles, first my general problems. For some reason, the writing fell flat for me. The plot itself never truly sucked me in, and I was very aware of the experience of reading the book as I turned the pages (clicked on the Kindle). I just couldn’t fall into the story, and the pacing was a let down at times. Moments that should have landed with more “oomf” rather landed with a “thud,” and the ending was surprising anticlimactic considering the work that had been put into building up the entire situation.

From there, the specifics. While I just got done saying that I generally struggled to connect to the writing, there were also a few specific writing choices that didn’t land right. The author makes an effort to include a diverse cast of characters, and yet it seems to be done in a very clunky way. Instead of simply initially identifying her diverse characters, she routinely described people as “the black fighter” or something like that. The sheer amount of repetition here is maybe partly what did it. There was just something off. I was also turned off by the number of times women’s breasts were described and in ways that are of the more egregious sort. Like, a woman would enter the room and would be described as having her breasts almost popping our of her shirt….Why? How is this detail adding to the scene, characterization, or story? There were also far too many rapes/near rapes/threats of rape in this story. Everyone knows my thoughts on this sort of thing so I’m just not going to go into it again. Suffice to say, rape can be included in a thoughtful, meaningful way. In this case, it was not and just adds up alongside the overuse of sexualized descriptions of women and strange fixation on skin color.

I was very disappointed by this book. I had hopes of diving back into my roots and finding a new “classic” fantasy story. And in some ways I did: sadly it was “classic” in the sense that it felt like it was committing very dated mistakes that, happily, are seen less and less often. Fans of fairly straight forward classic fantasy may like this, but I think there are better options out there in general.

Rating 6: Interesting characters are let down by a strange set of tired “classic” fantasy missteps.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Amber Crown” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on: “Books with Crowns.”

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

Kate’s Review: “The Route of Ice and Salt”

Book: “The Route of Ice and Salt” by José Luis Zárate

Publishing Info: Innsmouth Free Press, January 2021 (originally published in 1998)

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: A reimagining of Dracula’s voyage to England, filled with Gothic imagery and queer desire.

It’s an ordinary assignment, nothing more. The cargo? Fifty boxes filled with Transylvanian soil. The route? From Varna to Whitby. The Demeter has made many trips like this. The captain has handled dozens of crews.

He dreams familiar dreams: to taste the salt on the skin of his men, to run his hands across their chests. He longs for the warmth of a lover he cannot have, fantasizes about flesh and frenzied embraces. All this he’s done before, it’s routine, a constant, like the tides. Yet there’s something different, something wrong. There are odd nightmares, unsettling omens and fear. For there is something in the air, something in the night, someone stalking the ship.

The cult vampire novella by Mexican author José Luis Zárate is available for the first time in English. Translated by David Bowles and with an accompanying essay by noted horror author Poppy Z. Brite, it reveals an unknown corner of Latin American literature.

Review: I think that for a lot of people, if they hear the phrase ‘homoerotic vampire fiction’ they are going to immediately think of Anne Rice (may she rest in peace). After all, “Interview With the Vampire” is at its heart the story of two guy vampire lovers who have a bad marriage and make the mistake of having a baby to try and save it (I am NOT wrong). Louis and Lestat have an undercurrent (and overcurrent) of sexual tension that Rice explores more through Lestat in later books, but it was definitely the formative relationship for gay vampire fiction in modern times. And to be fair, vampire lore is usually pretty charged with sexuality, even going back to Bram Stoker’s grand daddy of vampire tales “Dracula”. That book is horny as hell, something that Francis Ford Coppola took FULL advantage of in his 1990s adaptation. So it’s not really surprising that “The Route of Ice and Salt” by José Luis Zárate takes a mysterious element of “Dracula” and gives it a shot of homoerotic adrenaline, and pulls it off with ease.

I’ll let you decide what that ‘one thing’ is. (source)

“The Route of Ice and Salt” is the story of the Demeter, the ship that transported Count Dracula and his many boxes of Wallachian soil to London, and arrived aport with no crew left and a dead captain, tied to the mast with a rosary in hand. It’s a moment in the original source material that’s really just there to show that Dracula is brutal and has had his fill, so is at full strength when he arrives in England. But Zárate lets us have a look into what happened on the doomed voyage, and creates a story that is both horrifying and absolutely heartbreaking. It’s told through both the Captain’s own thoughts and experiences as well as his ship log, and the first half of the story is a LOT of him fantasizing about the men on his crew, but unwilling to act upon it as he finds his same sex attraction repulsive and monstrous. We slowly find out that he has his reasons to feel that way, as a man he once loved was treated as a monster after being accused of a crime he did not truly commit, which had to do with his sexuality. As the Captain grapples with his attractions, something else, an ACTUAL monster, is stalking the ship, feasting upon the crew in a far more literal and violent way.

Though it took a bit to get there, once we got to the slow progression of crewmen disappearing, while the others slowly realize they are being hunted, I was fully invested not only in how we get to where we end up in the original tale, but how The Captain is going to ultimately make his sacrifice. As well as if he’s going to be able to forgive himself for his perfectly natural attractions (though certainly not at the time; Stoker himself has lots of rumors about his own sexuality that may have subconscious laid out hints within “Dracula”. Like I said, that book is horny as hell). Zárate made the Captain very believable and sympathetic, and once he realizes that he is alone on the boat with a monster, an ACTUAL monster, even though I knew the ending, I still felt a deep attachment to him, in spite of myself. And while MAYBE I thought that I was going into a story that had Count Dracula and the Captain getting it on over and over (please don’t judge me, I will say it again, “DRACULA” IS A SEX FUELED BOOK!!!), what I got was far more satisfying, emotional, and terrifying. The descriptions of the ship at night in the fog, with crewmen’s screams starting and then stopping…. GOD, it set me on edge, and it’s the perfect companion to one of my favorite vampire stories. And not for nothing, this updated version has a FANTASTIC Afterword by Poppy Z. Brite that addresses the transgressive nature of this book, and it gives a lot of great context that I thought was SUPER interesting.

“The Route of Ice and Salt” is sexually charged and scary as hell. It now lives on my shelf next to the source material (all three versions I own), and in my mind it absolutely belongs in the “Dracula” canon.

Rating 8: Haunting and erotic and oh so creepy by the end, “The Route of Ice and Salt” takes the voyage Dracula takes across the sea and turns it into a creepy (and horny) nightmare.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Route of Ice and Salt” is included on the Goodreads lists “Queer Horror”, and “Books About or Consisting of Vampires”.

Find “The Route of Ice and Salt” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Book Club Review: “Take A Hint, Dani Brown”

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 “Romance”, in which we each picked a book that is a romance, or has elements that fit romance tropes to a T. 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: “Take A Hint, Dani Brown” by Talia Hibbert

Publishing Info: Avon, June 2020

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Romance Trope: Fake Dating.

Book Description: Danika Brown knows what she wants: professional success, academic renown, and an occasional roll in the hay to relieve all that career-driven tension. But romance? Been there, done that, burned the T-shirt. Romantic partners, whatever their gender, are a distraction at best and a drain at worst. So Dani asks the universe for the perfect friend-with-benefits—someone who knows the score and knows their way around the bedroom.

When brooding security guard Zafir Ansari rescues Dani from a workplace fire drill gone wrong, it’s an obvious sign: PhD student Dani and ex-rugby player Zaf are destined to sleep together. But before she can explain that fact, a video of the heroic rescue goes viral. Now half the internet is shipping #DrRugbae—and Zaf is begging Dani to play along. Turns out, his sports charity for kids could really use the publicity. Lying to help children? Who on earth would refuse?

Dani’s plan is simple: fake a relationship in public, seduce Zaf behind the scenes. The trouble is, grumpy Zaf’s secretly a hopeless romantic—and he’s determined to corrupt Dani’s stone-cold realism. Before long, he’s tackling her fears into the dirt. But the former sports star has issues of his own, and the walls around his heart are as thick as his… um, thighs.

Suddenly, the easy lay Dani dreamed of is more complex than her thesis. Has her wish backfired? Is her focus being tested? Or is the universe just waiting for her to take a hint?

Serena’s Thoughts

This is going to be a good bookclub theme for me, I think. Because, while I do read a decent amount of romance fiction, it’s usually within some greater genre preference, like historical fiction or fantasy fiction. So this, as a contemporary romantic novel was fairly out of my wheelhouse. That being the case, this wasn’t my favorite book out there, but I can also see the general appeal to readers who do like contemporary romcoms.

For the most part, I liked both of our main characters. I really liked how the author played with gender roles, especially Zaf’s love of reading romance novels. It was very meta as well as nicely representing that romance is by no means only the domain of women. It takes two to form a romantic pair, so naturally both have an interest in romance in general. But for some reason, enjoying romance novels or movies is seen as purely a feminine pursuit and one that people are judged for enjoying, even women but especially men. I also really liked Dani’s initial, unapologetic commitment to noncommitment. Again, something that we usually see from the hero in these romantic pairings but gender swapped here.

However, I did have a hard time really connecting to either of these main characters. My biggest problems with contemporary stories like this is my inability to really buy into the idea that people like this would walk about in our every day world. I mean, who is naturally this quippy? Who really talks like this? It’s a fairly minor point overall, but it’s something that I personally always struggle with in contemporary fiction. So this is definitely a subjective critique and something that will hold varying levels of water depending on your own preferences.

Overall, I thought the story was fun enough, but it wasn’t really my cup of tea. I think the author did some creative things with her character building, but I couldn’t ever fully invest myself into Dani and Raf’s lives.

Kate’s Thoughts

I admit that by the end of 2021, I had gathered SO MANY romance novels for my book pile that by the time I’d worked my way through, I was a little burned out on the genre. I was happy to give romance more of a chance in 2021, and overall I found a lot of books I liked. But there is, in fact, a reason that I tend to limit my consumption of it. Maybe that doesn’t bode super well for our Book Club theme, but I’m going to work through it (and I think so long as I just stick to romance for book club I’ll be good). And it’s good that “Take A Hint, Dani Brown” was the first selection of the cycle, because while I’m burned out on romance, this one was meta enough that I thought it was fun enough.

Like Serena said above, I liked that Hibbert toyed with our expectations of the genre and gave Zaf the more stereotypically feminine role (being romantic at heart, interested in love over lust, etc), and Dani the more stereotypically masculine role (not into commitment in any way shape or form). I also liked that we explored themes of trauma and loss through Zaf, as his brother and father were killed tragically a few years before the events in this book, and how we got to see a realistic examination of grief and PTSD through his character. Honestly I just really liked Zaf. He’s snarky and adorable and vulnerable and funny as heck. Dani was pretty good too, and much like Serena I liked how flippant she is about romance and love at first. Quippy for sure. I don’t have as big an issue with that (I do love me a good quippy banter), though I think that maybe Zaf got a little more understandable vulnerability than Dani.

And I’m always interested in seeing how the sexy moments in romance novels happen. I’ve found myself very particular about how these things unfold and are portrayed when it comes to the smut and romance (but to each their own obviously!), and “Take A Hint, Dani Brown” was basically the kind of build up and pay off that I liked: a nice slow build of tension followed by very satisfying, uh, climaxes… if you will. There was a bit of a weird rushed factor to make conflict after a bit of this, but that was really the only glaringly clunky thing for me. Overall, it’s steamy and fun.

“Take A Hint, Dani Brown” is enjoyable and cute. I’m a bit worn out on the romance page, but this one held my interest enough that I wasn’t feeling like it dragged.

Serena’s Rating 7: Not really my thing, but a fun romcom for fans of this sort of contemporary romance story.

Kate’s Rating 7: I’m feeling a little burnt out on romance, but “Take A Hint, Dani Brown” had enjoyable characters and some good moments of steaminess.

Book Club Questions

  1. In this book the ‘fake dating trope’ is taken on in a very self aware and meta way. Did you think that it was a good send up? Why or why not?
  2. What did you think of the supporting cast? Did you have any favorite side characters?
  3. What did you think of the progression of the romance between Dani and Zaf? Do you think that it would last in a real world setting?
  4. What were your thoughts on the way the book tackled anxiety and grief? Did these themes feel well explored?
  5. Would you read the other books in the series?

Reader’s Advisory

“Take a Hint, Dani Brown” is included on the Goodreads lists “Radical Romance”, and “Contemporary Romance by Black Authors”.

Find “Take a Hint, Dani Brown” at your library using WorldCat, at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “From Blood and Ash” by Jennifer Armentrout

Monthly Marillier: “The Caller”

“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: “The Caller” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Knopf Books for Young Readers, March 2014

Where Did I Get this Book: own it

Book Description: Neryn has made a long journey to perfect her skills as a Caller. She has learned the wisdom of water and of earth; she has journeyed to the remote isles of the west and the forbidding mountains of the north. Now, Neryn must travel in Alban’s freezing winter to seek the mysterious White Lady, Guardian of Air. For only when Neryn has been trained by all four Guardians will she be ready to play her role in toppling the tyrannical King Keldec.

But the White Lady is not what she seems. Trapped with Whisper, her fey protector, Neryn is unable to send word to her beloved Flint, who is in danger of being exposed as a double agent. When a new threat looms and the rebellion is in jeopardy, Neryn must enter Keldec’s court, where one false move could see her culled. She must stand up against forces more powerful than any she has confronted before, and face losses that could break her heart.

Previously Reviewed: “Shadowfell” and “Raven Flight”

Review: This series was a bit of a roller coaster ride when I read it the first time, and the same holds true now. The first book was a bit slow and plodding. The second book was much improved and more to my taste. And the last book…was kind of back to being a miss, leaving the trilogy as a whole as probably my least favorite series from Marillier. So with that exciting preview to go on, let’s dive in!

Neryn’s task, to meet and gain the blessing of the four Guardains of the fae, has not been completed, and the powerful and dangerous forces in the land of Alban grow. She must hurry, not only does the entire land depend on her ability to communicate with the Fae, bringing them into the battle to secure their country from its cruel dictator, but her love, Flint, may soon be exposed as a spy. But magic can’t be rushed, and there are secrets to be discovered in the chilly halls of the North.

This book was not my favorite. Part of this has to do with the strange pacing of the story which makes it feel like poorly fit pieces of a puzzle that just won’t lie together. In many ways, the beginning feels like a natural extension of the second book, so much so that it reads a bit strange to find it at the beginning of a completely separate book that rather quickly leaves this type of “magical trial” storyline in the dust. But still, as I greatly enjoyed the second book for this very same storyline, the first part of this book is by far my favorite. I enjoyed the magical mysteries to be found with the northern Guardian, and this small adventure perfectly fit Neryn’s optimism and persistent pluck even in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges.

However, from there the book goes downhill in my estimation. We move on to a undercover spy game that, on its own, isn’t bad but pairs poorly with the magical adventures that came before it. Again, my lack of investment in Flint and his relationship with Neryn didn’t help, leaving me feeling a bit bored as we made our way through what should have been touching reunions and tense games of cat-and-mouse.

And, sadly, the ending was the worst of it. Not only did I find the manner in which these conflicts were resolved unbelievable, but the entire thing undercut much of the grief and terror we’d seen up to this point. Neryn’s journey, her power, all were useful, of course. There was a brief battle. But in the end, it felt like the rebellion, Neryn, and us, the reader, had been primed for something that simply didn’t happen. And if it was ultimately as easy as this (I don’t think it would be and frankly my eyebrows were exploding off the top of my head, they were raised so high), the entire situation could have been handled sooner and the threat was never that powerful to start.

There was also left only a small, short chapter to really wrap up the remaining storylines. We were given only the briefest glimpses into the possible future for these characters, and it all simply felt like too little tacked on at the very last minute. Given how little of this series showed Neryn and Flint together, this truncated ending for them felt like even more of a let down.

So, yeah. I didn’t love this trilogy when I read it the first time and was curious to see if, perhaps, I just wasn’t in the right mood that go around (though, to be fair, I read these as they came out, so I would have had to be “not in the right mood” for like three years for that to be the case). But, no. This series just wasn’t for me. Neryn was a bit too Mary Sue. The romance lacked the spark I’ve come to expect from Marillier. And the story often felt half-baked. If you’re a fan of her work, maybe check this out. But other fantasy readers are sure to find better entries from this author in her other series.

Rating 6: A disappointing end to a lackluster series. Honestly, with “Wildwood Dancing” as the exception, Marillier is a far better adult fantasy author than YA.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Caller” is on these Goodreads lists: Most Interesting Magic System and Australian Speculative Fiction.

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

Kate’s Review: “Locke & Key (Vol. 4): Keys to the Kingdom”

Book: “Locke & Key (Vol. 4): Keys to the Kingdom” by Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodríguez (Ill.)

Publishing Info: IDW Publishing, July 2011

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s Locke & Key unwinds into its fourth volume in Keys to the Kingdom. With more keys making themselves known, and the depths of the Locke family’s mystery ever-expanding, Dodge’s desperation to end his shadowy quest drives the inhabitants of Keyhouse ever closer to a revealing conclusion.

Review: After I set “Locke & Key (Vol. 4): Keys to the Kingdom” down, I realized that I only had two collections left until the end. This re-read has gone by pretty quickly, and it had been long enough that I feel like I’m finding brand new things with each moment I turn the pages. I had been talking a bit about how patient and deliberate Joe Hill has been up until this point, but in “Keys to the Kingdom” things have started to speed up, which means that the intensity has started to build as well. And that has mostly been a positive thing.

Plot progression has picked up again in this volume, and boy does it ever! Hill covers a lot of territory in this collection, but he manages to do it in such a way that it doesn’t feel like it’s bloated, nor does it feel like things are being rushed. He opts to focus on certain things, but does show snippets of the Locke kids battling it out with Dodge over keys, as well as conflicts they are having with each other in the story arc “February”. I liked how it puts in the effort to have development for our characters, but doesn’t get bogged down in EVERY conflict they have with Dodge. We also get to see more backstory to Rendell and his high school friends, as Kinsey, Tyler, and Dodge run into Erin Voss, Rendell’s childhood friend who is now committed to a mental asylum. Kinsey is desperate to know what the connection is to Rendell, Voss, and the secrets they were keeping, while Dodge wants to keep Erin’s mouth shut since in her addled state she still recognizes him as her childhood friend. This also led to a kind of awkward within present context optics plot point, in which Kinsey and Bode use one of the keys to change their race so they can visit Erin, as her rantings make it seem like she is super agitated by the presence white people (let me just say that this isn’t the case, though I won’t reveal what I mean). I definitely understand the way that Hill used it to make a greater point about how Black people are perceived by white people in American society, and there is a moment that I thought was genuinely poignant at the end of the issue, but pretty much putting Kinsey and Bode into magical black face so they can learn a lesson about the humanity of Black people didn’t really land for me. It just felt a bit patronizing. But by the end everything had made a comeback for me, as a significant plot development that signals the last third of this series knocked my socks off. I knew it was coming, but it was still VERY well done, and ups the stakes to the highest levels they’ve been thus far.

And in terms of character development this volume was top notch. For Tyler, he is starting to feel the weight of all the difficult things in his life, and it’s making him overwhelmed and under severe pressure. His only solace is his girlfriend Jordan, whom he is head over heels in love with, and while Jordan obviously cares deeply for Tyler, she is pretty damaged. Which, of course, leads to problems down the line, and Tyler starts to think that being strong is something he can achieve through magic, much like Kinsey tried to extract her fear through the same means. It’s a pretty heavy moment when Tyler feels enough despair over everything that he turns to something that may not work out the way he wants it to. And speaking of Kinsey’s issue, we see all of that coming to a head now too, as having a lack of fear and grief has not only affected her relationship with Nina, it has also started to affect her friendships. Funnily enough, having no fear and no grief has made Kinsey a pretty shitty and selfish friend, and the most interesting part of this entire arc for me is that she recognizes this, but literally cannot bring herself to care because of her actions with the Head Key.

And finally, the art continues to be visceral and gory, but with a bit of a nostalgic twist in one of the stories. The first story, “Sparrow”, involves Bode trying to make friendships but preferring isolation, and he eventually puts himself into the body of a sparrow for a bit of time. And this is all drawn and written in a way that is in tribute to “Calvin and Hobbes”, a comic that has been near and dear to my heart since I was a small child. While it’s true that some of the juxtapositions of the nostalgic and bright Watterson style mixed with the gore and violence of “Locke & Key” is unnerving, I honestly thought that it was super charming and fun to give Bode this kind of adventure with a loving tribute to a cartoonist and storyteller that clearly inspired the Hill and Rodríguez.

“Locke & Key (Vol. 4): Keys to the Kingdom” has left us two thirds of the way into the story of the Locke family, and we are now heading for the final showdown between them and Dodge over the keys in Keyhouse. I know where we are going, and I’m still a little nervous to tread into the places that I know are coming up. But Hill and Rodríguez have something truly wondrous in store, and I’m ready.

Rating 8: Some things come to a head in this volume plot wise, with some social commentary and “Calvin and Hobbes” love thrown into the mix, which is a pretty good combination for the start of the final issues of this series.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Locke & Key (Vol. 4): Keys to the Kingdom” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Coming of Age Horror Novels”, and “Required Reading Graphic Novels”.

Find “Locke & Key (Vol. 4): Keys to the Kingdom” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed:

Serena’s Review: “Cold the Night, Fast the Wolves”

Book: “Cold the Wolves, Fast the Wolves” by Meg Long

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, January 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: After angering a local gangster, seventeen-year-old Sena Korhosen must flee with her prize fighting wolf, Iska, in tow. A team of scientists offer to pay her way off her frozen planet on one condition: she gets them to the finish line of the planet’s infamous sled race. Though Sena always swore she’d never race after it claimed both her mothers’ lives, it’s now her only option.

But the tundra is a treacherous place, and as the race unfolds and their lives are threatened at every turn, Sena starts to question her own abilities. She must discover whether she’s strong enough to survive the wild – whether she and Iska together are strong enough to get them all out alive.

Review: I’m sure I partly requested this one simply based on the beautiful cover. But I also vaguely read the description and saw “wolf companion” and just auto-requested it. All of this to say, I really had very little idea what this book was actually about when I picked it up, but what an enjoyable surprise it was!

On Sena’s planet, the economy and culture is shaped by one thing and one thing only: the annual race. Dangerous and with low probability of success, the prize at the end, the right to drill for a rare and valuable mineral, still draws racers from around the galaxy. Sena, however, wants nothing to do with it after it claimed the life of her mothers. But when she finds herself in trouble with a gang leader and followed by a half-tame fighting wolf, Sena sees only one path off this desolate planet: she must finish the race and buy her way to freedom.

This book is a bit of a funny thing. A few months ago, Kate and I were guest speakers for an MLIS class and we talked about genre trends in YA. One of the things I touched on that while the fact that fantasy has become incredibly popular in YA fiction, a less discussed aspect is how science fiction in YA has not seen the same bump. This book is a classic example of how publishers not only recognize this fact but continue to work through these trends by misleading their readers. This cover screams fantasy. And then you read the description. Other than one small reference to this taking place on a different planet, you have no indication that it’s not just a straight-forward fantasy novel. But when you read it, it’s clearly a science fiction story!

There is an emphasis on futuristic technology, discussion of interplanetary politics, and themes that are common to science fiction such as the impact of corporations on intergalactic economics and culture. The fantastic creatures that are included are often attributed more to the genetic manipulation of people or to human-influenced changes in the planet’s ecosystem. The language is modern and the setting is clearly set some time in the future, with advanced medicine, transportation, and weapons. It was all excellent and a great example of what science fiction has to offer to fans of YA fiction. Even the author mentions in her afterward how she hopes this book will encourage more readers of YA science fiction. And yet the publishers clearly had so little confidence in this premise that they still felt the need to hide it behind a fantasy cover and a description that doesn’t hint at any of the science fiction elements to be found on the book’s pages.

I really enjoyed Sena as a main character. She was tough, both mentally and physically. But also impulsive, slow to trust, and struggling to process her grief over the loss of her mothers. The race itself, full of action and danger, was a perfect parallel for Sena’s own inner journey to self-acceptance. I also liked that this was a perfect example of a YA young woman noting early in a book that she doesn’t have time for romance and actually following through on that. It’s not just a throwaway line before the heroine proceeds to go all in on a romance the very next second. No, Sena rightly evaluates her life and the dangers and priorities before her and knows that romance is not really an option. It was refreshing and allowed the book to really embrace its focus on her relationship with the wolf Iska and another female friend she picks up along the way.

I did struggle with a few aspects of the story, however. If I had to count the number of times that Sena reflects on “corporations” and “greed,” it would be in the double digits. And yet other than both being bad, the book never goes into anything deeper on either of these two topics. It was fairly shallow, and without any further depth, the repetition of both as talking points quickly became dull and confusing. I felt like the author had more to say about this, but either because she didn’t think it fit in this particular book or because she didn’t think it fit for a YA audience, she never actually delved into anything of substance.

I also struggled with some of the practicalities of the race itself. I could never quite figure out how the set up worked: the weather only permitted the race once a year because of the cold and storms. The same electrical storms also messed with technology that would allow the mining site to be accessed by traditional ships and such. And yet the race is only one way, with racers using drop ships to leave the site? We even have one character show up at the end of the race who travelled directly there from a ship. I think there was some discussion of the race itself being set up by corporations for purposes of profiting indirectly from the equipment needed for purchase from the racers. I might have just missed some of this, but as the book continued, I found myself regularly getting side-tracked by how this all worked.

Overall, however, I really liked this YA science fiction novel. I wish that the publishing industry would give this subgenre more of a chance, but I’m pleased enough to even find a YA science fiction book out there, even if it’s disguised as fantasy! Definitely check this one out if you like science fiction or adventure stories featuring animal companions!

Rating 8: Perhaps missing an opportunity to dig deeper on some of its themes, this book is still an excellent example of what YA science fiction has to offer!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Cold the Night, Fast the Wolves” is on these Goodreads lists: YA sci-fi releases 2020-2023 and All Fictional Wolf Books (NOT WEREWOLVES).

Find “Cold the Night, Fast the Wolves” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “It Will End Like This”

Book: “It Will End Like This” by Kyra Leigh

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, January 2022

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

Book Description: For fans of The Cheerleaders and Sadie comes a psychological thriller that reminds us that in real life, endings are rarely as neat as happily ever after. A contemporary take on the Lizzie Borden story that explores how grief can cut deep.

Charlotte lost her mother six months ago, and still no one will tell her exactly what happened the day she mysteriously died. They say her heart stopped, but Charlotte knows deep down that there’s more to the story.

The only person who gets it is Charlotte’s sister, Maddi. Maddi agrees—people’s hearts don’t just stop. There are too many questions left unanswered for the girls to move on. But their father is moving on. With their mother’s personal assistant. And both girls are sure that she’s determined to take everything that’s theirs away for herself.

Now the only way to get their lives back is for Charlotte and Maddi to decide how this story ends, themselves.

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

Boy did I think that the timing on this was golden! Around the time that I sat down to start “It Will End Like This” by Kyra Leigh, my favorite podcast was starting their two part series on Lizzie Borden and the Borden Axe Murders. “It Will End Like This” is a YA thriller that takes that story and updates it with modern times and sensibilities, so to me this was going to be the perfect pairing, to my mind.

But I think that it actually worked against the book’s favor, at the end of the day. Which is a real bummer, as I was amped for a YA thriller a la “Sadie” or “The Cheerleaders” that tackled a notorious murder mystery. Because “It Will End Like This” fell pretty flat.

I will start with the positive, and that is the very concept of updating the Lizzie Borden tale with YA protagonists and in a modern setting. There are so many aspects of the original tale (at least how it has evolved over time) that have so much storytelling potential: murder! Potential family strife! A freakin’ axe! I was really hoping for a creative and engaging update that would put all of these Victorian Themes (and all the mess that comes with that kind of baggage) into a modern lens. Like, that is just teeming with potential!

But there were some glaring missteps with this story that reminded me that a story can’t float on potential alone. The first is just a narrative style and set of choices that I didn’t like. For one, while we got a lot of Charlotte perspectives, the Maddi chapters were quite limited. I would have liked to have a bit more of an even distribution for their narrations, unreliability between them notwithstanding. Along with that, it’s all very disjointed, which is a fair choice to make given that Charlotte (and to some extent Maddi) is slowly losing her faculties due to grief, resentment, and rage. But the execution feels a bit heavy handed as well as too messy, and it makes Charlotte and Maddi rather two dimensional in their depictions.

But for me, the biggest issue is that while this book is inspired by the Borden Axe Murders, it’s more inspired by the myths surrounding Lizzie Borden versus the actual case at hand. And this is why my podcast timing probably ruined it for me. This book gives Charlotte and Maddi all the reasons in the world to want their father and stepmother dead, the biggest being that they were clearly having an affair and potentially had something to do with their mother’s very recent death. But the real Lizzie Borden had no obvious motive, as her mother had been LONG dead, and there is no reason to think that her father had anything to do with her death. That’s the big mystery surrounding these murders at the end of the day: Lizzie Borden as a suspect is hard to believe given lack of substantiated motive (note: I say substantiated because of speculation about a lesbian love affair being found out as a motive. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the case, but I don’t know if there is actual evidence to suggest this? And it wasn’t even used in this book as a plot point, so…) and some timing issues on the day of the murders (seriously, the timing would have to be insane for her to pull it all off). Buuuuut there is also a difficult argument to be made for some random person to have done it without being noticed by someone! Instead of taking inspiration from a truly puzzling murder mystery, “It Will End Like This” takes the “Lizzie Borden Took An Axe” nursery rhyme and speculation run amok and ran with that narrative. I think that if the final product had been stronger and less confusing, and had I not JUST listened to a breakdown of the actual facts of the case, I could have overlooked this all, but with all of these issues at hand, it was a bit too much to get over.

“The Cheerleaders” and “Sadie” this is not. I was sad that “It Will End Like This” was the disappointment that it was. I will say that it makes me want to go read other adaptations of the story to see what they do with it. I’m just not sure I’m convinced that Lizzie Borden did take that axe, and this book didn’t rise up high enough for me to look past that.

Rating 5: A good concept is muddled down by confusing narrative choices and straying a bit from the inspirational event it touts in the description.

Reader’s Advisory:

“It Will End Like This” is included on the Goodreads list “2022 YA Mysteries and Thrillers”.

Find “It Will End Like This” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Highlights: January 2022

2022 has arrived! How crazy is that? Not only has the pandemic helped to make the last few years a blur, but it just seems insane that we are several years into the 20s at this point regardless. The holidays are behind us now, and the Minnesota cold seems to really settle in this time of year. But never fear, we have good books to warm our soul! Here are a few we’re looking forward to this month!

Serena’s Picks:

Book: “Cold the Night, Fast the Wolves” by Meg Long

Publication Date: January 11, 2022

Why I’m Interested: For one thing, look at that cover! Love everything about that. Also, I’m always going to be in for an “animal companion” story. And this book, with its relationship between Sena and her fighting wolf, Iska, right at the heart of it sounds right up my alley. I’m also intrigued by the dog-sled race on a dangerous ice planet, of course. But I’m mostly here for the animals feels, let’s be honest.

Book: “Echoes and Empires” by Morgan Rhodes

Publication Date: January 4, 2022

Why I’m Interested: This books follows a fairly basic YA fantasy premise: magic is bad, YA protagonist has magic and must hide/cure it, YA protagonist discovers that ALL MIGHT NOT BE AS IT SEEMS. But do I care if I’ve read this book description before, right up to and including the mysteriously handsome but untrustworthy love interest? No, I do not. I also haven’t read anything by Morgan Rhodes, but know that she’s a fairly beloved author by some in the YA fantasy community. So with that weak excuse, I’ll be checking this book out soon, I’m sure.

Book: “The Starless Crown” by James Rollins

Publication Date: January 4, 2022

Everything about this book looks like fantasy, from the title that is about some type of crown to the description that features a rag tag group comprised of a seer, a soldier, a prince, and a thief. But it’s listed as science fiction! Color me intrigued. I’m always a bit wary of these multiple POV books, so I’m also a bit hesitant going in. It’s also a hefty time commitment, coming in at over 500 pages! Hopefully I’ll get to it soon, but I might wait for the audiobook version (sometimes I’m not as intimidated by the length when someone else is reading it to me!).

Kate’s Picks:

Book: “Mestiza Blood” by V. Castro

Publication Date: January 18, 2022

Why I’m Interested: While overall I thought that “The Queen of the Cicadas” was a little scattered, I knew that I absolutely wanted to read more V. Castro because her horror voice was unique and compelling as hell. Enter “Mestiza Blood” a new collection of short stories by Castro that are sure to frighten, intrigue, and disturb! All while being rooted within the Chicana experience. As someone who is always looking for diverse voices in her read, especially within horror, I am very much looking forward to diving into this short story collection. Especially given that the first story is literally called “Night of the Living Dead Chola”. I mean, that’s just fantastic.

Book: “The Red Palace” by June Hur

Publication Date: January 25, 2022

Why I’m Interested: I’ve greatly enjoyed June Hur’s other historical mystery thrillers, so it’s probably not super surprising that “The Red Palace” made this list of anticipated new reads. In 1700s Korea, Hyeon is selected to become a nurse within the walls of the royal palace, a more prestigious position than most illegitimate girls can hope for. But things start to go wrong when four women in the palace are murdered in one night, and the person the authorities are focusing on is a dear friend to Hyeon. Now Hyeon hopes to prove that her friend is innocent, and seeks out the help from a young police inspector who is also determined to catch the real killer. But when the real killer’s identity is perhaps that of a powerful royal, things get all the more dangerous. The time is place has caught my attention once again, and I can’t wait to check this one out.

Book: “Devil House” by John Darnielle

Publication Date: January 25, 2022

Why I’m Interested: I really loved John Darnielle’s creepy and deeply mesmerizing “Wolf In White Van”, which sort of took on the Satanic Panic surrounding RPG games in the 1980s and turned it into a story about loneliness and escapism in the shadow of trauma. And now he’s come back with “Devil House”, which appears to be another Satanic Panic kinda tale involving a notorious house, two potential teen murderers, and an adrift true crime writer who is offered the job to move into the ‘Devil House’ and to write about it. And my guess is that unsettling and disturbing things start to happen after he moves in. But I would also guess that Darnielle has more than just a haunted house tale up his sleeves, and I’m hoping it will have similar melancholic beats as “Wolf in White Van”. Oh, and just look at that cover. I’m in love with it.

What books are you looking forward to this month?