Not Just Books: February 2022

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

Serena’s Picks

Sports: The Winter Olympics 2022

This year was a tough one for the Olympics, mostly because it’s hard to watch it and enjoy it without thinking of some of the humanitarian crisis that China is embroiled within. The ongoing doping issues with Russia was also a big splash of cold water one one of my favorite Olympics sports, ice skating. But there were also incredible moments for sports lovers in general. Touching stories of redemption. Fantastic feats of skill and sportsmanship. These are the stories I watch for, and while this year was definitely more challenging than other years, I still enjoyed tuning in nightly to see athletes from around the world perform such amazing things on the world stage.

Amazon Show: “The Wheel of Time”

I’m so intimidated by this fantasy series. So long, so many books, such a commitment. I had a half-hearted thought to just read along with the series of the show, like reading only the first book before watching the first season. But honestly, even that seemed like a lot and, well, I caved and just watched the show anyways. Hopefully some day I will tackle this series, but for now, I did enjoy seeing it brought to life on the screen. And while the story didn’t grab me as much as I had hoped (the acting was all aggressively just fine, other than Rosamund Pike who is always awesome), the gorgeous cinematography and costume design definitely had me intrigued. I’m hopeful that as the series continues I’ll become more invested in the actual characters, but for now, I did enjoy it well enough.

Movie: “A Quiet Place 2”

I really loved “A Quiet Place” when my husband and I saw it in theaters right when it came out. I also really, really hated the idea of a sequel when it was announced. The ending of the first movie was so poignant and hopeful that I couldn’t imagine where the story could go from there that wouldn’t damage the excellence of that first movie. Well, I’ve been proved wrong! While I still think the first movie is the superior, this second entry still stood up well on its own and took the story in new and interesting directions. It also was so tense that I could barely make it through the last half. My poor husband can attest to the fact that I was practically jumping out of my seat because I couldn’t handle the building drama. Fans of the first movie who may still be on the fence should definitely give this one try!

Kate’s Picks

TV Show: “Pam and Tommy”

I was in grade school when the infamous Pamela Anderson/Tommy Lee sex tape made waves across pop culture. I remember the scandal vaguely thanks to entertainment TV shows, but I also have a vague recollection about all the jokes that were made about it. Looking back at it now I like to think that society has realized what a disgusting invasion of privacy it was and really no joking matter. So I’ve been enjoying “Pam and Tommy”, the Hulu series that dramatizes it and shows just how goddamn horrible it was. The show follows not only the leaking of the tape itself, but also the whirlwind romance of Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson, and how this tape did significant damage to their relationship, and also to Pam’s reputation. Sebastian Stan is pretty fun as Lee, but it’s Lily James who shines brightest, as she completely becomes Pamela Anderson, and brings out all of the vulnerability and helplessness that this poor woman must have felt during this horrifically traumatizing moment.

Film: “Nightmare Alley”

As someone who has absolutely adored Guillermo del Toro since I saw “Pan’s Labyrinth” in the theater, imagine how crestfallen I was when his newest film “Nightmare Alley” came out exclusively in theaters during the holiday season when I wasn’t feeling comfortable going to the movies. But hey, I can be patient, and eventually “Nightmare Alley” dropped on HBO. So on Valentine’s Day, my husband and I decided that it was the perfect night to sit down and watch! A bleak choice for a romantic date, but whatever. It follows Stan, a potential psychopath who joins up with a sideshow carnival out of convenience as he runs from a mysterious crime. While there he starts to take up the grift of fortune telling and mentalism, and when he and sweet sideshow act Molly take his show on the road, his hubris gets them both into some dangerous situations with shady characters. This remake of a 1940s noir is dark as hell, but Bradley Cooper as Stan is fantastic, as is Cate Blanchett as a femme fatale psychiatrist. This is, for me, del Toro’s darkest film yet. but it’s also beautiful to look at.

Music: The “Peacemaker” Soundtrack

Okay, obviously “Peacemaker” is still very much at the front of my pop culture consciousness this month. Seriously, I LOVED THIS SHOW. But as we were watching it together my husband and I were like ‘damn… this soundtrack is awesome’. And I’ve pretty much been listening to it on a loop all month. It’s mostly the kind of music that Peacemaker himself would listen to, which is, specifically, glam metal. I think that before this soundtrack became my obsession I would have probably ranked glam metal fairly high up there on my preferred music genres, but now I’ve come to realize that it’s absolutely top three behind New Wave and 70s/80s punk. From the likes of Pretty Boy Floyd to Faster Pussycat to Hanoi Rocks to Mötley Crüe (see above: this month also finally prompted me to buy a vintage Crüe tee shirt), the soundtrack also has some Lita Ford, and, of course, the earworm that is “Do Ya Wanna Taste It”, the opening song to the show which is also possibly the best opening credits of all time. As Peacemaker says, “There’s never a wrong time to rock!”

Serena’s Review: “A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire”

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Book: “A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire” by Jennifer L. Armentrout

Publishing Info: Blue Box Press, September 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: A Betrayal…

Everything Poppy has ever believed in is a lie, including the man she was falling in love with. Thrust among those who see her as a symbol of a monstrous kingdom, she barely knows who she is without the veil of the Maiden. But what she does know is that nothing is as dangerous to her as him. The Dark One. The Prince of Atlantia. He wants her to fight him, and that’s one order she’s more than happy to obey. He may have taken her, but he will never have her.

A Choice…

Casteel Da’Neer is known by many names and many faces. His lies are as seductive as his touch. His truths as sensual as his bite. Poppy knows better than to trust him. He needs her alive, healthy, and whole to achieve his goals. But he’s the only way for her to get what she wants—to find her brother Ian and see for herself if he has become a soulless Ascended. Working with Casteel instead of against him presents its own risks. He still tempts her with every breath, offering up all she’s ever wanted. Casteel has plans for her. Ones that could expose her to unimaginable pleasure and unfathomable pain. Plans that will force her to look beyond everything she thought she knew about herself—about him. Plans that could bind their lives together in unexpected ways that neither kingdom is prepared for. And she’s far too reckless, too hungry, to resist the temptation.

A Secret…

But unrest has grown in Atlantia as they await the return of their Prince. Whispers of war have become stronger, and Poppy is at the very heart of it all. The King wants to use her to send a message. The Descenters want her dead. The wolven are growing more unpredictable. And as her abilities to feel pain and emotion begin to grow and strengthen, the Atlantians start to fear her. Dark secrets are at play, ones steeped in the blood-drenched sins of two kingdoms that would do anything to keep the truth hidden. But when the earth begins to shake, and the skies start to bleed, it may already be too late.

Previously Reviewed: “From Blood and Ash”

Review: What should one do after finishing a 600+ page fantasy novel? Jump immediately into another 600+ fantasy novel, of course. Seriously, if I have one major complaint about this series so far, it’s the page length. I’ll go into more of this in the review itself, but man, very, very few books need to be over 600 pages long. Serious epic fantasy series ala Brandon Sanderson, maybe, just because those are such huge worlds with many leading characters. But not much else! Anyways, that’s really neither here nor there. And seeing as I’m back reading the second one despite it’s length, I guess that says something about the author’s ability (or something about me?).

After discovering that almost nothing she believed to be true about herself or her world was in fact true, Poppy’s way forward is murky at best. True, Casteel, a man she once knew only from the legends of a near-demonic being called “the Dark One,” does have plans for her and they involve marriage to himself. But coming from a life where practically no choices were allowed her, Poppy is naturally resistant to again letting another direct her life. However, with her brother caught in the clutches of the evil vampry, Poppy begins to see little way forward in achieving her goal of freeing him without teaming up with the beguiling Casteel.

Like I couldn’t avoid saying in my opening paragraph, this book is again very long. And while I usually start out with the positives of a book, this one thing is such a driving factor of some of my opinions about the book that I can’t resist getting to it first. There is a very good reason that editors exist. Not only can they trim up sections of your story that might be better told in fewer words, but they also perform the important duty of helping authors “kill their darlings” so to speak. In this book’s case, that might have been a few of the many, many very similar bantering scenes between Poppy and Casteel. Yes, this fun dynamic is a major draw for the series, but at a certain point in this book, I began to feel like I was reading the exact same conversation again and again. Even the best banter can’t withstand that type of overexposure.

Cutting out some of these repetitive scenes would also have helped the pace of the story which, again, drags rather heavily towards the middle point of the book. There are some legitimately good action scenes in this book, and to some extent this book is better at interspersing these throughout the story instead of heavily packing it all in the back half like the first book does. But because of some of these repetitive banter scenes, even the increased number of action scenes felt few and far between.

I also struggled a bit with some of the dynamics of the romance at this point in the story. Poppy and Casteel have a fairly prolonged “we’re just pretending” approach to their feelings for each other that gets a bit old and ridiculous quickly. Luckily, the author seems to have a sixth sense for just how far she can push some of these romance tropes, and she does manage to nip this one in the bud before it becomes completely intolerable. Seriously, it was like within 30 pages of me mentally beginning to check out on the romance because of this that she suddenly turned it around. So, well done for that!

I still very much liked Poppy and Casteel. Like I said, the author does seem to have an innate sense for pushing some of tropes right to the edge and for overturning some of the more expected patterns we see in fantasy romance. Casteel is a nice response to some of the overly “alpha” heroes we typically see. He’s still dangerous and capable, but Armentrout perfectly highlights how this sort of character can retain all of his appeal without roughly trodding all over his love interest’s agency. It’s very refreshing. This aspect alone is probably one of my main reasons for continuing this series.

And continue I will! We’ll see how long I go, though, as these books don’t seem to be getting any shorter and the series itself seems to be getting longer and longer (the author recently announced even more books coming in this series). Fans who enjoyed the first book will likely enjoy this one, though I will warn that the pacing is not very much improved and there is a tendency towards repetition with some of the bantering aspects. But I’m still invested enough in this general world and this romantic pairing on their own to keep on for now.

Rating 7: Some repetition in quips and a continuing challenge with pace leave this book falling a bit behind the first book in my enjoyment.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire” is on these Goodreads lists: NEW ADULT fantasy & paranormal romance and Enemies to Lover trope in Fantasy and Paranormal.

Kate’s Review: “All Her Little Secrets”

Book: “All Her Little Secrets” by Wanda M. Morris

Publishing Info: William Morrow, November 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Everyone has something to hide…

Ellice Littlejohn seemingly has it all: an Ivy League law degree, a well-paying job as a corporate attorney in midtown Atlanta, great friends, and a “for fun” relationship with a rich, charming executive—her white boss, Michael.

But everything changes one cold January morning when Ellice goes to meet Michael… and finds him dead with a gunshot to his head. And then she walks away like nothing has happened. Why? Ellice has been keeping a cache of dark secrets, including a small-town past and a kid brother who’s spent time on the other side of the law. She can’t be thrust into the spotlight—again.

But instead of grieving this tragedy, people are gossiping, the police are getting suspicious, and Ellice, the company’s lone black attorney, is promoted to replace Michael. While the opportunity is a dream-come-true, Ellice just can’t shake the feeling that something is off.

When she uncovers shady dealings inside the company, Ellice is trapped in an impossible ethical and moral dilemma. Suddenly, Ellice’s past and present lives collide as she launches into a pulse-pounding race to protect the brother she tried to save years ago and stop a conspiracy far more sinister than she could have ever imagined

Review: I have honestly been eying “All Her Little Secrets” by Wanda M. Morris since last November when it was about to come out. It made a few lists that I came across on social media, and while I wanted to add it to the pile I had a huge stack. By the time it came out I had left it on a mental hold list, and I didn’t seek it out until after the new year. It took a little bit for my hold to come in, and when it did I had a ‘oh yeah!’ moment. I sat down one day and started it, thinking that I would probably get through it in a few days time… And then I read it in two big sittings, basically being snared from the get go. “All Her Little Secrets” gets right down to business, and doesn’t let up until the last pages.

As someone who enjoys conspiracy thrillers if they don’t get too cloak and dagger or overly twisty, I thought that “All Her Little Secrets” executed all the twists and turns without getting too lost in the weeds. It felt like a pretty good progression as we follow Ellice, our protagonist who gets tangled in a dangerous web at her high powered corporation after her longtime boss and secret lover, Michael, is found dead in his office (by Ellice, actually, though she rushes out and doesn’t tell anybody, and it becomes very clear why). I enjoyed watching Ellice start to realize that a personal loss but professional boon, as she is almost immediately promoted to Michael’s position, is far more insidious than anticipated. But what makes it all the more sinister are the themes of racism and misogynoir that Morris weaves throughout the story, as Ellice isn’t just an unwitting pawn, she is an unwitting pawn who also has to deal with the very real racist corporate environment she has been working within. From the overtly racist interactions she has with coworkers to murkier microaggressions to just being the only Black person in her department, “All Her Little Secrets” finds intensity and dangerous outcomes in Ellice’s life even before it’s all turned upside down when Michael is killed. The themes fit into the story perfectly and make the conspiracy all the more ruinous and upsetting. I loved the mystery as it unfolded, and while I figured out a couple of things, for the most part there were lots of surprises and interesting plot twists.

I also really loved Ellice as our main character. The title and summary let the reader know that Ellice has a lot of secrets that she’s been keeping, from her relationship to her boss to some of the things she’s omitted from her life story to those around her. But finding out all of these secrets really gives us a good sense of who she is as a character, and it makes her very complex and someone who I found myself caring a lot about as the story kept speeding towards danger. We slowly learn some of the things she’s been hiding through the modern day narrative, as well as glimpses into her past, when she first took a step towards her big dream reality by leaving her small town behind to attend a prestigious private school… and therein leaving everyone who cared about her, and the guilt that has manifested because of it. The various struggles that made her want to escape are unfolded and devastating, and it all ties into how she has approached life as this story begins in the modern day. It just fits together so well. It’s an enjoyable character study as well as a taut conspiracy thriller.

“All Her Little Secrets” kept me reading and kept me guessing. If you like conspiracy thrillers this is one you definitely need to check out!

Rating 8: An intense conspiracy thriller with well thought out themes on race and corporate elitism, “All Her Little Secrets” will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Reader’s Advisory:

“All Her Little Secrets” is included on the Goodreads lists “Mystery/Thriller/Detective Books Featuring and Written by Black Women Part 1”, and “Great Noir and Noirish Novels Written by Women”.

Find “All Her Little Secrets” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “The First Girl Child”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “The First Girl Child” by Amy Harmon

Publishing Info: 47North, August 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: Bayr of Saylok, bastard son of a powerful and jealous chieftain, is haunted by the curse once leveled by his dying mother. Bartered, abandoned, and rarely loved, she plagued the land with her words: From this day forward, there will be no daughters in Saylok.

Raised among the Keepers at Temple Hill, Bayr is gifted with inhuman strength. But he’s also blessed with an all-too-human heart that beats with one purpose: to protect Alba, the first girl child born in nearly two decades and the salvation for a country at risk.

Now the fate of Saylok lies with Alba and Bayr, whose bond grows deeper with every whisper of coming chaos. Charged with battling the enemies of their people, both within and without, Bayr is fueled further by the love of a girl who has defied the scourge of Saylok.

What Bayr and Alba don’t know is that they each threaten the king, a greedy man who built his throne on lies, murder, and betrayal. There is only one way to defend their land from the corruption that has overtaken it. By breaking the curse, they could defeat the king…but they could also destroy themselves.

Review: February was a fantastic reading month for me. Just hit after hit, loving them all! I think there was only one or two where I was maybe middling on, but the rest were all 4-5 stars from me! This is especially impressive since many of these reads were from authors who were new to me and were books that I had only heard about briefly here and there. That includes this one, a book that I haphazardly added to my TBR list after spotting it on a few fantasy booklists. But, yet again, we have another great one!

“The world is not kind to women.” So says many of the women living their lives out in Saylok, a land of powerful warriors and mysterious druids. So, too, said Bayr’s mother when, after birthing Bayr, nearly alone and friendless, she curses the land to produce no more girl children. Thus the world Bayr grows up in is one of growing desperation as no girls are born year after year and a cruel king leads the land into an uncertain future. That is, until the birth of Alba. Bayr and Alba form an early connection as children, but the hope that came with her birth quickly fades as the years continue without any other girls. As they come to age, powerful forces, both magical and political, become to come to a head and only Bary and Alba can see a future for their land.

Just like “A River Enchanted,” I think this book description is a bit misleading. Yes, Bayr and Alba’s story is central to the book, but they are only two of the main characters. And honestly, they might be the lesser two. We first meet Dagmar, a druid and the brother of Bayr’s mother. It is he who witnesses the curse in the making and takes Bayr under his wing to watch him grow. We also meet Ghost, a woman who has been forcibly taken to this land as Saylok’s men become desperate for the wives who can no longer be found among their own people. Different for both her strange washed-out coloring as well as her foreign upbringing, Ghost makes her way in the shadows of existence before also meeting up with Dagmar.

It is through these two’s tale that we really dive into some of the important themes of the book such as parenthood, devotion, and faith. Both are tested in all of these things throughout the book and handle the various challenges thrown at them in unique ways. Their stories are full of tragedy, but highlight the power of the individual when they put others before themselves and remain steadfast to what they know to be true.

This is definitely a slower book. The story takes place over twenty years or so. As such, you can see why Dagmar and Ghost’s stories are so prevalent. Bayr and Alba are growing up through much of it. But I will give credit to the author for this: I rarely enjoy stories that heavily feature children, and Bayr and Alba are both that through much of the book (Alba’s even a baby during a decent chunk of it), and yet I thoroughly enjoyed the slow exploration of their lives and how they are each shaped by each other and the events going on around them. All of these smaller moments are important as the book builds up to the larger decisions they each must make later in the book.

Again, given this format of the book, the romance of the story was greatly reduced from what I expected going in. That said, while the book wasn’t what I thought it was when I began it, it turned out to probably be a better read because of this change. Instead, the book has a much grander focus, not only on the themes I mentioned earlier, but also on women and feminism. In many ways, this is a fairly traditional fantasy world. Men hold all the power: on the battlefield, on the throne, and in the halls of magic. Fantasy readers will all immediately be familiar with this setting. But the author doesn’t simply go and flip the table on this. Instead, she takes a much more subtle and nuanced route in pointing out the limitations and dangers of women’s lives. She also explores the unique strengths and power that each woman holds as well. By the end, some of these power dynamics have indeed changed, but they did so in a manner that was both believable and satisfyingly

Rating 9: Perfectly executed tragedy reveals the true beauty of the power of love of all kinds.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The First Girl Child” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Amazing Books that are Barely Known and Best Stand-Alone Fantasy Book.

Kate’s Review: “This Might Hurt”

Book: “This Might Hurt” by Stephanie Wrobel

Publishing Info: Berkley Books, February 2022

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

Book Description: Welcome to Wisewood. We’ll keep your secrets if you keep ours.

Natalie Collins hasn’t heard from her sister in more than half a year.

The last time they spoke, Kit was slogging from mundane workdays to obligatory happy hours to crying in the shower about their dead mother. She told Natalie she was sure there was something more out there. And then she found Wisewood.

On a private island off the coast of Maine, Wisewood’s guests commit to six-month stays. During this time, they’re prohibited from contact with the rest of the world–no Internet, no phones, no exceptions. But the rules are for a good reason: to keep guests focused on achieving true fearlessness so they can become their Maximized Selves. Natalie thinks it’s a bad idea, but Kit has had enough of her sister’s cynicism and voluntarily disappears off the grid.

Six months later Natalie receives a menacing e-mail from a Wisewood account threatening to reveal the secret she’s been keeping from Kit. Panicked, Natalie hurries north to come clean to her sister and bring her home. But she’s about to learn that Wisewood won’t let either of them go without a fight.

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

Given that Stephanie Wrobel’s first book “Darling Rose Gold” took inspiration from a notorious true crime case, it’s probably not too shocking that her second book “This Might Hurt” took inspiration from another one. I, for one, am a-okay with such things, as I really enjoyed “Darling Rose Gold” because of the twisty dramatization that Wrobel created from the real life event. When I read the description of “This Might Hurt” I immediately thought ‘oh this is NXIVM’. I mean, an isolated self help community in the Northeast, and family members wondering what is going on with their loved ones? NXIVM was all over the pop culture consciousness these past couple of years, so I wasn’t surprised and was definitely interested.

I liked the narrative structure of this book. It has some of what you would expect, and then an aspect that I wasn’t expecting but ended up liking the best of the three perspectives. But in terms of the more obvious choices, we have both Natalie and Kit providing us with first person perspective chapters, separated into sections. Natalie is rooted firmly in the present, so we get to see Wisewood in the moment and how unnerving and creepy it is as a self help island disguising a cult. For Kit we get some past perspectives, seeing what made her decide to seek out Wisewood in the first place, and how she has adjusted to living there (as well as how she has ascended up the ranks to become a pet of the leader, ‘Teacher’). They eventually come together to play out the story, and it meshes well, even if the way that it all parses out isn’t super surprising or unique.

It does, however, build at a pace that slowly raises the tension and suspense, as Natalie looks for Kit on this isolated island where people are seemingly trying to keep her at arm’s length. Throw in the fact that Natalie has her own secrets and you have double the mystery going on, though that, too, isn’t terribly shocking once we get to it. I think that part of the problem is that neither Natalie nor Kit are interesting enough as characters to me, so I wasn’t super invested in their outcomes. Sure, in the moment the malevolence of Wisewood is definitely unsettling, and the tension in that regard is well done. But since I didn’t really care about Natalie OR Kit, it never felt super high stakes to me.

But it was the third unexpected component that I liked the most and lifted this story up beyond a run of the mill thriller. These were perspective chapters from a mysterious third person, whose childhood with an abusive father and passive mother and older sister sets her onto a path dealing with magic tricks, self control, and eventual thirst for power and dominance. It becomes pretty clear that we are, indeed, seeing the story of Rebecca, the leader of Wisewood, and it was her moments that I was most looking forward to, as she felt like the most complicated character in the book. Certainly more complicated than Natalie and Kit, whose archetypes we have seen in this kind of book many a time. With Rebecca, while we do see characters like her from time to time, the way that Wrobel lets us see the slow and full transformation is the most chilling aspect of this book, and the one that worked the best for me as I read it.

“This Might Hurt” is a solid thriller. Some beats are familiar, while others are surprising, and it is certainly very, very addictive, and fairly disturbing when all is said and done. Wrobel knows how to make a setting feel dangerous, and seeing how a spider catches flies in her web was the biggest success of this book.

Rating 7: “This Might Hurt” is an entertaining book about cults and the relationship between sisters, though it’s the examination of a cult leader’s transformation that is the most interesting part.

Reader’s Advisory:

“This Might Hurt” is included on the Goodreads list “The Most Anticipated Mysteries and Thrillers of 2022”.

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

Joint Review: “Dead Silence”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Dead Silence” by S.A. Barnes

Publishing Info: Tor Nightfire, February 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: We received eARCs from NetGalley and Edelweiss+

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: Titanic meets The Shining in S.A. Barnes’ Dead Silence, a SF horror novel in which a woman and her crew board a decades-lost luxury cruiser and find the wreckage of a nightmare that hasn’t yet ended.


Claire Kovalik is days away from being unemployed—made obsolete—when her beacon repair crew picks up a strange distress signal. With nothing to lose and no desire to return to Earth, Claire and her team decide to investigate.

What they find at the other end of the signal is a shock: the Aurora, a famous luxury space-liner that vanished on its maiden tour of the solar system more than twenty years ago. A salvage claim like this could set Claire and her crew up for life. But a quick trip through the Aurora reveals something isn’t right. Whispers in the dark. Flickers of movement. Words scrawled in blood. Claire must fight to hold onto her sanity and find out what really happened on the Aurora, before she and her crew meet the same ghastly fate.

Thank you to NetGalley and Edelweiss+ for providing us with eARCs of this novel!

Kate’s Thoughts

We’ve gone over this before, but I always like to preface my reviews of this genre with a note: I’m not super into Sci Fi as a genre, though there are certain exceptions that I am good with. Namely, “Star Trek”, the original “Star Wars”, and Space Horror as a subgenre. So when I saw “Dead Silence” by S.A. Barnes being chatted about on Twitter and Goodreads, I couldn’t help but have my interest piqued. Something described as “Titanic” meets “The Shining” is bound to be a unique combination, so I tossed my Sci Fi apprehension aside and took a chance! Especially since I was also getting some serious “Event Horizon” vibes from the description.

Where we’re going we won’t need eyes to see… (source)

And if you throw in “Alien” and “Aliens” into this mix, you pretty much have “Dead Silence”, which makes it a familiar but engaging space horror novel. Barnes does a good job of setting up our story, with our protagonist Claire at the end of her run as a Team Lead for a corporate space mission, who is worried about what she does next, as she has no money and no prospects due to a checkered past. So when she and her crew stumble upon a distress signal from the long lost space liner Aurora, which disappeared with numerous wealthy passengers on board, she sees an opportunity she can’t pass up. Things, of course, don’t go as well as she would hope, and carnage ensues. And in terms of space horror beats, “Dead Silence” hits them all pretty well with a combination of slow burn build up, well done exposition, and a genuinely disturbing scenario that will set the reader on edge. I was enthralled during the first half of the book, loving the haunted ship and how it was messing with Claire and her crew, as well as how Barnes slowly reveals Claire’s backstory and why she is already perhaps a little unreliable in her own mind in terms of what she thinks she is, or isn’t seeing.

But it’s definitely familiar. From a mysterious distress signal to a ship that perhaps is haunted and drives people to the brink to a corporation having a vested interest in what may or may not be on board, “Dead Silence” has a lot of elements that are straight call backs to other space horror stories. I think that had we not diverted from the original ‘crew goes aboard an abandoned vessel and finds terrible things’ plot, I probably would have enjoyed it more, but when we get to the very “Aliens”-esque ‘and now they’re forcing her to go back for their own motives’ plot in the second half, I was a little less enthused. That isn’t to say that it was poorly done, as it wasn’t. I still found it entertaining. But once a bit of the mystery was gone, or at least had changed a bit, the dread and suspense went down for me. And perhaps that’s because it started to lean more on other Sci Fi things that don’t resonate as much for me.

Regardless, I had a fun time reading “Dead Silence”. It totally makes me want to revisit the stories it was paying homage to.

Serena’s Thoughts

Hi! Surprised to see me reviewing anything with the slightest twinge of “horror”? But, like Kate with her reading of science fiction stories, I do make exceptions for horror stories that cross over into my preferred genres. I’ve read a few good horror fantasies last year, but this is the first horror sci-fi book I’ve read in quite some time. And man, emphasis on the “horror” part!

Like Kate references, there have been plenty of science fiction horror stories in the past, both on the screen and on the page. So with that in mind, going in I always feel like there are two rather predictable routes the book can take. And this book does employ one of those and some other commonly seen tropes. That said, the actual horror, dread, and jump scares of the book still came in hot and fast. The first half of the book had me on the edge of my seat. And, I won’t lie, several of of these scenes have stuck with me and popped into my mind at inopportune times when trying to get to sleep, even days later. It also helped that Claire herself was an unreliable narrator, so it was hard to know exactly what horror was coming from her and what was coming from the strange happenings on the Aurora.

But I’ll also agree with Kate that the book lags a bit towards the second half. It almost feels like the author got up to speed on the horror of the situation and then slams on the brakes, cutting all tension and suspense off at its knees. From there, it shifts gears, and while the story does build to a different sort of tension, we never regain the jittery creepiness of the first half. And that’s such a shame! As we learn, there was plenty of scary stuff to come and for some reason the author just jets us away from it all unexpectedly. It’s a bizarre choice, frankly.

That said, I definitely enjoyed this read and gobbled it up over only a few reading sessions. For me, a little horror goes a long way (can’t have too much nightmare fuel all at once), but this was definitely a good choice for one my rare ventures into the genre.

Kate’s Rating 7: Pretty serviceable space horror with some good scary moments, but also pretty familiar in terms of plot points.

Serena’s Rating 7: Very creepy when it stuck to its horror themes, but a bit baffling with some of the choices the author made later in the story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Dead Silence” is included on the Goodreads lists “Space Horror”, and “2022 Horror and Sci Fi Releases”.

Serena’s Review: “This Woven Kingdom”

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Book: “This Woven Kingdom” by Tahereh Mafi

Publishing Info: HarperCollins, March 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: To all the world, Alizeh is a disposable servant, not the long-lost heir to an ancient Jinn kingdom forced to hide in plain sight.

The crown prince, Kamran, has heard the prophecies foretelling the death of his king. But he could never have imagined that the servant girl with the strange eyes, the girl he can’t put out of his mind, would one day soon uproot his kingdom—and the world.

Perfect for fans of Leigh Bardugo, Tomi Adeyemi, and Sabaa Tahir, this is the explosive first book in a new fantasy trilogy from the New York Times bestselling and National Book Award-nominated author Tahereh Mafi.

Review: I’ve had a lot of luck in the past with books featuring Jinn. Several of my favorite fantasy novels both old (“City of Brass”) and new (“Daughter of the Salt King“) have featured these magical creatures and the, often unique, cultures and mythologies built up around them. So when I saw another fantasy novel coming out with a Jinn main character, I knew I had to read it ASAP!

Working as a lowly house maid, Alizeh is cautiously optimistic that, at last, she will be able to lead a quiet life in the shadows, no one ever knowing who she is. That is, a Queen to the powerful, but oppressed, Jinn who have been dispersed across the land and only await the call of a leader to come together once again. For Kamran, any threat to his father’s reign is one to take seriously. So when he bumps into a house maid with skills that should not belong to one in such a class of people, he immediately senses a spy and threat. As he circles closer to the truth, Alizeh also begins to feel the stirrings of change, much as she wishes to repel it.

This book had everything I look for in the start of a new fantasy trilogy. To begin with, the world felt vast yet understandable. The history was rich and complicated, but presented in an approachable way. I particularly enjoyed the history and legends of the Jinn themselves. We get some early backstory to their existence early in the book, but as the story continues to unfold, we get a closer look at how their current standings in society have affected Alizeh’s existence. Mafi deftly nails how a once powerful race could become reduced to a scrap of people who exist in the shadows, how comprise to end bloodshed does not end oppression and prejudice, and how power struggles can go beyond who has the most force (magic, in this case).

Alizeh was such a great character. Her life is full of struggle and hardship, and yet we see her persevere in the face it all. There were very strong “A Little Princess” vibes from her. We also got to see examples of the power she must keep hidden within herself. And while it gives her advantages, she’s not presented as an over-powered Mary Sue. Instead, we see hardships that have come with her “gift” of being the chosen Queen, pains that tax her daily, both physically and emotionally. Her life has been one of tragedy, and when we meet her, she’s all but given up on any hopes of fulfilling her role, preferring instead to exist in a safe, quiet life in the shadows.

For his part, Kamrad’s life has been much more straight forward and existing in whites and blacks, trusting that his family is on the right side of all conflict. His story is much more that of someone losing the blinders they’ve hid behind throughout their life. The story never shies away from the crippling pain that would come with these sorts of revelations, especially about people who are dear. But with all of this, his story was believable, in that all of these revelations and challenges to his perceptions would result in slow, incremental change. His life has been one of duty, and we see the constant tensions playing within him between this loyalty and his inherent sense of right and wrong.

I also appreciated that the romance of the story was quiet and often in the background of the story. It slowly builds as the story unfolds, but neither character is swept up so much as to forget their own challenges and priorities. It’s the exact sort of start to a grand romance that I look for. There are several books to go and, for the most part, these two barely know each other at this point. There’s still plenty of room to grow, and I’m glad the author didn’t give it all way in the very first book.

The book does end on quite a cliffhanger, so readers should beware of that going in. However, it’s so strongly written and imaginative, that I still very much recommend fantasy fans check it out!

Rating 10: Beautiful and compelling while exploring themes of loyalty, oppression, and the challenge of seeing one’s world as it is.

Reader’s Advisory:

“This Woven Kingdom” is on these Goodreads lists: South Asian Representation and Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2022.

Kate’s Review: “Within These Wicked Walls”

Book: “Within These Wicked Walls” by Lauren Blackwood

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, October 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: What the heart desires, the house destroys…

Andromeda is a debtera—an exorcist hired to cleanse households of the Evil Eye. When a handsome young heir named Magnus Rochester reaches out to hire her, Andromeda quickly realizes this is a job like no other, with horrifying manifestations at every turn, and that Magnus is hiding far more than she has been trained for. Death is the most likely outcome if she stays, but leaving Magnus to live out his curse alone isn’t an option. Evil may roam the castle’s halls, but so does a burning desire.

Kiersten White meets Tomi Adeyemi in this Ethiopian-inspired debut fantasy retelling of Jane Eyre.

Review: It’s come up on here before, specifically way back when during a joint review of “Jane Steele”, that I really love the book “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Brontë. The Gothic setting and sensibilities, the tough and clever heroine, the admittedly problematic but still, to me, swoony leading man, it’s a book that I hold near and dear to my heart. I am always on the look out for reimaginings, and while some have been good, others have been not, so it always feels like a risk when I dive in. But I kind of knew from the jump that “Within These Wicked Walls” by Lauren Blackwood was going to work for me, because it was not only a retelling based in a non-Western centric gaze, it had ‘exorcist’ in the description. Our Jane equivalent as an exorcist sent to cleanse a haunted manor? Um, HELL YES.

As mentioned, our protagonist Andromeda, or Andi, is a debtera, a trained religious figure who performs exorcisms of people and places. She was taken in by Jember, a volatile and world weary debtera who has been her only connection to others, though his work has left him bitter, cruel, and sometimes flat out abusive to Andromeda. Her life up until this point has made her determined to succeed on her own, and very standoffish around other people. I makes her an interesting protagonist to follow because not only does she have to prove herself to Jember, but she also needs to show herself that she can do these things that she’s been trained to do. It becomes all the more complicated when she arrives at Thorne Manor, as not only is this house INCREDIBLY cursed by the Evil Eye, it also has an occupant, Magnus Rochester, that Andromeda finds herself very taken with. As Andi finds out just how dangerous the spirits and demons are within Thorne Manor, she also finds out that she can make connections with people, like Magnus, and the mysterious but incredibly kind servant Saba. This makes the stakes for Andi all the higher, and it makes it so she perhaps doesn’t realize just how in over her head she may be, despite her prowess and very well honed talents. I definitely liked her relationship with Rochester, as their banter and even footed wits and personalities was very fun to watch. But I was actually more interested in the complicated and sad relationship that she had with Jember, her mentor. As mentioned their interactions are dark and deeply broken, but Blackwood doesn’t opt for easy, black and white lessons or answers when it comes to their relationship. Jember is not good to Andi, it can’t be denied, but I liked how looking into his work as a debtera and through his past traumas kind of give him a lot of depth and complexity.

I also liked the magical systems at play, as well as the setting. Make no mistake, we are not finding ourselves in the Moors for this book, as we are actually in an alternate timeline (I think?) Ethiopia. But the isolation is still there, as are the questions about one’s own strengths and weaknesses, and the fighting of demons within one’s own spirit (as well as literal demons thanks to the Evil Eye resting squarely on Magnus and his home). I know so little about the culture and debteras, but Blackwood lays out the root of the mythology as well as building a fantasy system on top of it. It leads to some pretty creepy demon stuff, as well as interesting magical components that set this firmly into a ‘dark fantasy’ realm. Blackwood has many moments that were tense and scary, and it all felt really well imagined and focused.

I definitely get some of the critiques I’ve seen that question as to whether or not this can really be considered a retelling of “Jane Eyre”, mostly because I do think that you have to look for the parallels beyond the obvious names of Thorne Manor and Rochester. I do argue that they are there, even if they have been tweaked a little bit. While there isn’t a hidden wife in the attic, there is a hidden relationship. Andi may not be a governess but she is a person from one part of society dropped into a highly dysfunctional upper class setting. The simmering and constantly tested romance is alive and well (and once again very easy to root for). It may not be a clear step by step retelling, but, unlike other retellings I’ve encountered in YA literature, at least it feels like it does have the guts and soul of the source material, as opposed to just using it and trying to force it into the box. Maybe ‘reframing’ is a better word.

Overall I enjoyed “Within These Wicked Walls”. It brought fantastical and creepy layers to a Gothic classic, and it had the spirit of the source material while turning the story into something that is very much its own tale.

Rating 8: Immersive, creepy, and incredibly engaging, “Within These Wicked Walls” is a unique and well done reframing of one of my favorite Gothic novels.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Within These Wicked Walls” is included on the Goodreads lists “Jane Eyre Retellings”, and “2021 Fantasy and Science Fiction by Black Authors”.

Find “Within These Wicked Walls” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea” by Axie Oh

Publishing Info: Feiwel & Friends, March 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: Deadly storms have ravaged Mina’s homeland for generations. Floods sweep away entire villages, while bloody wars are waged over the few remaining resources. Her people believe the Sea God, once their protector, now curses them with death and despair. In an attempt to appease him, each year a beautiful maiden is thrown into the sea to serve as the Sea God’s bride, in the hopes that one day the “true bride” will be chosen and end the suffering.

Many believe that Shim Cheong, the most beautiful girl in the village—and the beloved of Mina’s older brother Joon—may be the legendary true bride. But on the night Cheong is to be sacrificed, Joon follows Cheong out to sea, even knowing that to interfere is a death sentence. To save her brother, Mina throws herself into the water in Cheong’s stead.

Swept away to the Spirit Realm, a magical city of lesser gods and mythical beasts, Mina seeks out the Sea God, only to find him caught in an enchanted sleep. With the help of a mysterious young man named Shin—as well as a motley crew of demons, gods and spirits—Mina sets out to wake the Sea God and bring an end to the killer storms once and for all.

But she doesn’t have much time: A human cannot live long in the land of the spirits. And there are those who would do anything to keep the Sea God from waking…

Review: You all know what I’m going to say at this point. Yes. Again. The beautiful cover has sucked me in! But I’ve also really enjoyed many of the Asian fairytales I’ve read, be they coming from Chinese, Japanese, or other Eastern cultures. This one is Korean, and I was excited to see what Axie Oh had to offer!

Mina is not a chosen bride, one of the young women chosen each year to be sacrificed to the sea in the hope that their sacrifice will calm the Sea God who torments the land with violent storms each year. No, Mina is not this girl. But her brother’s true love is, and in a desperate attempt to save her brother from pain, Mina throws herself into the sea in place of the true bride. Now, wandering in the Spirit Realm, Mina is determined to solve the mystery surrounding the reserved and closed-in Sea God. She is aided by a young man, Shin, who has spent the last century protecting the Sea God from the other ambitious gods who seek to dethrone him during this time of turmoil. Can Mina unwind this puzzle before her soul is lost forever?

This book has been praised with many comparisons to “Spirited Away.” And while I only enjoyed that movie so much, I know that fanatic fans will take this comparison as a true boon for this book. And I do see the comparisons. Here, too, we have a young woman thrust into a mysterious and dangerous land of spirits where forces are moving beyond her control. The world-building in this book was so good. The Spirit Realm felt vibrant and alive (even though it was filled with the spirits of the dead and gods). You could feel the life teaming in the busy market places, the dangerous river of souls, and the various pavilions of gods. And with each god comes a new challenge for Mina, a young woman who is way out of her depth. I loved the magical elements that we explored alongside of her, the various political maneuverings of the gods, the fantastical elements that flew the air and water, and the color spirts who guided her along her way.

The writing was also excellent. The story simply flows, there’s no other way to say it. Things are constantly happening, but the pace never felt frenetic or frantic. Instead, it was perfectly pitched to slow down and land the emotional hits that come with Mina’s interactions with the Sea God and other gods (the goddess of women and children was a particularly crushing moment). But there was also tons of action, with battles between gods vying for the Sea God’s throne and the dangers of an ever-rising river of the dead.

Mina was a fantastic guide through all of this. She starts off as strong as you can get, sacrificing herself to spare her brother the pain of losing his love. And once she discovers the confusion and mysteries that surround the Sea God, she quickly determines to do her best to still end his curse, even if she knows that she is not the true bride. Her persistence, faith, and hope in the face of despair made her incredibly compelling. There were many moments where you could see the temptation to simply give up and take the good things that she could find for herself in this land. But that is not the way of a girl who has already sacrificed her own life for others. Instead, she pushes through adversity all the way to the end, even past the point where others would caution her to accept the state of things.

I also really liked the relationship that was built up between Mina and Shin. It’s a slow-build romance, and their relationship never felt rushed. Part of this is due to the wise decision not to rely on the romantic relationship to carry the entire story. Instead, Mina’s connection to the Sea God and three special spirits who help her on her way (as well as two of Shin’s friends) all help to flesh out the cast into a satisfying collection of various relationships and emotional draws.

I can’t say enough good things about this book! This review is already way longer than usually I write, and that’s because every time I finish a paragraph I think of another aspect of the story that I want to praise! Fantasy fans should definitely give this one a shop! Especially if you’re a fan of Asian fairytales like “Spirited Away.”

Rating 9: Lush, mystical, and full of life in all of its beauties and sorrows.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea” is on these Goodreads lists: Korean Fantasy Books and Books that inspired or are similar to Miyazaki films.

Kate’s Review: “The Witch Haven”

Book: “The Witch Haven” by Sasha Peyton Smith

Publishing Info: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, August 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: The Last Magician meets The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy in this thrilling and atmospheric historical fantasy following a young woman who discovers she has magical powers and is thrust into a battle between witches and wizards.

In 1911 New York City, seventeen-year-old Frances Hallowell spends her days as a seamstress, mourning the mysterious death of her brother months prior. Everything changes when she’s attacked and a man ends up dead at her feet—her scissors in his neck, and she can’t explain how they got there.Before she can be condemned as a murderess, two cape-wearing nurses arrive to inform her she is deathly ill and ordered to report to Haxahaven Sanitarium. But Frances finds Haxahaven isn’t a sanitarium at all: it’s a school for witches. Within Haxahaven’s glittering walls, Frances finds the sisterhood she craves, but the headmistress warns Frances that magic is dangerous. Frances has no interest in the small, safe magic of her school, and is instead enchanted by Finn, a boy with magic himself who appears in her dreams and tells her he can teach her all she’s been craving to learn, lessons that may bring her closer to discovering what truly happened to her brother.

Frances’s newfound power attracts the attention of the leader of an ancient order who yearns for magical control of Manhattan. And who will stop at nothing to have Frances by his side. Frances must ultimately choose what matters more, justice for her murdered brother and her growing feelings for Finn, or the safety of her city and fellow witches. What price would she pay for power, and what if the truth is more terrible than she ever imagined?

Review: I am now at that age where if someone asks me what I want for my birthday or the holidays, more often than not I think ‘ah crap’. Given that one of my biggest hobbies is reading, one might think that books are always an option, but more often than not I just use the library, especially since I work for one. But I keep a few in mind, especially for my husband, so this past November when he asked for birthday ideas I told him “The Witch Haven” by Sasha Peyton Smith. I’d seen it bumping around my social media feeds on and off, and on top of that it is not only a mysterious boarding school story, it also has witches! And you know me, I’m always down for some teenage coven shenanigans!


I should definitely say right away that “The Witch Haven” is more of a YA Urban Historical Fantasy, a genre that isn’t usually my wheelhouse, especially on the blog. But I figured that witches, being one of my faves, was fair-ish game, and while the genre tropes constrained it a bit (for me at least), overall I enjoyed this book. Firstly, I really enjoyed the time and place. We find ourselves in 1911, and in New York City, so the time period is one that I’m not as familiar with books wise. This post Gilded Age, solidly Progressive Era timeframe makes for interesting themes and historical footnotes, and I felt that Smith used these to her advantage. We both address the constraints of women during this time, be it the factory work that many had to endure (and yes, there are references to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire), the Suffrage Movement, and the way that men, even in magical settings, are constantly trying to hold them back and take their power. Sometimes literally. Frances, our protagonist, is whisked away to Haxahaven School because her powers manifested after she was attacked by her boss at the shop she works at as a seamstress, and the mythology of Haxahaven and the way witches are seen and function in historical New York City is unique and entertaining.

I also appreciated that Smith doesn’t look back at every element of this time period as rosy when it comes to progressive ideas, nor does she paint Haxahaven School as a super positive and supportive ‘yasss queen’ institution (though the friendships that Frances makes there are VERY positive and show a supportive and feminist group of women). This is most revealing when it comes to Frances’s roommate and close friend Lena. The girls who attend Haxahaven are plucked from their lives and taken to the school to learn how to control their magic and to become witches who can harness their powers, even if that means sometimes stifling them. For Lena, however, it is not an empowering place, as she is Indigenous, and longs to return to her family and her community. I liked that Smith had Lena in this story for a couple of reasons. The first is that it shows that the feminism of this time period was reserved for white women only, and that women like Lena were ignored or abused because of their race. It also was a way to address the Boarding Schools for Indigenous children in this country during this time period (as Lena was taken from a boarding school to attend Haxahaven), and how it was a tenant of genocide that our government was committing against Natives. I can’t speak to whether Smith did her due diligence when it comes to telling Lena’s story, but I liked that the broader themes of this story were told.

But there were some stumbles along the way in “The Witch Haven”. For one, the pacing feels a little off. It has a lot of fast paced plotting at the beginning, but we get a little bogged down as Frances and her friends make connections with Finn, a young man who is a magic student at a male institution. It ramps up again once we get to the last third of the book, but it slogs a bit as Frances interacts with Finn in hopes of learning some of his magic to find out what happened to her murdered brother William. I think that part of the problem is that I didn’t really care for Frances as a character, so therefore her story and her journey didn’t keep me as interested when we needed that exposition. I think my biggest issue with her is that she is purely defined by her brother’s death and wanting to solve what happened, with little other interesting character traits. I also found her decisions to be unclear, like why she is so suspicious of the people she is living with and learning with, but more than happy to trust Finn and the people he is allied with without any questions. It just felt like her character development was less for her and more to progress the plot.

All that said, the ending is a bit open ended, and my interest was piqued enough by it that should Smith write a sequel I would probably pick it up, just to see what happens next. “The Witch Haven” didn’t quite live up to my hopes, but it was fine for what it was.

Rating 6: Though the pacing is a little off at times and the main character a bit grating, overall “The Witch Haven” has a fun setting that lets witches shine, albeit with complexities of the time period.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Witch Haven” is included on the Goodreads lists “ATY 2022: Academia or Teacher Impacted”, and “Popsugar 2022 #16: A Book About Witches”.

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

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