Book Club Review: “From Blood and Ash”

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

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: “From Blood and Ash” by Jennifer L. Armentrout

Publishing Info: Blue Box Press, March 2020

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

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

Romance Trope: Secret Identities

Book Description: A Maiden…

Chosen from birth to usher in a new era, Poppy’s life has never been her own. The life of the Maiden is solitary. Never to be touched. Never to be looked upon. Never to be spoken to. Never to experience pleasure. Waiting for the day of her Ascension, she would rather be with the guards, fighting back the evil that took her family, than preparing to be found worthy by the gods. But the choice has never been hers.

A Duty…

The entire kingdom’s future rests on Poppy’s shoulders, something she’s not even quite sure she wants for herself. Because a Maiden has a heart. And a soul. And longing. And when Hawke, a golden-eyed guard honor bound to ensure her Ascension, enters her life, destiny and duty become tangled with desire and need. He incites her anger, makes her question everything she believes in, and tempts her with the forbidden.

A Kingdom…

Forsaken by the gods and feared by mortals, a fallen kingdom is rising once more, determined to take back what they believe is theirs through violence and vengeance. And as the shadow of those cursed draws closer, the line between what is forbidden and what is right becomes blurred. Poppy is not only on the verge of losing her heart and being found unworthy by the gods, but also her life when every blood-soaked thread that holds her world together begins to unravel.

Kate’s Thoughts

Okay guys, I’m about to blow your mind. I actually enjoyed this fantasy novel. WHAT? I know! I always go on about how fantasy is a really hard genre for me, and admittedly when Serena picked this for book club I groaned. It was long. It was fantasy. It sounded silly. But shut me up, I ended up enjoying “From Blood and Ash”, so thank you, Serena! I will happily eat crow!

I mean, yes, it has kind of a slow start, and yes, it has a lot going on. Probably too much. But I found myself enjoying this book, for a couple of reasons. One, I enjoyed Poppy, our main character. I liked the backstory that was given to her, I thought that her personality was well formed and pushed back against what we can sometimes see with the kind of role she is playing, and I liked that she actually had agency as well as reasons for her various abilities. I also liked a number of the side characters, like Poppy’s friend Tawny, her lady in wait, or her guard Vikter. I felt that Armentrout did her due diligence to give them some personality as opposed to just be players to prop Poppy up. And in terms of the vampire mythology that Armentrout wove in, it wasn’t anything super new, but it was fun enough, and creatively placed into a fantasy dystopia setting.

I am at the very least going to try the next book in the series. I can’t guarantee that I will commit to the entire series, as it’s long and fantasy and I are tenuous. But “From Blood and Ash” was fun.

Serena’s Thoughts

I didn’t realize just how long this book was when I selected it for bookclub! Sorry Kate! I picked it because it was the top rated fantasy romance on Goodreads at one point, and while yes, the premise sounded kind of silly, I thought that all of those high ratings had to be based on something.

Like Kate said, this book definitely has a slow start. There’s a ton of world-building that gets laid out in this story, and as it’s told in first person, much of that world-building is simply given to us by Poppy herself. Usually this would be a pretty negative thing for me, but I think it speaks to the strengths of Poppy’s character that she was so solid and entertaining that I didn’t even mind the way much of this information was delivered. Given how long this book is, Poppy’s compelling inner thoughts and character work are integral in keeping the pace of the story going. The dialogue was also excellent and had me laughing out loud at times.

I completely agree with Kate about the side characters, so I won’t repeat what she said about them. I’ll also definitely second what she said about Poppy defying typical romance heroine conventions at times. She was given enough back story to explain her motivations for learning and doing what she does. And the author gave us early opportunities to put these aspects of Poppy’s character to the test and let us see her in action. There were also a few decisions she made towards the end of the book that were incredibly satisfying and definitely not the sort you typically see from romance heroines in this type of situation.

I’ll also say that I really enjoyed the romance. Hawke was a very swoony hero and, again, defied many of my expectations at different times. There were some fairly predictable twists that came along with him, but I was happy enough with the way the story played out to not be overly concerned that I could guess where it was headed before it got there. I also really liked the twists the author brought to the fantasy aspects of the story. Again, unlike Poppy, the reader will be able to pick up on a few of them right off the bat. But there were additional levels, so to speak, to these traditional fantasy beings that were revealed as the story continued. I will say that with all of this world-building and mythology, the book could definitely have used a map to at least relieve some of the mental burden on the reader trying to keep track of this all!

Kate’s Rating 7 : It had a bit of a slow start and had a LOT going on, but I ended up enjoying this romantic fantasy!

Serena’s Rating 8: Maybe a bit generous as a rating for half one, but we’ll round up with the more satisfying aspects of half two.

Book Club Questions

  1. This book’s romantic trope was “secret identities.” Did you like the way this was incorporated into the book? How did you feel about the reactions of both parties when the secret identities were revealed?
  2. How did you feel about Poppy and Hawke as the romantic heroine/hero? In what ways did they conform to stereotypes? In what ways did they break them?
  3. There was a lot of world-building and fantasy building in this book. Were you able to fully picture this world and society? Did you have any questions about place or people?
  4. The author plays with some staple fantasy characters such as vampires, zombies, and werewolves. Did you like her interpretations of these mythical beings?
  5. Would you read the other books in the series?

Reader’s Advisory

“From Blood and Ash” is included on the Goodreads lists: Sarah J. Maas Clones and Romance, SMUT Action, And The Supernatural.

Next Book Club Book: “Project Duchess” by Sabrina Jeffries

Serena’s Review: “Only a Monster”

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

Book: “Only a Monster” by Vanessa Len

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, February 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: It should have been the perfect summer. Sent to stay with her late mother’s eccentric family in London, sixteen-year-old Joan is determined to enjoy herself. She loves her nerdy job at the historic Holland House, and when her super cute co-worker Nick asks her on a date, it feels like everything is falling into place.

But she soon learns the truth. Her family aren’t just eccentric: they’re monsters, with terrifying, hidden powers. And Nick isn’t just a cute boy: he’s a legendary monster slayer, who will do anything to bring them down.

As she battles Nick, Joan is forced to work with the beautiful and ruthless Aaron Oliver, heir to a monster family that hates her own. She’ll have to embrace her own monstrousness if she is to save herself, and her family. Because in this story . . .

. . . she is not the hero.

Review: This book seems to be getting a decent amount of hype, and a lot of reviewers have been rating it pretty highly. That, plus the super cool cover, was enough for me to place a request. But while I can see why it’s been a hit for many, sadly, it wasn’t quite for me.

Joan’s world explodes one day on what should have been a simple date with her crush, Nick. But it turns out that Nick is a famous monster hunter and, what would you know, Joan herself comes from a family of monsters. Suddenly drawn into an age-old war, Joan must quickly learn what she is capable of. In her battle against Nick, she’s joined by Aaron, a young man from a rival monster family. With him comes more questions and, potentially, another foe? Not knowing who to trust, Joan must race to save her family from ruthless forces on either side.

So, there’s a lot going for this book right off the bat. The idea itself is quite interesting. It’s hard to really go into much of the abilities and situation around Joan’s “monstrousness” without getting into some pretty major spoiler territory, but I will say that the main twist to this book took me completely by surprise. The book description does a good job of setting up the stakes of the story without giving away any clues as to how exactly all of this comes to pass. And it’s a pretty big “how.”

For her part, I thought Joan was a fairly compelling heroine. I liked that so much of the story was based around her love for her family and her drive to save them from a dark fate. I did have some quibbles about how this character was handled with her execution of that desire to save her family. She knows literally nothing about this monster world that opens up to her, but she goes in with guns blazing playing with incredibly high stakes. On one hand, I like this type of brash character; but on the other hand, the way she was written didn’t acknowledge just how brash and crazy some of these actions were. She definitely could have used a bit more questioning and investigation of everything involved before diving in so fully. I mean, by the end of the book, even I was left with some questions. For one thing, the term “monster” was a big question mark for me from beginning to the end, and I never felt like much explanation was given as to why that term was used.

I also really didn’t like the so-called “romance.” It’s sold as an “enemies to lovers” romance, something that I’m definitely all for, generally. And we have two options set up with both Nick (the monster hunter) and Aaron (the family rival), and yet I never really connected with the romance with either. There were also some fairly convenient moments towards the end of the book that resolved some of these things in what I felt were fairly unsatisfying ways.

All told, I think this book has a lot of potential to connect with a lot of YA fantasy readers. It’s fast-paced, original, and Joan is a compelling leading lady. I will say that those looking for a solid romance may end up being disappointed by this one. But readers less interested in that aspect might want to give this one a shot!

Rating 7: A major twist carries this book through, but the romance fails to hold up it’s own weight in the equation.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Only a Monster” is on these Goodreads lists: Fantasy Frenemies and 2022 YA Historical Fiction.

Kate’s Review: “Reckless Girls”

Book: “Reckless Girls” by Rachel Hawkins

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, January 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: From the New York Times bestselling author of The Wife Upstairs comes a deliciously wicked gothic suspense, set on an isolated Pacific island with a dark history, for fans of Lucy Foley and Ruth Ware.

When Lux McAllister and her boyfriend, Nico, are hired to sail two women to a remote island in the South Pacific, it seems like the opportunity of a lifetime. Stuck in a dead-end job in Hawaii, and longing to travel the world after a family tragedy, Lux is eager to climb on board The Susannah and set out on an adventure. She’s also quick to bond with their passengers, college best friends Brittany and Amma. The two women say they want to travel off the beaten path. But like Lux, they may have other reasons to be seeking an escape.

Shimmering on the horizon after days at sea, Meroe Island is every bit the paradise the foursome expects, despite a mysterious history of shipwrecks, cannibalism, and even rumors of murder. But what they don’t expect is to discover another boat already anchored off Meroe’s sandy beaches. The owners of the Azure Sky, Jake and Eliza, are a true golden couple: gorgeous, laidback, and if their sleek catamaran and well-stocked bar are any indication, rich. Now a party of six, the new friends settle in to experience life on an exotic island, and the serenity of being completely off the grid. Lux hasn’t felt like she truly belonged anywhere in years, yet here on Meroe, with these fellow free spirits, she finally has a sense of peace.

But with the arrival of a skeevy stranger sailing alone in pursuit of a darker kind of good time, the balance of the group is disrupted. Soon, cracks begin to emerge: it seems that Brittany and Amma haven’t been completely honest with Lux about their pasts––and perhaps not even with each other. And though Jake and Eliza seem like the perfect pair, the rocky history of their relationship begins to resurface, and their reasons for sailing to Meroe might not be as innocent as they first appeared.

When it becomes clear that the group is even more cut off from civilization than they initially thought, it starts to feel like the island itself is closing in on them. And when one person goes missing, and another turns up dead, Lux begins to wonder if any of them are going to make it off the island alive.

Review: Travel to far off places (at least places that can only be easily reached by plane) is probably still out of the running for me and my family this year as we continue to deal with the pandemic (there’s always Northern MN!), so I will continue to live vicariously through books until things start to die down (or at the very least the kid gets her shots). And while this sometimes leads to a bit of FOMO, I try to tell myself that this isn’t forever and I will surely be visiting these places again in the future….. Hopefully. Well enter “Reckless Girls” by Rachel Hawkins, a book I got through Book of the Month that ended up being a perfect read for an isolated Minnesota winter weekend. Why not transport myself from a chilly house in the North to a tropical island in the Pacific, even if that island ends up being the location of some grisly outcomes and twisted secrets?

“Reckless Girls” has a trouble in paradise theme in which a supposedly idyllic getaway turns into something far more sinister, and even though it has sunlight, beaches, and gorgeous ocean, it has the foundation of a Gothic thriller due to the isolation and dark secrets that some of our characters are harboring. Our main character, Lux, is a bit of a fish out of water, a damaged woman who fell head over heels for a privileged but devil may care boyfriend named Nico, and followed him to Hawai’i thanks to the promise of sailing the world together. But he has foregone his connections and resources to his wealthy family out of stubbornness he sees as noble, and she has to bear the brunt of his pride. So when two college girls named Brittany and Amma approach Nico with an offer of substantial cash to take them to an atoll called Meroe with a buzzed about paradise like backdrop (and a notorious history), Lux, intimidated by their magnetism but desperate for her new start, agrees to go with all three of them. When they arrive and find a flashy couple has already dropped anchor, the two groups start to enjoy their freedom. Hawkins slowly builds up the getaway, showing the present through Lux’s perspective, but giving us background and clues to impending danger through flashback chapters following the other characters, who all are hiding something from everyone else. Hawkins lays out all the clues in a masterful way, and she paces out the slowly building drama and tension with soapy twists that make the entire read very, very hard to put down. Seeing all of these characters interact with each other, grow close to each other in a superficial way like only a vacation can do, and then start stabbing each other in the back, is deeply enjoyable. I figured out a few of the twists and turns, but there were others that were surprising, and even those that I did guess were still fun to get to within the plot.

I also really liked the setting. As I said above, while it’s bright, sunny, and tropical, Meroe Atoll is a deeply isolated and unnerving setting. Hawkins slowly creates a backstory for the island as well, through excerpts from books, texts, emails, and other correspondence, and other epistolary bits that let you know that this place, while beautiful, is unforgiving. I was looking this place up to see if it was real (it’s not; there is an island called Meroe but it’s out by India, not a couple days sail from Maui), as Hawkins made it sound so real with the world building she does for it. I loved how creepy it was once our characters were there, as even though the descriptions were pretty standard, the very thought of being so alone and cut off from everything is very upsetting, especially as stakes start to get higher and survival is becoming more murky for some of our characters. I mentioned it was a bit Gothic, and it has the elements of people slowly going a bit unhinged due to paranoia, distrust, and the sheer unforgiving seclusion of the location. The location really stands out.

“Reckless Girls” is a fun thriller that you should definitely check out if you like the genre. It may make you wish for a tropical trip, but at the same time you may be thanking your lucky stars this isn’t the vacation you are taking any time soon.

Rating 9: Super addictive and compelling with a lush and unsettling backdrop, “Reckless Girls” is a fun thriller and tangly mystery.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Reckless Girls” is included on the Goodreads lists “And Then There Were None: Deadly Parties”, and “Down By The Sea”.

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

Serena’s Review: “A River Enchanted”

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

Book: “A River Enchanted” by Rebecca Ross

Publishing Info: HarperVoyager, February 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: Jack Tamerlaine hasn’t stepped foot on Cadence in ten long years, content to study music at the mainland university. But when young girls start disappearing from the isle, Jack is summoned home to help find them. Enchantments run deep on the magical Isle of Cadence: gossip is carried by the wind, plaid shawls can be as strong as armour, and the smallest cut of a knife can instill fathomless fear. The capricious spirits that live there find mirth in the lives of the humans who call the land home, but that mischief turns to malevolence as girls begin to go missing.

Adaira, heiress of the east, knows the spirits only answer to a bard’s music, enticing them to return the missing girls. But there’s only one bard capable of drawing the spirits forth by song: her childhood enemy Jack Tamerlaine.

He hasn’t stepped foot on Cadence in ten long years, content to study music at the mainland university, but as Jack and Adaira reluctantly work together it becomes apparent the trouble with the spirits is far more sinister than first thought and an older, darker secret lurks beneath the surface, threatening to undo them all.

Review: There’s another cover for this book listed on Goodreads, as well, so I’m not sure exactly which one will be used when the book comes out (I suspect one cover is the U.S. cover and the other U.K.?) But I preferred this one, so that’s what we have here! The colors are lovely and the flowers speak to an important part of the story itself. It wasn’t the cover I saw when I requested an ARC, however, so what really drew me in was the description itself which made it sound like the kind of fantasy novel that Juliet Marillier would write. And that’s all I needed!

It is a dark and stormy night and Jack Tamerlaine is returning to his island home, a land riddled with magic and mystery. After spending his last years learning music, he never planned on returning. That is, not until he received a summons from his childhood rival and the heir to the land, Adaira. Once home, he discovers a mystery of young girls going missing. But it’s unclear whether magical forces are at work or whether it’s the war-like people who occupy the other half of the island who are behind the disappearances. Adaira’s hopes, however, expand beyond simply recovering the missing girls; she hopes to finally bring together both sides of the island, something that hasn’t been attempted for years after the last try went so badly wrong that it struck at the core of magic itself.

I really loved this book. Right from the very first moment, it starts off with the type of lyrical, atmospheric writing that I love to see in fantasy fiction. There’s something about this style that lends the story a fairytale-like feeling, even if the tale itself is completely original and not drawing from any well-known folktales. Ross’s language was able to fully ground the story in a mystical land where words that are spoken can travel on the wind to ears far away, where powerful beings can be summoned with the right strums of a harp’s strings, and where legends as old as time still live and can be stumbled upon if you take a wrong turn while wandering off the roads.

For all of this excellent world-building, the author was equally good at centering the story around several different characters who had very different arcs and challenges throughout the story. The book description misrepresents the characters at the heart of this story. We do, of course, spend a good amount of time with Jack and Adaira. Jack’s story is one of homecoming, full of memories of people who now, essentially, no longer exist being so changed now after the passage of time. He must learn to reconcile the emotions and views of the child he was when he left with what he sees now: flawed people all trying to do the best they can. Adaira’s story is bit more simple; she’s introduced as a beloved and competent leader of her land and, for 99% of the book, that’s what she remains. There are several twists towards the end that give her story more heft, in hindsight. But I was also fully satisfied with her more straight-forward arc on its own as well. However, while Jack and Adaira are central characters, and their slow-burn romance and attempts to solve the mystery of the missing girls drives much of the story, there are two other characters who also get a decent amount of page time.

Sidra and Torin are two “older” characters, probably in the mid-thirties or so? Together they have raised Torin’s daughter whose mother died shortly after her birth. Through these two, the story dives into some deeper topics involving duty, loss of faith, and the commitments that we have to one another that can lead to love, even if they didn’t start as such. These two other characters were both a surprise but also the firmer foundation upon which the rest of the story worked. While I enjoyed Jack and Adaira, their story was more straightforward and, to some extent, predictable. But through Sidra and Torin, we are able to explore an aspect of love much less often touched upon: the kind that develops slowly, over years, and, like faith itself, relies as much on our decision to love and to believe as anything else.

I strongly recommend this book to fans of fantasy fiction, especially those who enjoy literary fantasy or fairytale fantasies. It’s also a refreshing example of adult fantasy fiction and how you can incorporate the “new love” romance that is typically found in YA fantasy while also touching on themes more often found in adult stories.

Rating 9: Lyrical and atmospheric, this story touches on love of all kinds and delves into all the beauty and pain that can be found there.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A River Enchanted” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on “Music in Fantasy.”

Kate’s Review: “Echo”

Book: “Echo” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

Publishing Info: Tor Nightfire, February 2022

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

Book Description: Travel journalist and mountaineer Nick Grevers awakes from a coma to find that his climbing buddy, Augustin, is missing and presumed dead. Nick’s own injuries are as extensive as they are horrifying. His face wrapped in bandages and unable to speak, Nick claims amnesia—but he remembers everything.

He remembers how he and Augustin were mysteriously drawn to the Maudit, a remote and scarcely documented peak in the Swiss Alps. He remembers how the slopes of Maudit were eerily quiet, and how, when they entered its valley, they got the ominous sense that they were not alone. He remembers: something was waiting for them

But it isn’t just the memory of the accident that haunts Nick. Something has awakened inside of him, something that endangers the lives of everyone around him… It’s one thing to lose your life. It’s another to lose your soul.

FROM THE INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLING SENSATION THOMAS OLDE HEUVELT comes a thrilling descent into madness and obsession as one man confronts nature—and something even more ancient and evil answers back.

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

It’s been awhile, a long while, and I’ve been long anticipating a new book by Thomas Olde Heuvelt. I loved his last book “Hex”, the story of a small town cursed by the ghost of a witch that wanders the community and makes everything scary and awful for the townspeople. Like, it scared the hell out of me, truly scared me to my bones, which I always love to encounter in my books. So when I saw that he finally had a new book coming out in the U.S., called “Echo”, I was AMPED!!! Because if there is going to be an author who genuinely, GENUINELY scares the living daylights out of me, it’s going to be Thomas Olde Heuvelt.

Bring on the nightmares. I know they’re coming. (source)

And let me tell you, “Echo” has many moments that absolutely filled me with dread. The first chapter alone was enough for me to say ‘okay that’s enough for one night’ and close my Kindle. Heuvelt combines elements of survival horror, possession horror, body horror, folk horror, and a good old fashioned ghost story to tell his newest scary tale, one that is perfect for a cold winter’s night (we’ve had a couple of those this winter!). Heuvelt really knows how to slowly build up the slow creeping dread. As our protagonists Nick and Sam have to contend with what is happening to Nick post mountaineering disaster that left him disfigured, and his friend Augustin dead, we slowly see how things are so very wrong, and how both men are caught up in the supernatural danger in their own ways. With Nick, his body has been potentially inhabited by a malevolent force he can’t control. With Sam, his initial repulsion at his lover’s disfigurement turns into an unwavering obsession with keeping Nick close, keeping him safe, and trying to fix whatever it is that is wrong… even if it isn’t fixable. We get both of their perspectives through various means, be it personal journals, notes, or flashbacks, and as the truth as to what happened slowly comes to light, we also get introspection into their relationship as well as their core wants and fears. They are well conceived characters that I ended up caring about.

And as mentioned. The SCARES. OH THE SCARES. That first chapter scared the piss out of me, and Heuvelt sprinkles in a lot of horror moments that range from the somewhat unsettling to absolute nightmare fuel. By taking elements of a traditional possession story but making the origin of the possession more nature based than religious based, Heuvelt has breathed new life into the subgenre that I really appreciated. Anyone can be possessed by a demon, but who can say that they’ve been possessed by a piece of the natural world (I’m trying to be vague here, though other reviews have kind of unpacked it a bit more)? It’s very unique in its creepiness, and I liked that quite a bit. And his descriptions are still so vivid and visceral, knowing how to take basal, primal fears and translate them to the page. Goddamn this book is scary.

I will say that “Echo” does have some stumbles here and there. The first is something that I kind of mentioned above: there is a LOT going on. There are a lot of subgenres at work here, and while combining a couple could work wonders, when you throw a lot into the mix it becomes too much. I think that this is mostly because to do due diligence to all of these subgenres or tropes, it means that you have to spend a fair amount of time on each of them. And that makes for a long read, one that goes on a little too long. Especially since some of the elements invariably do feel under-explored. There was one offshoot during the last fourth of the novel in particular that I thought felt a bit tacked on, as while it absolutely did tie back to other parts of the book (and had a VERY upsetting moment that set me on edge), it felt like we had let this moment stay off to the sidelines for a bit too long before we do reconnect to it. Ultimately I think that it just felt overstuffed. Not enough to turn me off, mind you! It just could have used some trimming.

Ultimately, “Echo” delivered the scares. Thomas Olde Heuvelt once again messed me up and created a story that has disturbing elements that got under my skin.

Rating 8: Deeply disturbing and another solid winter horror story, “Echo” runs a little long and is overstuffed but has many scares along the way.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Echo” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Wilderness Horror Stories”, and “Horror To Look Forward To In 2022”.

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

Highlights: February 2022

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

Still cold. Still dark. Still winter in Minnesota! But at least it’s February, the month where we can all eat chocolate to our heart’s content and blame it on romance! Seriously, does anyone’s New Year’s resolution diet ever make it past February? We, of course, will be enjoying said chocolate while curled up with some good books. Here are a few we’re looking forward to this month!

Serena’s Picks:

Book: “A River Enchanted” by Rebecca Ross

Publication Date: February 15, 2022

Why I’m Interested: I have a few other books by this author that have been on my TBR list for way longer than I want to admit. But prior to this, I believe she’s mostly written YA fantasy, so I was intrigued when I saw that she was releasing an adult fantasy novel. And the tale itself is right up my alley, following a bard, Jack, as he returns to his magic-ridden home. There, he teams up with his childhood rival and the heir to the land, Adaira, to discover why young girls are going missing. Really, the entire book description sounds very Celtic fantasy/Juliet Marillier-like. And that’s more than enough for me!

Book: “This Woven Kingdom” by Tahereh Mafi

Publication Date: February 1, 2022

Why I’m Interested: I love a good forbidden romance, and this one sound excellent. Alizeh is the heir to the Jinn; but given that her people are spread far and wide, discriminated against and hated, this title means nothing more than another aspect of herself that she must hide as she scrapes together a living as a lowly servant. When she has a chance run-in with the crown prince, Kamran, events are set off that will spiral out of the control of them both. The book is also based on Persian mythology, so that adds another check mark in its favor. I’ve had a lot of good luck with “Jinn” stories, from the “City of Brass” trilogy to the more recent “Daughter of the Salt King.” Crossing my finger that my luck will hold!

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

Publication Date: February 22, 2022

Why I’m Interested: I mean, the cover?? Honestly, that’d be enough for me! But the story sounds excellent as well. For decades, the people have sacrificed a young woman to the sea, hoping that these brides will appease the tempestuous and violent Sea God who has been be hammering their land with violent storms every year. Mina did not have this destiny, but to spare her brother the pain of losing his love, Mina dives beneath the sea, sacrificing herself. In the land she finds below, strange forces are at work and the Sea God himself might be the biggest mystery of all.

Kate’s Picks:

Book: “Echo” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

Publication Date: February 8, 2022

Why I’m Interested: Given how much I loved, loved, LOVED Olde Heuvelt’s previous novel “Hex”, it was a no-brainer that his new horror story was going to go to the top of my must read pile. But instead of an angry witch tormenting a small community, we go into the world of mountaineering and folk horror, with some survival and body squick thrown into the mix. Nick and Augustin decide to do a mountaineering trek into the Swiss Alps, seeking out the secluded and notorious mountain Maudit. But Augustin ends up dead, and Nick barely survives, returning to his life with a horribly disfigured face. His lover Sam is happy he’s alive… until it seems that Nick didn’t leave the Alps without bringing something terrible back. Heuvelt knows how to scare the hell out of me, and “Echo” will be no different.

Book: “This Might Hurt” by Stephanie Wrobel

Publication Date: February 22, 2022

Why I’m Interested: “Darling Rose Gold” was an addictive and unnerving thriller, and when I saw that Stephanie Wrobel had a new thriller coming out I was very interested in seeing what her next story would be. This time we’re dealing with a shady self help organization that may or may not be a cult! Sold! Natalie and her sister Kit are estranged, with Natalie trying to forget their shared traumas and Kit drowning in them. So Kit joins a group called Wisewood, which promises to help people become their ‘maximized selves’ if they go to their retreat in remote Maine and cut themselves off from the world. Natalie doesn’t hear from Kit for months…. until she gets a mysterious email from Wisewood saying that they know a secret she’s been keeping from Kit. Now Natalie is desperate to find her sister. And Wisewood is determined to keep them both. I expect twists and suds.

Book: “Dead Silence” by S.A. Barnes

Publication Date: February 8, 2022

Why I’m Interested: I feel like I’ve been waiting on this one forever, though in actuality it’s only been postponed once. Regardless, while Science Fiction isn’t usually my genre, if you make it into space horror I am almost always in, and that is why “Dead Silence” by S.A. Barnes caught my eye. Claire and her team have finished up their mission, and though she is their leader, this is her last mission with their corporation. So when their spaceship stumbles upon what remains of the Aurora, a luxury spaceliner that disappeared decades before, she thinks that this could be her ticket to wealth and starting over. But once they board the ship to salvage what they can, the find a ship full of corpses. Expected, sure. But then strange things start happening, and they start seeing the dead, and other things. It sounds like “Alien” meets “Event Horizon” meets “Titanic”. Which is quite the combination.

What books are you looking forward to this month?

Monthly Marillier: “Heart’s Blood”

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

“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: “Heart’s Blood” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Tor/Pan Macmillan UK, October 2009

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

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

Book Description: Whistling Tor is a place of secrets, a mysterious, wooded hill housing the crumbling fortress of a chieftain whose name is spoken throughout the district in tones of revulsion and bitterness. A curse lies over Anluan’s family and his people; those woods hold a perilous force whose every whisper threatens doom.

For young scribe Caitrin it is a safe haven. This place where nobody else is prepared to go seems exactly what she needs, for Caitrin is fleeing her own demons. As Caitrin comes to know Anluan and his home in more depth she realizes that it is only through her love and determination that the curse can be broken and Anluan and his people set free.

Review: This is another of Marillier’s few stand-alone novels. It’s also one of her more straightforward fairytale retellings, this time tackling the beloved “Beauty and the Beast.” I have fairly high-standards for retellings of this classic tale, as the premise sets up a situation that could trend towards an unhealthy romantic relationship (though I don’t buy into the general “Stockholme syndrome” complaint as leveled at every version of the story). But from the author who has delivered favorites on some of my other preferred fairytales….you know I’m going to rave about this one!

As a woman, Caitrin’s work as a scribe would never be accepted. Instead, her work has been passed off as her father’s and used to support their family. But when he passes, Caitrin is left with few options and finds her only refuge in the mysterious and remote Whisteling Tor. There, where strangeness lies around every corner, Caitrin meets Anluan, a young man bearing the terrible curse laid on his home. Each with their secrets and demons, the two find refuge in the blooming relationship between them. But darkness is rising, and soon their fragile bond will be tested.

So, why bother with any pretenses? Obviously, I loved this book. Marillier does have books that aren’t big hits for me, both those are often found in her series. Thinking it over now, I’m not sure there’s a single fairytale retelling of hers that I don’t count as one of my favorites. But “Beauty and the Beast” holds a special place in my heart, so it’s all the better that Marillier nailed this particular tale.

To start with, both Caitrin and Anluan are excellent characters, bringing new takes on the classic “beauty” and “beast.” Caitrin, instead of simply being book-loving, is a scribe who has worked behind the shadow of her father for years and seeks out Whistling Tor as a refuge, rather than a forced-upon-her cage. Anluan is also not a beast in any real understanding of the world. Reclusive and secretive, Caitrin must work to gain his trust, but he doesn’t have the anger issues that often come with the more simplistic takes on “beasts.” He’s also described as living with a form of palsy that struck him as a child and left him with one side of his body weaker than the other. The curse that his family and his home suffers under is much more nuanced than his simply being a “beast.”

I also really liked the magical elements we have in this book. The mirrors in particular were interesting (and a nice callback to the classic “Beauty and the Beast” mirror). Each one has a unique magical elements, and this wide range effects left the story with a lot of wiggle room to explore different parts of each character’s arc. This unknown magic also helped add to the general sense of unease and confusion that Caitrin experiences on Whistling Tor.

I did think a few parts of the story were a bit too predictable. A few characters were so obviously suspicious that you start to wonder early on if they’re red herrings. And then you read on to find out, no, they were just that bad all along and it was just very clear from the start. The curse itself was interesting, but there, too, I wish the story had done a bit more with it. The ending felt a bit sudden and neatly wrapped up, all things considered.

But those are minor quibbles. I really enjoy this story for what it offers on its own and as an interesting interpretation of “Beauty and the Beast.” The original fairytale is recognizable, with nice little winks to various aspects of the fable here and there, but it also feels like a fully fleshed out story on its own. Fans of fairytale retellings should definitely add this to their list!

Rating 8: A refreshingly unique retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” that perfectly balance the old with the new.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Heart’s Blood” is on these Goodreads lists: Beauty and the Beast and Best Adult Fairytale Fantasy.

Kate’s Review: “Locke & Key (Vol. 5): Clockworks”

Book: “Locke & Key (Vol. 5): Clockworks” by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodríguez (Ill.)

Publishing Info: IDW Publishing, 2013

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Tyler and Kinsey Locke have no idea that their now-deceased nemesis, Lucas “Dodge” Caravaggio, has taken over the body of their younger brother, Bode. With unrestricted access to Keyhouse, Dodge’s ruthless quest to find the Omega Key and open the Black Door is almost complete. But Tyler and Kinsey have a dangerous key of their own — one that can unlock all the secrets of Keyhouse by opening a gateway to the past. The time has come for the Lockes to face their own legacy and the darkness behind the Black Door. Because if they don’t learn from their family history, they may be doomed to repeat it, and time is running out!

Colonel Adam Crais’s minutemen are literally trapped between a rock and a hard place; in the first days of the Revolutionary War, they find themselves hiding beneath 120 feet of New England stone, with a full regiment of redcoats waiting for them in the daylight… and a door into hell in the cavern below. The black door is open, and it’s up to a 16-year-old smith named Ben Locke to find a way to close it. The biggest mysteries of the Locke & Key series are resolved as Clockworks opens, not with a bang, but with the thunderous crash of English cannons.

Review: As we know I’ve really been enjoying this re-read of Joe Hill’s dark fantasy horror series “Locke and Key”, though I’ve been saying the whole time ‘I don’t remember when and how a lot of this is all going to come together’. The exposition has been building and building and it’s been getting close to the end of the series and there are still a lot of questions to be answered. I remembered really loving the series overall, but I think that the first time I read this I was like ‘okay, I have two books left and few answers, is this going to pay off?’. Because it has to pay off.

And my God, does it pay off. Everything comes together so perfectly and with such thoughtfulness and intricacy that I was just blown away, even though it is my second time reading this book. Joe Hill’s storytelling prowess is at its best in this volume.

There are two major reveals in this story right when things have started to get dire for the Lockes (even if they don’t realize how dire). Given that Kinsey killed Dodge, and Dodge (or whatever it is) moved its consciousness into Bode’s body without them knowing it, the race is on for the Lockes to discover the truth before Bode/Dodge can find the Omega Key. The first reveal that we see we jump into right away, which is the origin of the keys, Keyhouse, the demon, and how the Lockes are connected to it. And we go all the way back to the Revolutionary War, in which we meet a young locksmith named Ben Locke, who discovers that hidden Minutemen have opened a door deep in a cave that has let an evil out that they are trying to put back and contain. The first time I read this I remember thinking that it went on a little long, but this time I thought that this origin story of the Black Door and the keys was pitch perfect. I loved the setting, I loved the connection to the Locke Family (and the backstory for the Lockes, who were victims of Red Coat tyranny), and I loved how Hill sprang this all on us but still managed to make it feel in depth and well explored. He lays his magical system out bare, and it falls into place with ease.

Our second big reveal is we finally, FINALLY, get to see how Rendell Locke and his friends ran afoul Dodge, as well as explanations as to how back in the day Dodge Caravaggio became the Dodge that we know now, how Ellie Whedon became so broken, and how Erin Voss lost her memories and her consciousness, and how ALL of it relates to the keys. And it’s done in a way that doesn’t feel super exposition-y, as we get another key reveal that allows for Tyler and Kinsey to go back in time to see everything happen, and to get a new perspective on their late father. While I do think that we didn’t get enough exploration of all of Rendell’s friends (specifically his girlfriend Kim; I appreciated that Hill tried to make her complicated, but she just came off as cruel and privileged more than anything else), the backstory itself is so fantastic, so heart wrenching, and so SCARY as a bunch of kids who have been bestowed a monumental responsibility of guarding keys get too complacent… and all hell breaks loose. Good God is this an emotional story arc, as we know how things turned out for a few of our characters, but we didn’t know how they got to that point. Hill makes it so complex, satisfying, and devastating, and it adds compounded grief as two kids who lost their father in a terrible act of violence have to see his biggest mistake that ruined lives as it unfolds. Goddammit, it hurts, and it’s beautiful.

And the artwork continues to be great. I can’t praise Gabriel Rodríguez enough, and he has this way of creating the most grotesque and disturbing images as well as the most tender and joyous.

This image specifically took my breath away. (source)

This penultimate volume is fantastic. We will finish up this re-read with the next and last volume, “Omega”. I’m not sure I’m ready to be emotionally destroyed by it, but it’s time regardless.

Rating 9: Fantastic pay off for all the build up before it, “Locke & Key: Clockworks” is the strongest in the series so far.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Locke & Key (Vol. 5): Clockworks” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Horror Comics/Graphic Novels!”, and “Best Coming-of-Age Horror Novels”!

Find “Locke & Key (Vol. 5): Clockworks” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed:

Serena’s Review: “Murder at Half Moon Gate”

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

Book: “Murder at Half Moon Gate” by Andrea Penrose

Publication Info: Kensington, March 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

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

Book Description: When Lord Wrexford discovers the body of a gifted inventor in a dark London alley, he promptly alerts the watchman and lets the authorities handle the matter. But Wrexford soon finds himself drawn into the murder investigation when the inventor’s widow begs for his assistance, claiming the crime was not a random robbery. It seems her husband’s designs for a revolutionary steam-powered engine went missing the night of his death. The plans could be worth a fortune . . . and very dangerous in the wrong hands.
Joining Wrexford in his investigation is Charlotte Sloane, who uses the pseudonym A. J. Quill to publish her scathing political cartoons. Her extensive network of informants is critical for her work, but she doesn’t mind tapping that same web of spies to track down an elusive killer. Each suspect—from ambitious assistants to rich investors, and even the inventor’s widow—is entwined in a maze of secrets and lies that leads Wrexford and Sloane down London’s most perilous stews and darkest alleyways.
With danger lurking at every turn, the potent combination of Wrexford’s analytical mind and Sloane’s exacting intuition begins to unravel the twisted motivations behind the inventor’s death. But they are up against a cunning and deadly foe—a killer ready to strike again before they can recover the inventor’s priceless designs . . .

Previously Reviewed: “Murder on Black Swan Lane”

Review: Once I discover a “goody,” my self-control really goes out of the window. This is especially true for good books that likewise have good audiobook versions. I’ve found that audiobook narrator preferences are among the more individualized preferences in readers, and a good or bad narrator can really make or break a book for me. So when I read the first book in this series and discovered that I greatly enjoyed the writing itself, I was excited. When I also realized that the narrator, James Cameron Stewart, was just of the variety that I prefer, I was thrilled. So, buckle in as we likely review this series one after another over the next few months!

After forming an unlikely team to solve one mystery, both Mrs. Sloane and Lord Wrexford doubt their paths will cross in quite the same way again. They’ve maintained their blossoming friendship, but their social circles by no means intersect. That is until Lord Wrexford literally stumbles across the scene of a new crime, and after having his heartstrings (such as they are) tugged on upon by a becoming widow, he finds himself yet again caught up in a mystery. And knowing the value of the unique eye that Charlotte brings to these sorts of crimes, she, too, finds herself caught up once again in murder. But as they circle closer and closer to the truth amidst a complicated web of science, ambition, and greed, the killer also draws closer and closer to them.

Given the way the other murder landed on our two main characters’ tables, I was curious to see how the author was going to get them entangled in another. Not every murder in London can be personally tied to one of the two! But I thought the method here was effective. Nominally, it’s a random murder that Wrexford is only drawn into after being personally petitioned. But as the plot thickens, so, too, do we see how it provides an opportunity to gather more insight into our main characters. Wrexford begins to question how he see those around him, why this particular widow was able to pull on his heartstrings and how this insight reflects on his burgeoning relationship with Charlotte.

For her part, Charlotte is beginning to expand her life outwards, starting with a move to a larger house in a more respectable part of London. This comes with the unique challenge of appropriately drawing on the support systems she has while not compromising her pride in the independent lifestyle she has created for herself and the two boys under her care. Given her unique position, she’s able cross the boundaries between a respectable lady who can call upon the grieving widow and an independent entity who can call upon sources on the streets to turn over the darker underside of London itself. But this balance is becoming precarious, and in this story, we see the costs that Charlotte bears trying to maintain both sides of things.

The mystery itself was intriguing and complicated. I feel like half of the books one reads about this time period have some reference to the Luddite protests that were so prevalent in public discourse. But I liked the way this book tackled the topic while also delving into other modern aspects of business that we take for granted now but that were relatively new at the time. And even with all of these factors at play, the murder itself was still grounded in human emotions and motivations that get to the core of individuals.

My only quibble comes with the relationship between Wrexford and Sloane. In the first book, they meet each other and form a tenuous working relationship that slowly blooms into a sort of friendship. Here, we begin to see that friendship tested with hard truths being spoken and levels of trust explored. But then it felt like the end of the book took a hard dive in a particular direction. The direction itself is unsurprising (I mean, I barely think it’s a spoiler at this point to see where this is going…), but I found the sudden jump in both characters to begin to see/admit to other aspects of the relationship so quickly felt a bit out of left field. It also leaves me wondering where the story will go from here. Honestly, I had this particular storyline pegged out as taking place over several more books before coming to a head, so I’m not as sure now how the author has it plotted out.

But other than that small point, I really enjoyed this book. The author has perfectly nailed the language and feel of this time period in London, and her two main characters are both complicated and layered. I’m hopeful that she hasn’t played too many of her cards too early, but either way, I’m excited to find out in the next book!

Rating 8: An intriguing mystery centered around two increasingly compelling main characters! Count me in for the next one!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Murder at Half Moon Gate” is on these Goodreads lists: Regency and Victorian Mysteries and History through Novels: 1000-1899 Western Europe.

Kate’s Review: “The Violence”

Book: “The Violence” by Delilah S. Dawson

Publishing Info: Del Rey Books, February 2022

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

Book Description: A mysterious plague that causes random bouts of violence is sweeping the nation. Now three generations of women must navigate their chilling new reality in this moving exploration of identity, cycles of abuse, and hope.

Chelsea Martin appears to be the perfect housewife: married to her high school sweetheart, the mother of two daughters, keeper of an immaculate home. But Chelsea’s husband has turned their house into a prison; he has been abusing her for years, cutting off her independence, autonomy, and support. She has nowhere to turn, not even to her narcissistic mother, Patricia, who is more concerned with maintaining the appearance of an ideal family than she is with her daughter’s actual well-being. And Chelsea is worried that her daughters will be trapped just as she is–then a mysterious illness sweeps the nation.

Known as The Violence, this illness causes the infected to experience sudden, explosive bouts of animalistic rage and attack anyone in their path. But for Chelsea, the chaos and confusion the virus causes is an opportunity–and inspires a plan to liberate herself from her abuser.

Review: Thank you to Del Rey for providing me with an eARC of this novel via NetGalley.

As this seemingly never ending pandemic goes on, there has been a pattern in my reading and other media consumption that has been consistent: I have been having a hard time with anything that has to do with mass illness and epidemic plotlines. It has tainted my reading experiences, it has made me put off shows I would normally be interested in (“The Stand”? “Station Eleven”? Not right now, thanks!), and I just don’t want to think about it in my reading or viewing things. So when “The Violence” by Delilah S. Dawson ended up in my inbox, I was hesitant. I eventually relented, expecting it to be an entertaining but probably difficult read.

But apparently all a pandemic story needs for me to be completely and utterly in love with it is professional wrestling?

By the way I’m still bitter that this show was cancelled before the last season could happen. (source)

Okay that’s not the only reason that I absolutely adored “The Violence”, but it was definitely one of many lovable aspects of this angry, snarky, and highly entertaining pandemic book. Dawson has created a scary virus mythology that she tackles with suspense, humor, and believability as to how it would unfold, given everything we’ve seen in the past two years. A strange virus causes people to completely disassociate and turn lethally violent, and we follow three generations of women in one family as they experience this new disease through the lens of their own experiences of victimhood and generational trauma. Our first is Claudia, a housewife who has been in a picture perfect but deeply abusive marriage to her nasty husband David. The second is Ella, Claudia’s oldest daughter who has seen the pain her mother has gone through, has protected her younger sister Brookie, and has found herself in a similar relationship with her seemingly wonderful boyfriend at school. And then there’s Patricia, Claudia’s narcissistic mother who is in her second marriage as a trophy wife and lives in privileged wealth. When The Violence strikes, and Claudia sees a potential out from her abusive marriage, all three have their lives change dramatically.

And I loved all three of these characters in all of their well rounded, complicated, and messy glory. Dawson explores all of them and all of their depths, and she has created strong, sometimes maddening, always relatable characters who I ended up caring about very deeply. I also loved how she draws out explorations of trauma and abuse and how victims of abuse find themselves in terrible cycles that they can’t escape from so easily, and how that in turn can make them do things that are harmful. It’s all so sympathetic and raw, and even when I thought that I was going to feel one way about a character, Dawson would surprise me with how I would end up feeling about them. I loved everyone in this book. I loved all of their journeys, be they literal ones or ones within themselves, and how they all changed and grew. And yes, without spoiling too much, I will say that Claudia ends up as part of a pro wrestling league during her storyline, so she absolutely became Betty Gilpin in my head during my time with this book.

And what of the Violence itself? I really enjoyed this virus mythology in this book, as Dawson creates something that feels as scary as it should without becoming overwrought with aspects that would make it ultimately untenable in a real world setting. The transmission of The Violence, the way that people try to study it, the things they discover about it, and the way that the public reacts to it all feel correct after all we’ve seen these past few years dealing with COVID. Dawson doesn’t feel a need to over explain, but she does find ways to make it seem believable in terms of transmission and origin, as well as how society would deal with it (there is a whole plot point about vaccine hoarding and how the privileged can deal better with pandemics than lower income people can, and man oh man do we know that that’s absolutely correct after everything). And while it’s all dark, it’s also supremely entertaining. As our characters find themselves in dangerous situations, and they certainly do, the tension is always on point and is paced in a way that it reads quick while still keeping the reader into what is coming next. There were plenty of moments where I was on the edge of my seat, and the tone definitely goes to twisted places, but still inspires a lot of hope. And I absolutely needed that hope in this story, since hope has felt hard to come by in the face of the inevitability of Omicron. Seeing these relatable and likable characters find hope in the hopelessness really, really resonated.

“The Violence” is my first 10 read of the year. It’s phenomenally entertaining and cathartic in this moment. Just great.

Rating 10: So. Much. Fun. Not to mention twisted, hopeful, and cathartic.

Reader’s Advisory

“The Violence” is included on the Goodreads lists “Anticipated 2022 Horror/Thriller Releases”, and “Books Containing One of the “Clue” Game Weapons On the Cover Or in the Title” (I had to, the concept is too good).

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

%d bloggers like this: