Serena’s Review: “The Bird and the Sword”

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Book: “The Bird and the Sword” by Amy Harmon

Publishing Info: CreateSpace, May 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

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

Book Description: Swallow, Daughter, pull them in, those words that sit upon your lips. Lock them deep inside your soul, hide them ‘til they’ve time to grow. Close your mouth upon the power, curse not, cure not, ‘til the hour. You won’t speak and you won’t tell, you won’t call on heav’n or hell. You will learn and you will thrive. Silence, Daughter. Stay alive.

The day my mother was killed, she told my father I wouldn’t speak again, and she told him if I died, he would die too. Then she predicted the king would trade his soul and lose his son to the sky.

My father has a claim to the throne, and he is waiting in the shadows for all of my mother’s words to come to pass. He wants desperately to be king, and I just want to be free.

But freedom will require escape, and I’m a prisoner of my mother’s curse and my father’s greed. I can’t speak or make a sound, and I can’t wield a sword or beguile a king. In a land purged of enchantment, love might be the only magic left, and who could ever love . . . a bird?

Review: Now that I’ve discovered Amy Harmon, I’m probably going to just systematically work my way through her catalogue. And, surprise, surprise, when I started looking through her book list, I discovered several books I’d already flagged on my TBR list. I’d had my eyes on this one for quite a while, but now that I knew I already liked the author, it was a no brainer to get my hands on a copy as soon as possible!

Lark was born with a powerful gift, the ability to influence things around her with her voice. But in a land where magic is outlawed, Lark’s mother, in a final act as she’s lying dying in front of her small daughter, locks Lark’s voice away to protect her. Now, silenced and moving through a world that only wants to use her, Lark finds herself caught up in great wars and the fate of a nation. But will the love a King be enough to unlock her voice and with it a power that could save them all?

This is the second book that I’ve read recently that features a protagonist who can’t speak for most of the book. The last one was the middle-grade novel “Gallant.” It’s a particularly challenging choice for an author to make as it greatly limits one of the primary ways that writers establish relationships between their characters. But Harmon definitely pulls it off here. She does find a few work-arounds for this trait later on in the book, but I like how well Lark stands on her own without the use of her voice.

The book is written in first-person, so the reader is fully within Lark’s head right off the bat. We see her isolation, feel her inability to direct much of her life, and know her frustration when those around her seem to be using her and her abilities for their own benefit. Her arc is that of someone who starts out feeling powerless discovering their inner strength and becoming a powerhouse by the end of the book. And while her abilities can be amazing at times, sometimes its the quieter moments of inner strength that really cement Lark as the impressive character that she is. She stands in the face of criticism and even her own insecurity to hold on to what and who she loves.

I will say that there were times when her magical abilities were almost a bit too powerful. But by the end of the book, Harmon did come out with a villain who was a powerful enough force to challenge even Lark. But this more straight-forward conflict, while exciting and action packed especially in the final action scene of the book, was for me the less compelling of the stories. Instead, I was more invested in the quieter, slow-build romance and tragedy between Lark and the King. There was so much heart here, and while the two end up together quickly, the romance itself is slow to fully establish itself. They each need time to understand the other’s motives fully. But this slow burn makes their eventual full commitment to one another all the more sweet.

Harmon has a solid, lyrical writing style. It’s not overly flowery, but she also nails creating highly emotive scenes and characters. In a lot of ways, it’s similar to Juliet Marillier’s style. Of course, that makes it a hit for me! Fantasy fans looking for a sweet romance in a stand-alone novel should definitely check this one out!

Rating 9: Beauty and power all found within a quiet but determined leading lady make this one an excellent read!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Bird and the Sword” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Slow-burn romance and Fantasy Romance.

Kate’s Review: “The Turnout”

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Book: “The Turnout” by Megan Abbott

Publishing Info: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, August 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: The library!

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

Book Description: Bestselling and award-winning author Megan Abbott’s revelatory, mesmerizing, and game-changing new novel set against the hothouse of a family-run ballet studio, and an interloper who arrives to bring down the carefully crafted Eden-like facade.

Ballet flows through their veins. Dara and Marie Durant were dancers since birth, with their long necks and matching buns and pink tights, homeschooled and trained by their mother. Decades later the Durant School of Dance is theirs. The two sisters, together with Charlie, Dara’s husband and once their mother’s prize student, inherited the school after their parents died in a tragic accident nearly a dozen years ago. Marie, warm and soft, teaches the younger students; Dara, with her precision, trains the older ones; and Charlie, back broken after years of injuries, rules over the back office. Circling around each other, the three have perfected a dance, six days a week, that keeps the studio thriving. But when a suspicious accident occurs, just at the onset of the school’s annual performance of The Nutcracker, a season of competition, anxiety, and exhilaration, an interloper arrives and threatens the delicate balance of everything they’ve worked for.

Taut and unnerving, The Turnout is Megan Abbott at the height of her game. With uncanny insight and hypnotic writing, it is a sharp and strange dissection of family ties and sexuality, femininity and power, and a tale that is both alarming and irresistible.

Review: Megan Abbott is an author who I keep coming back to because of a couple good experiences. When I’ve liked her books, I’ve REALLY liked her books (titles like “The Fever” and “You Will Know Me” spring to mind), but when I haven’t they’ve clunked hard. And given that I have an undeniable love for ballet stories, especially if there is drama to be found along with the pas de deuxs, when I read the description for “The Turnout” I was absolutely down for giving it a go! Even if there was a bit of hesitation, wondering whether it would be landing more hot or cold, as with all other Abbott books I’ve read there is no in between.

“The Turnout”, in spite of the ballet drama, is bit more on the clunker side of things. But there are also aspects of it that I did like, and let’s start there. The first is that there is no doubt that Abbott knows how to create a deeply unsettling undercurrent with her characters. When we meet our trio of protagonists, sisters Dara and Marie and Dara’s husband Charlie, they are successful owners of a dance school that was founded by the sister’s mother. Immediately you get the sense that there is an underlying tension between all three of them, though the reasons why are hidden at first, and well tamped down in their minds and psyches. It gets under the skin, and it makes for a building tension, especially as things start to crumble, specifically when a contractor named Derek enters their lives after a fire and offsets the strained dynamic that they all have. I kind of figured what was going on, but I was surprised by some of the reveals that entered into the dynamic. And legitimately skeeved by it, without feeling like it was poorly done or melodramatic.

But on the flip side, there were elements that didn’t work for me. While I like that Abbott did some experimentation with the narrative, more telling the story in split paragraph chunks versus longer bodies of action, the construction felt a little disjointed at times. We would be in the same scene, the same moment, and really in the head of the same character, but we would have a jump on the page that didn’t feel like it was necessary. It would just take me out of the moment and make it feel jerky. Along with that, I didn’t feel like we got an even distribution of character development between our main players, specifically between the sisters Dara and Marie. Granted, this story is mostly from Dara’s third person POV, so we really got to know her (and I actually did find her compelling and interesting), but as for Marie, someone part of an arguably important pas de deux within the narrative (see what I did?), I really didn’t feel like we got enough insight into her character. It ended up feeling like her frustrating actions were more to drive the plot forward as opposed to being a foregone conclusion in terms of the choices that she would make based on what we know about her. Even by the time things did get expanded upon throughout various twists and turns, I STILL didn’t think that we got enough insight into Marie, and that made me more frustrated than anything else.

So “The Turnout” was a bit of a mixed bag for me. I think I retract my statement about it being a clunker, but it did leave me wanting more. So my relationship with Megan Abbott books continues to be a mixed bag, but mixed enough that I will probably keep giving her books a shot. If you have had a better experience with her work, this will probably click more with you than I.

Rating 6: Unnerving and brimming with unease, “The Turnout” is a suspenseful tale, but at times feels disjointed and strangely paced, and we didn’t get to know all the characters as well as I’d have liked.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Turnout” is included on the Goodreads lists “Can’t Wait Crime, Mystery, and Thrillers 2021”.

Serena’s Review: “Nettle & Bone”

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Book: “Nettle & Bone” by T. Kingfisher

Publishing Info: Tor Books, April 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: After years of seeing her sisters suffer at the hands of an abusive prince, Marra—the shy, convent-raised, third-born daughter—has finally realized that no one is coming to their rescue. No one, except for Marra herself.

Seeking help from a powerful gravewitch, Marra is offered the tools to kill a prince—if she can complete three impossible tasks. But, as is the way in tales of princes, witches, and daughters, the impossible is only the beginning.

On her quest, Marra is joined by the gravewitch, a reluctant fairy godmother, a strapping former knight, and a chicken possessed by a demon. Together, the five of them intend to be the hand that closes around the throat of the prince and frees Marra’s family and their kingdom from its tyrannous ruler at last.

Review: Somehow I seem to have missed out on T. Kingfisher. She’s a fairly popular and pretty universally beloved fantasy author. And yet…here I am, I think reading my first book from her! And, spoiler alert, I really did myself a disservice by waiting this long to read her books! You can likely look forward to seeing her name crop up quite a bit from here on out.

Marra has been the lucky princess. The one to escape the confining life of a princess to grow up at a convent, largely unknown and allowed to become a grown woman free of the trappings of royalty. But while she has been afforded this quiet life, she’s watched her sisters suffer at the hands of a cruel prince. When it becomes clear that her sister’s life is teetering at the brink of her husband’s rage, Marra knows that only she is willing to risk the wrath of the prince and his kingdom to save her. And so she sets out on a perilous quest to find the power to overcome a man protected by a powerful godmother’s gift. Along the way, she picks up a ragtag troupe of fellow outsiders. Together, can they save Marra’s sister?

Oh man, I loved this book. It was everything I love about fantasy fiction. The story has a very fairytale vibe, especially in the first half of the book when Marra is attempting to complete three magical tasks to gain the aide of a powerful gravewitch. The fantasy elements included were all unique but grounded in fantasy traditions that are familiar and oddly comforting. Godmothers with curses and blessing. Goblin markets with capricious deals. And animal companions of the most bizarre sort. We have both a possessed chicken and a dog made of bones! And man, who would have thought you could get so attached to a bone dog? Tears may have been shed (but in a good way).

I also loved the way the story was told. In the first bit of the book, the story jumps between Marra’s current quest and brief glimpses of her growing up. In this way, we’re immediately grounded in the high action of Marra’s current storyline, but we are also quickly filled in on her character, life history, and motivations through these flash backs. The second half follows a more straight-forward arc, but by that time, we fully understand the stakes involved and have come to know Marra more fully. From there, the action is fast and fun. There are numerous smaller conflicts, all touching on unique magical elements, before we get to the big confrontation at the end. And there, the story definitely goes about solving this challenge in a surprising way.

Marra was such a great main character. She was strong, funny, and determined to do what she can for her sister. Her task is almost impossible from the start. And we see as the story unfolds that she is successful purely due to sheer stubbornness and the insistence that if know one else will act, even if she’s not the best person for the job, she will do it herself. There’s also a very sweet, slow-burn romance that develops in the second half of the story. For me, this was the perfect balance of a smattering of romance alongside the more central rescue story at its heart.

I also really loved the writing style. It was lyrical and descriptive when painting the magical scenes and elements, fast-paced and exciting during the action scenes, and surprisingly funny throughout the entire thing. So many of the side characters are quirky and hilarious, and there were a number of entertaining observations about people and life sprinkled throughout the book.

This book is definitely not trying to be literary fantasy or any complicated epic. Instead, it feels completely comfortable for what it is: a fun, sweet fairytale. And I think it’s important to not see it as anything lesser for that fact. There’s a tendency to dismiss these more simple, straight-forward fantasies as somehow not as worthy of acclaim as massive tomes of epic fantasy or magical realism that leans heavily on commentary of human existence. But these fantasy stories have just as much value. And I will give this the ten rating I think it deserves simply because it feels like the best of what these kinds of books can be.

Rating 10: A perfect mixture of romance, comedy, action, and tragedy with unique magical elements sprinkled throughout.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Nettle & Bone” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2022 and Recommended by Seanan McGuire.

Kate’s Review: “Himawari House”

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Book: “Himawari House” by Harmony Becker

Publishing Info: First Second, November 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: Living in a new country is no walk in the park.

When Nao returns to Tokyo to reconnect with her Japanese heritage, she books a yearlong stay at the Himawari sharehouse. There she meets Hyejung and Tina, two other girls who came to Japan to freely forge their own paths. The trio live together, share meals, and even attend the same Japanese-language school, which results in them becoming fast friends. But will they be able to hold one another up as life tests them with new loves, old heartbreaks, and the everyday challenges of being fish out of water?

Review: One of my big regrets from my youth is that I never did a study abroad program through school. My anxiety was too big of a hurdle to overcome, as was my mild separation anxiety from my loved ones when we’re apart for extended periods of time. So I like to read stories about people who take the leap, even if it makes me feel a certain sense of melancholy. So reading “Himawari House” by Harmony Becker was one of those books where I enjoyed seeing others do what I never did, even if their reasons and experiences would have been wholly different from my own had I taken the leap.

“Himawari House” follows three young women who are living in a house share in Japan. Nao is a Japanese born American who has come back to try to reconnect to her roots. Tina is from Singapore and was looking for a change. And Hyejung is from Korea and was looking for a new start. All of them end up at Himawari House as they do their schooling, and a strong friendship forms. We get to know each of them, as well as their growing pains, their motivations, their struggles, and their triumphs. While most of the focus is on Nao, Becker is sure to give a lot of page time to both Tina and Hyejung, and to explore how self discovery can span across cultures for young people. I loved seeing all of them get to know each other, and come to terms with the things that have happened in the past, and how they support each other through and through. There is a little bit of romance in this story for the three of them, but it never feels forced or unnecessary, nor does it feel like it takes focus off of their other threads.

I also liked some of the issues that Becker touched upon, specifically that of Nao who has been living in America for most of her life but was born in Japan. We see that because of her race and country of origin she never felt like she fit in in the U.S., as those around her saw her Japanese heritage first and foremost. But when she arrives in Japan, she is seen as an American first and foremost, and therefore she doesn’t feel like she really fits in anywhere when it comes to her greater cultural experiences. This made her found family in Himawari House all the more touching, and following her year with her new friends and loved ones is joyful, as well as bittersweet in some ways as the story moves forward. I also liked Hyejung’s backstory exploration, as being from Korea her experience was different from Nou’s, but had similar themes as well. For Hyejung her decision to go to Japan has put a rift between her and her parents, and seeing her struggle with missing them but also knowing that she may not be welcomed by them due to her decision is just heart-wrenching.

And I really loved the artwork. I’ve seen Becker’s artistry before, as she did the illustrations for George Takei’s graphic memoir “They Called Us Enemy”, and the style once again paired perfectly with the content, as different as it was from that previous work. I loved the influence of manga styles into the story during various moments of emotion, along with the more traditional and realistic artwork. I also REALLY liked how Becker did the speech bubbles, having both the language that the character is speaking in as well as the English translation in moments where that was what was going on.

(source: First Second)

I found “Himawari House” funny, relatable, joyful, and sweet. This tale of friendship and self discovery is a must read for graphic novel fans.

Rating 8: A charming and sweet coming of age tale about finding yourself as a stranger in a strange land.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Himawari House” isn’t included on many Goodreads lists, but I think it would fit in on “Let’s Japan!”.

Book Club Review: “Beach Read”

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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: “Beach Read” by Emily Henry

Publishing Info: Berkley, May 2020

Where Did We Get This Book: We own it.

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Romance Trope: Enemies to Lovers

Book Description: A romance writer who no longer believes in love and a literary writer stuck in a rut engage in a summer-long challenge that may just upend everything they believe about happily ever afters.

Augustus Everett is an acclaimed author of literary fiction. January Andrews writes bestselling romance. When she pens a happily ever after, he kills off his entire cast.

They’re polar opposites. In fact, the only thing they have in common is that for the next three months, they’re living in neighboring beach houses, broke, and bogged down with writer’s block.

Until, one hazy evening, one thing leads to another and they strike a deal designed to force them out of their creative ruts: Augustus will spend the summer writing something happy, and January will pen the next Great American Novel. She’ll take him on field trips worthy of any rom-com montage, and he’ll take her to interview surviving members of a backwoods death cult (obviously). Everyone will finish a book and no one will fall in love. Really. 

Serena’s Thoughts

I hardly ever read contemporary fiction. I almost never read “women’s fiction” (I’ll avoid the soapbox I have about that term, but ugh!). That being the case, I was a bit cautious going in to this bookclub pick seeing as it seemed to fit neatly under both of those genres. But I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: this is why bookclubs are so great! I ended up really enjoying this book, and I never would have discovered it if I had been left to my own devices!

There was quite a lot to like about this book. The romance, of course, is central to the story, and right off the bat, I was pretty invested in both of these characters and the relationship developing between the two of them. While I think January might have been a bit naïve about some of her encounters with Gus in college, we were all a bit dumb then, so I guess I’ll give her a pass. I really liked the idea of them attempting to write in each others genres as a way for their bond to slowly develop over a period of summers. It gave the author all the excuses she needed to throw the two together in various great situations.

I’ll also liked the exploration of the secondary plot, that of January learning to understand the life of her recently-deceased father and some of the hurtful choices he made that she only recently discovered. It was a really excellent look at the strange relationship that is built up between parents and children where it’s only when the child grows into an adult that they fully begin to understand that their parents are fully realized people too, complete with their own histories and flaws. The story is definitely tackling a more complicated and challenging aspect of the mistakes people make, but I think the author managed to do it in a way that didn’t overly villainize any of the people involved. Truly impressive!

Overall, I really liked this book. I’m definitely planning on checking out other books from her, including the one coming out very soon!

Kate’s Thoughts

I’m the person who is a bit more picky about the kind of romance fiction I read, and in general I am actually more inclined to pick up contemporary/’women’s’ fiction than one might expect. I don’t know if it was just the right moment in my year’s reading journey, or if it was the fact I do gravitate more towards the genre, but “Beach Read” really hit all the right notes for me! I honestly hadn’t really heard of this book or even Emily Henry outside of a mention here or there online (this is one of the downsides of no longer working my circulation position on a permanent basis; I’m not nearly as up to date on genres I don’t usually look for because I’m not processing holds or shelving as often as I used to be!). And now I have both bought her book “People We Meet on Vacation” AND have an eARC of “Book Lovers” on my Kindle. Consider me a fan.

Like Serena, I thought that Henry did a good job of setting up the perfect slow burn romance because of the setting, scenario, and circumstances our characters find themselves in. January is grappling with a personal loss and some unpleasant revelations that came with it, and Gus is dealing with writer’s block and his own life changes. They’re both wounded and raw, and it makes for some really fun snappy moments between them (though honestly January is more of the aggressor in this ‘enemies to lovers’ story). I really liked their banter, the dialogue flowing quickly and well and in a very entertaining way. It’s the kind of enemies to lovers story that doesn’t feel kinda weird as their animosity is mostly placed in mutual insecurity and stubbornness (though to be fair, I also love legit enemies to lovers stories when the footing is even. I was a HUGE Spuffy shipper back in the day because of this).

I also liked some of the darker things that Henry tackled, as it never really felt like it was out of place or hokey. The pain that January is dealing with in regards to her father and his personal choices/failings is palpable and understandable, and as for Augustus while we don’t really get as much insight into him, we do get to see some of the darker aspects of his work, specifically the cult aspect of this book he was intending to write. I was worried that Henry would make it a little bit overdramatic or even laughable, even in an unintentional way, but at the end of the day she pulls out the trauma and pain of this side group without making it derail the lovely and sweet story at hand. And it is lovely and sweet.

“Beach Read” was a lot of fun and very enjoyable! Like Serena I’m eager to see what else Henry has in store for the contemporary romance audience!

Serena’s Rating 9: Lives up to its name: a “beach read” that will make any contemporary romance lover aching for more!

Kate’s Rating 9: Charming, snappy, funny, and sweet, “Beach Read” kept me going and had me rooting for a happily ever after.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did we like and dislike about January and Augustus as our main characters? Did they break any stereotypes or tropes?
  2. What did you think of their debate about literary fiction vs romance/women’s fiction? What are your feelings on each genre?
  3. In this book there are mentions of how people sometimes use romance stories as a way to cope with more difficult realities. Do you find that a relatable practice?
  4. What were your thoughts on the side characters? Did anyone stand out in particular?
  5. What are your thoughts on the enemies to lovers trope that was used in this story?
  6. This book talks about happy endings versus ‘happy for nows’ in stories. Do you prefer a solid conclusion of a wrapped up romantic life? Or are more in process romance endings okay for you as a reader?
  7. Would you read more by Emily Henry?

Reader’s Advisory

“Beach Read” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Rom-Com Books”, and “Best Enemies to Lovers”.

Next Book Club Pick: “The Roommate” by Rosie Danan

Serena’s Review: “The City of Dusk”

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Book: “The City of Dusk” by Tara Sim

Publishing Info: Orbit, March 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher!

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

Book Description: The Four Realms—Life, Death, Light, and Darkness—all converge on the city of dusk. For each realm there is a god, and for each god there is an heir.

But the gods have withdrawn their favor from the once vibrant and thriving city. And without it, all the realms are dying.

Unwilling to stand by and watch the destruction, the four heirs—Risha, a necromancer struggling to keep the peace; Angelica, an elementalist with her eyes set on the throne; Taesia, a shadow-wielding rogue with rebellion in her heart; and Nik, a soldier who struggles to see the light— will sacrifice everything to save the city.

But their defiance will cost them dearly.

Review: While I’m always a bit skeptical of these books focused on a large cast of characters, they are also a bit unavoidable in fantasy fiction right now. And there are examples of ones done better than others. The fact that this is marketed as an adult fantasy novel does help, I think. Fair or not, I’ve seen more YA fiction struggle to create an interesting cast of characters than adult fantasy fiction. Though, there are exceptions, of course. “All of Us Villains” comes to mind. Let’s dive in!

Four families with four gods. Each god with a unique power that is bestowed on their family. And each family with an heir to the throne. But as the King approaches the end of his reign, each knows that they will be a contender to take up the crown after him. However, political machinations and worries of the material world quickly fall beneath an ongoing conflict brewing within the gods’ halls themselves. Now, the four heirs of the four families must decide what to do when the gods themselves seem to have abandoned them. With a city crumbling around them and the future perilous to consider, will they find themselves as allies? Or enemies?

So, first of all, this book is marketed as an adult fantasy novel. This really made it stand out of the pack for me, since most of the multi-POV fantasy stories over the last several years have all fallen solidly in the YA category. But I have to say, I feel like I was sold on a false product. If no one had told me this was being marketed as adult, I would have been almost 100% confident that it was yet another YA novel. The characters, their stories, and the general approach to their relationships with each other all felt decidedly YA. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I found it particularly frustrating since I went in expecting an adult fantasy novel and was excited about that. Honestly, don’t try this kind of trickery and just call a book what it is. And this was YA.

That aside, I did like a lot of what this book had to offer. The world was intricate and detailed. And the magic system, while somewhat familiar with its various “schools” of magic, felt unique enough to have me engaged with how exactly this all worked. The necromancers and their role in society was particularly interesting. Often, these types of characters are just straight up villains. So it was interesting to read a story where they were a functioning and established part of society that had their own important roles to play.

All of the characters were also solid enough. I definitely had preferences for a few of the women characters, but I didn’t actively dislike any of them (something I often struggle with in multi-POV books.) Here too were a few surprises as there were characters who showed up with POVs who aren’t mentioned in the book description and don’t come along until well into the book, making their appearance rather surprising.

There wasn’t a lot of romance in this book, but I was happy enough with what we got. I do wish there had been a more solid love story line here, as I think that a good romantic subplot can help carry a story that has a slower pace. And that right there is one of my biggest criticisms of this book. I honestly feel like it was marketed as an adult book simply because of how long and slow-paced it is. It honestly took a decent strength of will to get through it. And that’s not because it was boring, but there was just so much of it. As a debut, the author is playing a rather risky hand putting out a book like this. You really have to hope that reader’s can jump onboard early to stick it out through the slower pacing and long page count. I managed it, but I worry that some more casual fantasy fans might not want to stick this one out.

In the end, I think this was a solid fantasy story. I think the marketing of it as an adult book is going to bite it a bit since adult readers will immediately recognize the very YA feel of the book. And the dedicated YA readers might be missing out on something that they would enjoy but that has been shelved in the adult section. I also think the length will be a challenge for some. But fantasy readers who like epic tales and enjoy multi-POV stories, this one is probably worth checking out!

Also, don’t forget to enter to win a copy of this book in the giveaway we’re currently running!

Rating 7: A bit slow and too long, but a solid concept at its heart. Fans of epic political fantasy are likely to enjoy this!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The City of Dusk” is on these Goodreads lists: Best LGBTQIA High Fantasy and 2022 Anticipated Fiction Fantasy Reads.

Kate’s Review: “All the White Spaces”

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Book: “All the White Spaces” by Ally Wilkes

Publishing Info: Atria/Emily Bestler Books, March 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I received a finished hardcover from the publisher.

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

Book Description: Something deadly and mysterious stalks the members of an isolated polar expedition in this haunting and spellbinding historical horror novel, perfect for fans of Dan Simmons’ The Terror and Alma Katsu’s The Hunger.

In the wake of the First World War, Jonathan Morgan stows away on an Antarctic expedition, determined to find his rightful place in the world of men. Aboard the expeditionary ship of his hero, the world-famous explorer James “Australis” Randall, Jonathan may live as his true self—and true gender—and have the adventures he has always been denied. But not all is smooth sailing: the war casts its long shadow over them all, and grief, guilt, and mistrust skulk among the explorers.

When disaster strikes in Antarctica’s frozen Weddell Sea, the men must take to the land and overwinter somewhere which immediately seems both eerie and wrong; a place not marked on any of their part-drawn mapsof the vast white continent. Now completely isolated, Randall’s expedition has no ability to contact the outside world. And no one is coming to rescue them. In the freezing darkness of the Polar night, where the aurora creeps across the sky, something terrible has been waiting to lure them out into its deadly landscape…

As the harsh Antarctic winter descends, this supernatural force will prey on their deepest desires and deepest fears to pick them off one by one. It is up to Jonathan to overcome his own ghosts before he and the expedition are utterly destroyed.

Review: Thank you to Atria Books for sending me a hardcover copy of this book!

This past Halloween season I invited my Terror Tuesday horror movie friends over for a backyard movie night and bonfire. In the group text we were debating on possible movies to watch, and one title we decided on was “The Thing”. You know, the 1980s Sci-Fi horror movie by John Carpenter in which an Antarctic research team is trapped in their research station with an alien that can shapeshift and picks them off one by one. It’s a really fun movie, and it’s one that I kept thinking about as I read “All the White Spaces” by Ally Wilkes. I’m sure that’s by design (given that a couple characters share names with characters in that movie), and the similarities are there, and to make it all the more method I was reading it in Duluth on a night where the windchill was in the negative twenties. Talk about perfect.

But as I was reading it, “Thing” vibes or not, I realized that Wilkes was doing something unique with a story theme we’ve seen before, because our main character, Jonathan Morgan, is a trans man during the World War I era. And I’m going to start with characters and time period because of that uniqueness. I liked the character set up of Jonathan as a trans man, and how he has found himself on an Arctic exploration ship after the death of his older brothers Rufus and Francis in the War. It gives him the perfect motivation, as he felt left behind when they went to war and he had to stay behind because his family and society did not understand his gender. I thought that Wilkes did a really good job of portraying a realistic and in the time trans man who has immense guilt over his older brothers death. His grief makes him want to connect to them in ways that he never did when they were alive, and decides stowing away on an expedition team that they had always been interested in is the way to do it. I also thought that Jonathan’s class privilege still being a blinding factor as well as his general naïveté due to youth and said privilege made him well rounded and complex (and at times very frustrating, which I imagine was the point). His interactions with the other men on the ship as a trans man in hiding was at times tense because of the secret we know Jonathan is keeping, as is the general idea of Antarctic travel during a time when said exploration is dangerous and enthralling. We get to see a little bit into the motivations of the other men, though it adds a bit to the mystery as well. I especially liked the character of Tarlington, an ostracized member of the team due to his scientific role as well as his conscientious objector status in the wake of the First World War. The tidbits of the time period, both in societal themes and characterization, felt well researched.

And Wilkes really does find the horror in both the supernatural as well as the very real dangers of Antarctic exploration during this time period. I can’t even imagine going on this kind of voyage back at the beginning of the 20th Century (I can barely imagine doing this kind of thing right now!), and Wilkes takes the ‘everything that can go wrong WILL go wrong’ approach. Speaking to the realistic stuff first, as that was the stuff that was the scariest for me, there is a glut to pick from. We have the paranoia of being in an isolated place. We have eternal darkness for months on end. We have the VERY real dangers of the cold and what it can do to the body (this was the worst for me; there was one scene in particular that was so gruesome and disturbing I actually put the book down for a bit so I could just decompress). And we have the very understandable fear of a trans person who is hiding his identity from a number of strangers who are becoming more and more unpredictable in dangerous circumstances. It makes for VERY tense reading.

And yes, there is supernatural stuff going on as well, and Wilkes makes it VERY unsettling and creepy, as well as somewhat metaphorical. Which is always good. As Jonathan et al are seeing shadows and beings and other things out of the corners of their eyes or on the horizon, we get to play with potential unreliable narrators (albeit in the third person) who may just be going insane due to their circumstances. But the descriptions of the figures as they slowly make themselves known, oof! I love the weird ambiguity these kinds of reveals can tread on for a good chunk of the narrative at hand, and just thinking of this kind of thing in THIS setting? AUGH!

Antarctic exploration just seems dangerous! (source)

“All the White Spaces” is some solid and scary arctic horror with a really well done trans perspective that I haven’t seen much of in the horror genre. It feels like that’s changing, which is great. I cannot wait to see what Ally Wilkes brings us next, because this was SO creepy. And it made me so glad that Spring is almost here.

Rating 8: Dark, disturbing, and unique with its perspective, “All the White Spaces” is a must for those who are interested in expeditions of the past, body horror, and “The Thing”.

Reader’s Advisory:

“All the White Spaces” is included on the Goodreads lists “Transgender Horror”, and “2022 Horror Novels Written by Women and Non-Binary Femmes”.

Giveaway: “The City of Dusk”

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Book: “The City of Dusk” by Tara Sim

Publishing Info: Orbit, March 2022

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

Book Description: The Four Realms—Life, Death, Light, and Darkness—all converge on the city of dusk. For each realm there is a god, and for each god there is an heir.

But the gods have withdrawn their favor from the once vibrant and thriving city. And without it, all the realms are dying.

Unwilling to stand by and watch the destruction, the four heirs—Risha, a necromancer struggling to keep the peace; Angelica, an elementalist with her eyes set on the throne; Taesia, a shadow-wielding rogue with rebellion in her heart; and Nik, a soldier who struggles to see the light— will sacrifice everything to save the city.

But their defiance will cost them dearly.

Giveaway Details:

While I’m always a bit skeptical of these books focused on a large cast of characters, they are also a bit unavoidable in fantasy fiction right now. And there are examples of ones done better than others. The fact that this is marketed as an adult fantasy novel does help, I think. Fair or not, I’ve seen more YA fiction struggle to create an interesting cast of characters than adult fantasy fiction. Though, there are exceptions, of course. “All of Us Villains” comes to mind.

I’m curious to see how this fantasy world is laid out. In a lot of ways, it seems a bit familiar with its various realms of magic, each specific to a god and the family who follows that god. But there’s a reason this fantasy trope is found so often: why have just one kind of magic when you can have four? The four main characters we see in this intro all sound interesting, so I’m excited to see how their stories play out and in what ways they intersect and interact with one another.

Per the usual, my review for this book will be up Friday. But don’t wait until then to get in on the chance to win a copy of this book! This giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and will end on April 13.

Enter to win!

Kate’s Review: “Very Bad People”

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Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Very Bad People” by Kit Frick

Publishing Info: Margaret K. McElderry Books, April 2022

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

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: In this dark academia young adult thriller for fans of The Female of the Species and People Like Us, a teen girl’s search for answers about her mother’s mysterious death leads to a powerful secret society at her new boarding school—and a dangerous game of revenge that will leave her forever changed.

Six years ago, Calliope Bolan’s mother drove the family van into a lake with her three daughters inside. The girls escaped, but their mother drowned, and the truth behind the “accident” remains a mystery Calliope is determined to solve. Now sixteen, she transfers to Tipton Academy, the same elite boarding school her mother once attended. Tipton promises a peek into the past and a host of new opportunities—including a coveted invitation to join Haunt and Rail, an exclusive secret society that looms over campus like a legend. Calliope accepts, stepping into the exhilarating world of the “ghosts,” a society of revolutionaries fighting for social justice. But when Haunt and Rail commits to exposing a dangerous person on campus, it becomes clear that some ghosts define justice differently than others.

As the society’s tactics escalate, Calliope uncovers a possible link between Haunt and Rail and her mother’s deadly crash. Now, she must question what lengths the society might go to in order to see a victory—and if the secret behind her mother’s death could be buried here at Tipton.

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

I had some pretty grand plans for myself nearing the end of March. I secured a solo trip up to the North Shore, bringing a book stack and my Kindle and thinking that I’d spend my days in nature and my evenings reading… Well, my faith in good weather was foolhardy, as that first day it was snowing and the wind chill made the temperatures outside feel like it was 18 degrees. I don’t know why I didn’t consider that, being Minnesota and all. But it DID mean that I got a LOT of reading done, and when I sat down with Kit Frick’s newest book “Very Bad People”, I found myself tearing through my eARC. The pacing was great! The mysteries were appropriately engaging! We had a secret society with some potentially nefarious members! Spending all the time inside was turning out okay for me…. Until we once again hit the dreaded ‘and it all falls apart in the last third of the book’ situation.

As per my usual strategy, I’m going to start with what I liked. And the potential for this story just oozes off the page. It has so many things that work for me on paper. I love boarding school thrillers, I love people who get in over their heads in frog in the boiling water situations, and I love moral ambiguity and questions. I also really liked Calliope as our main character, as she felt rounded and real and like someone who would be completely into being included in a secret society like Haunt and Rail. I also liked the school history and history of the secret society as a whole. On top of that, it was so fast paced and engaging that I was eager to see what was going to happen next, and how the connection of Haunt and Rail across the generations was going to come into play.

But I just didn’t like how a couple of the big arcs shook out. Like, at all. And I’m not certain if it had to do with the structure and set up feeling unbalanced with the conclusions, or straight up personal preference on my part and my own sore spots and biases coloring my judgement. I’m half tempted to go on a rant here, but am also kind of not wanting to spoil anything because I think that people would probably do better with it than I did…. What the hell, let’s just go half and half and throw in a

Skip to the next paragraph if you so choose (source)

The book opens with a recounting of the tragedy that has haunted Calliope for a few years: the car accident that killed her mother and nearly killed her and her two sisters. There has always been question as to what happened, as Calliope was asleep, and her two sisters either couldn’t remember what happened or was two young to do so. Calliope sees a man in town during a trek from the Tipton grounds, has her memory jumped, and is convinced she saw him the day of the accident. She starts trying to piece together who he was, as well as his connection to her mother, AS WELL AS her mother’s connection to the Haunt and Rail Society, which leads to the supposedly accidental death of another student during her mother’s time in the club. Calliope starts to surmise that perhaps the Haunt and Rail members had something to do with the student’s death, and her mother’s death was actually someone trying to shut her up. It’s a great premise….. But it isn’t the case. What IS the case is that Calliope’s mother was ACTUALLY LEAVING HER HUSBAND FOR HER HIGH SCHOOL BOYFRIEND AND TAKING THE KIDS WITH HER ON THE DAY OF THE CRASH. It’s all coincidence. And it’s awful. It immediately turned me off from the mother as a character who was, until that point, a formative and powerful drive for Calliope and her connection to the Haunt and Rail assholes. I get what Frick was trying to do, to say that some things are random and terrible (and it does have another connecting point, ultimately), but it left such a sour taste in my mouth. I don’t even think of myself as some kind of Puritanical scold, but once it was revealed how profoundly selfish the mother was being in wanting to uproot her kids from the life they knew with their father (with no indication that he’s a bad or even emotionally incompatible guy; HE SEEMS LIKE A REALLY GOOD LOVING GUY?), with NO actual exploration into her motivations outside of ‘oh, my high school boyfriend is back in my life and THAT’S EXCITING’, it wrecked that entire thread. Okay, I’m not going to elaborate further into the other reveals and twists and turns, but that was just too much. It derailed the emotional crux.

And then a lot of the other characters were frustrating and shrill in their characterizations, especially some of the Haunt and Rail members. It wasn’t even that their motivations and thoughts were things I disagreed with. I found myself quite sympathetic to the matter at hand, as a matter of fact! But I didn’t think that Frick did the due diligence to show enough complexity to their ‘arbiters of justice in their own minds’ themes until too far into the narrative. By then I had kind of stopped caring about their motivations and was more blinded by how their zealotry was damaging to those who didn’t deserve it, and I don’t think that it was properly grappled with.

Talk about running off the rails. There was so much promise with this book for the first two thirds. I don’t want to discourage anyone from reading it too much because it could just be a ‘me’ thing.

Rating 5: Lots of built up momentum and promise ends with a couple of clunker reveals.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Very Bad People” is included on the Goodreads lists “2022 YA Mysteries and Thrillers”, and would fit in on “Academia, Magic, and Secret Societies”.

Highlights: April 2022

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

We’ve finally started to see some warmer days and some snow melting. But the biggest perk has been the return to longer days and lighter evenings. Us Minnesotans are an optimistic bunch with regards to these (comparably) milder temperatures, so it wouldn’t surprise us to see people breaking out the BBQs in the balmy 50 degree days we’re see. We’re happy enough to still stay indoors, though, with our books. Here are some we’re looking forward to this month!

Serena’s Picks

Book: “The City of Dusk” by Tara Sim

Why I’m Interested: For one thing, I really like the cover on this book. I’d definitely stop and check it out had I come across it in the bookstore. Luckily for me, the publisher sent me an early copy, so this one will be coming up soon in my reviews! The story follows four heirs to powerful families, each that follow a unique god that grants them specific magical abilities. But dark powers are moving and the gods are restless. Can these four navigate the way forward, each with their own motivations and fears? I’m always a bit nervous about multiple POV books, but I’m pretty excited to check this one out!

Book: “Nettle & Bone” by T. Kingfisher

Why I’m Interested: Again, great cover! Love everything about. I also love everything about what this stories seems to be about. That is, a fairytale of a young woman who sets out on a quest to save her sister from her cruel husband, the prince of a neighboring land. Along the way, she meets a powerful fairy godmother, a possessed chicken, and a knight from another land who fell into a fairy circle and has been trapped for who knows how long. Like I said, everything about that sounds right up my alley! I love fairytales and the combination of magical quests with seemingly quirky characters (possessed chicken??) seems like a recipe for success in my book. Can’t wait to check it out!

Book: “Hotel Magnifique” by Emily J. Taylor

Why I’m Interested: This book has garnered comparison to “The Night Circus.” That’s both an incredible plus (“The Night Circus” is so popular that I’m sure tons of fantasy readers will leap at any chance to reexperience that blend of magic!). But it’s also a heavy weight to carry. Can this story stand up to that behemoth? The story follows a young woman and her sister who are hired on as help at the mysterious and magical Hotel Magnifique, a hotel that holds wonders within its doors and magically jumps from location to location. So right away it’s easy to see the connection to “The Night Circus.” I also always love sisters stories, so I’m not going to lie, my expectations for this one are pretty high!

Kate’s Picks

Book: “Very Bad People” by Kit Frick

Publication Date: April 5, 2022

Why I’m Interested: The whole ’secret society at a boarding school’ angle absolutely catches my interest, as does the fact that it’s a new Kit Frick book. I enjoyed ”I Killed Zoe Spanos” when it came out a couple years ago, so I look forward to reading something new by her. When Calliope joins a new prestigious private school, it’s a nice change of pace after a few years of mourning her mother’s death in a car accident. She is soon approached by the Haunt and Rail, a secret society on campus that strives to put social justice at the forefront of the school community. But when Calliope finds out that her mother was also a member when she went to the school, and that it may have connection to her death, she feels she has to investigate. No matter how dangerous it could be. Dark academia is always a solid concept for me, so this sounds promising.

Book: “The Fervor” by Alma Katsu

Publication Date: April 26, 2022

Why I’m Interested: I have really loved Alma Katsu’s previous historical horror novels, and this one sounds like it’s going to be her most relevant and disturbing yet. Taking place at one of the Japanese internment camps during WWII, it follows a mother and daughter duo named Meiko and Aiko, who have been imprisoned while the family patriarch fights in the war. Soon a mysterious illness is spreading through the camp, which starts off normal enough, but then turns into uncontrollable fits of aggression. As Meiko investigates, she becomes convinced that it is actually a demon from her past that is hellbent on entering their world, and hopes to stop it. Japanese internment still feels super relevant these days, and I cannot wait to see what Katsu does with that theme as well as the themes of yokai in Japanese folklore.

Book: “Locke & Key: The Golden Age” by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodríguez (Ill.)

Publication Date: April 26, 2022

Why I’m Interested: The timing on this really worked out, given that the past two comics re-reads I did were ”Locke & Key” and ”The Sandman”! Joe Hill returns to Keyhouse as well as his Locke family mythology to tell more stories about the keys and the realms they open, bringing Gabriel Rodriguez along for the ride. This collection has some new stories, as well as the crossover that ”Locke & Key” did with ”The Sandman” universe. I’ve been very interested to look into more of the Key mythos, and to see the way that two well plotted fantasy horror comics come together as one.

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

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