Joint Review: “Rules of Engagement”

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Book: “Rules of Engagement” by Selena Montgomery

Publishing Info: Berkley Books, September 2022

Where Did We Get this Book: ALA!

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

Book Description: Dr. Raleigh Foster, an operative for a top-secret intelligence organization, knows that her undercover work has its risks. So she doesn’t hesitate when asked to infiltrate Scimitar, the terrorist group that has stolen lethal environmental technology. But when she’s assigned a partner–brooding, sexy Adam Grayson–to pose as her lover, Raleigh discovers that the most dangerous risk of all…is falling in love.

Adam blames himself for the botched mission that got his best friend killed by Scimitar, and he believes that Raleigh may have contributed to the man’s death. But the closer he works with his alluring partner, the more his suspicions turn to trust–and intense desire. Now, as he and Raleigh untangle a twisted web of secrets and lies, the tension mounts between them…until their masquerade as a couple proves too tempting to resist.

Serena’s Thoughts:

Kate and I nabbed ARCs of this book during a preview panel at ALA. While I don’t typically read this sort of romance novel (I tend to stick within my genres, even with romance and am much more likely to pick up a fantasy or historical romance before a contemporary story), the plot synopsis of this one did stand out to me. Who can not be interested in undercover agents falling in love?

And there were things to enjoy as far as this premise goes. I liked the action scenes and the build up of tension during some of the undercover moments. The story was also written in an approachable, fast-paced manner and I was able to blow through it pretty quickly. I think readers of this sort of romance will likely very much enjoy it.

However, it is also very much of its time (originally published in 2001), and there were far too many times when I became frustrated with the interplay between the main characters, as well as their portrayals as individual characters. The hero, Adam, was probably the biggest issue I had with this book. He was very hot and cold, but not in a sexy way. More like a strangely aggressive obtuse inability to understand that Raleigh was also an under cover agent who would make the decision to keep her own secrets. I was also not a fan of some of the terms that were repeatedly thrown around to describe Raleigh, terms like “childlike,” “vulnerable,” and “fragile.” Ummm…she’s clearly a supremely competent under cover agent, given her success rate and her age. I don’t think “fragile” is the term I’d use to describe this type of person. But, again, much of this just feels more of a different time anything else.

Overall, this book is a bit dated, but I think it will likely still appeal to contemporary romance fans. Especially for romance readers who enjoy political intrigue and under cover operations.

Kate’s Thoughts:

As some one who has been very impressed by and a huge fan of Stacey Abrams, not only for her political maneuvering but also her unabashed geekiness (her perspective on the Buffy/Angel/Spike love triangle is PERFECTION), I was pretty eager to try out her first romance novel when it was presented to us at ALA. And by first I mean this was, as Serena said, a reissue of her debut from 20+ years ago. Even though romance is pretty hit or miss with me, I was more than willing to give this one a go.

And I have to echo a lot of what Serena said. Even though I’m not someone who really enjoys spy stories in general, I liked the espionage shenanigans in “Rules of Engagement”. It felt part Black Ops, part “James Bond”, and I enjoyed seeing Raleigh slip into characters while also balancing her real life, be it dealing with her attraction to Adam, or with her fun best friend Alex. I also mostly liked Raleigh, as her complexity felt real and believable while also fitting into the role of a super spy (who still manages to be SUPER young, but hey, that’s fine!).

But, also like Serena, the biggest downside for this book was the dynamic between Raleigh and Adam. I just didn’t like how he treated her, infantilizing her one moment, raging against her and nearly despising her another moment, then going full on protective star crossed lover ANOTHER moment. Whiplash! Whiplash I say! I agree that it probably worked better twenty years ago, but as a reader today I didn’t find it terribly sexy. And I say this as a person who generally likes enemies to lovers tropes!

It’s fun seeing Stacey Abrams alter ego’s first story in action! I may see if I can find some of her later romances to see how they compare, as “Rules of Engagement” had some pluses, but minuses as well.

Kate’s Rating 6: I liked the espionage stuff and I liked Raleigh for the most part, but the dynamic between her and Adam was not my cup of tea.

Serena’s Rating 6: Not for me, as I disliked the hero and had a negative reaction to some of the descriptions of the heroine as well. But this is also a very subjective opinion and fans of the genre will likely enjoy it!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Rules of Engagement” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should be on Spy Romances.

Serena’s Review: “Swordheart

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Book: “Swordheart” by T. Kingfisher

Publishing Info: Argyll Productions, November 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

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

Book Description: Halla is a housekeeper who has suddenly inherited her great-uncle’s estate… and, unfortunately, his relatives. Sarkis is an immortal swordsman trapped in a prison of enchanted steel. When Halla draws the sword that imprisons him, Sarkis finds himself attempting to defend his new wielder against everything from bandits and roving inquisitors to her own in-laws… and the sword itself may prove to be the greatest threat of all.

Review: Once I discover a favorite author, it can only be expected that you’ll probably see a lot of reviews for them going forward. So as not to just run through them one after another, I’ve been trying to hold off on picking up a new Kingfisher novel until I feel like I’ve been in a bit of a slump. And, for whatever reason, many of my October books were a bit underwhelming. While this was a bummer, it gave me the only excuse I needed, so I immediately jumped back into the world of the Clockwork Boys with this standalone book.

You would think being left a grand estate and all the wealth and prestige that comes with that would be a blessing. But for Halla, the housekeeper turned unexpected heiress, it has lead to nothing but trouble. Hounded by the relatives of the deceased, Halla has all but given up hope of collecting on her inheritance. That is until, when trapped in a cluttered room in a mansion that should by rights belong to her, Halla draws a dusty old sword and finds…a swordsman as well? One who is enchanted to the sword and sworn to protect its wielder for the remainder of their life. But while Halla seems like an easy enough individual to protect, Sarkis, the swordsman, is in for a surprise.

I think it would be a bigger shock than anything if I read a book by this author that I didn’t enjoy. There are enough strengths in her general storytelling ability, her solid characters, and her witty dialogue that it’s hard to imagine a book that felt like a flop. There have been stories I’ve enjoyed more than others, however. So where does this one fit on that scale?

While much of the appeal of this book lay in the strength of the qualities I listed above, there were a few aspects of this story that I found particularly charming. For one thing, Halla is an “older” heroine, coming in with an age somewhere in her 30s. Kingfisher has used several older heroines like this to helm her books, and it’s something I always appreciate. Life and adventure doesn’t only come for twenty-somethings! And, indeed, we get more variety and life experience with an older lead who brings more baggage (both good and bad) to the story. Halla is an unlikely leading lady in that she starts the book out as a bewildered heiress who seems as if she may have been happier remaining a housekeeper for the rest of her life. What’s more, as the story progresses, her romance with Sarkis comes from the perspective of a woman who has already been married once and knows what’s what.

I also appreciated that this was one of the longer books I’ve read by this author. She tends to write books that come in between the 200-250 page count, just enough to be considered full novels instead of novellas, but noticeably shorter than the average fantasy novel out there. On one hands, this is a quality I love as there are so many massive fantasy tomes out there that not only don’t need to be the length they are (and are often worse for it) but the sheer amount of time it takes to read one lengthy novel necessarily limits how many one can get through. That said, I loved being able to settle in to this story a bit more than I have with past, shorter books by this author. I became highly invested in Halla’s journey towards self-worth and Sarkis’s work to restore the humanity he gave up when he became attached to the sword. We learn a lot about their personal histories, so it’s truly gratifying to see them come up against similar challenges here and make different choices.

That said, there came a point around the three quarters mark where I began to feel like the book was quite literally tracing the same road back and forth. This is played for good humorous affect, but the final go around did begin to feel a bit tedious as I began to wish that our characters could finally have something go right for them.

Overall, however, I really enjoyed this book. It was enjoyable and solid in all of the ways I’ve come to expect by this author, and I appreciated the increased page length to really soak in this particular world and these characters and their romance. Fans of this author or for those looking for a cozy fantasy novel, this is definitely a book for you!

Rating 8: Everything you could want from cozy fantasy fiction!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Swordheart” can be found on these Goodreads lists: CozySFF and Above 30 Romance Heroines.

Kate’s Review: “Such Sharp Teeth”

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Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Such Sharp Teeth” by Rachel Harrison

Publishing Info: Berkley Books, October 2022

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

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

Book Description: A young woman in need of a transformation finds herself in touch with the animal inside in this gripping, incisive novel from the author of Cackle and The Return.

Rory Morris isn’t thrilled to be moving back to her hometown, even if it is temporary. There are bad memories there. But her twin sister, Scarlett, is pregnant, estranged from the baby’s father, and needs support, so Rory returns to the place she thought she’d put in her rearview. After a night out at a bar where she runs into an old almost-flame, she hits a large animal with her car. And when she gets out to investigate, she’s attacked.

Rory survives, miraculously, but life begins to look and feel different. She’s unnaturally strong, with an aversion to silver–and suddenly the moon has her in its thrall. She’s changing into someone else–something else, maybe even a monster. But does that mean she’s putting those close to her in danger? Or is embracing the wildness inside of her the key to acceptance?

This darkly comedic love story is a brilliantly layered portrait of trauma, rage, and vulnerability.

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

It’s always a cause to celebrate when Rachel Harrison has a new book out! I’ve greatly enjoyed her fresh and feminist scary stories, the first being “The Return” and the second being “Cackle”. When I read that her next book was going to be about werewolves, I was pretty excited. I haven’t done much werewolf lore in my time dabbling in horror media, but I am more than happy to follow Harrison on any journey she wishes to take a reader on. So that meant that “Such Sharp Teeth” was on my radar for a very long time, and by the time I sat down to read it my expectations were pretty high. After all, werewolves AND snappy dialogue should tempt many a horror fan, right? Especially when feminist themes find their way into it as well.

I should revisit “Ginger Snaps”, it’s been too long. (source)

As far as a werewolf story goes, “Such Sharp Teeth” is a fun and at times gruesome take on the sub genre. We have the various elements of body horror that is required, as well as a nice look into the myth and the pieces of the lore that can be tinkered with and, in some ways, subverted. Rory’s monthly transformation is pretty gnarly, and I enjoyed watching the ways that her body changes not only during the full moon, but also in the ‘down time’ of the rest of the month. I also enjoyed the mystery of who exactly bit Rory, and how all the small town ups and downs make for a difficult time of being incognito when you are trying to solve a werewolf curse and all that comes with that. But I also liked the small town elements on their own even without the werewolf part, as a lot of the characters felt pretty realistic in their actions and personalities. Rory is very enjoyable as a protagonist, as she has enough edge and snark to make her funny in her banter and actions, but also a bit of vulnerability about being back in a place that has the people she loves most (her sister Scarlett) as well as a lot of baggage.

But it’s really the feminine rage that is at a simmer in this book and translates into a beastly transformation that did it for me. We got a little bit of this in “Cackle” with how the protagonist Annie finds her confidence and self worth through a supportive female friend, and “Such Sharp Teeth” shifts from self confidence to full on rage in a way that worked really well. Rory’s metamorphosis and realization that she is a werewolf stirs up and lines up with memories, resentments, and anger about traumas from her past in her hometown, and it seems like a fitting metaphor that a beast inside of her (be it werewolf or anger) struggles against her desire to contain and control it. We also have a little bit of examination about women and their bodies and how having control and agency over them can be difficult in certain circumstances, either vis a vis lycanthropy, societal misogyny, or, in the case of Rory’s twin Scarlett, pregnancy. Harrison is careful to keep these themes generally light but also necessarily serious when the moment calls for it, and in other author’s hands it may have felt heavy handed. Not so with Harrison.

For readers out there who want a read in line with the season, but perhaps not something that is SUPER scary, “Such Sharp Teeth” will be a healthy balance of the Halloween spirit and lighter fare. I really enjoy the stories that Harrison writes, and it was great having one for October again!

Rating 8: An enjoyable werewolf story that takes on feminine rage, “Such Sharp Teeth” is another great horror novel from Rachel Harrison!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Such Sharp Teeth” is included on the Goodreads list “Books Like Stranger Things”.

Serena’s Review: “The Liar’s Crown”

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Book: “The Liar’s Crown” by Abigail Owen

Publishing Info: Entangled Teen, August 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: Everything about my life is a lie. As a hidden twin princess, born second, I have only one purpose—to sacrifice my life for my sister if death comes for her. I’ve been living under the guise of a poor, obscure girl of no standing, slipping into the palace and into the role of the true princess when danger is present.

Now the queen is dead and the ageless King Eidolon has sent my sister a gift—an eerily familiar gift—and a proposal to wed. I don’t trust him, so I do what I was born to do and secretly take her place on the eve of the coronation. Which is why, when a figure made of shadow kidnaps the new queen, he gets me by mistake.

As I try to escape, all the lies start to unravel. And not just my lies. The Shadowraith who took me has secrets of his own. He struggles to contain the shadows he wields—other faces, identities that threaten my very life.

Winter is at the walls. Darkness is looming. And the only way to save my sister and our dominion is to kill Eidolon…and the Shadowraith who has stolen my heart.

Review: I’m on record as very much enjoying stories about sisters and the often beautiful but complicated relationships those can be. So it made requesting this book a bit of a no brainer. True, much of the general description sounds very familiar to other YA fantasies I’ve read. But there’s also the general adage that there’s nothing new under the sun and that all books are derivatives of others in some way or another! So request away I did!

Both magic and twins run in the royal line. But what could seen has only an odd quirk of a particular lineage has served this particular kingdom in ways known by few others. While one princess grows up as the heir to the thrown and eventually the Queen, the other lives a life unknown, stepping in to live as the royal sister when there are threats or other unknowns that may pose a risk to the true Queen. For Meren, living in her sister’s shadow has provided a sense of duty alongside a sense of claustrophobia. With no life to call her own, she struggles to carve out something of her own. But she also loves her sister, so when a threat comes in the night of her sister’s coronation, Meren steps up. So when the threat is fulfilled and the Queen is captured, it is Meren who falls into the grasp of a dark, deadly man.

While this book didn’t turn out to be all I had hoped it would be, there was still a lot to like. The writing was solid throughout. And, in particular, I think the dialogue was really well-done. The lines that were meant to be quippy were in fact funny. And characters had “voices” and manners to their speaking that made them feel like distinct characters. This is a writing skill that too often goes unnoticed, but when you stand back and look at books that come across as well-written and others that you find yourself struggling with, believable dialogue can often be found as a culprit either way. Some of my favorite authors are my favorite based almost purely on their skill at writing good dialogue.

I also really liked the characters. Meren was a sympathetic character, balancing a sense of loyalty and devotion to sister with the natural frustrations that would come from living life as a person whose entire existence is meant to be unknown. Further, I thought the love interest was also an intriguing character. There were a few reveals of him that came around the halfway mark that I found particularly interesting. These two also had good chemistry; again, I think much of this came down to the good dialogue work by the author.

But, in the end, I did find myself continuing to struggle to fully connect to the book. I was initially really into it, but as the story progressed, the entire thing began to feel more like a chore. Part of this came down to a familiar frustration for me with this kind of story: characters hiding and lying about things far past the point of believability. After a certain point, the more the author has to work to justify continuing the choice for character to continue to withhold important facts from each other. And the longer the story goes, the more these justifications begin to feel inadequate. Such was the case here. And once I started to feel annoyed about Meren’s choices in this regard, the more I struggled to get myself back into the story.

I also found myself returning to an early point in the book and a piece of history that was presented that plays an important part of the story: apparently, the villain (well known as a villain to all of the other kingdoms as well) has been stealing and killing Queens from this particular realm for quite some time. But somehow there is the assumption that the villain doesn’t know about the whole twin thing? I don’t quite get what everyone seems to think the villain character is making of the fact that the minute he captures one Queen another, identical one pops right up? It was all very weird, and as the story continued with this odd point being left to just sit there unchallenged, the more I became fixated on what should have been a minor plot point.

This is the type of book that I think will work for a lot of people. And, in fact, it was very close to working for me. There were just a few too many things that made me raise my eyebrows for me to really become invested in the story. If you like fantasy romance, however, this might be a good read for you!

Rating 7: This book has a lot of strengths, but it also fell into a few plot holes that I always struggle with. Will likely appeal to a lot of fantasy romance fans, however!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Liar’s Crown” can be found on this Goodreads list: Books with Crowns

Kate’s Review: “House of Hunger”

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Book: “House of Hunger” by Alexis Henderson

Publishing Info: Ace, September 2022

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

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

Book Description: A young woman is drawn into the upper echelons of a society where blood is power, in this dark and enthralling gothic novel from the author of The Year of the Witching. Marion Shaw has been raised in the slums, where want and deprivation is all she knows. Despite longing to leave the city and its miseries, she has no real hope of escape until the day she spots a peculiar listing in the newspaper, seeking a bloodmaid.

Though she knows little about the far north–where wealthy nobles live in luxury and drink the blood of those in their service–Marion applies to the position. In a matter of days, she finds herself the newest bloodmaid at the notorious House of Hunger. There, Marion is swept into a world of dark debauchery–and at the center of it all is her.

Countess Lisavet, who presides over this hedonistic court, is loved and feared in equal measure. She takes a special interest in Marion. Lisavet is magnetic, and Marion is eager to please her new mistress. But when her fellow bloodmaids begin to go missing in the night, Marion is thrust into a vicious game of cat and mouse. She’ll need to learn the rules of her new home–and fast–or its halls will soon become her grave.

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

Alexis Henderson’s debut novel “The Year of the Witching” was my favorite book in 2020. Her unique and dark witchcraft story really connected with me, as Henderson took familiar witch themes and turned them into broader commentaries on identity, groupthink, and fanaticism, and hell yes did it work for me. It’s probably no shock that when I heard she was writing a new book I was very excited. And when I read the description of “House of Hunger”, and realized that it was going to be Henderson’s take on vampires, my excitement went that much higher. I’m very particular about vampire stories, as I’ve mentioned before, but I had high hopes and full trust in Henderson.

This book is just awesome. It’s a fascinating deconstruction and reworking of a typical vampire story, and it also delves into the always complicated themes of class and privilege from our society and applies them to a fantasy world that is well conceived and interesting. Henderson’s world of the North and the South has a great set up and some fantastic world building, and I had a solid feel for the world that the story is set in. The nobles of the north who take on the bloodmaids are never referred to as vampires, per se, though there are plenty of hints that this is kind of what we are working with here: they live in a part of the world that has longer nights than the area that our protagonist Marion comes from, for one. There is the very obvious aspect of the blood drinking, and the harkening back to Lisvet’s ‘illness’ (probably extreme hemophilia) and how she needs blood to survive. And there is also the aristocratic lives that the nobles live, a theme that has been connected to vampire lore from the early days of the genre. I liked that Henderson opted to not go full vampire in the story, as it makes Lisvet and the other nobles of the houses more mysterious and seductive, and gives the story more room to explore the mythology of the world at hand. And we slowly get to see the tension and threat build, going at a pace that makes not only Marion, but also the reader, in a ‘frog in the pot of boiling water’ situation, unaware of the actual threat at hand until it is far, far too late. There are so many unsettling aspects of this story in terms of horror, and once it builds to some of the bigger reveals it jumps off the page and is solidly scary, scary stuff.

Speaking of Marion, I really liked her as our protagonist, as she is so many shades of grey and incredibly multi-faceted as a character. She is the perfect way to explore the other themes of the upper class exploiting the lower classes out of the sheer desperation that the have nots experience. When we meet Marion she is living in poverty with a sick and abusive brother, working under a cruel mistress at a backbreaking job with nothing to show for it. Of course the temptation of escape to live in the opulence of being a bloodmaid is going to tempt her! Sure, you have to give your mistress your blood, but in exchange Marion gets pampering, glamorous housing, all the delicious food she can eat, and then the attention of Lisvet, who makes her feel special and extraordinary. Marion is desperate, but she’s also ambitious, and Henderson definitely delves into darker areas with her character as she sees things that are questionable, but opts to explain them away as she loves her new life as a bloodmaid and the perks that it seems to have. And oh the metaphors of a wealthy elite like Lisvet literally drinking the blood from a lower class girl with few options like Marion and her other bloodmaid companions! I mean, there is a reason that Lisvet’s last name is Bathory, after all. It’s a great commentary on how the haves take the have nots for everything they’re worth, and can make them think that it’s some kind of honor or choice.

“House of Hunger” is a fantastic horror dark fantasy. Alexis Henderson is a horror voice to be paying attention to, as her deconstructions of familiar tropes turn into stories that are so incredibly special and unique. Cannot wait to see what she does next.

Rating 10: Unsettling, suspenseful, and a well done exploration of the haves and have nots, “House of Hunger” is another successful horror novel from Alexis Henderson.

Reader’s Advisory:

“House of Hunger” is included on the Goodreads list “Bathory Books”.

Book Club Review: “Old Man’s War”

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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 “Book Bingo” where we drew reading challenges commonly found on book bingo cards from a hat and chose a book based on that.  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: “Old Man’s War” by John Scalzi

Publishing Info: Tor Books, December 2005

Where Did We Get This Book: Audiobook from the library!

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

Book Bingo Prompt: A book set on a ship

Book Description: John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife’s grave. Then he joined the army.

The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce– and alien races willing to fight us for them are common. So: we fight. To defend Earth, and to stake our own claim to planetary real estate. Far from Earth, the war has been going on for decades: brutal, bloody, unyielding.

Earth itself is a backwater. The bulk of humanity’s resources are in the hands of the Colonial Defense Force. Everybody knows that when you reach retirement age, you can join the CDF. They don’t want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living. You’ll be taken off Earth and never allowed to return. You’ll serve two years at the front. And if you survive, you’ll be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won colony planets.

John Perry is taking that deal. He has only the vaguest idea what to expect. Because the actual fight, light-years from home, is far, far harder than he can imagine–and what he will become is far stranger.

Kate’s Thoughts

I will be the first to admit that when I saw that this book was the choice for our Book Club, I groaned. Not only was it Science Fiction, one of my less liked genres, it was also MILITARY fiction, ANOTHER of my less liked genres. But having had good experiences with John Scalzi in the past, I downloaded the audiobook, set it on 1.5x speed, and decided to listen to it while going on a long trip up north, so that I could be a captive audience of sorts. And you know what? I did not dislike this book in the way that I thought I would!

Don’t misunderstand me; I still had a hard time with the science fiction, and I still didn’t like the military themes (and even though the colonialism in this book wasn’t super cut and dry in the morality of it within this universe and circumstance, I still was a little put off by it). But there were a few things I did really like. For one, it reminded me of “Starship Troopers” in a lot of ways, a sci-fi film I do really enjoy. For another, there are themes of a non-human being having to learn to be human/connect with the human that they themselves have kind of inhabited, which is SUCH a favorite trope of mine (Hello “Starman” and Illyria from “Angel”! I love you both so much!). And finally, and the moment that made me go from ‘eh, this is okay’ to ‘HOLY SHIT THIS IS SUDDENLY AMAZING?!’, we have Master Sgt Ruiz. The trash talking, belittling, no nonsense and SO GODDAMN FUNNY sergeant that our main character John Perry has to answer to. Everything about this character had me howling with laughter as I drove up through the North Woods. Everything.

So, I was anticipating a miss and ended up really liking “Old Man’s War”! I don’t think I’m going to continue the series, but this first book was enjoyable.

Serena’s Thoughts

Science fiction is solidly within my genre preferences. And, let’s admit it, a lot of science fiction has cross-over with military fiction, so fans of the former generally are ok to some extent with the latter. I’ve also read some good military fantasy fiction and enjoyed that as well. Probably for similar reasons as Kate, I would likely struggle with military fiction written in our modern, very real world (the weird fetishization of it seen in things like the NFL comes to mind). But I do think that fantasy/science fiction allows readers to explore aspects of military fiction in interesting ways. In these imaginary realms, the author is freed of some of the pat positions and previously established understandings of the military and warfare that a reader brings with them. Instead, the author can freely explore the much more complicated history, morality, and purpose of a military force and the types of conflict they can find themselves in. It’s too easy in our modern understanding to look at such things and come up with simple, comfortable, black and white, right and wrong decisions. Books like this force readers to challenge their own positions and tackle complicated questions that don’t leave us comfortably assured of what the right answer is. Through this exercise, I’ve found that books like this accomplish one of the most unique and powerful abilities that reading brings by exposing readers to ideas, peoples, circumstances that they wouldn’t possibly experience in their ordinary life.

So, too, I found the colonization topic to be interesting as well. Again, there are no easy answers here and readers are not allowed to fall back on easy “good” or “evil” understandings of what is happening. Scalzi walks the story through some landmine-filled topics. And through his character, a very human, very sympathetic man, the reader must also grapple with the world that Scalzi is presenting and what, if anything, may be applicable to how we understand human nature, our history and our future.

I also particularly liked a discussion on religion and culture that comes later in the book. Like many other good science fiction stories, it is an excellent look at how people attempt to graft their own understanding of morality, religion, and culture onto a foreign body. In these examples, the foreign bodies are literal aliens, so there are also very creative and interesting new religions and cultures at their heart. But the idea remains the same, regardless. This one I thought was particularly interesting, and, if anything, I wish the story had focused a bit more on this aspect of things. And (here’s where I really agree with Kate about military fiction) less on detailed descriptions of space battles and laser guns.

I’m also totally with Kate about the amazinginess that was Master Sgt Ruiz. I literally laughed out lout several times during his page time. Overall, this was much more my sort of thing than Kate’s, but I don’t think anyone who regularly reads this blog is surprised by that! I think the pacing was a bit strange, and the story would jump from one scene to another without much transition, but I enjoyed the themes and the characters of this book well enough. Science fiction readers will likely enjoy it!

Kate’s Rating 7: I enjoyed this more than I thought I would! A little “Starship Troopers”, a little ‘learning to be human’, and a hilarious drill sergeant made for a combination that worked for me.

Serena’s Rating 8: So full of action and set at a galloping pace, you almost forget to think about some of the challenging themes the book is digging into, but when you do, they are interesting, indeed.

Book Club Questions

  1. Does the future world and universe in this book seem believable and possible?
  2. What do you think is the motivation of the Colonial Union and Defense Force?
  3. What did you think of the humor in this book? Did it add to the reading experience? Take away from it?
  4. How did the themes of battle fatigue and feelings of inhumanity strike you?
  5. What alien races did you like best and what alien races were your least favorite?
  6. What were your thoughts on Jane Sagan and her character arc?
  7. Would you volunteer in the Colonial Union?

Reader’s Advisory

“Old Man’s War” is included on the Goodreads lists “Fantastic Future Warfare Novels”, and “Excellent Space Opera”.

Next Book Club Pick: “In a Midnight Wood” by Ellen Hart

Serena’s Review: “Night of the Raven, Dawn of the Dove”

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Book: “Night of the Raven, Dawn of the Dove” by Rati Mehrotra

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, October 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: Katyani’s role in the kingdom of Chandela has always been clear: becoming an advisor and protector of the crown prince, Ayan, when he ascends to the throne. Bound to the Queen of Chandela through a forbidden soul bond that saved her when she was a child, Katyani has grown up in the royal family and become the best guardswoman the Garuda has ever seen. But when a series of assassination attempts threatens the royals, Katyani is shipped off to the gurukul of the famous Acharya Mahavir as an escort to Ayan and his cousin, Bhairav, to protect them as they hone the skills needed to be the next leaders of the kingdom. Nothing could annoy Katyani more than being stuck in a monastic school in the middle of a forest, except her run-ins with Daksh, the Acharya’s son, who can’t stop going on about the rules and whose gaze makes her feel like he can see into her soul.

But when Katyani and the princes are hurriedly summoned back to Chandela before their training is complete, tragedy strikes and Katyani is torn from the only life she has ever known. Alone and betrayed in a land infested by monsters, Katyani must find answers from her past to save all she loves and forge her own destiny. Bonds can be broken, but debts must be repaid.

Review: I feel like I’ve read a number of India-inspired fantasy novels over the last few years or so. Most of them have been very good, and it’s always refreshing to see new fantasy world built on the foundation of other cultures, histories, and religions from around the world. This one was particularly interesting when I stumbled across it because it was toted as being inspired by Medieval India, a period that I know even less about that the more recent history of the nation and region. Other than this general point of interest, however, I had very little to go on.

Ever since a forbidden magical intervention was performed to save her life as a child, binding her to the queen of the realm, Katyani has always seen her future as bright and clear. She was worked tirelessly to become the best guardswoman she could be and is in line to become the personal guard of the crown prince. But as persistent assassination attempt goes unthwarted, Katyani’s stable future begins to become shaky. Not only has she been unsuccessful in thwarting this threat, but she is now being sent away from the queen and castle to guard the prince and his cousin as they train in a remote school. And while there, she begins to question more and more in not only her future, but her past.

In a lot of ways, this book felt like it was right on the verge of being a story I’d love. The world-building is interesting, the magic had its moments, and there were some excellent fantasy monsters and creatures. But all of this fell just a little short of being particularly interesting. The world-building had some good moments, but I also never felt fully grounded, often unable to picture anything particularly unique about this world. This left me filling in the blanks. And, unfortunately, when a reader is left to fill in blanks, they’ll do with elements they’re most familiar with, thus completely undermining the goal of being exposed to a world/culture that is completely new.

The magic system was also barely a system, with many things working “just because.” I don’t always need elaborate systems ala Brandon Sanderon, but I do need to feel as if there are some rules around how magic is used and what is and isn’t possible. Without this, magic begins to feel like it could just be a silver bullet for any problem that should ever arise, thus dramatic lowering any and all stakes. But, I will say, the monsters and creatures were definitely the saving grace for fantasy elements. They were all new and interesting, doing most of the work of making this world feel like a unique place and touching on the cultural and mythical Indian elements that I was looking to learn more about.

I also couldn’t connect to the characters at all. The main character was supremely bland, suffering from the all-too-familiar case of a teenage character who is somehow the best everyone’s ever seen at a highly skills based occupation. This is a personal annoyance for me, of course, so others may not be bothered by it. But even personal preferences aside, Katyani didn’t have a lot going for her. She wasn’t annoying or prone to ridiculous dramatics, but she also didn’t have any real character traits that made me care about her personally. Beyond that, all of the characters had as similar sort of blandness which made them even less interesting as they began to blend together.

Lastly, I found a lot of the story highly predictable. From the very first few chapters, it was easy to guess what a few of the “reveals” would be. When you can see all of the twists coming, it’s very hard to feel investing in sticking it out while the characters themselves discover these truths. Ultimately, this book just wasn’t for me. Given that I didn’t particularly enjoy the other duology by this author that I’ve read, I think this is maybe just a sign that I should stick to other writers in the future. Fans of her work, however, might enjoy this, as I do think it was similar to that first duology (in that my annoyances have been the same between them, so if you weren’t bothered by it then, you may be good to go here too!)

Rating 6: Everything felt like it was lacking that certain spark that needs to come together to make a great read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Night of the Raven, Dawn of the Dove” isn’t currently on any Goodreads list, but it should be on Indian Inspired Fantasy Novels.

Kate’s Review: “Ghost Eaters”

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Book: “Ghost Eaters” by Clay McLeod Chapman

Publishing Info: Quirk Books, September 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I received a print ARC from the publisher at ALAAC22.

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

Book Description: From the acclaimed author of The Remaking and Whisper Down the Lane, this terrifying supernatural page-turner will make you think twice about opening doors to the unknown.

Erin hasn’t been able to set a single boundary with her charismatic but reckless college ex-boyfriend, Silas. When he asks her to bail him out of rehab—again—she knows she needs to cut him off. But days after he gets out, Silas turns up dead of an overdose in their hometown of Richmond, Virginia, and Erin’s world falls apart.

Then a friend tells her about Ghost, a new drug that allows users to see the dead. Wanna get haunted? he asks. Grieving and desperate for closure with Silas, Erin agrees to a pill-popping “séance.” But the drug has unfathomable side effects—and once you take it, you can never go back.

Review: Thank you to Quirk Books for giving me an ARC of this book at ALAAC22 (and for Clay McLeod Chapman for signing it!)!

I had a few books that were must grabs at ALAAC22, and “Ghost Eaters” by Clay McLeod Chapman was on that list. I had read his book “Whisper Down the Lane”, and while I enjoyed it, it set off a bunch of my rage triggers regarding Satanic Panic, so I was more angry than scared as I read it. But when I read the description of this book there were no rage triggers to be found, which meant that I anticipated a more chill experience as I read it. Which, uh, wasn’t super correct. Was I rage filled as I read this book? No. Was it super terrifying and therefore it wasn’t exactly ‘chill’? Hell yes.

So the hype about this book being super scary? Accurate! I started reading this book in the evening, and once it became clear just how creepy it was going to be I made the decision to set it down and proceed in the morning. Which ended up being a good decision, because holy CATS, the ghosts in this book are SO disturbing and scary. You kind of get the gamut of things. You get shadows in corners. You get slow moving creepers closing in on Erin, our protagonist, and only she can see them as she takes a drug called “Ghost”, which allows her to do so. You get descriptions of rotting corpses, of spewed up ectoplasm, of ghost babies crawling around like feral animals, you get it all, and it really, REALLY messes with you. Chapman doesn’t hold back in the nightmare fuel department, as we travel through Richmond, Virginia with Erin as she starts seeing more and more ghosts after ingesting a drug that has this explicit purpose. The problem is, she just wanted to see ONE ghost in particular, that of Silas, her ex boyfriend who had a huge emotional hold on her and their friend group. So as more and more ghosts close in and she takes more and more Ghost in hopes of it finally being Silas, the tension builds and builds until it snaps, and boy oh BOY does it snap.

But Chapman doesn’t stop at making this a mere super scary ghost story. He also explores some very real world themes and horrors, namely that of addiction and the whitewashing of history. Addiction is probably the more obvious of the two, and while I think there could have been potential for it to come off as hamfisted or after school special-esque, Chapman always makes it feel earnest and super, super disturbing. Erin’s sadness and grief and loss and guilt drives her to try Ghost in hopes of finding closure with Silas, and she almost immediately spirals as the drug not only catches hold instantaneously, it also makes her a beacon for lost spirits that are drawn to her. But we also get a great foundation for why Erin is feeling this way over a man who was, by all accounts as seen in this story, kind of a selfish asshole, and the empathy he draws for her in her actions and also, somewhat, for him, makes it all the sadder and therefore all the scarier. And while she is terrified of the spirits, and the drug itself causes moments that cost her almost everything, she keeps coming back because of her need to see Silas one more time. It is the perfect metaphor for addiction, and while the ghosts are truly and incredibly scary, so is watching Erin completely wreck her life in the course of days, as well as seeing the other Ghost addicts as they spiral all in hopes of seeing a lost loved one again (a woman whose child died of SIDS was especially heartbreaking). Along with that, Chapman raises some GREAT points about ghost stories and folklore and how they have, in many ways, been whitewashed and in some ways romanticized. “Ghost Eaters” takes place in Richmond, a city that has been around a LONG time and has had a lot of blood spilled, a large part due to atrocities committed against Indigenous people and Black people. So many of the ghosts that Erin sees aren’t the wandering war widow or the little white girl from Antebellum times, but those of POC who died in horrific ways because of racism, Colonialism, and genocidal violence. As I was reading this book I kept thinking of “Ghostland” by Colin Dickey, which has this as a running theme, and LO AND BEHOLD this book was mentioned in the acknowledgements. What an awesome topic to tackle, and Champman does it with ease.

“Ghost Eaters” is a must read this Halloween season. Go get it, tear through it, and make sure you have the lights on.

Rating 9: Raw, profoundly disturbing, and genuinely scary, “Ghost Eaters” is a story that not only has some supremely fucked up ghosts, but also takes on themes like addiction, and which people are represented in traditional ghost stories.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Ghost Eaters” is included on the Goodreads list “Horror to Look Forward To in 2022”.

Serena’s Review: “The River of Silver”

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Book: “The River of Silver” by S. A. Chakraborty

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, October 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: ALA convention!

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

Book Description: Bestselling author S. A. Chakraborty’s acclaimed Daevabad Trilogy gets expanded with this new compilation of stories from before, during, and after the events of The City of Brass, The Kingdom of Copper, and The Empire of Gold, all from the perspective of characters both beloved and hated, and even those without a voice in the novels. The River of Silver gathers material both seen and new–including a special coda fans will need to read–making this the perfect complement to those incredible novels.

Now together in one place, these stories of Daevabad enrich a world already teeming with magic and wonder. Explore this magical kingdom, hidden from human eyes. A place where djinn live and thrive, fight and love. A world where princes question their power, and powerful demons can help you…or destroy you.

A prospective new queen joins a court whose lethal history may overwhelm her own political savvy…

An imprisoned royal from a fallen dynasty and a young woman wrenched from her home cross paths in an enchanted garden…

A pair of scouts stumble upon a secret in a cursed winter wood that will turn over their world…

From Manizheh’s first steps towards rebellion to adventures that take place after The Empire of Gold, this is a must-have collection for those who can’t get enough of Nahri, Ali, and Dara and all that unfolded around them.

Previously Reviewed: “City of Brass” and “Kingdom of Copper” and “The Empire of Gold”

Review: This collection was released as an audiobook around a year or so ago, I believe. But I knew if I just stuck it out, it would be released in hardcover as well. What good publisher would turn away the opportunity to cash in on another installation in a beloved fantasy trilogy? I also held off because this was one of those cases where I wondered if it might be difficult to transition between having read the entire first trilogy in print and then to listen to this one as an audiobook. For one thing, I’m sure I was mispronouncing tons of names and words. And with that being the case, I worried that returning to this world a few years after the last book released and listening to a version where some of the words were pronounced differently than the way I (erroneously) had been used to…well, let’s just say the world and the history of this fantasy series has never been the most easy to get straight so I wasn’t about to add another layer! So, lucky me that I was able to nab an early ARC of this at ALA and get on with things!

I’m going to skip my typical paragraph detailing a summary of this book. For one thing, I think the one provided by the publisher is more than enough. And for another, it’s hard to really summarize a collection of stories that are each separate mini stories in and of themselves. This is all the harder when these stories are woven before, between, and after the events of a previously written trilogy that, itself, takes place over a good number of years. There’s a lot of history and time covered in this book and, frankly, it would be impossible for me to summarize it further!

So, first off, this is definitely the kind of collection that must, must, must be read after completely the initial trilogy. There isn’t a single story in this collection that doesn’t touch on characters and histories that were further detailed in that series, and thus would all be completely meaningless to somehow coming at it as a stand-alone.

Second off, I’ll say that this book would probably be appreciated most being read directly after completing the initial trilogy. As I said, those books make up a complicated and rich world and history, and much of that is touched on here. Even just the few years that I’ve had between completing the last book and picking up this one left me feeling like I was having to really work to recall how everything fit together.

But taking this into account, this was a supremely well-done collection of stories. I went in not really know whose stories we were going to hear, when they were going to take place, or anything really. And one after another I found myself surprised and intrigued by the insights into the world and characters we were given. Chakraborty in no way wrote this book as fan service; while there are surely characters everyone wanted to hear more from, there are also a number of characters who were either villains, side characters, or even characters we had only heard about in passing (or not at all).

I really liked the way the book was organized, moving in chronological order from stories taking place before “The City of Brass” until its last few entries that take place after “The Empire of Gold.” In this way, it was easy to slot in these added layers of depth to what I remembered happening in the original trilogy. Even more impressive, some of the early stories helped to lay the groundwork for insights that were going to come from stories later in this very collection. In that way, the book felt like a word in and of itself, rather than just an assortment of long footnotes for the initial trilogy.

If you enjoyed the original Daevabad trilogy, this is an absolute must read. It adds so much depth to the story as a whole, especially some of the characters we only met briefly before who are more fleshed out here. It was also simply a sheer joy to return world and be reminded just how much of a powerhouse Chakraborty is as a writer. She has a new book coming out this spring, and this just made the itch all the stronger to get my hands on it as soon as possible.

Rating 9: A must-read for fans of the original series, this book accomplishes the impossible of not only making those books all the better for the added context but of being a fantastic reading experience in and of itself.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The River of Silver” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should be on Best Fantasy Short Story Collections.

Kate’s Review: “Malice House”

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Book: “Malice House” by Megan Shepherd

Publishing Info: Hyperion Avenue, October 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I received a print ARC from the publisher at ALAAC22.

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

Book Description: Of all the things aspiring artist Haven Marbury expected to find while clearing out her late father’s remote seaside house, Bedtime Stories for Monsters was not on the list. This secret handwritten manuscript is disturbingly different from his Pulitzer-winning works: its interweaving short stories crawl with horrific monsters and enigmatic humans that exist somewhere between this world and the next. The stories unsettle but also entice Haven, practically compelling her to illustrate them while she stays in the house that her father warned her was haunted. Clearly just dementia whispering in his ear . . . right?

Reeling from a failed marriage, Haven hopes an illustrated Bedtime Stories can be the lucrative posthumous father-daughter collaboration she desperately needs to jump-start her art career. However, everyone in the nearby vacation town wants a piece of the manuscript: her father’s obsessive literary salon members, the Ink Drinkers; her mysterious yet charming neighbor, who has a tendency toward three a.m. bonfires; a young barista with a literary forgery business; and of course, whoever keeps trying to break into her house. But when a monstrous creature appears under Haven’s bed right as grisly deaths are reported in the nearby woods, she must race to uncover dark, otherworldly family secrets—completely rewriting everything she ever knew about herself in the process.

From New York Times bestselling author Megan Shepherd comes a complex tale of dark magic, family secrets, and monsters that don’t stay on the page.

Review: Thank you to Hyperion Avenue for giving me an ARC at ALAAC22!

It’s October, everyone, and that means that we are officially at the Most Wonderful Time Of The Year in my book: HALLOWEEN SEASON!!! And that also means that it is once again time for Horrorpalooza, in which my focus is on all horror or horror-esque titles for my blog posts through the end of the month! I’m feeling especially good about Halloween this year, as the whole family is vaxxed up, I have a slew of horror content I’m going to devour this month, and my kid is, through no undue influence of mine, FULLY INTO HALLOWEEN! Oh yeah, I’m READY.

As Betelgeuse says, ‘it’s showtime!’ (source)

And we are kicking off Horrorpalooza 2022 with a title that I have been eagerly awaiting for a long time. I first heard of “Malice House” by Megan Shepherd when Chuck Wendig was tweeting about it in a very positive way. Looking into it, it ticked off a lot of boxes that I love in a book: it’s horror based, it has Gothic elements, and it has a book theme within the narrative. I was super lucky that not only did they have ARCs of it at ALAAC22, but that Megan Shepherd was there signing said ARCs. I let it sit a bit, wanting to get closer to the spooky season before I picked it up, and then once I did, it snared me in almost immediately. It was worth the wait.

“Malice House” is just as much dark fantasy as it is a horror novel, and given that the two genres overlap a fair bit perhaps it’s not so much of a surprise that the combination works well. But Shepherd does a marvelous job of not leaning two much on either genre, while also bringing out the best of them both to create a very suspenseful, scary, and also dreamlike tale of loss, creativity, and the secrets kept within families and from those we love. Haven is our main character, who has returned to her father’s isolated old house after his death, her memories of a strained relationship haunting her as she lives in his famed novelist shadow. Haven is a good mix of deeply complex and somewhat unlikable, but Shepherd gives her the space to be these things without making her feel overdone or cartoonish. We get the sense that she is a bit unreliable, as she hid things from her father before his death, and as she starts to try and make movements regarding the lost manuscript she finds in his home, we start to realize that she’s not the only one with secrets and perhaps darker motivations. From locals who knew her father when he was alive to a mysterious neighbor to a barista who loves her father’s work, Haven has a lot of people who seem to be in her corner, but she soon finds out that, like her, everyone has their secrets. Secrets, isolation, a narrator who may not be reliable, oh how Gothic! And Shepherd really nails that tone.

The horror elements of this book are pretty strong, the dread slowly building up as Haven hears things in the walls, or fixates on tales of the demons that her dementia addled father was seeing as his condition deteriorated. And by the time people around town start dying in gruesome ways that may or may not connect to her father’s books, Haven has already fallen into a nightmare scape where things she thought were hallucinations are perhaps living, breathing threats. The various villains range from pretty run of the mill creature feature fare (a hellhound, a weird lobsterlike creature called ‘Pinchie‘), to far more sinister characters that really got under my skin (no spoilers here, but on in particular known as “Uncle Arnold” is not going to leave me any time soon). And that is what I loved the most about “Malice House”; it is not only a creepy and dreamlike supernatural tale, it is also a story about the power of art, and creativity, and how artistic creations can take on lives of their own that can stun even the creator. And sure, this is probably happening in the worst way imaginable in this book, but I thought it was a really, really nifty facet of this horror story that made me love it all the more.

“Malice House” absolutely lived up to my expectations. The ARC I have mentions that this is the first in a series, though I haven’t seen much additional information about that possibility. If it is, though, I am absolutely aching to see where Megan Shepherd takes Haven and the creatures of Malice House next.

Rating 9: Dark, unnerving, and a love letter to the power that art and stories can have, “Malice House” is a fun and chilling dark fantasy horror tale.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Malice House” isn’t included on any Goodreads lists yet, but I think it would fit in on “Modern Gothic”.

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