Serena’s Review: “Saint”

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

Book: “Saint” by Adrienne Young

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, November 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: As a boy, Elias learned the hard way what happens when you don’t heed the old tales.

Nine years after his lack of superstition got his father killed, he’s grown into a young man of piety, with a deep reverence for the hallowed sea and her fickle favor. As stories of the fisherman’s son who has managed to escape the most deadly of storms spreads from port to port, his devotion to the myths and creeds has given him the reputation of the luckiest bastard to sail the Narrows.

Now, he’s mere days away from getting everything his father ever dreamed for him: a ship of his own, a crew, and a license that names him as one of the first Narrows-born traders. But when a young dredger from the Unnamed Sea with more than one secret crosses his path, Elias’ faith will be tested like never before. The greater the pull he feels toward her, the farther he drifts from the things he’s spent the last three years working for.

He is dangerously close to repeating his mistakes and he’s seen first hand how vicious the jealous sea can be. If he’s going to survive her retribution, he will have to decide which he wants more, the love of the girl who could change their shifting world, or the sacred beliefs that earned him the name that he’s known for―Saint.

Review: Adrienne Young is a must-read author for me at this point. I’ve been reading her books for some time, and they always deliver on a good story, interesting characters, and, often, a sweet romance. I really enjoyed her “Fable” duology, so I was excited to nab this book once I realized it was not a cheap romance novel (ugh that cover!!) but in fact a prequel stand-alone that follows the story of Fable’s parents and how they meet.

Elias has devoted his life to one thing and one thing only: getting his merchant license and making a name for himself and for the Narrows, his beloved and dangerous home. But things begin to go sideways when he meets a mysterious young woman working as a Dredger for a rival crew. For her part, Isolde is running her own game, one full of secrets and a desperate attempt to reinvent not only herself but the world that her powerful mother has been shaping for her. Together, Elias and Isolde face dangerous, sweeping forces. But with a shared love for the sea, can they find their way through this storm?

I really enjoyed this prequel story. It’s always a bit hard to write a book like this, for several reasons. For one thing, the Saint we met in the “Fable” duology is very different than the young man full of vision and, in his own way, optimism that we see here. He’s been tested, yes, but he hasn’t gone through the life-shaping hardships that we know are before him. For another thing, we do know tragedy is ahead for these characters, knowing the state of affairs when Fable’s own story begins. But I think Young does a good job of taking those necessary and pre-determined components and creating something that still feels hopeful and fresh.

For her part, Isolde can be a completely new character, with only very few strings attached to who she should be on the page given from previous books. We know her fate in the “Fable” books, but we never see her in person. This leaves a lot of room for her character and story to be the groundwork for this book, and she serves very well in this role (even though the book is titled for a different character). I really liked the unique vision of this world that we see through Isolde’s eyes, through the eyes of a young woman who is the daughter of one of the most powerful people alive, her mother. And while much of Isolde’s life has been influenced by the privileges that this has given her, we also see how complicated and damaging this relationship has been to Isolde’s sense of self and purpose. Much of this book is focused on her journey to shape herself into the woman she wants to be and to wrestle freedom back from the ever tightening grip of her tyrannical mother. Isolde is made up of a lot of grit and will to choose one’s own path, two traits that are very apparent in her daughter, Fable.

Saint had a bit of a harder task, as we do have a pretty solid image of him presented in the “Fable” duology. That being the case, I did struggle a bit more with his chapters. I could see some hints of how the character we were being introduced to here could turn into that much harder, much colder man, but he also felt very different, too. And yes, events will shape him in major ways going forward, but something about the characterization just didn’t gel as well as I had hoped. I think I wanted a more ruthless, pragmatic character here, rather than the more typical YA hero that we’ve all seen fairly often.

I liked the story well enough, too. But again, here, it didn’t live up to quite what I could have wished for. By the end of the book, I had a hard time really pointing to the main conflict or plot of the book. It’s a very character-driven story (something that really works for me), but the plot and action itself is rather lacking. There are action scenes, of course, but the stakes never felt particularly high, and I wasn’t incredibly invested in the point-by-point movements of the plot itself. As a character reader, I was ok with this style of book. But those who might be looking for a more compelling story at the heart of their read might find themselves let down a bit by this book.

Overall, I thought this was a solid prequel. It did a good job of bringing to the page two characters that we’ve either met before or heard a great deal about before. Technically, it would be approachable on its own to new readers, but I do think that that would be doing yourself a disservice. As many of the strengths of this story come from its characters and the plot/world-building plays a definite second fiddle, readers who are already familiar with this world and these characters are likely going to enjoy this one more.

Rating 8: Very enjoyable, though its focus on characters over plot may hold it back a bit for some readers.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Saint” can be found on these Goodreads lists: YA Sea Adventures and Best prequel/sequel

Kate’s Review: “Wayward”

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

Book: “Wayward” by Chuck Wendig

Publishing Info: Del Rey Books, November 2022

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

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

Book Description: Five years ago, ordinary Americans fell under the grip of a strange new malady that caused them to sleepwalk across the country to a destination only they knew. They were followed on their quest by the shepherds: friends and family who gave up everything to protect them.

Their secret destination: Ouray, a small town in Colorado that would become one of the last outposts of civilization. Because the sleepwalking epidemic was only the first in a chain of events that led to the end of the world–and the birth of a new one. The survivors, sleepwalkers and shepherds alike, have a dream of rebuilding human society. Among them are Benji, the scientist struggling through grief to lead the town; Marcy, the former police officer who wants only to look after the people she loves; and Shana, the teenage girl who became the first shepherd–and an unlikely hero whose courage will be needed again.

Because the people of Ouray are not the only survivors, and the world they are building is fragile. The forces of cruelty and brutality are amassing under the leadership of self-proclaimed president Ed Creel. And in the very heart of Ouray, the most powerful survivor of all is plotting its own vision for the new world: Black Swan, the A.I. who imagined the apocalypse.

Against these threats, Benji, Marcy, Shana, and the rest have only one hope: one another. Because the only way to survive the end of the world is together.

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

So, when I was reading “Wanderers” back in 2019 I felt a mild anxiety that I was constantly trying to write off. ‘A deadly pandemic? Eh, that’s not something you need to be worrying about, Kate. No way.’

Joke’s on me, I guess. (source)

Little did I realize that a year later it would be a reality that was consuming so many of us. Luckily it wasn’t a White Mask level of death, though that doesn’t mean it’s been a cake walk by ANY means. But, now it’s 2022, and while we are still in the midst of this life changing pandemic with death and sickness, I feel more secure than I did two years ago, or even one year ago (thank you, under 5 vaccines and lots and lots of therapy!). So much so that I could actually pick up “Wayward”, Chuck Wendig’s sequel to the pandemic end of world thriller/sci-fi/dystopia “Wanderers”. You probably remember how I couldn’t bring myself to read books about sickness and the world ending for awhile. I guess the fact I read “Wayward” shows how far I’ve come. Though now the worry is that it’s predicting a whole other society altering reality, with it’s huge themes of Christo-fascism and white supremacist violence…. Okay, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s dive in.

“Wayward” picks up shortly after “Wanderers” ends, and five years after the White Mask pandemic has wiped out a huge majority of the world population. The surviving ‘Sleepwalkers’ and ‘Shepherds’ are living in the isolated Colorado town of Ouray, where the seemingly benevolent (but actually dangerous) Black Swan AI is continuously running and trying to create a new world. There are familiar faces like Benji, the former scientist who is now a well respected town leader, and Shana, the first ‘shepherd’ who is now pregnant with the first child to be born in the community (who was in stasis for five years like the sleepwalkers were). At the end of “Wanderers” there were hints that this perfect rebuilding community was actually on a precipice, and we get to see that play out as Wendig tinkers with ideas of dangerous AI, and groupthink that can lead to cultlike behavior, unrest, and power grabs. I liked how Wendig did some full exploration of this, because the community that was being envisioned at the end of “Wanderers” felt a little too pat. I also liked revisiting Benji, Shana, et al, because I had forgotten how much I liked them and I liked seeing how they had all changed from the first book up through this book. The changes are believable both as to how they would change due to their circumstances, but also as to how they as characters would have changed with their base personalities in mind. Shana in “Wanderers” is pretty different from Shana in “Wayward”, but she is still Shana, and so forth, and it is clear that Wendig knows his cast inside and out. It is their inherent complexity and goodness that keeps this book from treading too bleak.

Though that isn’t to say that it isn’t bleak at times. Oh soothsayer Chuck Wendig, I must say that I’m a bit on edge that you have put another horrible thing out into the universe, given what happened last time! And that is the theme of Christ-fascist authoritarian groups trying to wipe out those they deem inferior against the backdrop of the end of society. Though I don’t think we spent too much time with white supremacist and totalitarian would be president Ed Creel in “Wanderers”, he has his own perspective chapters in “Wayward”, and good God we are once again getting into too real territory. Creel is a clear Donald Trump analog, but obvious or not it doesn’t make him any less terrifying as he continues to amass a white supremacist and violent following to do his bidding even as he bides his time in an underground bunker for the uberwealthy. “Wanderers” came out during the Trump Presidency when we were seeing these groups like the Proud Boys and Oathkeepers and literal Neo-Nazis sing his praises, and now “Wayward” puts new focus on this in a post January 6 world. It’s all a bit on the nose at times, but that doesn’t make it any less resonant. Sure, the AI run amok themes were also scary, but that was more on the Sci-Fi side of things so it didn’t catch my anxiety as much as this all did. Maybe give it a few years.

But what I love about Wendig’s voice is that even through all this violence, trauma, sadness, and raw devastation, there is always hope. Hope through humor. Hope through love between family and friends. Hope that some places can get through a terrible thing like White Mask through their effort and community strength (I loved the idea of different parts of the world faring better based on factors ranging from environment to cultural aspects). Hope that no matter how bad things get, they can be addressed and salvaged. It’s hard to remember that hope is there, at times. But Wendig reminds us throughout the narrative, and I really liked that.

“Wayward” is a solid follow up to an end of world story that looks at what could come next. Wendig taps into a lot of modern anxieties and fears, but he also knows how to keep the reader hopeful. We need that sometimes.

Rating 8: A melancholy and suspenseful but ultimately hopeful follow up to an apocalypse book that now feels a bit too real, “Wayward” brings us back to Ouray and examines what happens after the world as we know it ends.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Wayward” is included on the Goodreads list “Hugo 2023 Eligible Novels”.

Book Club Review: “In a Midnight Wood”

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

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing book club running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “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: “In a Midnight Wood” by Ellen Hart

Publishing Info: Minotaur Books, September 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

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

Book Bingo Prompt: A cozy mystery.

Book Description: Beloved heroine Jane Lawless finds that some secrets don’t stay buried forever in Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster Ellen Hart’s In a Midnight Wood, the 27th mystery in this cultishly popular series.

Minnesota private investigator Jane Lawless is headed to the small town of Castle Lake for a little getaway. She and Cordelia plan to visit an old friend, participate in an arts festival, and look into a cold case that has recently come on Jane’s radar–thanks to a podcast Jane is now involved in which looks into Minnesota cold cases.

In Castle Lake, a high school senior named Sam went missing in 1999. Everyone thought he ran away, though the town rumor mill has always claimed the father killed him. In present day, within a week of his 20th high school reunion, Sam’s remains are found. People who knew Sam, and those around him, will be in town for the much anticipated reunion. It’s up to Jane to sort friend from foe, before it’s too late.

Kate’s Thoughts

Outside of the “Tita Rosie Kitchen Mysteries”, I don’t really do many ‘cozy mysteries’ when it comes to the litany of mystery sub genres. I’ve dabbled here and there, but it’s not really my thing. But Book Club is always making me challenge myself, and when it was a cozy mystery prompt, I went in with an open mind. Oddly enough, even though I’ve worked for multiple public library systems in Minnesota, I had never heard of local author Ellen Hart or her character Jane Lawless, so “In a Midnight Wood” was completely new to me as a title and series. I had no idea what to expect in terms of specifics, but had some preconceived notions based on the sub genre, and I was, mostly correct.

“In a Midnight Wood” has a lot of really charming elements to it. The most obvious are our main character Jane and her ride or die best friend Cordelia. I really enjoyed their friendship and they way they interacted with each other, and I liked that we were getting a story about two aging lesbian best friends who have each other’s backs, but also call each other out on their nonsense. While I was jumping into a series 20+ books in, I still felt like I got to know Jane and Cordelia and who they were as people in spite of the fact I have missed OODLES of backstory. I also, being a Minnesotan, really liked the Minnesota setting in the fictional town of Castle Lake. It just felt like an outstate Minnesota town, with the insular community, the main street area with beloved local businesses, and the descriptions of chain of lakes food specialties, from burger joints to mentions of some favorite local beers (Grain Belt forever!)

On the flip side, the mystery and plot itself was fairly generic and run of the mill. I had a pretty good idea of what was going on, and the beats of twists and red herrings and reveals were fairly easy to spot. It also felt a little out of time in some ways, as the mystery at hand involves people who graduated in 1999, but as adults sound less like elder millennials and a bit older than that. And finally, and this is purely reflective of the choice we as a book club made and not on the book itself, jumping into a long running series twenty plus books in may have been a bit of a mistake. Not one that derailed the experience or anything! But there were definitely references to past characters long gone that seemed meaningful, but were meaningless to me as a reader with no context.

Overall, “In a Midnight Wood” was an entertaining choice for Book Club. I don’t think I’m going to tackle the series as a whole, but it made for a good discussion.

Kate’s Rating 6: I liked Jane and her friend Cordelia, and I loved the Minnesota references and location, but the mystery itself was pretty run of the mill. And jumping into a series 20+ books in was probably a mistake.

Book Club Questions

  1. Have you read any cozy mysteries before this book? If so, how does this one fit the genre and what did you think of it within said genre? If not, do you think you’d read others?
  2. What did you think of the setting that Hart created? Did the town and the people there engage your interest?
  3. This series started in the late 1980s and has been going on ever since. If you haven’t read this series, how do you imagine it has changed as time has gone on, and if you have, what have you noticed about the changes in the characters and their journeys?
  4. Do you think you will continue on in this series, be it going back to the beginning, or picking and choosing plots that sound interesting to you?
  5. Jane has her own true crime podcast. Do you listen to any podcasts, true crime or otherwise?
  6. There are a lot of awesome bits about food in this book. Did any of the foods stand out to you as something you’d want to eat?

Reader’s Advisory

“In a Midnight Wood” isn’t included on any Goodreads lists that I could find, but it would probably fit in on “Small Towns With Secrets”.

Serena’s Review: “The Vermilion Emporium”

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

Book: “The Vermilion Emporium” by Jamie Pacton

Publishing Info: Peachtree Teen, November 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: It was a day for finding things . . .

On the morning Twain, a lonely boy with a knack for danger, discovers a strand of starlight on the cliffs outside Severon, a mysterious curiosity shop appears in town. Meanwhile, Quinta, the ordinary daughter of an extraordinary circus performer, chases rumors of the shop, The Vermilion Emporium, desperate for a way to live up to her mother’s magical legacy.

When Quinta meets Twain outside the Emporium, two things happen: One, Quinta starts to fall for this starlight boy, who uses his charm to hide his scars. Two, they enter the store and discover a book that teaches them how to weave starlight into lace.

Soon, their lace catches the eye of the Casorina, the ruler of Severon. She commissions Quinta and Twain to make her a starlight dress and will reward them handsomely enough to make their dreams come true. However, they can’t sew a dress without more material, and the secret to starlight’s origins has been lost for centuries. As Quinta and Twain search the Emporium for answers, though, they discover the secret might not have been lost—but destroyed. And likely, for good reason.

Review: This book had early marketing that compared it to a mix of “The Radium Girls” and “Howl’s Moving Castle.” And that’s definitely one of those situations where the weirdness of that mixture just adds to the appeal. I mean, what does that even mean? But the book description itself also sounded intriguing and the cover seemed to speak to a sort of historical/fantasy hybrid of sorts. So what did it turn out to be?

Quinta and Twain each feel as if they have hit dead ends. Quinta’s mother often spoke of a future for daughter full of greatness, but looking around her now, Quinta only sees the mundane. For his part, Twain’s hopes of buying him and his brother a new life via passage on a ship out of the city died alongside his brother when he perished in a tragic accident. But when Quinta and Twain find themselves thrown together, privy to a long-lost magical substance, each sees their future opening up before them once again. However, some secrets may have been forgotten for a reason, and Quinta and Twain may be in over their heads.

This was another frustrating read for me, largely because after the first few chapters I was feeling pretty good about the book as a whole. First off, and for me most importantly, the writing seemed solid and engaging, painting a vivid new world full of interesting new magic and sympathetic characters. Twain, especially, with this tragic story of the loss of his brother was a particularly interesting narrator. His story also starts off quickly, jumping the reader right into the action and setting out a path for him to follow early on.

Things began to go down hill when I met the female main character. Quinta seemed interesting enough at first, but quite quickly it began to feel like her entire motivation and drive centered around the prediction her mother made that she would be great. She also seemed overly fixated on the fact that she only let people down and that she was a “one night girl.” Seriously, that last phrase was repeated so many times that I almost got out a note pad and started counting. I get the general type of character that these two things are supposed to be painting, but the repetitive way that Quinta talked about and described herself quickly began to feel unnatural.

And then, the romance. Oh, the romance. Why, instalove, why?? Again, the first few pages of Quinta and Twain’s interactions had me interested. There was some good banter and chemistry, and I was hopeful that that would turn into a solid foundation for an eventual relationship. NOPE! For such a “one night kind of girl” Quinta sure did jump in quickly! Seriously, they were holding hands within pages of meeting, and Quinta was immediately discussing how she didn’t buy into “love at first sight” but man, she was starting to have questions now. It was so rushed and uncomfortable.

After that, I really struggled to connect with anything else in this story. There were never any major conflicts the two characters had to face and very little character growth of any kind was involved. And if I had to hear the phrases “one night girl” or “meant for great things” a single more time…Alas, it was not for me. Perhaps fantasy readers who are not as put off by instalove and looking for lighter fare may enjoy this, but ultimately it felt like a wasted opportunity for a good story.

Rating 6: A promising start broke down fairly quickly and left me struggling to get through this one.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Vermilion Emporium” can be found on this Goodreads list: YA Novels of 2022

Kate’s Review: “American Vampire (Vol. 4)”

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

Book: “American Vampire (Vol.4)” by Scott Snyder, Rafael Albuquerque (Ill.), & Jordi Bernet (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Vertigo, September 2012

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

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

Book Description: American Vampire flashes back to two very distinct points in American history. The first tale comes from the early 1800’s with the “The Beast in the Cave” featuring art by the legendary Jordi Bernet (Torpedo, Jonah Hex). Learn about the original American Vampire, Skinner Sweet, and his involvement in the brutal Indian Wars, and an ancient evil hidden in the heart of the Old West. Plus, more about the man Skinner used to call his best friend – James Book!

The second tale comes straight from 1950s America, where American Vampire is terrorizing the suburbs with hot rods, teenyboppers and fangs! “Death Race” focuses on ferocious new vampire hunter Travis Kidd – but what is his connection to Skinner Sweet? As the story comes to a violent end, a sworn enemy’s identity is finally revealed, and lots of blood is spilled!

Writer Scott Snyder (Batman, Swamp Thing) and artist Rafael Albuquerque bring together even more threads to the complex tapestry that is the world of American Vampire.

Review: Admittedly as I was going about my read through of “American Vampire”, I picked up “Volume 4” and had an ‘I have no memory of this place’ moment. I had vivid recollections of the previous volume, just as I have recollections of what comes next. But this one didn’t stand out in my mind. So I was eager to dive in and remind myself what this volume had to offer. But as I was reading, I realized that there was probably reason I didn’t remember much. “American Vampire (Vol. 4)” is, unfortunately, the weakest part of the story yet.

But as always, let’s start with what I did like, and that was mostly the story “The Nocturnes”. We follow Calvin, one of the Vassals that was sent on the basically doomed Taipan mission during WWII, who we thought was dead, but actually was turned into a vampire when he was accidentally exposed to some of Pearl’s blood. The good news is he’s still working for the Vassals, and this standalone tale is following him and what he’s been up to. Mostly it’s taxonomy for the organization, categorizing different and new vampire subspecies, and in this story it isn’t a mission that has his interest, but a familial one: once he became a vampire he cut all ties to the living world outside of work, and he just wants to see his brother perform in his singing group. Unfortunately it’s in a sundown town, and also unfortunately, there are vampires afoot. I like Calvin as a character, and I liked seeing this exploration of what you have to give up as a Vassal, as those we have met up until now have been pretty solitary anyway. I also liked the way that it explores Jim Crow racism and sundown towns, and Calvin’s Othering because of his skin as well as his undead status. It’s a perspective we haven’t seen yet in the story and I enjoyed it.

BUT, that said, the other arcs in this collection haven’t aged super well from when they were first published. For one, guess who has once again been relegated to the sidelines: Pearl. She is barely in this book. Felicia Book isn’t in it at all. And we are STILL dwelling on Skinner Sweet, and while I KNEW that he wasn’t actually dead, it’s still frustrating that we didn’t get any kind of breather from him as a character who gets a huge friggin’ spotlight. This story takes us back to when he wasn’t yet a vampire, and we find out that he was actually good friends with James Book of all people, and they fought together during the Indian Wars, and oh boy. OH BOY. For one, the very complex and tragic subject matter at hand just doesn’t really sit well with me these days, given how the U.S. Government has consistently participated in a genocide against Indigenous peoples, and having that as a plot point in this story feels pretty grotesque. For another, we get into what is a well meaning story about the actual first American Vampire, an Indigenous woman named Mimiteh who was attacked by colonizer vampires and staked by the Vassals of the Morning Star as a precaution. After rising from the dead she is worshipped and feared by the Apache peoples that the U.S. Government is trying to overwhelm, and it just feels appropriative. It sure doesn’t help that Mimiteh is stark naked in nearly every encounter we see of her, which makes it feel all the more dehumanizing. And here’s a tip, making James Book, one of the pretty clear cut ‘good guys’ of this series, a participant in colonial driven genocide is probably not a good idea if you want him to remain clean nosed (creepy relationship with Felcia’s mother aside). The other story is about a vampire hunter for the Vassals named Travis Kidd, whose family was killed by a vampire and now he’s trying to take all vampires out. I did like some things about this story, namely that Travis kind of has a Charles Starkweather feel to him, in that when we first meet him he is killing his teenage girlfriend’s family, but they are vampires so it’s not the horrific spree that Starkweather had. It’s a wry reference to be sure. But, SURPRISE SURPRISE, do you know who it is that he ultimately wants his revenge against? You guessed it. SKINNER FREAKING SWEET. So we get very little Pearl in this collection, NO Felicia Book, and we get TWO HUGE STORIES WITH SWEET. SERIOUSLY?!

My feelings towards Skinner Sweet, and I MAY BE THE ONLY ONE?! (source)

Okay, so it was a bit of a stumble, but “American Vampire (Vol. 4)” does set up the next arc with a solid cliffhanger. I feel like Pearl and Felicia get more to do next time around, so onwards I go with higher hopes.

Rating 6: It just hasn’t aged super well. Also, while I knew we weren’t done with Skinner Sweet, I REALLY wish we were done with Skinner Sweet. That said, a story following Calvin is pretty good, and I liked some true crime connection and homages.

Reader’s Advisory:

“American Vampire (Vol. 4)” is included on the Goodreads list “Best Horror Comics/Graphic Novels”.

Previously Reviewed:

Serena’s Review: “Cursed”

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

Book: “Cursed” by Marissa Meyer

Publishing Info: Feiwel and Friends, November 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: Adalheid Castle is in chaos.

Following a shocking turn of events, Serilda finds herself ensnared in a deadly game of make-believe with the Erlking, who is determined to propel her deeper into the castle’s lies. Meanwhile, Serilda is determined to work with Gild to help him solve the mystery of his forgotten name and past.

But soon it becomes clear that the Erlking doesn’t only want to use Serilda to bring back his one true love. He also seeks vengeance against the seven gods who have long trapped the Dark Ones behind the veil. If the Erlking succeeds, it could change the mortal realm forever.

Can Serilda find a way to use her storytelling gifts for good—once and for all? And can Serilda and Gild break the spells that tether their spirits to the castle before the Endless Moon finds them truly cursed?

Previously Reviewed: “Gilded”

Review: Back when I reviewed “Princess of Souls,” I went on a mini rant about Macmillan only handing out one ARC per day to each individual during ALA. And back when I reviewed “Gilded” last week, I went on another mini rant against myself for delaying reading this duology. Well, combine those two and you and get the rant where I missed out on an ARC for “Cursed” at ALA because a.) I hadn’t gotten around to reading the first one and b.) they were only handing out one ARC, so I picked “Princess of Souls”…

Man, I wish I had picked his book instead!

Expecting a child and engaged to the evil Erkling, Serilda’s prospects really couldn’t be worse. Add on top of that the fact that her beloved village children are trapped under the Erkling’s curse, and she cannot tell her love and the father of her child, Gild, any of this for fear of tipping off the Erkling to her plans. With the clock ticking on her pregnancy, Serilda is desperate to find a way to save the children, Gild, and her own baby. But as she works to uncover the secret history of the land, she discovers that the Erkling’s game is much greater than she had suspected.

I pretty much read this book immediately after finishing up “Gilded.” I think it really worked being read in this way, as the story picks up immediately after the previous one kicks off. It really could feel like one, longer book. In some ways, I think it was even improved on for being read this way. As, given the way the action of the entire duology is spread out, this book opens on the lull before the story. The previous book set it all up, but this stories opens with Serilda in a fairly impossible situation. Ultimately, as judged on its own, I do think this one struggled a bit more with pacing right off the the bat because of this. As the story continued, there were long swaths of time where very little happened. There were also large changes in scenery and situation that would also feel a bit like they petered out into yet another lull. But, overall, I do think the plotting and pacing work, if they are a bit more jumbled than in the first book.

This is still very much Serilda’s story, and I continued to enjoy her as a main character. I thought the way Meyers handled her pregnancy was interesting (if a bit of a cop out in certain ways), and Serilda’s relationship with the children of her village and the child she will soon bring into the world remains her primary motivation and focus. The romance is, of course, still very sweet. But, if anything, this book reinforced again and again that this is not the relationship at the core of Serilda’s world, as much as she loves Gild. I really liked this. Not only is it refreshing to read about a main character who’s motivational relationship is not yet another romantic interest, but Meyers used this opportunity to continue to build on what was, really, a very bare bones start to Gild and Serilda’s relationship (Serilda even spends time reflecting on whether or not she truly can say she’s “in love” with Gild having only known him for a total of three nights at this point). However, perhaps unsurprising to those familiar with my pet peeves, I did struggle on and off with why Serilda continued to keep so many secrets from Gild. She seemed to be very dismissive of his ability to keep a secret or remain level-headed in front of the Erkling. But…isn’t he the one who’s been successfully dealing with this cruel king for centuries?

The story did take good number of unexpected turns along the way, and I think this really worked. As I said, there were lulls to the story, but every time I began to get the first hints of tedium, Meyers would throw a massive switch into things, and I’d find myself facing almost a completely new story and challenge. I think this worked very well and helped combat some of the pacing issues. I was able to predict a few of these reveals, but the way everything came to light and played out still was surprising and fun. There was one final twist towards the end that I’m still not completely sure makes a lot of sense. But…eh, I could go with it.

This was a very solid conclusion to the duology. I think the pacing does knock it down from a 9 to an 8, for me. But it was still a very solid read and one I greatly enjoyed. Fans of the first book are sure to be pleased with this one (just don’t expect greatly increased Gild/Serilda action though!)

Rating 8: An excellent continuation and conclusion to a unique fairytale retelling, this book (and duology) is sure to please YA fantasy fans!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Cursed” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Epic High Fantasy/Romance/Mythology in 2022 and YA Releases November 2022.

Kate’s Review: “The Vicious Circle”

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

Book: “The Vicious Circle” by Katherine St. John

Publishing Info: William Morrow & Company, September 2022

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

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

Book Description: A perfect paradise? Or a perfect nightmare?

On a river deep in the Mexican jungle stands the colossal villa Xanadu, a wellness center that’s home to The Mandala, an ardent spiritual group devoted to self-help guru Paul Bentzen and his enigmatic wife Kali. But when, mysteriously, Paul suddenly dies, his entire estate–including Xanadu–is left to his estranged niece Sveta, a former model living in New York City.

Shocked and confused, Sveta travels to Mexico to pay her respects. At first, Xanadu seems like a secluded paradise with its tumbling gardens, beautiful people, transcendent vibe, and mesmerizing de-facto leader Kali. But soon the mystical façade wears thin, revealing a group of brainwashed members drunk on false promises of an impossible utopia and a disturbing, dangerous belief system–and leader–guiding them.

As the sinister forces surrounding Sveta become apparent, she realizes, too late, she can’t escape. Frantic and terrified, she discovers her only hope for survival is to put her confidence in the very person she trusts the least.

Review: Thank you to William Morrow & Company for giving me an ARC of this novel!

On that first night of the ALA Annual Conference, there is always a bit of a free for all in the exhibit hall as publishers unleash ARCs of books unto the librarian masses. In the recent times I have gone I always tell myself, ‘be discerning! Don’t grab for the sake of grabbing! You know what books you want, prioritize those!’. And, as one can imagine, that never works, and I end up with many books because panic tells me so. But hey, I’ve found some fun books this way, and that is why I don’t kick myself too hard when I do it. That is how I got “The Vicious Circle” by Katherine St. John: I passed the table, saw the cover, read the back and said to myself ‘IT’S A CULT THRILLER!’ and shoved it in my tote bag. I finally sat down to read it a couple months after the fact, and it was…. a decidedly mixed bag.

In terms of a cult thriller, “The Vicious Circle” is pretty successful if only because it knows what notes to hit and doesn’t stray from it. The details The Mandala pick and choose from a lot of other true life cults; you get a little People’s Temple/Jonestown, you get a little Rajneeshpuram, you get a little NXIVM, with sprinkles of Scientology and Children of God for good measure. It’s a true smorgasbord of cult ideologies, and it was kind of fun for me to be able to be like ‘oh I get that reference’. There is also an effective ‘frog in the pot of boiling water’ pacing as our protagonist Sveta arrives at a compound called Xanadu in the Mexican jungle after getting word that she has inherited a vast fortune from her late uncle Paul. Who just so happened to be an incredibly successful wellness author and icon, influential enough to have a compound called Xanadu in the Mexican jungle. Sveta thinks that it’s going to be easy to settle the estate and everything else with Kali, her uncle Paul’s wife, and then begins to realize that maybe things aren’t what they seem. I always enjoy the ‘oh shit’ moments in a cult thriller, and St. John definitely has many of them coming at a quick pace. It makes for a fun and easy thriller that is, in a way, comforting to a reader who likes these kinds of stories. And I fully realize that ‘comforting’ is a strange word choice given the fact we are talking about a potentially dangerous cult. But it kept me turning the pages to see how it all shook out for Sveta as she goes head to head with the Mandala and its devotees.

I think that some of the more negative aspects are pretty easy traps to fall into in a book like this, mostly because you need them for the story to work if you don’t want to do a lot of difficult literary heavy lifting. The biggest for me is that Sveta feels VERY naive and susceptible to being duped when I’m not quite certain that she would be. I’m not talking about falling for the cult angle, as that isn’t really the issue. It’s more the fact that she has found herself in a very precarious position: isolated in the jungle, newly named as a beneficiary of millions upon millions of dollars, and with a woman who has EVERY reason to want that money, but feels like she can trust said woman. I found it very frustrating that she took everything that Kali said at face value. You met her once for dinner and it was a nice meal. Fine. But your uncle CLEARLY kept her out of his will for a reason, especially since it sounds like his death wasn’t sudden. I understand why the story needs her to be this way, but I kind of needed more reasons for her to be this way. It made Sveta’s motivations feel more there to drive the plot as opposed to trying to make the two work in a cohesive and believable way.

All in all “The Vicious Circle” is entertaining enough and has enough suspense to keep me engaged and interested. It doesn’t really stand out too much from other run of the mill cult thrillers, but as someone who loves a cult thriller that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Rating 6: Pretty standard cult thriller reading. Doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s entertaining enough.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Vicious Circle” isn’t included on many specific Goodreads lists yet, but it would fit in on “Cults and Communes in Fiction”.

Highlights: November 2022

Kate weeps for the end of the Halloween Season, but now we are in November and we are barreling forward towards the winter holidays, where food and family rule and the cold weather in Minnesota starts to close in. Snow is pretty, but snow is also cold. Hopefully we still have some time to wait, and while we do we have some books that we are looking forward to this month!

Serena’s Picks

Book: “Saint” by Adrienne Young

Publication Date: November 29, 2022

Why I’m Interested: I don’t know if I can properly express just how much I hate this cover. Honestly, if I didn’t know that Adrienne Young is an established author with a good number of well-received books under her belt already, I’d glance at this and think it was one of more poorly designed self-published books I’ve seen. That aside, however….this is the prequel to the “Fable” duology and tells the story of her famous father, Saint, and of her mother, a woman who died before Fable’s own story began. I’m really excited to see the love story play out between these two characters. Though I’m a bit hesitant, as it’s always kind of a bummer to read about character who you know are going to hit up against tragedy hard in their future.

Book: “Raven Unveiled” by Grace Draven

Publication Date: November 8, 2022

Why I’m Interested: Grace Draven is another author whom I’ve really enjoyed reading. I’ve gone through a lot of her back catalog over the years, but it has been especially fun reading her “Fallen Empire” trilogy as it’s come out. We’ve seen a lot familiar romantic pairing tropes covered and covered well. And like the first book, this romance is one of my favorites: enemies to lovers! It also features two characters who were introduced in the second book (to varying extents between them) and whose conflict was built into that book. After meeting them there, I was primed with excitement to see how their story would play out here, with Gharek, the late Queen’s “fixer” essentially, chasing after Siora, the woman who used to care for his daughter but whom he now sees as the person who betrayed them. Can’t wait to check this one out!

Book: “Tread of Angels” by Rebecca Roanhorse

Publication Date: November 15, 2022

Why I’m Interested: I’ve really been enjoying this author’s “Between Earthand Sky” series, so she’s become kind of a no-brainer for lists like this. She comes out with a new book? It’ll probably end up here. But this novella also sounds particularly interesting, following the story of a young woman setting out to try and save her sister who is accused of murder. Add in fallen angels, demons, and a strange new world, and this book sounds like just my cup of tea. Not to mention, November is a busy reading month for me; there are so many great upcoming books that I couldn’t fit on this list! That being the case, I’m happy to get my hands on a novella every once in a while.

Kate’s Picks

Book: “White Horse” by Erika T. Wurth

Publication Date: November 1, 2022

Why I’m Interested: You know how much I love a good horror story, especially if there are ghosts involved, and “White Horse” by Erika T. Wurth is getting a lot of hype in the horror community from people I trust. Kari has been perfectly satisfied with her metal music, her horror novel collection, and sitting at the local bar The White Horse a few nights a week. She tries not to think of the mother who left her when she was two days old, or her father’s accident that threw her into a caregiver role. But when her cousin Debbie brings Kari a bracelet that once belonged to her missing mother, Kari starts seeing the woman’s ghost, as well as visions of other, scarier things. Kari is determined to find out what happened to her mom, and to try and stave off whatever monster has come along for the ride.

Book: “Wayward” by Chuck Wendig

Publication Date: November 15, 2022

Why I’m Interested: Back in 2019, Chuck Wendig wrote a pandemic thriller/dystopia story called “Wanderers” in which a fungus based disease took out a huge majority of Earth’s population. And then a year later we were in the midst of an actual real-life pandemic, and while it wasn’t as deadly as White Mask by any means, it still turned the whole world upside down. And now we have the sequel, “Wayward”, and I have to say it’s an achievement of my own anxiety and mental health that I could pick up an 800+ page book about a pandemic raged America. The town of Ouray is home to the former sleepwalkers, Shepherds, and Black Swan, the AI that predicted world’s end. Benji is a well respected member of the community, Shana is awaiting the birth of her child after being in stasis for years, and Matthew is barely hanging on. But then Black Swan starts acting strange, and its followers are becoming more fervent. Soon Ouray doesn’t seem as utopic as it once did. I smell a cult, guys, and that sounds awesome.

Book: “Five Survive” by Holly Jackson

Publication Date: November 29, 2022

Why I’m Interested: I really loved Holly Jackson’s “Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” Trilogy, so it was a no brainer that I absolutely needed to read her next YA thriller novel “Five Survive”. Her stories are so addictive and fun, and this one goes in a whole different direction than what we saw with Pip in that previous series. Six friends are on an RV road trip hoping to meet up with friends for a relaxing and fun vacation. But when the RV’s tires blow, they are completely confused as to what could have happened, since the road looks clear. Then they realize that someone shot them out, and is watching them with a gun. The shooter says that they want a secret that one of them is hiding, and that person had better come clean, or else people will die. Soon the friends start questioning who they really are to each other.

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

Serena’s Review: “The Golden Enclaves”

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

Book: “The Golden Enclaves” by Naomi Novik

Publishing Info: Del Rey Books, September 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

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

Book Description: The one thing you never talk about while you’re in the Scholomance is what you’ll do when you get out. Not even the richest enclaver would tempt fate that way. But it’s all we dream about, the hideously slim chance we’ll survive to make it out the gates and improbably find ourselves with a life ahead of us, a life outside the Scholomance halls.

And now the impossible dream has come true. I’m out, we’re all out–and I didn’t even have to turn into a monstrous dark witch to make it happen. So much for my great-grandmother’s prophecy of doom and destruction. I didn’t kill enclavers, I saved them. Me, and Orion, and our allies. Our graduation plan worked to perfection: we saved everyone and made the world safe for all wizards and brought peace and harmony to all the enclaves of the world.

Ha, only joking! Actually it’s gone all wrong. Someone else has picked up the project of destroying enclaves in my stead, and probably everyone we saved is about to get killed in the brewing enclave war on the horizon. And the first thing I’ve got to do now, having miraculously got out of the Scholomance, is turn straight around and find a way back in.

Previously Reviewed: “A Deadly Education” and “The Last Graduate”

Review: This was probably my most anticipated release for the entire year. My sister was getting married the week it came out, and I forewarned her that I would have limited time to help as I would need to prioritize reading. JK, I didn’t actually do that (though, as she’s also an avid reader and loves this trilogy, she might just have joined me in avoiding wedding work for reading!). So, without any more prelude, let’s get into it!

Things both did and yet so very much did NOT go to plan. Yes, El and her friends managed to save the students of the Scholomance, fill the school with mals, and send it careening off into the void. No, they did not live happily ever after. In one last heroic effort, Orion was trapped and left behind in the Scholomance, doomed to a horrific end at the mercy of the most terrible type of mals there is, a mawmouth. And now a mysterious force is crippling the enclaves, provoking them into suspicion and fear, a hair’s breath away from all-out war with one another. With forces spiraling out of control and only an array of awful choices before her, El must find away to avoid her fate of becoming a world-destroying maleficier.

I was worried about this book in much the same way that I was worried about the seventh “Harry Potter” book when it came out. For one thing, the books that came before were pretty much perfection in my estimation, but the end to a series can really make or break the entire thing, even ruining excellent books that came before. For a second thing, both “Deathly Hollows” and “The Golden Enclaves” abandon the formula and setting that was so central to the series up to this point. The Scholomance was not just a school, it was a character that drove almost all of the story and plot of the first two books. So, without it…would the story hold up? Well, long story short, yes, yes it did!

What I continue to love about this series is how creatively Novik tackles concepts and themes that are very relatable to a modern reader. But under all the magical guild and guise, they’re also presented as completely organic to the story, no one message feeling particularly preachy or heavy-handed. Given the title, it will come as no surprise that much of this story revolves around the Enclaves, the powerful communities that provided shelter from the many dangers facing magical beings. But these communities are incredibly difficult to get into, leading to a very stratified culture between the haves and have-nots. Like the other two books, a large part of this book is taken up by El’s exploration and explanation of how these Enclaves work, many of their secrets being new to not only the reader but El as well. And from there, the book dives into the real meat of the story: where is the line in “the sacrifice of one for the good of the many?”

What I really appreciated in the exploration of this theme throughout the book was how handily Novik avoided coming to any easy, pat explanations. Instead, she meticulously lays out a problem, a world, and the people in that world handling that problem as nuanced and complicated. El must make choices, but these choices do not come with all the feel-good material of a righteous easy path. Instead, her path is full of rage, devastation, and the hard realization that more often than not the world is not made up of monstrous people but of monstrous situations or systems that cause people to make monstrous choices again and again.

I also loved how so many aspects of the first two books were tied up into this one. Not only do we have the prophesy that has hounded El her entire life (that she will become a destroyer of worlds), but there is also the question surrounding Orion and his unique abilities. There were some genuinely shocking reveals in this book. I had the inkling of a guess on one tiny aspect of it, but most of it was a complete surprise and I was there for it.

This book is also much darker and more grim than the previous two entries (not that they were particularly light-hearted, what with all the discussion about child and teen death rates). But from the very first page, El’s journey is one of bare, tortured persistence in the face of horror after horror. Those looking for much in the realm of quirky teenage romance (not a lot to be found before, but at least some) should prepare for a much darker tale than that. However, all of that being said, El, and this book, doggedly strive towards the hopeful, even in the face of horrible odds and terrible choices. I loved how it all came together in the end. And while no one rides off into a utopian sunset, the story felt complete and completely satisfying. Fans of the first two books (as long as you weren’t only in it for the love story) are should to love this book just as I did!

Rating 10: Superb! A perfect landing for what feels like a perfect trilogy full of challenging themes of power, family, and hope.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Golden Enclaves” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Dark Academia and Best Adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy Trilogies.

Kate’s Review: “Effects Vary”

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

Book: “Effects Vary” by Michael Harris Cohen

Publishing Info: Cemetary Gates Media, October 2022

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

Where You Can Get This Book: Amazon

Book Description: Effects Vary features 22 stories of dark fiction and literary horror that explore the shadow side of love, loss, and family. From an aging TV star’s murderous plan to rekindle her glory days, to a father who returns from war forever changed, from human lab rats who die again and again, to a farmer who obeys the dreadful commands of the sky, these stories, four of them award winners, blur the thin line between reality and the darkest reaches of the imagination.

Review: Thank you to Michael Harris Cohen for reaching out an sending me an eARC of this novel!

Halloween season may be over (ugh, it always goes way too fast), but you know me and you know how much I love scary stories. So we aren’t staying away from horror for too long, as today I am taking on “Effects Vary” by Michael Harris Cohen. When this ended up in our inbox, I thought that it was probably about time that I pick up a horror short stories anthology. It has been awhile, after all. And the info I found about it piqued my interest, even though I tend to be a little gun shy about short story collections in general. But the good news is that “Effects Vary” was another positive experience with this format!

The stories in this collection run a real gamut! From different sub genres to different perspective construction to different lengths, the twenty two stories fit together well but all stand on their own in different ways. As always when it comes to short stories, I’ll talk about my favorite three, and then about the collection as a whole.

“Pain Is Your Teacher” : This is one of the shorter stories in the bunch, which is about the length of a drabble (for people who aren’t familiar with fan fiction, that’s a few hundred words at most). A woman writes a farewell letter to her husband as they are settling up their divorce, and as the letter winds down she reveals a last laugh she got upon him after years of abuse. Again, this is a short story, one of the shortest in the collection, but it gets right to the point and goes for the throat almost immediately. I felt like I learned everything I needed to know about Alexander and his nameless soon to be ex wife, and I thought that it was vicious and satisfying in all the right ways.

“Everything Is Forever”: A self proclaimed psychic and mostly charlatan is making an appearance on a TV show and having to explain how one of her recent predictions got things so wrong. As someone who has vivid memories of my nanny watching Sylvia Browne on “Montel”, and as someone who loves a medium story (legitimate or otherwise), I really liked the trajectory this one took. It’s another shorter story in this collection, but even in the limited pages Cohen manages to create a broad narrative and backstory for Joyce the psychic, and creates a tragic circumstance that cuts right to the emotional quick and is absolutely haunting.

“The Ex-Court Painter, Goya, and The Princess”: This one was almost certainly my favorite story in the collection, as it’s unsettling as hell but also has a certain bittersweetness to it. An ex-court painter for Spanish King Charles IV is called back to the palace to paint for the King, even though Goya has taken over. He finds out that the King wants him to paint a portrait of the princess, who as a baby has died tragically shortly after being born. As the painter comes back every year to create a new portrait that imagines how she would have aged, his obsession with the dead princess he has created starts to grow. This one is very creepy, as our ex-court painter becomes more and more fixated on a girl who has been long dead (and who died as an infant no less!), but it also captures grief, regret, and madness in ways that treat more towards melancholy rather than flat out shock or distaste.

The rest of the stories were kind of hit or miss for me, though I do think that there were more hits than misses. Cohen can easily jump from setting to setting and has so many characters and circumstances that all feel well thought out and envisioned, and I thought that all of them did a good job of setting a scene and going on a journey in ways that were quick but satisfying.

If you, reader, are wondering why this has a 7 rating instead of a higher one when I have been generally pretty positive, I will say that there were some ongoing themes in the collection that were really hard for me to deal with, specifically child death. I felt like there was more child death in this collection than I was able to really handle at the time of reading it, as it’s a difficult theme even once in a story. So in a collection of multiple stories that have multiple moments of children dying, it’s probably no surprise that I had a hard time with this. What can I say, I’m unfortunately one of those people that, now that she has a child, is far more sensitive to such things (for examples, I can’t watch Alex Kintner’s death in “Jaws”, and I have to stop watching the opening scene of “Scream” when Casey’s parents come home). This is obviously VERY subjective from reader to reader, so while I had a difficult time dealing with it, another reader may be totally okay with it as a theme in their horror fiction. But it still did have an effect on my reading experience. One could say that effects vary.

You have no idea how proud I was with that little joke. (source)

Overall, “Effects Vary” is an effective and varied collection of dark fantasy and horror tales. I’m sure that most horror fans will find a lot to like here!

Rating 7: A huge array of horror stories for any horror fan, “Effects Vary” is a varied collection of scary tales.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Effects Vary” isn’t on any Goodreads lists as of now, but it would fit in on “Best Horror Short Stories”.

%d bloggers like this: