Serena’s Review: “The Apocalypse Seven”

Book: “The Apocalypse Seven” by Gene Doucette

Publishing Info: John Joseph Adams/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but a whatever.

The whateverpocalypse. That’s what Touré, a twenty-something Cambridge coder, calls it after waking up one morning to find himself seemingly the only person left in the city. Once he finds Robbie and Carol, two equally disoriented Harvard freshmen, he realizes he isn’t alone, but the name sticks: Whateverpocalypse. But it doesn’t explain where everyone went. It doesn’t explain how the city became overgrown with vegetation in the space of a night. Or how wild animals with no fear of humans came to roam the streets.

Add freakish weather to the mix, swings of temperature that spawn tornadoes one minute and snowstorms the next, and it seems things can’t get much weirder. Yet even as a handful of new survivors appear—Paul, a preacher as quick with a gun as a Bible verse; Win, a young professional with a horse; Bethany, a thirteen-year-old juvenile delinquent; and Ananda, an MIT astrophysics adjunct—life in Cambridge, Massachusetts gets stranger and stranger.

The self-styled Apocalypse Seven are tired of questions with no answers. Tired of being hunted by things seen and unseen. Now, armed with curiosity, desperation, a shotgun, and a bow, they become the hunters. And that’s when things truly get weird.  

Review: There was definitely a phase for post-apocalyptic books a few years back. It seemed you couldn’t help but run into about five different ones the moment you stepped foot in a bookstore or library. No, however, the trends have seemed to move on. But that doesn’t mean readers who enjoy the genre have! So I was pleased to see this book pop up and read it straight away. Sadly, it didn’t quite hit the mark for me, though I think the concept was interesting enough.

Overnight, it happens. The world ends, nature runs wild, and people disappear. All but seven random individuals who wake up to find themselves seemingly alone on an almost unrecognizable planet. Vegetation has reclaimed the cities, and animals have climbed back to the top of the food chains. To say nothing about the bizarre weather. Slowly, these seven begin to run into each other, piecing together their own experiences and trying to make sense of their new reality. Where did everyone go? Why were they left behind? And what do they do next?

While this book didn’t really work for me, I did like the essential premise. The fact that the apocalypse happens suddenly, with no warning, and with no obvious explanations. I’ll also note that this is a handy little trick for an author who wants to just get down to the business of writing the immediate aftermath without needing to put much explanation out there. On one hand, this could be seen as lazy. On the other hand, it could leave open the door for an author to really dig into a more action-oriented story with mysteries that can build toward a resolution as the story progresses. Unfortunately, whichever was the original purpose of the choice, I don’t think the author really used it to its best advantage.

Instead of getting a head start on the story, it felt like sixty percent or so of the book itself was preamble. It takes forever for the seven characters to actually meet up and somehow, in a story full of wild animals and strange weather, everything seemed to kind of plod along. Definitely not what you want for a story with the type of stakes that are set up here, something that should lend itself towards quick action and swift pacing.

The story also didn’t seem to want to (or be able to) fully explore the philosophies and themes touched on in the story. Where does humanity go in the face of the loss of most of humankind itself? What role does religion play in one’s individual journey in these circumstances? Do people rise to the occasion or sink under existential hopelessness? There’s a lot of rich material to be explored with this type of book and, indeed, the story touches on many of these themes. However, it does nothing more than just touch on them. In many ways, it read like post-apocalyptic-lite, unable to settle on a lane between light and comedic or deep and thoughtful. Instead, the book seemed to try to both and thus failed at each.

In the end, I felt like this book was more of a good idea than it was an actual read. I’m not sure if the author just wasn’t sure of exactly what he was attempting to accomplish or just wasn’t up to the task, in the end. Those who are really hankering for a post-apocalyptic story might enjoy this. But, especially for those who don’t mind YA, I’d definitely point readers towards “Dustborn” instead.

Rating 6: Ultimately, the book was unable to fully amount to much, resting too hard on the concept itself and not providing enough fleshed-out story to support itself.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Apocalypse Seven” is a newer title, so it isn’t on any Goodreads lists. But it should be on “Best Post-Apocalyptic Fiction.”

Find “The Apocalypse Seven” at your library using WorldCat.

Kate’s Review: “The Lost Village”

Book: “The Lost Village” by Camilla Sten

Publishing Info: Minotaur Books, April 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: The Blair Witch Project meets Midsommar in this brilliantly disturbing thriller from Camilla Sten, an electrifying new voice in suspense.

Documentary filmmaker Alice Lindstedt has been obsessed with the vanishing residents of the old mining town, dubbed “The Lost Village,” since she was a little girl. In 1959, her grandmother’s entire family disappeared in this mysterious tragedy, and ever since, the unanswered questions surrounding the only two people who were left—a woman stoned to death in the town center and an abandoned newborn—have plagued her. She’s gathered a small crew of friends in the remote village to make a film about what really happened. But there will be no turning back.

Not long after they’ve set up camp, mysterious things begin to happen. Equipment is destroyed. People go missing. As doubt breeds fear and their very minds begin to crack, one thing becomes startlingly clear to Alice: They are not alone. They’re looking for the truth… But what if it finds them first?

Review: Awhile back I was perusing the titles on NetGalley, and I kept stumbling upon a book called “The Lost Village” by Camilla Sten. Every time I would see it I’d ask myself ‘why haven’t I looked into that?’, but then I’d look again and the description was the key. You have me at “Blair Witch Project”, but you lose me at “Midsommar” (sacrilege? Maybe. I just didn’t like that movie). But eventually I decided that I needed to give it a go. So I bought it, and as soon as I started it I never should have waited as long as I did.

Me contemplating the time I wasted. I dislike the movie, but love this meme! (source)

“The Lost Village” is a slow burn horror story that (absolutely) has similar elements to “The Blair Witch Project” and “Midsommar”, but stands very well on its own. The story is told through various channels. The first and most prominent follows Alice and her film crew in the modern day, as they start to explore the abandoned village of Silvertjärn. Alice’s grandmother was a resident who had left before the disappearance, and who lost her entire family. Alice is obsessed and determined to make a documentary about the town in hopes of getting answers, but there is tension in her crew due to messy histories and secrets. In this timeline strange things start happening, and the crew slowly starts finding themselves in danger. The second channel follows Elsa, Alice’s great grandmother who is seeing her town slowly become seduced by a new pastor, whose zealotry is manipulating everyone and leading them down a dangerous path. The third is through letters between Elsa’s daughters Margareta and Aina, which slowly shows Aina becoming more and more entranced with the new leader. All of these pieces come together to tell a well thought out horror story that slowly builds the dread and terror. I liked the back and forth through the narrative, as each storyline contained clues about the others, and the ultimate fate of Silvertjärn. The strongest was the modern day perspective, as not only did it have some of the scariest moments, it also had the most interesting characters. Alice is a flawed but interesting protagonist, and her interactions with her compatriots (particularly with Emmy, an ex-friend that Alice harbors some bitter resentment towards) are realistic as the situation turns from intriguing to dire. I found myself invested in them, so when the stakes are raised, the fallout has true weight. Sten makes you care about these characters, and that ultimately amps up the horror aspects.

And let’s talk about the horror aspects. Because they are spot on and very, very disturbing. The more obvious is that of the feeling that the crew is being watched in the abandoned town, and the slow build of paranoia as strange things start to happen, and one of the members of the crew starts acting strange as well. Some of the images that Sten brings forth in the narrative really messed with me in this regard, from descriptions of a corpse on a post to a shadowed silhouette staring towards Alice and her crew in the dark. The other horror, of course, is set firmly in the past storyline, as a town of generally decent people start to form a cultish devotion to a sociopathic con artist who twists religious fervor to suit his own needs. You eventually kind of see where this is all going, knowing that eventually Silvertjärn’s population just vanishes without a trace, but it still made me tense and completely horrified as people fell under his spell and terrible things came about because of it. The horrors of real life are put on perfect display here, and boy oh boy does it pack a wallop.

Fans of horror stories absolutely need to read “The Lost Village”. I cannot, CANNOT wait to see what Camilla Sten comes out with next.

Rating 9: Tense and ultimately horrifying, “The Lost Village” is sure to disturb any avid fans of horror in all the best ways.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Lost Village” is included on the Goodreads lists “Haunting Reads”, and “Books Set in Sweden”.

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

Serena’s Review: “The Wolf and the Woodsman”

Book: “The Wolf and the Woodsman” by Ava Reid

Publishing Info: Del Rey, June 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: In her forest-veiled pagan village, Évike is the only woman without power, making her an outcast clearly abandoned by the gods. The villagers blame her corrupted bloodline—her father was a Yehuli man, one of the much-loathed servants of the fanatical king. When soldiers arrive from the Holy Order of Woodsmen to claim a pagan girl for the king’s blood sacrifice, Évike is betrayed by her fellow villagers and surrendered.

But when monsters attack the Woodsmen and their captive en route, slaughtering everyone but Évike and the cold, one-eyed captain, they have no choice but to rely on each other. Except he’s no ordinary Woodsman—he’s the disgraced prince, Gáspár Bárány, whose father needs pagan magic to consolidate his power. Gáspár fears that his cruelly zealous brother plans to seize the throne and instigate a violent reign that would damn the pagans and the Yehuli alike. As the son of a reviled foreign queen, Gáspár understands what it’s like to be an outcast, and he and Évike make a tenuous pact to stop his brother.

As their mission takes them from the bitter northern tundra to the smog-choked capital, their mutual loathing slowly turns to affection, bound by a shared history of alienation and oppression. However, trust can easily turn to betrayal, and as Évike reconnects with her estranged father and discovers her own hidden magic, she and Gáspár need to decide whose side they’re on, and what they’re willing to give up for a nation that never cared for them at all.

Review: Apparently summer 2021 was the time for all of the publishers to release books with titles/themes derived from “Red Riding Hood.” This is the first of three, yes THREE, books that have something to do with this story and come out within weeks of each other. It’s pretty crazy! This was the first one I picked up, and it definitely started out this run strong.

Growing up in a remote village made up of women who are persecuted for their powers, Evike has grown up as a point of persecution herself for her own lack of power. The daughter of a mother who died when she was young and a father from a different religion and land, Evike has had no place to call her own. But when she’s sacrificed by her own village to be sent to the capitol city as tribute, she finds an unlikely ally in the crown prince, a young man who understands what it means to grow up with your feet in different worlds. Together, they travel to distant corners of the cold, bitter land, attempting to find a magic powerful enough to protect a country that doesn’t want them from the prince’s fanatical brother.

There were a lot of things to like about this book. Strangely, I think one of the things I most appreciated about it was that while the book description could sound very “YA fantasy” (and don’t get me wrong, I still love YA fantasy), the book itself is definitely an adult fantasy novel. Not only are our main characters in their mid-twenties with the life experiences that come along with that, but the story itself was quite dark and brutal at times. The stakes felt appropriately high, and when things went poorly, they went very poorly.

I also enjoyed the seamless merger of pagan beliefs, fairytales (references to Baba Yaga, the fabled firebird, and, of course, the “Red Riding Hood” bit), and the various religions that make up this world. Evike’s village’s background represent pagan beliefs, a belief that is often more centered around feminine power, thus in this story the magical abilities are limited to the women of the village. Evike’s father is Yehuli, a faith and people that clearly represent Judaism, with parallel examples of the type of systemic persecution Jewish people have experienced throughout history, essentially having no land or home of their own and constantly under suspicion where ever they are. The primary religion doesn’t necessarily line up with any one religion, but it does have the general traits of the pitfalls that can fall upon a country when its people begin to only recognize one faith as valid.

I also really enjoyed how the fairytale elements were woven into the story. The monsters were truly scary, and their connections to the more traditional monsters that we think of in fairytales were done in unique, subtle ways that felt clever and interesting. I will say, however, that a few of the portions of the story that dealt with these disparate creatures or events started to feel a bit disjointed from the overall plot. Like, they were almost small, short stories in their own right. I thoroughly enjoyed them, but you could definitely lift a number of them straight out of the book and not even notice. So your appreciation of them really comes down to how much you’re enjoying the main characters and overall style of writing.

Other than some of these extra pieces of story that didn’t necessarily fit in, my only other criticism comes to some of the mid- to late-game decision making of our two main characters. Each seemed at times bizarrely naïve and willing/unwilling to act at strange moments. Evike makes some sense in that she grew up in such a remote location that her ability to evaluate the stakes and situations of the “outside world” could be questionable. But the prince, also, seemed to make strange decisions at times that didn’t really make much sense.

Overall, however, I still enjoyed these two characters, and I particularly appreciated the slow-burn romance that developed between them. There were no short-cuts that got them over the fact that their experiences of life, while similar in some ways, were still miles apart. The end was also very satisfying in that it neatly wrapped up storylines and left our characters in a situation that was pleasing but not perfect. Again, no easy answers to the realities of this world.

Rating 8: Other than a few quibbles regarding pacing and characterization, I really enjoyed this story!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Wolf and the Woodsman” is on these Goodreads lists: Best Upcoming Fantasy Debuts (2021) and Jewish Inspired SFF.

Find “The Wolf and the Woodsman” at the library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “When No One is Watching”

Book: “When No One is Watching” by Alyssa Cole

Publishing Info: William Morrow Paperbacks, September 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: The gentrification of a Brooklyn neighborhood takes on a sinister new meaning…

Sydney Green is Brooklyn born and raised, but her beloved neighborhood seems to change every time she blinks. Condos are sprouting like weeds, FOR SALE signs are popping up overnight, and the neighbors she’s known all her life are disappearing. To hold onto her community’s past and present, Sydney channels her frustration into a walking tour and finds an unlikely and unwanted assistant in one of the new arrivals to the block—her neighbor Theo.

But Sydney and Theo’s deep dive into history quickly becomes a dizzying descent into paranoia and fear. Their neighbors may not have moved to the suburbs after all, and the push to revitalize the community may be more deadly than advertised. When does coincidence become conspiracy? Where do people go when gentrification pushes them out? Can Sydney and Theo trust each other—or themselves—long enough to find out before they too disappear?

Review: While it doesn’t happen often these days, between chores, day to day commitments, and a rambunctious toddler to chase after, there is very little more satisfying, reading wise, than sitting down and reading a book in one go. Being able to consume a book in one sitting can leave my brain a little soupy, but overall I love feeling that engaged with a story, even if I rarely make it happen. When I sat down on a Friday evening with Alyssa Cole’s “When No One is Watching”, I figured I’d probably start it and make may way through it that weekend. What actually happened was that I didn’t put it down until I finished the very last page. So yeah, I guess you could say that this thriller really took me on a ride in all the best ways!

“When No One is Watching” is a suspenseful thriller that uses the genre to make an effective social commentary on the harm and damage that gentrification, corporate greed, and systemic racism has on minority communities, specifically the Black community in Brooklyn. While a lot of people have been comparing it to “Get Out”, I think that a more direct comparison is that of “Vampires vs The Bronx” (though not as funny, but that’s by design). We have two perspectives in this book: Sydney, who is a Black woman who has just moved back to her childhood home after leaving an abusive marriage, and Theo, who is a white man who has just moved into the neighborhood with his white girlfriend Kim (though their relationship is in shambles). Both of them serve their own purposes for the reader besides being two narrative roads. Sydney is experiencing the frustration, anger, and pain that comes with a gentrifying Brooklyn as white people move in, prices go up, and Black residents start to move out for other options (or are they? We’ll get to that). She is also an unreliable narrator as the story starts to have suspense moments, as her former husband was a gaslighting abuser, and now she has anxiety attacks and questions her sanity when seemingly outlandish things start happening. Theo, on the other hand, is the well meaning but clueless and ultimately complicit white guy who doesn’t see himself as a racist, but also has never had to think about what gentrification and White Supremacy do to Black communities, and his own role in those systems. He’s likable enough, and has many lessons to learn as he and Sydney are put together when he volunteers to do the research for her burgeoning Black History of Brooklyn walking tours. But he too has some things from his past that he’s trying to move past, and while Sydney is understandably easily frustrated with his cluelessness, he is also genuine in wanting to learn. Both voices worked well for me, and I was invested in both of them.

In terms of the plot, “When No One Was Watching” has a lot of slow burn build up which I personally liked. I like a steady creep of dread as a story goes on, and as more and more things that just aren’t right keep happening to Sydney, and Theo too, the more suspense I felt until I was ready to break from the tension. Since we have two perspectives, we have two different ways of seeing clues laid out, as well as having a third device of a continuing online conversation on a “Next Door”-like website. As more white businesses and people start to move in, Sydney’s neighbors, some of whom have been there for years, abruptly leave, with rumors of them moving on to other neighborhood after being outpriced, or needing a change of scenery. But the more the story goes on, the more reasons we find to believe that maybe that isn’t really the case. Because no matter how much Sydney doubts her senses, something is very not right. Admittedly, the pacing is a LITTLE stunted, as the slow burns turns into a VERY fast and action heavy finale that feels rushed. But overall, I highly enjoyed the mystery and the big reveal, no matter how bananas some of the reveals felt.

The strongest part of “When No One Is Watching”, however, is the stark social commentary on gentrification, capitalism, and systemic racism in housing in urban settings. White it’s true that this book takes it to conspiracy theory laden extremes, the heart of the problem is very real. Sydney and her Black neighbors have to deal with over-policing, as well as the entitlement of their new white neighbors who deal out micro-aggressions to flat out racist acts. Kim, Theo’s girlfriend, is the main antagonist in this case, as we see a litany of familiar actions from her. Be it complaining about noise, to threatening to call the police on her Black neighbors for any little thing, to using not so coded language when talking about them, she is racist white womanhood at its worst. But we also get to see systemic predatory behavior of real estate companies, to the disparities in healthcare, to the historical racism of Brooklyn in all forms. This book is very much about the dangers of White Supremacy, and as satire it’s biting as well as educational for those who may need to become familiar.

I quite enjoyed “While No One Is Watching”. Fiction can teach readers about very real issues, and this one does that as well as being genuinely thrilling.

Rating 8: The twists and turns are well done and the main characters are likable. The ending is a little bananas, but overall “When No One Is Watching” is a fun, suspenseful read with some good satire and social commentary.

Reader’s Advisory:

“When No One is Watching” is included on the Goodreads lists “Tales of New York City (fiction and nonfiction)”, and “Horror/Thriller Books by Black Authors”.

Find “When No One is Watching” at your library using WorldCat, or or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Highlights: June 2021

The weather is warm, people are out and about, and the days are longer and longer. It sure feels like summertime here in Minnesota! As we slowly keep shifting back to a new normal, where outside is still king and finding things to do in nature are prioritized, we do have a number of books we look forward to reading in our backyards in the nice (hopefully not too hot for Kate) weather! Here are our Highlights for June!

Serena’s Picks

Book: “The Hidden Palace” by Helene Wecker

Publication Date: June 8, 2021

Why I’m Interested: I really loved “The Golem and the Jinni” when I originally read it years ago. I enjoyed it just as much when I picked it for bookclub and re-read it. It was a beautiful meld of historical fiction and fantasy, using its magical elements and characters to touch on themes of immigration, other-ness, and found families. It also definitely read as a stand-alone story, so imagine my surprise when I saw this popped up, a sequel featuring the same main characters as the original story! I’m excited to see what lays in story for our golem and jinni, especially as it seems we will also be revisiting a few of the human characters we met in the first book whose lives were affected by encountering these magical beings.

Book: “For the Wolf” by Hannah Whitten

Publication Date: June 1, 2021

Why I’m Interested: There are three “Red Riding Hood” related books coming out in the next two months. Three! It’s always so funny when trends like this hit, because it seems too coordinated to be chance, but it likely is just that. Either way, as a fan of fairytale re-tellings, this all sounds great to me. “For the Wolf” is the first one coming out (thought not the first on my review schedule because I’m not coordinated enough to manage that!). The story follows Red, a second daughter, a daughter destined to be sacrificed to the Wolf, the powerful warden of the Wilderwood. All of the other second daughters before never returned from their journeys into those dark woods, and Red has no expectation of a happy fate either. But fearing the powerful forces building within her, Red believes the only way to keep her beloved sister safe is to face this eternal banishment, locking herself away from the world. All is not as it seems, however, and Red soon discovers that neither the Wolf nor the Wilderwood are what she or her people have always thought.

Book: “The Wolf and the Woodsman” by Ava Reid

Publication Date: June 8, 2021

Why I’m Interested: And here’s the second one for the month! Like I said before, I’m always game for a good fairytale re-telling, but this one has the added bonus of a super unique and cool cover. Other than the obvious fairytale it’s covering, the story also dives into other Russian fairytales and folklore, following the explorations of Evike and a mysterious Woodsman who is not what he seems as they search for a magic powerful enough to save their country from a cruel leader. The story explores themes of religion, persecution, and the power of the majority over the minority in a conquered nation. I’m really excited to check out this one, too!

Kate’s Picks

Book: “That Weekend” by Kara Thomas

Publication Date: June 21, 2021

Why I’m Interested: I have been waiting not terribly patiently for Kara Thomas to come out with another YA thriller, and the time has finally come! Thomas is one of my must read authors, as her thrillers are always well plotted, addictive, and are filled with dark twists and turns. “That Weekend” sounds like it’s going to continue that grand tradition. When Claire goes on a secret weekend getaway with her best friends Kat and Jesse, she thinks it’s going to be the time of her life. But then she wakes up on the side of a mountain she has no memory of being on, and Kat and Jesse are nowhere to be found. As Claire tries to remember what happened, suspicions about her role in their disappearance starts to turn her world upside down. Thomas is sure to surprise her fans with this book, as she never makes it too easy to figure out what’s going on.

Book: “Malibu Rising” by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Publication Date: June 1, 2021

Why I’m Interested: Full disclosure time! So I read “Malibu Rising” a couple of months ago. And in another act of full disclosure, it’s probably not going to make it on the blog, even though it’s super good, as it’s not one of the genres that I cover. But I can absolutely say that you need to go out and read this book, because it is AWESOME. It follows four adult siblings in 1980s Malibu. The oldest, Nina, is throwing her annual summer beach party at her lavish mansion, though she is in personal turmoil as her marriage is ending. Over the course of the party, secrets are revealed, resentments arise, choices are made, and an invitation to someone most of the siblings don’t want to see sets off a chain of events that ends with disaster. I loved this book. If you liked Reid’s previous book “Daisy Jones & The Six”, definitely get your hands on this one!

Book: “Survive the Night” by Riley Sager

Publication Date: June 29, 2021

Why I’m Interested: Here we have another author whose entire catalog I have really enjoyed! So yeah, I was REALLY excited when I heard that Riley Sager had a new book coming out this summer, “Survive the Night”. Charlie is desperate to get away from her college campus, as her best friend and roommate Maddy was brutally murdered, and Charlie blames herself and hasn’t been coping. When she runs into the affable Josh at the campus ride board, he says that he can drop her off at her grandmother’s on the way out to see his father. But as they start to ride together, Charlie starts to notice things that don’t sit well with her. Is she letting her paranoia and anxiety get the best of her? Or has she found herself in a car with a dangerous killer? Sager always has fun summer reads, and this cat and mouse thriller will almost assuredly suck me in.

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

Monthly Marillier: “Flame of Sevenwaters”

“Monthly Marillier” is a review series that is, essentially, an excuse for me to go back and re-read one of my favorite author’s back catalog. Ever since I first discovered her work over fifteen years ago, Juliet Marillier has been one of my favorite authors. Her stories are the perfect mixture of so many things I love: strong heroines, beautiful romances, fairytale-like magic, and whimsical writing. Even better, Marillier is a prolific author and has regularly put out new books almost once a year since I began following her. I own almost all of them, and most of those I’ve read several times. Tor began re-releasing her original Sevenwaters trilogy, so that’s all the excuse I needed to begin a new series in which I indulge myself in a massive re-read of her books. I’ll be posting a new entry in this series on the first Friday of every month.

Book: “Flame of Sevenwaters” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Roc Hardcover, November 2012

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Maeve, daughter of Lord Sean of Sevenwaters, was badly burned as a child and carries the legacy of that fire in her crippled hands. After ten years she’s returning home, a courageous, forthright woman. But while her body’s scars have healed, her spirit remains fragile, fearing the shadows of her past.
 
Sevenwaters is in turmoil. The fey prince Mac Dara is desperate to see his only son, married to Maeve’s sister, return to the Otherworld. To force Lord Sean’s hand, Mac Dara has caused a party of innocent travelers on the Sevenwaters border to vanish—only to allow their murdered bodies to be found one by one.
 
When Maeve finds a body in a remote part of the woods, she and her brother, Finbar, embark on a journey that could bring about the end of Mac Dara’s reign—or lead to a hideous death. If she is successful, Maeve may open the door to a future she has not dared to believe possible…

Review: After the disappointment that was “Seer of Sevenwaters,” I remember wondering if Marillier should just leave well enough alone and not return again to this series. It was just a dud for me that it even took me a bit to want to pick this one up for the first time when it came out. But thank goodness I did! Not only did Marillier come back strong with this third book in the trilogy, but I think it ended up being my favorite of the three! So I was excited to get to read it again for this re-read, and, not surprisingly, I enjoyed it just as much this second time around.

Though a daughter of Sevenwaters, Maeve has grown up across the sea in the household of her Aunt Liadan and her husband, Bran. There, she learned how to adjust to her new life after suffering terrible burns as a child. With limited mobility, Maeve has found a special connection to the animals around her, especially a magnificent stallion. Eventually, she is called back to Sevenwaters, but she find the house in a state of unrest. The Fae world has crept ever closer, playing dangerous games with travelers through the forest. Soon enough, Maeve, who would like nothing more than to tend to her horse and the two stray dogs she finds in the woods, finds herself getting pulled into a feud that will test her as she’s never been tested before.

There are a few things that made this book stand-out in the last trio in Marillier’s “Sevenwaters” series. First of all, the main character felt refreshingly unique and held her own as an individual among the other leading ladies in this series (some of whom can begin to feel repetitive, with an emphasis on women who enjoy homily tasks but are strong of spirit to the shock of those around them). Maeve’s journey in this book is only the last bit of a path she’s been travelling since before the book starts, and that fact is very felt by the reader. Maeve’s narration focuses a lot on the limitations of the injuries she suffered in a house fire when she was a child. These, of course, include the loss of dexterity in her hands, but also a fear of being pitied by those around her and a lack of trust in her own ability to care for the creatures she loves (her beloved dog was lost in the same fire that burnt her). So much of this book is covering not only the strides that Maeve has already taken to accept and move forward through her struggles, but we also see her confronting her own walls that she has put up to her ongoing recovery. It’s a compelling and new storyline for a heroine in this series.

I also really enjoyed the focus on the animals in Maeve’s life. First, her relationship with the beautiful, but high strung, horse that she travels home to accompany. And secondly with the two dogs that she adopts while living there. The dogs, in particular, are a special relationship and particularly challenging to depict given the layers of feelings that were being worked out on Maeve’s side through these animals. Throughout much of the book, these various animals are the biggest relationships in Maeve’s life and stand in for any other human side characters. So it speaks to Marillier’s strength as a writer that each of the three (horse and two dogs) felt like a fully fleshed out character in its own right.

I also really liked how this book wrapped up the over-arching conflict of this second trilogy. It even did so in a manner that wrapped a few loose ends from the original trilogy, as well. The magical elements were also a bit more creepy in this book, lending a stronger sense of fear and danger to the Otherworld that Maeve eventually has to travel through. Some of the mysteries were, perhaps, a bit easy to spot, but that didn’t make the reveals any less satisfying in the end.

Overall, this was probably either my favorite in the last trilogy or, perhaps, tied with the first one. But it was such a massive improvement on the previous book that I think it often feels like the best in a straight read-through of the trilogy. It’s perhaps the lightest on the romance of the three, but the romantic story that it does have is sweet and works well within the framework of what this story is trying to accomplish. That is, it’s greater focus on Maeve’s own personal journey through reclaiming her life. Fans of the “Sevenwaters” series will surely enjoy this conclusion.

Rating 8: A lovely story of finding your own personal strength with a focus on the beautiful bound to be found between people and their animals.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Flame of Sevenwaters” is on these Goodreads lists: Powerful Female Protagonists and Ancient Ireland: Celtic Mythology and Historical Fiction

Find “Flame of Sevenwaters” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Sandman (Vol.10): The Wake”

Book: “The Sandman (Vol.10): The Wake” by Neil Gaiman, Michael Zulli (Ill.), Jon J. Muth (Ill.), & Charles Vess (Ill).

Publishing Info: Vertigo, 1996

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: When a Dream ends, there is only one thing left to do…

THE WAKE

In which the repercussions of the Death of Lord Morpheus are felt, and, in an epilogue, William Shakespeare learns the price of getting what you want.

This is the tenth and final volume of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, described by author Mikal Gilmore in his introduction as “nothing less than a popular culture masterpiece, and a work that is braver, smarter and more meaningful than just about anything “high culture” has produced during the same period.”

Review: When I’m coming to the end of a series that I’ve spent a lot of time with, I almost always feel melancholy. It’s like saying goodbye for a comfortable friend. The interesting thing about “The Sandman (Vol.10): The Wake” is that we have already reached the crux of the ending of the story, and said goodbye to that friend. After all, at the end of “The Kindly Ones” Morpheus, aka Dream, died. For many stories, that would be the end. But Neil Gaiman knows that true closure means that there is a need for a wake. And that is what this final volume gives us: a moment of goodbye, some ruminations on the memories and the people that Dream has left behind, and the promise of moving on. It’s a volume that serves as an epilogue. And it’s beautiful.

Pretty much my entire being during this final re-read. (source)

As mentioned above, the real climax of the story was in the last volume, and now we get to see the fallout in the form of an actual wake for Dream, attended by not only his siblings, his friends, and other dieties, but also by mortals he encountered throughout the series (though they attend through their dreams, of course). I loved the quiet and gentle tone that this story took as we see those who loved Morpheus mourn and come to terms with his death, the most effective being that of Matthew, his messenger Raven, who is now lost without his master and friend. I haven’t really talked about Matthew in this re-read. He’s always around, ready to provide some insight or a sarcastic remark, but I found his journey to process Dream’s death to be the most bittersweet moment in this volume (well, it may be a tie, but more on that later). But his ambivalence ties into the other aspect of this whole plot point, and that is that, since Dream is Endless, and Endless are ideas and concepts, Dream isn’t really gone. Morpheus is. But now Daniel, Lyta’s son, has transformed into a new version of Dream, as the Endless are, well, Endless. As the other siblings say goodbye to Morpheus, they have to contend with meeting their new sibling, and Daniel!Dream (this is how I’m going to refer to him going forward) has to contend with starting over as someone new, even though he has elements of Morpheus still. It all connects back to the conversation that Morpheus and Delirium had with Destruction in “Brief Lives”, and it all ties up so wonderfully because of it. Daniel!Dream continues on, and nothing ever really ends.

There are two more stories in this volume which both serve as epilogues. The one that the book truly ends on has to do with Shakespeare, as earlier in the series we see the creative relationship and connection he has to Morpheus. But the other one, and the one that I think really works better, involves Hob, Morpheus’s immortal friend whom he meets up with at a pub ever century. Hob’s final bow is him with his current girlfriend, going to a Renaissance Festival, looking at how the life that he literally led at one time has now become re-enacted in modern times. It’s so poignant, knowing what he’s been through, what he’s seen, and seeing him meet up with Death and getting confirmation about Morpheus just feels like the right way for this series to end. I loved this story, as it has all the best things about Hob; his grumpiness, his sarcasm, and his deep love and respect for his friend.

I am so happy that we have “The Wake” to process the end of a truly magnificent series. “The Sandman” is so influential, so engaging and ambitious, and it changed comics as we know them. It doesn’t feel a need to go out in a huge and dramatic fashion, and instead opts for something more bittersweet, and it just fits perfectly. I’ll miss Morpheus. and Delirium, and Death. But luckily, I can always go back and start over again.

Rating 9: A lovely, sad, and hopeful ending to a truly remarkable and transformative series.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Sandman (Vol.10): The Wake” is included on the Goodreads lists “Graphic Novels that Rocked My World”, and “Mythic Fiction Comics”.

Find “The Sandman (Vol.10): The Wake” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed:

Serena’s Review: “Questland”

Book: “Questland” by Carrie Vaughn

Publishing Info: John Joseph Adams/Mariner Books, June 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Dr. Addie Cox is a literature professor living a happy, if sheltered, life in her ivory tower when Harris Lang, the famously eccentric billionaire tech genius, hires her to guide a mercenary strike team to his island retreat off the northwest coast of the United States. Cox is puzzled by their need for her, until she understands what Lang has built. It’s said that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and Lang wanted to prove it. On this distant outpost, he has created an enclave full of fantasy and gaming tropes made real, with magic rings that work via neurotransmitters, invisible cloaks made of nanotech smart fabric, and mythological creatures built from genetic engineering and bionics.

Unfortunately for Lang, the designers and engineers hired to construct his Questland have mutinied. Using an energy field, they’ve cut off any communications and are preventing any approach to the island. Lang must retake control before the U.S. military intervenes. The problem? The mutiny is being led by the project’s chief designer, Dominic Brand, who also happens to be Addie Cox’s ex-boyfriend. It’s up to her to quell the brewing tensions between the tech genius, the armed mercenaries, and her former lover before the island goes up in flames.

Review: This was an impulse read for me based purely on the fact that the description sounded sort of like “Jurassic Park but with magic.” Plus, how often do you get to see a literature professor be the hero of the story? As a literature major myself, not often, I’ll say! The concept altogether seemed just weird enough to work. Unfortunately, for me, it landed a bit flat. Which is the exact opposite of what you want from a story that should be a high octane romp!

Addie’s life, while not particularly thrilling, is stable and predictable. For example, one evening while in her office at work, it is completely predictable to be faced with a student who has not fully thought through their paper idea that sounds suspiciously like an excuse to just play a lot of video games. What is a surprise, however, is to be suddenly whisked away by mysterious players and informed that her unique skillsets have qualified her for a mission. Namely, she’s familiar with stories and an island that has been technically enhanced to play out these stories in real life has gone rogue. Now Addie and a team must venture into the wilds and make contact with Addie’s ex-boyfriend, the brilliant man at the heart of the dysfunctional island.

There were definitely some fun ideas in this book. For fantasy fans, spotting all of the references and similarities to classic fantasy works and tropes made for much of the enjoyment. “Lord of the Rings” got a heavy dose, so that in particular stood out. And the general character beats hit well. Addie is the survivor of a school shooting that left her boyfriend and best friend dead. Her struggles with PTSD have driven her life to a large extent and make her particularly uncomfortable working with the military task force who breach the island alongside her. I really enjoyed watching the mutual respect between these two forces come together, particularly the clear (to the reader, maybe not to Addie) understanding that the military characters had for Addie and how she was tackling a struggle that is so real for many in that field.

Ultimately, however, I struggled to really buy into the scenario at the heart of the book. In many ways, the concept (and goals) are similar to “Ready Player One.” Essentially, the author creates some sort of system that allows for their character and readers to revel in all the best-hits of whatever genre their focusing on. For “Ready Player One,” that was 80s pop culture. For this book, it’s classic fantasy and RPG tropes. However, the concept of the island was hard for me to really buy into. We’re meant to believe it has gone rogue for five months, that a team of military personnel have already died trying to reach it, and that, somehow, this is all still operating in secret and without the knowledge of the government.

From there, the decisions of Addie’s ex-boyfriend and the crew that worked with him were equally hard to understand. Their end goal seemed silly, that somehow cutting off contact to the island would result in them being given control of it from the tech billionaire who owned it and employed them. From a team of people who must be incredibly smart to build the island’s systems in the first place, they seemed remarkably dumb about real-world concepts and consequences. It made it really hard to take them, or their position, seriously.

To be fair, I don’t read a lot of the very small subgenre that is LitRPG. With this book, it seems that the author is attempting to merge that type of storytelling with more classic, and generally approachable, fantasy fare. I’m not sure it’s a success, however. I feel that many LitRPG readers would prefer books that simply went that route more fully, and that classic fantasy readers will struggle to accept the premise as its laid out. If you’re a fan of LitRPG, this might be worth checking out. But it’s a fairly lackluster fantasy novel at its bare bones.

Rating 6: I struggled to believe the basic concept at the heart of the story, and from there, even the best character work wasn’t enough to save it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Questland” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on a list like this Books About Video Games and Virtual Reality.

Find “Questland” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Other Black Girl”

Book: “The Other Black Girl” by Zakiya Dalila Harris

Publishing Info: Atria Books, June 2021

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

Book Description: Get Out meets The Devil Wears Prada in this electric debut about the tension that unfurls when two young Black women meet against the starkly white backdrop of New York City book publishing.

Twenty-six-year-old editorial assistant Nella Rogers is tired of being the only Black employee at Wagner Books. Fed up with the isolation and microaggressions, she’s thrilled when Harlem-born and bred Hazel starts working in the cubicle beside hers. They’ve only just started comparing natural hair care regimens, though, when a string of uncomfortable events elevates Hazel to Office Darling, and Nella is left in the dust.

Then the notes begin to appear on Nella’s desk: LEAVE WAGNER. NOW. It’s hard to believe Hazel is behind these hostile messages. But as Nella starts to spiral and obsess over the sinister forces at play, she soon realizes that there’s a lot more at stake than just her career.

A whip-smart and dynamic thriller and sly social commentary that is perfect for anyone who has ever felt manipulated, threatened, or overlooked in the workplace, The Other Black Girl will keep you on the edge of your seat until the very last twist.

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

Satire and horror go together like cheese and crackers as far as I’m concerned, and I’m always looking for some good commentary in the horror stories that I consume. When I came across “The Other Black Girl” by Zakiya Dalila Harris on my Twitter feed, I was immediately interested. Described as a mix of “Get Out” and “The Devil Wears Prada”, I went to see if I had access to a copy on NetGalley, and downloaded it post haste. I’m always one for workplace drama thrillers, but even more important it’s always great to see more diverse voices have space in genres that can feel very white a lot of the time. And if you’re going to say “Get Out” as a descriptor, well, I’m almost certainly in.

“The Other Black Girl” definitely lives up to the pop culture descriptors, though I would also throw in the horror movie “Bad Hair” as well, as “The Other Black Girl” takes on not only racism and microaggressions, but specifically Misogynoir in a work place that doesn’t think it has a racism problem, and weaponized tokenism. Our main character is Nella, an editorial assistant at the prestigious Wagner publishing house, and is the only Black woman in her department. Her job is exhausting enough on its own, and having to maneuver a work place that is filled with seemingly well intentioned white people who are constantly tossing microaggressions her way just makes it all the more isolating and tiring. Harris does a really good job of establishing the work environment and culture of Wagner, and how it bogs Nella down. Nella is a sympathetic and relatable protagonist, who is really hoping for success at Wagner, but is also insecure in her wants and needs to be accepted by a workplace that doesn’t really give her a chance. From the jump, you understand Nella, and her characterization is drawn in a way that her choices down the line make sense.

So when Hazel is hired on, Nella’s relief and excitement is palpable that she may at least have a companion in this difficult sea to navigate. Of course, nothing is ever that easy, and what seems could be a racist and sexist industry making two Black women feel like they have to be pitted against each other, is actually something far more insidious. What that is, we don’t know, but Harris is more than happy to slowly unpack and reveal darker and more far reaching dangers for Nella, all of it satirizing and critiquing white industries and how they treat their Black employees, and how these power structures can in turn make these employees feel the need to outgun each other, or conform to racist mores in order to succeed. Especially if those employees are women. And while these themes may be taken to outlandish places within this story (I’m holding this all close to the vest, though, as I think you need to go in with little idea of where Harris is going to take you), as satire is works really, really well.

And as a thriller novel, I’d even go so far as to say horror novel, “The Other Black Girl” is completely effective. I was totally sucked in right away, wondering who was trying to intimidate Nella, wondering what Hazel’s motivation was, and wondering how everything connected. Especially since early one, we see that there are other players who are a part of this story, some of whom we don’t know how they connect to Nella’s situation. I loved how Harris slowly established settings, timelines, and players, and then carefully and slowly brought them together. While sometimes the structure could be a little confusing (there were moments where we’d go into an extended flashback in the middle of an action point, which caused a little whiplash), overall I felt that all the pieces fall into place when they need to. On top of that, there is also a lot of humor in these pages, most of which comes from Nella’s close friend Malaika, who is a bit more confident and willing to give Nella some hard truths with wit and sarcasm. All of these things make this book not only a biting social commentary, but also super entertaining and a page turner until the very end.

“The Other Black Girl” is a buzz worthy and propelling horror-thriller that has a lot to say about Misogynoir and racism. If you like satire in your horror like I do, absolutely do not miss this.

Rating 9: A suspenseful an satirical horror-thriller about race, identity, and the workplace, “The Other Black Girl” has bite and hard truths, as well as some genuinely funny moments.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Other Black Girl” is included on the Goodreads lists “Well-Read Black Girl Book Suggestions”, and “Horror/Thriller Books by Black Authors”.

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

Not Just Books: May 2021

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

Serena’s Picks

TV Show: “Victoria”

My love for romantic period pieces is ever-lasting. However, I had been long resisting checking this one out because, well, obviously the ending isn’t super happy. But in a moment of weakness, it being too long since my last period piece indulgence, I finally started it up a few weeks ago. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since! This is a beautiful show full of all the period touches that lovers of this genre look for. Gorgeous costumes! Excellent dialogue! Romance summed up in tension-filled dance sequences! It’s also gotten me down a number of historical rabbit holes as I’ve researched the real-life events the show incorporates. But I’ve still promised myself that I’m going to preview upcoming seasons/episodes so that I can “nope” right on out of there before getting to, you know…that part. Don’t judge me!

Amazon Show: “The World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji”

So, apparently this was a show from super early in the reality tv era, back in the 90s in fact! But these types of extreme races have taken place continuously since then and Amazon wisely read the room on reality competition shows and revived it. I had never heard of adventure racing before this, but man, it’s crazy. Essentially, teams of racers have to cover a massive course and have time limits on reaching certain mileposts along the way. I’m talking hundreds of miles over crazy terrain (hiking, biking, swimming, etc.) covered in a few days on very little sleep. It’s truly insane watching some of these teams go. It was also really interesting seeing teams from around the world and the various cultures and approaches they all brought to the race. If you enjoy reality competition shows, this is definitely one to check out.

Movie: “Prospect”

I’m probably in the huge minority for this opinion but…other than baby Yoda, I didn’t really like “The Mandalorian.” So much so that I haven’t even bothered to watch the second season. Part of my displeasure with it was the absolute waste of Pedro Pascal as the main character. He’s such an excellent actor, and losing the ability to watch his expressive face as he portrays a character is just such a shame. So I was really excited to check out a sci-fi movie where we get to better appreciate his skill! Add to that the intriguing, tension-filled concept of an odd-couple pair trying to escape a dangerous planet in order to catch the last ship going by. The world building was really interesting and both lead performances were phenomenal. Definitely check it out if you enjoy science fiction stories.

Kate’s Picks

TV Show: “The Serpent”

In a moment that feels classic to my mother’s and my relationship, she texted me asking if I was going to watch “The Serpent” on Netflix because it sounded like I’d like it but would be ‘too dark for her’. I immediately looked it up, and on my viewing list it went. Surprisingly to me, I had never heard of French serial killer Charles Sobraj, who murdered backpackers in South Asia along the Hippie Trail. “The Serpent” is a dramatized mini-series about Sobraj, and the Dutch Embassy investigator Herman Knippenberg who is on his trail after two Dutch tourists go missing while in Thailand. Tahar Rahim plays Sobraj with cool malevolence, his demeanor incredibly calm as he does terrible things. But honestly, it was Jenna Coleman who really shined, as she plays Marie-Andree, the wife of Sobraj who is complicit in his crimes after falling madly in love with the killer and the lavish lifestyle he uses to lure in his victims. It’s suspenseful, disturbing, and addictive as we watch Sobraj kill, and Knippenberg pursue.

Film: “Nobody”

I have loved Bob Odenkirk since his time as Saul Goodman on “Breaking Bad”. I’ve also had a not so subtle crush on him since about that time as well, which a few people have informed me is strange. So when the trailer dropped for “Nobody”, in which Odenkirk plays a former hitman and kicks a whole lot of ass and looks good while doing so, I pretty much yelled from the rooftops “WHO’S LAUGHING NOW, HUH?!” In “Nobody”, Odenkirk plays Hutch, a retired ‘auditor’ whose profession had taken out incredibly dangerous people that the Government couldn’t get otherwise. His retirement has made him feel soft and inadequate, and after his house is robbed and he doesn’t act, his frustration gets taken out on bad men with bad connections. Now Hutch has to save his family from an eccentric Russian mobster who loves karaoke. It’s a whole lot of fun, over the top, and Odenkirk looks damn good and puts in a fun performance.

Video Game: “New Pokémon Snap”

If it’s a new Pokémon game, I’m going to be on board, as relaxation and cuteness are two things that I like to indulge in from time to time. And this past month I was dealing with some frustrating medical issues (nothing dangerous, just inconvenient) that made me really want to be able to relax and relieve any kind of tension I was feeling. So I got myself “New Pokémon Snap”! Like the original game on the N64, the basic premise is that you go around taking pictures of Pokémon, and the better or more interesting the shot, the more points you get. Given that the original game only had the original 150, and this new game has ALL of them up until this point, this has a lot of potential for novelty (especially since I am not as familiar with a good chunk of the newer Pokes). It’s cute and chill and low stakes, and I love taking pictures of all these cute critters!