Kate’s Review: “A History of Wild Places”

Book: “A History of Wild Places” by Shea Ernshaw

Publishing Info: Atria Books, December 2021

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

Book Description: Travis Wren has an unusual talent for locating missing people. Hired by families as a last resort, he requires only a single object to find the person who has vanished. When he takes on the case of Maggie St. James—a well-known author of dark, macabre children’s books—he’s led to a place many believed to be only a legend.

Called Pastoral, this reclusive community was founded in the 1970s by like-minded people searching for a simpler way of life. By all accounts, the commune shouldn’t exist anymore and soon after Travis stumbles upon it… he disappears. Just like Maggie St. James.

Years later, Theo, a lifelong member of Pastoral, discovers Travis’s abandoned truck beyond the border of the community. No one is allowed in or out, not when there’s a risk of bringing a disease—rot—into Pastoral. Unraveling the mystery of what happened reveals secrets that Theo, his wife, Calla, and her sister, Bee, keep from one another. Secrets that prove their perfect, isolated world isn’t as safe as they believed—and that darkness takes many forms.

Hauntingly beautiful, hypnotic, and bewitching, A History of Wild Places is a story about fairy tales, our fear of the dark, and losing yourself within the wilderness of your mind.

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

I read the book “The Wicked Deep” by Shea Ernshaw, and while I thought that a story of three witch sisters who were executed and now have a curse upon the town that wronged them would be my jam, I didn’t really care for it. I didn’t really think about it again, but when I saw the description for “A History of Dark Places”, her adult fiction debut, I was incredibly intrigued by the premise of missing people and a possible forest cult. And boy am I glad I picked this up, because this? This WAS my jam!

“A History of Wild Places” pulled the wool over my eyes and totally tricked me. And I went into it sniffing out the twist and the surprises, which I know probably isn’t the BEST way to go into a novel with twists, but hey, it still managed to take me by surprise. So kudos! Ernshaw balances an elephant in the room mystery with another, incredibly intense mystery, and manages to interconnect them in ways that felt satisfying and that pay off. The first mystery is what happened to missing novelist Maggie St. Clair, as well as the man looking for her Travis Wren. The second mystery has to do with the town that St. Clair and Wren found themselves within, an isolated wilderness commune called Pastoral, as some years after their disappearances, the villagers are cut off from the world due to a plague… or is it? In that storyline we follow the perspectives of married couple Theo and Calla, and Calla’s blind sister Bee, who is in love with Levi, the leader of Pastoral. The comparisons to “The Village” are well earned on many levels, but I felt like this book did a good job of actually pulling off what “The Village” was trying to do. I mean, I knew that something was off, and as Theo, Calla, and Bee all got closer and closer to the secrets of Pastoral, the secrets of evidence of Maggie’s and Travis’s presence, and the secrets that they keep from each other as well, the intensity goes higher and higher until it’s completely through the roof. I found myself charging through a good chunk of the book in one sitting because I needed to know what was going to happen, and if my predictions were right. Side note: they rarely were. Ernshaw pulled almost all of her twists off, and they all felt earned.

I also liked all of the characters. Theo, Calla, and Bee are all well thought out and seeing all of them start to question Pastoral, and start to unlock mysteries and memories, was deeply satisfying. I think that Bee was probably my favorite, as she is intrepid, incredibly caring, and a little bit psychic (a trait that she shares with Travis; this wasn’t really explored as much as it could have been, however, and that’s one of the few qualms I had with this book). As he deeply in love with Pastoral leader Levi, but after Levi makes a decision that supposedly keeps the community safe at the expense of the life of one community member, she starts to question everything about the town, and Levi himself. Ernshaw writes a woman who is devoted to her sister and her community, and whose love for a man is starting to crack apart as she begins to realize that he may not be what he seems to be. It’s a woman who is realizing that she is in a cult, and it’s heartbreaking and a little bit scary, as it becomes clear that she is very possibly in serious danger.

“A History of Wild Places” also has a very dreamy quality to it that makes it feel like a dark fairy tale as much as a bone chilling thriller. We have people who have walked into the woods and seemingly disappeared, we have people with the power of visions and deep empathy, and we have a dark and disturbing wood both in an overlapping narrative of Maggie St. Clair’s “Eloise” books (which we get excerpts from here an there), and in the forest surrounding Pastoral that may contain a deadly disease for those who try and cross its borders. A strange and eerie presence is on the pages of this book, and it worked so well for me that I closed the book and let out a long sigh when I was done. It is such a satisfying tone to go with a creepy cult story with a hint of missing person mystery, and it combines to make something so unique and enjoyable.

“A History of Wild Places” is a great dark fairy tale of a thriller. I’m so glad I decided to try out Ernshaw again, because this one worked SO well for me. It’s a wonderful read for a cold winter’s night.

Rating 9: Strange and dreamy, but unsettling and tense, “A History of Wild Places” is a surprising thriller that kept me guessing.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A History of Wild Places” is included on the Goodreads lists “Cults and Communes in Fiction”, and “2021 Horror Novels Written by Women (Cis and Trans) and Non-Binary Femmes”.

Find “A History of Wild Places” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Highlights: December 2021

As of writing this, we still do not have any snow here in good old Minnesota. By mentioning it, however, I’m sure we’ve cursed it to come soon! However, the holiday cheer is all around and we’re both appreciating the extra lights to help lessen the short days and long nights. Good books also help with that, so here is a list of the ones we’re looking forward to this month!

Serena’s Picks:

Book: “The Liar’s Knot” by M. A. Carrick

Publication Date: December 9, 2021

Why I’m Interested: I really enjoyed last year’s “The Mask of Mirrors.” While there are only three true main characters, each have such a plethora of secret identities that it often felt like much more. Their lives and plots all crisscrossed to the extent that even I had trouble tracking it. Given the title we have for the second book, I’m guessing that all of these secrets may come home to roost for our characters, all of whom are immersed in several layered lies. These are hefty books, full of intrigue and adventure, and I can’t wait to see what awaits me in this latest tome!

Book: “The Excalibur Curse” by Kiersten White

Publication Date: December 7, 2021

Why I’m Interested: I know, I know, I haven’t even read/reviewed the second one in this trilogy! But White has yet to ever let me down, so I still feel confident that I will be eventually finishing off this trilogy with “The Excalibur Curse.” Hopefully sooner rather than later! Honestly, I haven’t even looked at the book description for fear of spoiling myself for book two. That said, there are enough intriguing aspects of this cover alone to have me anxiously placing holds at the library for both the second one and this book. I have a few theories about Guinevere’s past, and this cover featuring her drawing what must be Excalibur itself only have me more curious!

Book: “The Midnight Girls” by Alicia Jasinska

Publication Date: December 28, 2021

Why I’m Interested: “Two girls compete for the heart of a prince.” OUT. “Only to find they may be falling for each other.” Annnnnd I’m back in, baby! Plus, this cover is pretty cool. It’s very “Frozen” but Elsa and Anna aren’t sisters and may be into each other. Plus, dueling sorceresses sounds pretty neat. My December TBR list is looking pretty monstrous at this point, but I hope to get to this one soon!

Kate’s Picks:

Book: “A History of Wild Places” by Shea Ernshaw

Publication Date: December 7, 2021

Why I’m Interested: While the previous Ernshaw book I read didn’t really connect with me, I was immediately interested in her adult fiction debut. I mean, you have a cult, two sisters who are starting to question what is happening in their community, and some missing people! All things I enjoy! When Travis Wren is sent to look for missing author Maggie St. Clair and tracks her to the woods where commune Pastoral resides, he soon disappears into the trees as well. A couple years later, sisters Calla and Bee, and Calla’s husband Theo, start to find evidence of the missing people, as well as the part that community leader Levi may have had to play. But Levi has told the commune that venturing out of the area is dangerous, as a plague has overcome the trees. Or has it? It sounds like it has hints of “The Village” meets some kind of Jonestown creepiness!

Book: “If This Gets Out” by Sophie Gonzales and Cale Dietrich

Publication Date: December 7, 2021

Why I’m Interested: 2021 was the year that I gave romance a try in earnest, looking for any way to add some light fluffy elements to a stressful time to be alive. And while romance isn’t going to be covered by me on this blog (though look for some exceptions this month, as a treat!), I was still eager to read “If This Gets Out” when I first heard of it. Contemporary romance is fun, and if that romance involves two guys in a popular boy band? Oh yes! Ruben and Zach are members of the well adored boy band Saturday, though both are feeling the pressure of the facade they have to uphold. Ruben especially is having a hard time, as he is gay, but is being kept in the closet for the band’s image. And when Ruben and Zach start to realize that their friendship may be more than just friendship, it gets all the more complicated. As someone who loved NKOTB when she was in kindergarten and the Backstreet Boys in middle school, this premise tickles me.

Book: “The Coldest Touch” by Isabel Sterling

Publication Date: December 7, 2021

Why I’m Interested: Okay, take a look at Serena’s description of “The Midnight Girls”, because it’s basically the same kind of deal here. When you say vampire romance, I will almost certainly say HARD PASS these days. But if you take that vampire romance and make it between two ladies, and neither of them are helpless nor broody? Oh that changes EVERYTHING! Elise is a girl who can see the future deaths of anyone she touches, and when she couldn’t save her brother she was desperate to be rid of her gift. But then she meets Claire, a vampire who has been assigned by other paranormal folks to help her harness her powers as a Death Oracle. As they work together to hone Elise’s powers, and perhaps to prevent the upcoming murder of one of Elise’s teachers, they start to grow closer, no matter how dangerous it could be. I MEAN, this is the kind of vampire romance I can get behind.

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

Monthly Marillier: “Raven Flight”

“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: “Raven Flight” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Knopf Books for Young Readers, July 2013

Where Did I Get this Book: own it

Book Description: Neryn has finally found the rebel group at Shadowfell, and now her task is to seek out the elusive Guardians, vital to her training as a Caller. These four powerful beings have been increasingly at odds with human kind, and Neryn must prove her worth to them. She desperately needs their help to use her gift without compromising herself or the cause of overthrowing the evil King Keldec.

Neryn must journey with the tough and steadfast Tali, who looks on Neryn’s love for the double agent Flint as a needless vulnerability. And perhaps it is. What Flint learns from the king will change the battlefield entirely—but in whose favor, no one knows. 

Previously Review: “Shadowfell”

Review: Back when I read this for the first time, I remember being a bit hesitant going into the second book in Marillier’s YA “Shadowfell” trilogy. I had enjoyed the first one for the most part, but there were a few flags (particularly with the romance and some of the heroine’s decision making) that made me nervous to see how this story would continue to unfold over the entire two books left to complete Neryn’s story. Luckily, this book was the breath of fresh air the trilogy needed and went to prove that sometimes the second book is not only NOT the worst in a trilogy but can even help lift the series up beyond its own lackluster start.

Shortly after arriving at Shadowfell, Neryn realizes that it is her destiny to travel beyond its confines in an effort to prove herself capable of wielding the land’s powerful magical forces. To do so, she must convince four magical guardians who have always looked down with much judgement on the foolishness of humans. Travelling alongside her is her companion and warrior friend, Tali. Together, the two must travel to the furthest realms of north, south, east and west in hopes to gain these powerful beings’ blessing and lessons. But will Neryn be strong enough to convince them? And will they, like Tali, see Neryn’s beloved, Flint, as a weakness in her quest to overthrow Keldec?

There were a few things that stood out in my re-read that pointed to why I enjoyed this book so much more than the first. First off, I think the replacement of Flint with Tali as Neryn’s travelling companion works better on many levels. The romance in this trilogy as a whole is probably one of my least favorites of all of Marillier’s many excellent romantic pairings, so frankly, less Flint/Neryn interactions were a win for me. These two need to get their act together, and while they are both better here than in the first book, I still found myself often annoyed with their dramatics.

Tali, on the other hand, instead of highlighting some of Neryn’s more nonsensical moments, spoke the harsh truths that had been missing and had left me eye-rolling my way through the first book. Neryn is still often rather weak-willed and self-focused, all too willing to hesitate and dither over using her powers, more concerned with potentially moral grey areas than with saving the real people before her (or the larger rebel cause as a whole.) Gruff, tough, Tali has no patience for this type of dithering and often lectures Neryn on how Neryn’s Caller abilities are all that give the rebellion a hope of winning and that Neryn will need to harden herself to the fact that people die in wars. Tali was probably my favorite addition to the story. Not only did she say what I was thinking so much of the time, but I always like this type of rough-and-ready character who takes a while to warm up to both the reader and the other characters that surround her.

I also enjoyed the format of this story more than the first. While I like a good journey book as much as the next LOTR fan, “Shadowfell” too often stumbled in its pacing in this area to be successful. “Raven Flight” calls on another favorite fantasy trope: magical tasks. Always love these, and Marillier does an excellent job here. The Guardians we meet are all unique and intriguing, and the challenges they set for Neryn are appropriately grueling. There is one, in particular, that seems to almost break Neryn, and Marillier’s talent as a writer quite deftly portrays the dire straights that Neryn finds herself in.

Overall, I very much enjoyed this second book. It’s quite good on its own, and, honestly, the improvement over the first works to lift it even further in my estimation. I think many fans of Maillier’s work breathed a sigh of relief when this book came out, again reassured that she had not lost her touch.

Rating 8: The de-emphasis on the romance and the addition of the warrior woman Tali greatly increased my enjoyment of this second outing in the “Shadowfell” trilogy.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Raven Flight” is on these Goodreads lists: Best Fantasy Books Under the Radar and Fairy Tale Fantasy with a Touch of Romance.

Find “Raven Flight” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Locke & Key (Vol. 3): Crown of Shadows”

Book: “Locke & Key (Vol. 3): Crown of Shadows” by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodríguez (Ill.)

Publishing Info: IDW Publishing, July 2010

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: The dead plot against the living, the darkness closes in on Keyhouse, and a woman is shattered beyond repair, in the third storyline of the Eisner-nominated series, Locke & Key! Dodge continues his relentless quest to find the key to the black door, and raises an army of shadows to wipe out anyone who might get in his way. Surrounded and outnumbered, the Locke children find themselves fighting a desperate battle, all alone, in a world where the night itself has become their enemy.

Review: I continue to find myself becoming completely immersed in this re-read of “Locke & Key”, Joe Hill’s fantastic dark fantasy horror series. I think that it had been long enough since I read it that I had forgotten some things that have been nice surprises, which is good. But even the things that I have stark memory of are still hitting me where it hurts. I didn’t remember that it’s a slow build up of actual plot progression in favor of character development, and that is made pretty clear in “Crown of Shadows”.

Dodge is making some moves in this book when it comes to trying to get the keys, though it wasn’t as much as I thought it would be. His first big plot point is dealing with the angry ghost of Sam, who is still trapped in Key House and is PRETTY pissed that Dodge manipulated him. The other is his continued quest for the keys. We are about halfway through the series at the end of this, and while Dodge does have some moments of significance here (outside of Sam’s ire), Hill is still taking his time. The biggest development is a Shadow attack on Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode, in which Dodge uses literal shadow creatures to try and find the keys and take out anything, i.e. the Locke Kids, that stand in the way of that. It’s the first significant battle between Dodge and the kids, with Tyler at the helm for the most part, and I was once again enthralled with the directions Hill took this, even though I’d read it before. It’s a BIG battle, but we still don’t really know what Dodge’s end plan is, and why he wants all these keys. Again, I know that we get there, and I know that Hill is biding his time, but it just surprised me that we still haven’t gotten clarification on that, NOR have we found out much more about where Rendell fits into all of this outside of a couple sinister clues. It’s a slow burn. Hill is good at that, but I just wanted a little more clarity right now as I think it’s going to get a bit hectic, if I remember correctly.

But it’s the subplots involving Nina and Kinsey that really stuck chords with me as I re-read “Crown of Shadows”. When I initially read it, I don’t think that Nina’s plight caught my attention as much as it should have, as when I read it this time I was just shattered for her and where she is. She’s still drowning in the trauma that she has endured due to the brutal murder of her husband, as well as the violent rape committed against her during the home invasion, and now that Duncan is off dealing with Brian’s injury she is adrift with her three children, and her dependence on alcohol is far more obvious to them now. Her agony is compounded by the horrible guilt she feels as a mother who can’t give her children the love and support and protection that they need, and that sends her into an even deeper spiral, which leads to more drinking, and it just keeps cycling. Hill always covers this with empathy and care, and it never felt exploitative to me. He just knows how to tell it the right way. But then we get an interesting development involving her daughter Kinsey. When we left Kinsey in the last volume, she had used the Head Key to remove her sense of fear. We now see that playing out in two ways in “Crown of Shadows”. The first is the obvious way: she isn’t fearful of risky or dangerous situations anymore. In this volume Kinsey finds herself in a couple of dangerous situations. The first is the aforementioned shadow attack at the house, in which she is cool as a cucumber and completely unphased, while the second is when she and her new friends get trapped in a cave with rising water. While the other teens are understandably freaking out, Kinsey is casually trying to figure out a solution. She’s also a bit more adventuresome in her interactions with others, no longer insecure about being around other people. But the less obvious path Hill takes her upon has everything to do with Nina and Nina’s emotional spiral: Kinsey has absolutely no problem telling her mother what a fuck up she thinks she is, completely comfortable to unload on her whenever Nina has a bad moment. Hill ties the idea of empathy to fear, at least it seems that way to me, and that is SUCH a fascinating theme to lay out with these two women, with one who is consumed by it and one who has excised it, and how bad both scenarios are.

“Locke and Key (Vol. 3): Crown of Thorns” may have given Dodge just a little more ground in his quest to get the keys, but the lack of key movement gave the Lockes, especially the women, more time to shine. Things have to be looking up for the Lockes soon, right? I mean, I think I remember the answer to that question, but we’ll see when I go on to “Keys to the Kingdom”!

Rating 8: We get some slow plot progression and some dark but well done character development, and “Locke & Key: Crown of Shadows” continues the moving tale of the Locke Family, and those who are after them.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Locke & Key (Vol. 3): Crown of Shadows” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Coming of Age Horror Novels”, and “Graphic Novels That Are Quality”.

Find “Locke & Key (V0l. 3): Crown of Shadows” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed:

Serena’s Review: “Another Beast’s Skin”

Book: “Another Beast’s Skin” by Jessika Grewe Glover

Publishing Info: GenZ Publishing, November 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: When Neysa, a market trader from Los Angeles, rents a cottage on the coast of England, she would never have imagined the secrets she would uncover and a new world beyond this one.

In befriending a family in town, Neysa learns that they are emissaries from a fae realm, charged with keeping guard of the volatile Veil between realms. And the four crystals that kept the Veil secure have gone missing.

In a race to protect the realms, Neysa must learn about the new world she’s been thrust into and uncover the secrets in her blood. Luckily fae guardian Caderyn and his cousin are willing to help Neysa in her quest. But even if they can get the crystals back, there may be great consequences for the future of the fae realm.

Rating 5: I requested this book a while ago from NetGalley, mostly because of the beautiful cover and the promise of a good Fae story. I’ve had a hard time finding one that I really enjoy for quite a while now. Frankly, I’m having a hard time thinking of one I’ve enjoyed more recently than “An Enchantment of Ravens” which I read several years ago now. Alas, this was not to be the one to break that streak.

When Neysa quits her home of Los Angles to spend time in a remote section of England she does it only with the mind to clear her mind and heal her heart after her recent divorce. Quickly, she befriends a local family. But as she grows to know them better, she uncovers mysteries beyond her wildest dreams. Soon enough, she’s drawn into a brewing conflict between two worlds and begins uncovering an untold history of her own past. And while the danger escalates, Neysa begins to realize that her injured heart may be ready to love again.

I knew almost immediately that this book wasn’t going to be it for me. It’s always such a disappointment when this happens. A slow start or an uninteresting leading character can grow and change as a story develops, so while disheartening to start with, I don’t necessarily count the book out with just that. Alas, stilted, poor writing is almost never to be recovered from and this book had it in spades right from the start.

There was an abundance of a “telling” style of writing, with readers bluntly informed how they were meant to feel about certain characters and their relationships. Scenes would jump from one place/time/plot to another with absolutely no transition. Very little attention was given to describing the setting or atmosphere of any particular scene. And the magic system was a garbled mess. At one point, a character sprouts wings and this is never commented on further. Can all Fae do this? How does this even work in what before this point had seemed a fully human body? Obviously, as a reader of fantasy fiction, I’m happy enough to bend the laws of physics, but I do need a bit more effort done to make it feel as if the author hadn’t simply plopped down bullet points of fairies she found from Google.

The pacing was also very off-putting, seeming to crawl at certain points and then jump immediately into the action at others. There is no time devoted to carefully cultivating the relationships between the characters, and the romance suffered most from this. There is a love triangle (sigh) and most frustrating of all, the author resorted to creating situations where her heroine is sexually harassed as a way to create drama and force “romantic gestures” from said love interests. I absolutely hate this tactic, and if I hadn’t been already feeling pretty poorly about the book before, this would have been the final straw.

This book ultimately seemed as if it were in sad need of editing. I don’t like comparing books to fanfiction because I’ve read so many excellent fanfiction stories that have writing as good as if not better *side eyes this book* than actual published works. But that was the comparison that came to mind: lack of effort in world-building, juvenile tactics to build romantic drama, and clunky writing. I always hate writing reviews that are as harsh as this one has been, but I truly did not enjoy this book and was so, so disappointed, especially by the romance.

For those who do enjoy love triangles and Fae stories, this may, may, be something that interests you. But I do think there are better examples out there. Even books like “The Cruel Prince” by Holly Black that I didn’t personally enjoy would be better. At least that one was well written.

Review: A big let down, worst of all falling into terrible tropes of using sexual harassment as a romance-building tool.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Another Beast’s Skin” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on Everything Fae.

Kate’s Review: “You’ll Be the Death of Me”

Book: “You’ll Be the Death of Me” by Karen M. McManus

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, November 2021

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

Book Description: Ivy, Mateo, and Cal used to be close. Now all they have in common is Carlton High and the beginning of a very bad day.

Type A Ivy lost a student council election to the class clown, and now she has to face the school, humiliated. Heartthrob Mateo is burned out–he’s been working two jobs since his family’s business failed. And outsider Cal just got stood up…. again.

So when Cal pulls into campus late for class and runs into Ivy and Mateo, it seems like the perfect opportunity to turn a bad day around. They’ll ditch and go into the city. Just the three of them, like old times. Except they’ve barely left the parking lot before they run out of things to say…Until they spot another Carlton High student skipping school–and follow him to the scene of his own murder. In one chance move, their day turns from dull to deadly. And it’s about to get worse.It turns out Ivy, Mateo, and Cal still have some things in common. They all have a connection to the dead kid. And they’re all hiding something.

Now they’re all wondering–could it be that their chance reconnection wasn’t by chance after all?

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

It’s almost guaranteed by now that whenever Karen M. McManus releases a new book, I’m going to have a helluva fun time reading it. So when I saw that “You’ll Be the Death of Me” was coming out at the end of 2021, I was absolutely hyped. And I am so happy to say that this one MIGHT be my favorite of hers yet. Which is high praise, since I enjoyed all of her previous books. And it’s kind of funny that it’s my favorite, because it has a lot of winks to “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, a movie that I don’t particularly enjoy outside of Cameron and Jeanie. But that said, one of our main characters is basically a Jeanie, so maybe it’s not surprising after all.

Look, if you don’t like Jeanie Bueller, I don’t have time for you. (source)

“You’ll Be The Death of Me” centers on three former friends. The first is Ivy, a high strung Type A overachiever who tries to be the best at everything because she feels her brother is favored over her due to his intelligence. There’s Mateo, a quiet kid who lives with his cousin and his newly out of work mother, who is dealing with a medical condition that is prohibitively expensive in its treatment. And there’s Cal, a wise ass loner who is pining after someone he shouldn’t be. When they spontaneously decide to ditch out of school one day, they stumble upon the dead body of a classmate. On top of that, they all have a connection to the crime, and they all have dark secrets. The question isn’t so much if any of them did it, as we know they didn’t. The question is who did, and what secrets ARE they hiding that could be related. We alternate between first person perspectives of all the characters, and we get into their personalities as well as the complications of their former friendship that kind of fizzled out over the years, as friendships sometimes do. I had a true affection for all of them as we got to know them, and I thought that they were all pretty realistic in some of the choices they made and how they reacted to the situation they were in. I especially liked Ivy, as her desperation to be a high achiever and her insecurities were very relatable. It’s a character type we’ve seen a couple of times in McManus’s books, and I thought that Ivy was the most well rounded version of the trope in both her character strengths and weaknesses. And I thought that the way she portrayed all of them together felt very real, especially as we slowly find out the reasons that they stopped hanging out. Let’s just say it’s all very mundane, but in a good, true to life way.

And as for the mystery and the various reveals, be they connected to the murder or not, I was genuinely surprised and stumped for basically the most of the book! There are some really good twists and turns in this book, and when I thought that I had something figured out, or pegged something for a red herring, I was never quite on point. We get the clues interspersed with insight into how the community, specifically the school community, starts to theorize and start rumors about what happened, and how dangerous that kind of thing can be in terms of misinformation. And the mystery is quite complex, with threads reaching out to other characters that I didn’t expect, and going to some pretty dark places, involving the opioid crisis and grooming. And McManus made these themes fit into the overall story pretty well, and handled them in responsible and empathetic ways. And the best part? There is the possibility of a sequel that’s been set up here. If it doesn’t happen, that’s fine, of course. But I would absolutely read to see what happens next.

“You’ll Be the Death of Me” is supremely entertaining and a good mystery. With winter setting in, add this to the reading pile to get through these upcoming, colder months!

Rating 9: Supremely entertaining and a well crafted mystery with likable characters. McManus is still a titan in the YA thriller community!

Reader’s Advisory:

“You’ll Be the Death of Me” is included on the Goodreads list “YA Suspense/Thriller/Mystery”.

Find “You’ll Be the Death of Me” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Not Just Books: November 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

Movie: “Dune”

It was a rare day when my husband and I looked at each other and realized we an entire afternoon free from children with nothing planned to do. And so ushered in our grand return to theater going and “Dune” was the perfect film to reinforce the additional experience that is seeing a movie on a huge screen with all of the sound effects and ambiance that comes with that. This movie was gorgeous and the use of the sound effects in the theater were particularly effective. I haven’t read the original book or watched the David Lynch adaptation, so I knew only a few basic facts going in. That said, the movie does an excellent job of setting itself up for new viewers while also not dumbing down any of its story. If you have a safe way of doing so, I definitely recommend checking this one out in a theater if you have the opportunity!

Documentary series: “The Last Dance”

This is a bit of an odd one fore me. While I am a pretty big sports fan, basketball and the NBA have always been way, waaaay down on my list of priorities or interests. That said, as someone who grew up in the 90s, there’s no deny the absolute phenomenon that was Michael Jordan on the culture of my childhood. This is a ten part series, so it’s quite a commitment, but it was well worth the time. I knew most of the bullet points of Jordan’s career and life, but this added so much detail to his life and time in the NBA. It also went well beyond Jordan, diving into the experiences of many of the others involved in the Bulls’ historic run in the 90s. Here, there was a lot I didn’t know which threw a lot of new light on just how remarkable that entire time period was. Fans of sports documentaries, especially, should check this one out, though I think it might also be of interest to many who remember Jordan and the Bulls well.

TV Show: “Australian Survivor”

I’ve been pretty disappointed with the current season of U.S. “Survivor.” While there are interesting characters, the game is too bogged down with random twists and advantages to be much fun to watch. Enter: “Australian Survivor.” There are three seasons available on Paramount+ and man, what a refreshing experience they were! The show is largely the same, but it runs over 50 days instead of 39 (29 this season). This leaves it with a lot more emphasis on camp life and the interactions and strategies of the contestants. There are also a much more reasonable number of twists and turns. On top of that, all three of these seasons had fantastic casts. The last two had winners who I think are probably my favorite two winners of ANY “Survivor” season, so that’s really saying something. I definitely recommend it to fans of the show.

Kate’s Picks

Video Game: “Animal Crossing: New Horizons”

While it is true that I highlighted this game back in March of 2020, when it dropped, I’m coming back to it as a non-book highlight this month. I’ve been playing AC:NH since it came out, though it had been far more casually than it had been in the first few months. And then, Nintendo dropped a significant update at the beginning of November! And boy was there a lot to explore! My character’s island has a bunch of new things to toy with, from a coffee shop, to a new island tour involving a boat captain, to a new shopping and services feature where you can get your fortunes told, to my favorite new thing, FARMING AND COOKING! Yes, you can now grow your own crops, something the game kind of had already with fruit trees and pumpkins, but now it’s added more vegetables as well as recipes you can create with the bounty you grow. And given that November saw the start of explosive COVID growth here in Minnesota, having this escape to help soothe my anxiety has been much appreciated.

TV Show: “CSI: Vegas”

Back in high school my family had the TV shows that we would all sit down as a family and watch, specifically “The X-Files” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”. But there were a couple that were uniquely shows that were for me and my Dad to watch together, and one of those was the original “CSI”. He recently told me that they had rebooted the show with new people called “CSI: Vegas”, and when I started it I was immediately a high schooler again, obsessed with this techy (if super unrealistic) procedural involving a crime lab in Las Vegas. As mentioned it’s a new lab team this time around, but we do have extended appearances from Gil Grissom and Sara Sidle, two of the original characters who are now married and helping the lab go through some old cases in order to help exonerate the lab from accusations of malfeasance. I love seeing Gil and Sara, but I also like the new team members. Especially Allie Rajan, a CSI who is determined, sweet, and possibly harboring feelings for a colleague. Sounds a lot like Gil and Sara, to be honest. Hope this show sticks around, because I’m loving it.

Podcast: “National Park After Dark”

I talk a lot on here about how I’m not really an outdoors person, but I do have to make exceptions when it comes to the National Park System. I LOVE OUR NATIONAL PARKS! I’ve been to a handful across the country and hope to visit many more. I also love real life mysteries and true crime stories, so “National Park After Dark” is obviously a podcast that I fell in love with. It’s hosted by National Park enthusiasts Cassie and Danielle, and covers stories of survival, tragedy, and the just plain unexplained in our National Parks. From the Yosemite Killer to haunted trails to a plane crash on Mount Rainier/Tahoma, they cover a lot of interesting stories that I am eating up like popcorn. And I’m adding more and more parks to my list of ‘must sees’. Well, they’re ALL must see, but perhaps bumping a few up in terms of priority.

Serena’s Review: “All of Us Villains”

Book: “All of Us Villains” by Amanda Foody and Chrstine Lynn Herman

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, November 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: The Blood Moon rises. The Blood Veil falls. The Tournament begins.

Every generation, at the coming of the Blood Moon, seven families in the remote city of Ilvernath each name a champion to compete in a tournament to the death.

The prize? Exclusive control over a secret wellspring of high magick, the most powerful resource in the world–one thought long depleted.

This year, thanks to a salacious tell-all book, the seven champions are thrust into worldwide spotlight, granting each of them new information, new means to win, and most importantly: a choice – accept their fate or rewrite their story.

But this is a story that must be penned in blood.

Review: I was late to the game requesting this book. For some reason I wasn’t feeling the cover. That, plus the title. In theory, the title should be good, but I’ve been burned too many times by these morally grey protagonists books where I go in expecting villainous characters and all I get are totally-justified-in-their-actions heroes. And, while this book did largely turn out to be that, I think the fact that I was resigned to that from the start helped. Plus, it was just super well-written and enjoyable!

The world is full of magic but its sources of high magic have all been tapped and drawn by their respective nations. All but one, a secret source that has been passed down to various families for generations. However, for the privilege of wielding this powerful supply, the families must all sacrifice a son or daughter to a battle royale where the only survivor wins access for their family for the next twenty years. But for the first time, this secretive competition has become known to the world and this year’s contestants face a level of scrutiny and pressure that none have known before. With all eyes on them, who will survive?

I really enjoyed this book! Like I said, I really wasn’t sure that I would when I started out. But, it turns out, after more than a decade, I was more than ready for a new “Hunger Games” style story! And really, that’s what this is. There are even powerful objects that drop periodically from the sky that help the contestants. That said, the rest of the set-up is incredibly unique and well thought out. The magic itself, created and directed through the use of spell-rings. The history of the various families who participate in this competition. The effect of the sudden revelation of a new source of high magic to a world that had thought it all run out. Very compelling stuff.

And, on top of all of that, all of the POV characters were interesting and unique. I’m a tough sell on multiple POV stories, as has been well-documented on this blog. All too often, they either all blend together with voices that sound all too similar, or there are one or two particularly strong characters who take over the story, leaving the remaining characters feeling bland in comparison. Here, however, I was equally intrigued by all four main characters. I may have still had a preferences, but I was never disappointed to start a new character’s chapter.

Each of the four had such distinct, personal arcs that had been so well laid out at the start of the book that I was equally invested in each of their stories. We have Briony, the girl who has prepared her entire life for this moment, but when it comes, discovers that her goals may have changed. Isobel, the young woman who has become the face of the competition to the public but whose struggles with her family and her magic leave her on the back foot when the competition begins. Gavin, the young man from a family who has never won and whom no one expects anything from but who push himself beyond the limits of magic to do what he must to survive. And Alistair, the young man from the family most known for its wins and for its villainy. Each were so, so interesting and had stories that seemed to naturally weave in and out of one another’s.

The story was also appropriately dark and graphic when it needed to be. As I mentioned earlier, none of the four were as villainous as the title would imply. But they each did have their moments, and the general set-up of the competition and the world was grim and bloody. There were a number of real surprises where the book “went there” when I didn’t expect it to.

This book was an excellent surprise! I went in expecting little and came out with a front-runner for my “Top 10” list. I definitely recommend this for all fantasy lovers, especially those looking for a book with a compelling cast of characters and a darker take on magic.

Rating 9: A magical “Hunger Games” that delivers on all fronts: excellent characters, a dark world, and exciting fantasy elements.

Reader’s Advisory:

“All of Us Villains” is on these Goodreads lists: Fantasy Frenemies and If You Like ‘Squid Game,’ You Should Read….

Find “All of Us Villains” at the library or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “All These Bodies”

Book: “All These Bodies” by Kendare Blake

Publishing Info: Quill Tree Books, September 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Sixteen bloodless bodies. Two teenagers. One impossible explanation.

Summer 1958—a string of murders plagues the Midwest. The victims are found in their cars and in their homes—even in their beds—their bodies drained, but with no blood anywhere.

September 19- the Carlson family is slaughtered in their Minnesota farmhouse, and the case gets its first lead: 15-year-old Marie Catherine Hale is found at the scene. She is covered in blood from head to toe, and at first she’s mistaken for a survivor. But not a drop of the blood is hers.

Michael Jensen, son of the local sheriff, yearns to become a journalist and escape his small-town. He never imagined that the biggest story in the country would fall into his lap, or that he would be pulled into the investigation, when Marie decides that he is the only one she will confess to. As Marie recounts her version of the story, it falls to Michael to find the truth: What really happened the night that the Carlsons were killed? And how did one girl wind up in the middle of all these bodies?

Review: Back in October I found myself in a super stressful situation. The pipes in our house were continuously backing up, with supposed solutions being trotted out and then falling through, all while my husband was out of town for a week for work. After a third plumbing misadventure led to pipes backing up into even MORE sinks than previously, I eventually packed our daughter up and went to stay with my parents until it could all be sorted out. But since they live near my favorite children’s bookstore, I took an excursion one day to do some book retail therapy, and that was where I saw “All These Bodies” by Kendare Blake on a Halloween display. And that was how a book about a number of murders with bloodless bodies at the forefront was added to a self care regimen. I’d read Blake before, be it in short story form or her book “Anna Dressed in Blood”, and felt that it was high time to dive back in. Bonus: this book takes place in Minnesota, and as a typical Minnesotan I LOVE media that references my home state. And if you combine that with a story that takes influence from Starkweather and Fugate AS WELL AS the Clutter Family Murders, AND THROW IN SOME VAMPIRE LORE TOO?

You betcha I’m interested in that kinda thing. (source)

“All These Bodies” is a horror novel when it comes down to it, but it takes a couple of horror themes and smashes them together. The first is the small town loss of innocence post murder horror theme, one that usually is seen more in thrillers, but if implemented properly can be full on horror. Blake is clearly influenced by two huge American cases from the middle of the 2oth Century that I mentioned above: the murder spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, and the Clutter Family Murders. The first involved a young man and his teenage girlfriend who traveled on the interstates randomly killing people, the second was an entire family killed in their home in the middle of the night by intruders looking for cash. Both completely obliterated the idea that rural America is totally safe from violence at the hands of strangers. Blake captures the absolute fear and disillusionment of Black Deer Falls, Minnesota, as tension builds up and neighbors question all they believed about their safe community. When the only suspect is a teenage girl covered in blood named Marie, our protagonist Michael wants to find out what happened, not only because he’s a budding reporter, but also because he just wants to make sense of something so senseless. Everyone else in town is convinced that Marie is the perpetrator, as are authorities from Nebraska, where other victims were found. Blake does a superb job of creating a rapport between that of a naive teenage boy, and a teenage girl who knows the horrors of the world and what will ultimately become of her, even if she, herself, is a victim of something very, very dark and supernatural in nature. Marie is a combination of creepy in her own right, but also vulnerable and tragic. She knows that she’s going to be the bad guy because of hysteria, because of her gender, and because of her background, even though someone much worse is out there, no matter her role. Because someone has to pay for this, and she fits the bill. It’s eerie and sad, and Blake mastered blurring the lines between potential murderer and potential victim.

And the other horror element is that a vampire is quite possibly the real culprit of all of this, and continues to stalk Black Deer Falls and Michael as he tries to get the truth from Marie. Vampires have been a bit neutered in recent YA stories, and since a lot of iconic vampire lore is so closely tied to sensuality and eroticism it’s hard to be mad about it. But Blake taps into the idea of a vampire being a predator through and through, be it when it comes to feeding on people and draining them of their blood, or manipulating a desperate girl to possibly do unspeakable acts. This vampire is mostly off page in this book, and that just made the tension all the more freaky as the book went on, as unseen threats just give me the willies in a primal way. There is one particular moment in the woods while Michael and a friend are tracking a deer, and Michael starts to get the feeling that it isn’t just the deer being tracked, and let me tell you, it is UNSETTLING AS HELL.

But that is the best thing about “All These Bodies”: the ambiguity of it all. Instead of deciding to be clear cut in her story and what is going on, Blake instead opts to leave some things a bit open ended so the reader has to draw their own conclusions as to what happened to all the bodies drained of blood. Sometimes the need for ambiguity made the story run a bit long, however, and while I like the due diligence of trying to make things grey, there were sometimes that it got repetitive as Michael contemplates if Marie is a monster or a damsel in distress. But that aside, I’m pretty sure I know where I fall in terms of conclusions, but you could make the argument for it to go the other way. Healthy debate in horror is always welcome, and I would love to hear what others think, if you’ve read this!

“All These Bodies” brings bittersweet pathos to a vampire tale, and I think it’s a nice way to explore vampirism and what it symbolizes in a YA setting. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Rating 8: A creepy, ambiguous, and somewhat tragic story about small town innocence lost and predatory men, vampires or not, “All These Bodies” is melancholy and unsettling.

Reader’s Advisory:

“All These Bodies” is included on the Goodreads lists “2021 Horror Releases”, and “2021 YA Horror Written By Women (Cis and Trans) and Non-Binary Femmes”.

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

Serena’s Review: “The Kingdom of Gods”

Book: “The Kingdom of Gods” by N.K. Jemisin

Publishing Info: Orbit, October 2011

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

Book Description: For two thousand years the Arameri family has ruled the world by enslaving the very gods that created mortalkind. Now the gods are free, and the Arameris’ ruthless grip is slipping. Yet they are all that stands between peace and world-spanning, unending war.

Previously Reviewed: “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” and “The Broken Kingdoms”

Review: So, I didn’t let the time between books go nearly as long between this one and “The Broken Kingdoms,” a win! I also managed to get my hands on the audiobook, as I’ve really been enjoying the narration for this series. But I have to say, sadly, this was by far my least enjoyable book in the series.

The book description for this book is so, so poor! Not only does that description barely give any hint as to what’s actually going on in this book, but it doesn’t even tell you who the main character is. Turns out, the main character is Sieh. After seeing himself and the other gods freed and a new god joining their ranks, Sieh has found himself restless of late, unsure where he fits in this new world. Like him, the world itself is still stumbling, and the powerful Arameri family have found themselves in a tough spot. But perhaps, together, Sieh and an unexpected pair of siblings can, once again, change the world.

I was so sad to find myself not enjoying this book! It was almost like the world and characters got away from Jemisin, something that I didn’t think I’d ever say. I think the first mistake was centering the book around Sieh, the child-like god of fun and tricks. This is the kind of character who serves as an excellent side character, dishing out laughs and the necessary unexpected twists that keeps a reader on their toes. But when you make him the main character, these same traits make him a difficult character to root for. His capriciousness and childlike brattiness were less endearing and more frustrating when he’s the head I was in through most of the book. And while the book is seemingly about Sieh growing older, he tended to just grow into teenage angst, a phase I find equally annoying to read as that of the bratty child.

I also felt like the structure of the story suffered. There were time jumps all over the place which, again, left me feeling unstable and unable to fully immerse myself in the world and story. The pacing just felt jolting and like Jemisin wasn’t exactly clear on what her story was actually going to be. Instead, it felt like she had a lot of ideas for progressing the world and the magic system, an end goal that she wanted to land on to finalize the series. But there wasn’t an effective story to get her there, and so we were left with this messy little thing.

I was also disconnected with the romance, an unconventional love triangle. The other characters involved were interesting enough, but the entire thing made me feel uncomfortable at times, and I just was never invested in it in the same way I was with the romances in the first two books.

Jemisin’s writing and way with words were as strong as ever, and I think the endpoint she had in mind for this trilogy was great. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem like she had a story to get her there. Fans of this series might want to check it out just to finish it all up, but for casual fans, I’d say stick to the first two and leave it at that.

Rating 6: A big come-down from the first two books; some characters should just stay side-characters, I think.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Kingdoms of Gods” is on these Goodreads lists: Fantasy That Isn’t Fantastic Straight White Men Doing Epic Things… and Best Fantasy God Type books.

Find “The Kingdom of Gods at the library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!