Serena’s Review: “The Light of the Midnight Stars”

Book: “The Light of Midnight Stars” by Rena Rossner

Publishing Info: Redhook, April 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher!

Book Description: Deep in the Hungarian woods, the sacred magic of King Solomon lives on in his descendants. Gathering under the midnight stars, they pray, sing and perform small miracles – and none are more gifted than the great Rabbi Isaac and his three daughters. Each one is blessed with a unique talent – whether it be coaxing plants to grow, or predicting the future by reading the path of the stars.

When a fateful decision to help an outsider ends in an accusation of witchcraft, fire blazes through their village. Rabbi Isaac and his family are forced to flee, to abandon their magic and settle into a new way of life. But a dark fog is making its way across Europe and will, in the end, reach even those who thought they could run from it. Each of the sisters will have to make a choice – and change the future of their family forever.

Review: I really enjoyed the first book by this author I read. It was a similar tale of sisterhood, fairytale-like magic, all couched around the persecution the Jewish people have faced throughout history. On the surface, this book looks like it could be almost the exact same story, only add one more sister to the bunch. Am I complaining about that? Heck no!

Each possessed of their own natural, magical talent, three sisters have grown up performing minor miracles beneath the night skies of their forest home deep in Hungary. While wonderous and fantastical, not all view the abilities of the Solomandar sisters as signs of goodness. Instead, their faith and their practices attract dark forces to their once peaceful home. Each must contend with these evil workings intruding on their lives, and each must come to their own path forward, living in a world that is not as good as the believe it can or should be.

There are many things to like about this book. First, as I mentioned, there are a lot of similarities in themes and style of storytelling between this and the first book, so if you enjoyed that story, you probably don’t need to read much further in this review before picking this book up. But this is not a series, and this book does stand on its own with its own unique characters and arcs.

With three sisters’ stories now to tell, I was a bit concerned that I would find myself gravitating towards one more than other, thus rending large chunks of the story as less-interesting. Indeed, even with the ‘The Sisters of the Winter Wood,” I found myself becoming more invested in Liba’s story over Laya’s. Here, I think the author has improved on that and made each of the three sisters compelling in her own right. Each travelled very distinct paths and had to overcome their own specific challenges and experience their own growth. I could probably still pick a favorite if you forced it out of me, but as I don’t have to, I wont!

I also really liked the tone of this book. Last month, I wrote a post on “literary fantasy” and how hard a sub-genre that is to categorize and/or even find to read. But I think this book is a perfect example of a multi-faceted fantasy title that spans genres. Not only would I consider it a “literary fantasy” novel, but it could also be shelved under historical fantasy and fairytale fantasy. These are a lot of subgenres to balance, and I applaud the author for managing all three so well! I particularly enjoyed the intersections of historical events and the fairytale-like style of writing. The author includes an excellent note at the end detailing the various pieces of folklore she pulled from when writing this book. And it’s truly impressive how neatly she has lain these fantasy elements on top of a time and place in real history.

I continue to really enjoy books by this author. Fans of historical fiction who also enjoy a good fairytale are sure to enjoy it. The story is full of magic and wonder, all overlain across a darkly-real threat. It is sure to pull at your heartstrings.

If you’re interested in reading this book, don’t forget to check out the giveaway I’m hosting for an ARC copy!

Rating 8: Dark and beautiful, the woods and starlight feel almost real in and of themselves.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Light of the Midnight Stars” is on these Goodreads lists: Midnight and Historical Fiction 2021.

Find “The Light of the Midnight Stars” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Forest of Stolen Girls”

Book: “The Forest of Stolen Girls” by June Hur

Publishing Info: Feiwel & Friends, April 2021

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

Book Description: After her father vanishes while investigating the disappearance of 13 young women, a teen returns to her secretive hometown to pick up the trail in this second YA historical mystery from the author of The Silence of Bones.

Hwani’s family has never been the same since she and her younger sister went missing and were later found unconscious in the forest, near a gruesome crime scene. The only thing they remember: Their captor wore a painted-white mask. To escape the haunting memories of this incident, the family flees their hometown. Years later, Detective Min—Hwani’s father—learns that thirteen girls have recently disappeared under similar circumstances, and so he returns to their hometown to investigate… only to vanish as well.

Determined to find her father and solve the case that tore their family apart, Hwani returns home to pick up the trail. As she digs into the secrets of the small village—and reconnects with her now estranged sister—Hwani comes to realize that the answer lies within her own buried memories of what happened in the forest all those years ago.

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

Last year I read June Hur’s novel “The Silence of Bones”, and quite enjoyed it. It’s always great to see new Own Voices authors getting new stories out into the world, especially within genres that tend to be associated with whiteness. While I know that there are a myriad of historical mysteries out there from many backgrounds, in my experience and the experiences of people around me the general thoughts on the genre tend to skew towards European or American settings. I want to stretch and challenge this thought in my own reading. So given that “The Silence of Bones” took place in 19th Century Korea, it was a fresh feeling setting when I read it, and I liked that a lot. When I saw that Hur had a new historical myster/thriller coming out called “The Forest of Stolen Girls”, I was massively excited to read it, hoping that it would live up to “The Silence of Bones” in terms of plotting and mystery. And I have great news: it exceeded it.

Let’s start with the time, setting, and characters. Given that Hur really connected with me on all three of these points with “The Silence of Bones”, I had high hopes that same would be said for “The Forest of Stolen Girls”. And this time she went even above and beyond my expectations. Once again we are in historical Korea, though we’ve gone even further back in time to the 15th Century on Jeju Island. The setting is isolated and remote, and for Hwani, who has spent a few years on the mainland it is a jarring return because of culture shifts and also because of the trauma that she suffered there. I loved the descriptions of the island and the nature and wilderness that surrounds the village, and I also loved that Hur did throw in tidbits of historical facts (like the Haenyeo divers, and how on Jeju girls weren’t much less valued than boys because it was the girls who did the diving), about the area. It just felt like a unique setting, one that lends itself very well to the plot, and it was one that I greatly enjoyed. I also really liked our main characters, Hwani and Maewol, two sisters separated by distance and also their shared trauma and the fallout. The strong bond that they share as sisters has been tested and strained because of Hwani being sent to the mainland to live with her aunt, while Maewol was left behind, a decision made by their father. Hwani has the utmost respect for him, while Maewol resents him. Hwani felt constrained by her time on the mainland, while Maewol felt abandoned. Their frustrations and resentments, of course, come out and target each other, but this felt realistic and true to how sometimes sibling relationships can be fraught because of circumstances they can’t always control. I loved seeing both of them have to learn to trust each other again, and have to team up and use each other’s various skills to try and solve what had happened to their father, and what had happened to the local girls.

In terms of the mystery itself, I found it to be very engaging, suspenseful, and well crafted. There are a number of people in their town who could be very believable suspects when it comes to who is taking teenage girls, and Hur makes sure to give believability as well as deniability to almost all of them. The way that the mystery connects to Hwani and Maewol is well done, as is the compounded mystery of what happened to their father when he tried to go solve it once and for all. And on top of all that, for added context Hur adds a historical note at the end of the book that talks about human trafficking, specifically that of girls and women, during this time period in Korea, which really put into perspective that while the years and centuries can keep on going and progress and changes can be made, but some things just keep on happening and one of those things is violent misogyny.

“The Forest of Stolen Girls” is another great historical mystery/thriller from June Hur. If you are looking to shake up your historical fiction content and reading lists, definitely give this one a look! I cannot wait to see what Hur comes out with next.

Rating 8: A dark, suspenseful novel with timeless themes and a unique setting, “The Forest of Stolen Girls” is a solid historical mystery!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Forest of Stolen Girls” is included on the Goodreads lists “Asian Historical Fiction”, and “2021 YA Mysteries and Thrillers”.

Find “The Forest of Stolen Girls” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Giveaway: “The Light of Midnight Stars”

Book: “The Light of Midnight Stars” by Rena Rossner

Publishing Info: Redhook, April 2021

Book Description: Deep in the Hungarian woods, the sacred magic of King Solomon lives on in his descendants. Gathering under the midnight stars, they pray, sing and perform small miracles – and none are more gifted than the great Rabbi Isaac and his three daughters. Each one is blessed with a unique talent – whether it be coaxing plants to grow, or predicting the future by reading the path of the stars.

When a fateful decision to help an outsider ends in an accusation of witchcraft, fire blazes through their village. Rabbi Isaac and his family are forced to flee, to abandon their magic and settle into a new way of life. But a dark fog is making its way across Europe and will, in the end, reach even those who thought they could run from it. Each of the sisters will have to make a choice – and change the future of their family forever.

I really enjoyed Rena Rossner’s first book, “The Sisters of the Winter Wood”, when I read it in 2018. It was a lovely, fairytale-like story featuring two sisters, so pretty much right up my alley! The author also experimented with her style of writing, alternating between the more traditional prose for one sister, and a lyrical, poetic form for the other. Not only did this make the reading experience feel varied and alive, but the choice of each style of writing matched the aspects of each sister: the solid, grounded prose for the sister who can turn into a bear, and the more whimsical, flighty poems for the sister who can turn into a swan.

With that incredible first outing, I was excited to see that the author had another book coming out this spring. And even more excited when I received an ARC in the mail! In many ways this book sounds similar: a Jewish fairytale featuring sisters, this time three. Is this too similar to the first one? Or just more to like? I’ll post my full review this coming Friday. In the meantime, enter to win a copy! This giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and ends on April 28, 2021.

Enter to win!

Kate’s Review: “The Magic Fish”

Book: “The Magic Fish” by Trung Le Nguyen

Publishing Info: Random House Graphic, October 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Tiến loves his family and his friends…but Tiến has a secret he’s been keeping from them, and it might change everything. An amazing YA graphic novel that deals with the complexity of family and how stories can bring us together.

Real life isn’t a fairytale. But Tiến still enjoys reading his favorite stories with his parents from the books he borrows from the local library. It’s hard enough trying to communicate with your parents as a kid, but for Tiến, he doesn’t even have the right words because his parents are struggling with their English. Is there a Vietnamese word for what he’s going through?

Is there a way to tell them he’s gay?

A beautifully illustrated story by Trung Le Nguyen that follows a young boy as he tries to navigate life through fairytales, an instant classic that shows us how we are all connected. The Magic Fish tackles tough subjects in a way that accessible with readers of all ages, and teaches us that no matter what—we can all have our own happy endings.

Review: I will be the first to admit that outside of my re-read of “The Sandman”, I’ve been slacking on the graphic novels as of late. But after dropping the ball on that, I have promised myself that I will try to be better, and make an effort to get some more in the review rotation. And let me tell you, I have a good one to start with, by a local author no less! I hadn’t heard of “The Magic Fish” by Trung Le Nguyen until I saw it pop up on my Goodreads feed, and once I felt comfortable getting physical library books again after our Fall/early Winter surge I requested it. I went in with little knowledge and expectations, and was thoroughly impressed with what I found.

“The Magic Fish” has a number of themes that swirl in its pages, and all of them connect through the importance and power of stories, namely fairy tales. The plot follows Tiến, a middle school boy who is the son of Vietnamese immigrants who left Viet Nam as refugees, and who don’t speak much English. To practice mother Hiền will have Tiến check out fairy tales from the library and they will read them together. We follow Tiến as he starts to accept his sexuality, and as he wonders and worries about what his parents will think when he tells them that he’s gay. This takes place in the 1990s, and while Tiền’s friends seem to be accepting, people at school, and society at large, is not as much, which makes him feel Othered. Meanwhile, Hiền left her home in the aftermath of the Viet Nam War, and hasn’t returned to see her family in many years. She and her husband are doing their best to raise their son in Minnesota, but being away from the home he had to leave is hard, and when she does go back it’s due to a very significant loss. I liked seeing both the themes of identity and immigration being addressed in the ways that they were, through some subtle and bittersweet longings, anxiety, and hope.

And then, the fairy tales. Both Hiền and Tiền bond through and are drawn to fairy tales, which intersperse within the narrative. The first two are various takes on the “Cinderella” story, one being the German “Allerleirauh”, and the other being the Vietnamese “Tấm Cám”. Story one is shared between Hiền and Tiền at their home, while the second is one that Hiền is revisiting while she is back in Vietnam. Both interpretations and presentations play into what we’re seeing in the moment, be it Tiền hiding his true self from his mother, or Hiền being reminded that sometimes fairy tales don’t have the happily ever afters that everyone seeks. But it’s the re-telling of “The Little Mermaid” that I liked the best, another shared between Hiền and Tiền, and subverted in a way that shows that we tell our own stories, and that we get to choose how they end. It’s all so seamless and lovely, and I greatly enjoyed it.

And the artwork. THE ARTWORK. Different stories have different designs, and again, they tie into what is going on in the moment on the surface and beneath it. For example, the three fairy tales all had different aesthetic designs for the art styles (my personal favorite was “Tấm Cám”, influenced by a 1950s Viet Nam French Colonial style), while moments in reality may have different colors depending on time and place. It always works, and all of it is beautiful.

“The Magic Fish” is a charming story that reads and feels like a modern fairy tale. I highly recommend that you read it if you love graphic novels.

Rating 8: A lovely coming of age story with magical moments and gorgeous artwork, “The Magic Fish” is a joyful and emotional tale of family and the power of stories.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Magic Fish” is included on the Goodreads lists “Queer Graphic Novels”, and “Comic Book Club Recommendations”.

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

Diving Into Sub-Genres: Gothic Horror

We each have our own preferred genres of choice. Kate loves horrors and thrillers, really anything that will keep her up at night! And Serena enjoys escaping through hidden doors into realms of magic and adventure. We also read mysteries, historical fiction, graphic novels, etc. etc. And that’s not even counting the multitude of sub-genres contained within each greater genre. In this series, one of us with present a list of our favorites from within a given sub-genre of one of our greater preferred genres.

The term “Gothic” can range across a swath of things. While there are certainly scary Gothic stories out there, it’s not limited to that. I mean, “Wuthering Heights” is absolutely a Gothic novel, but it’s not really horror (though Heathcliffe is scary in other ways). The same can be said about “Jane Eyre”. But for this post I want to focus on the horror side of the genre, with tales that send chills down your spine along with the isolation aspect.

Gothic horror, for me, has to have a few elements. The first is, like any good Gothic novel, general isolation or isolated feelings. I want a protagonist to be in a situation that has them cut off for whatever reason, be it physically or emotionally, or sometimes both! I also want a lingering foreboding threat that is unseen or unknown to the protagonist. Sure, let the mystery of whatever the threat is unfold as the story plays out, but let it be a question. Sweeping romanticism isn’t a must, but it can be fun to spice things up. And for me, while the threat doesn’t always have to be supernatural, it’s kind of a plus! There are plenty of examples in horror literature, from the old school like “Frankenstein” and “The Count of Otranto”, to newer stories like “The Little Stranger” for the 21st century and “The Woman in Black” for the 20th. The choices on this list are some of my personal favorites. They usually deal with an isolated setting, a protagonist that has no idea what they’re getting into/finds themselves struggling with their emotions/mental health/reality, there is some kind of supernatural threat, and there are enough moments of utter dread that unsettled me beyond my time reading it.

Book: “Dracula” by Bram Stoker

I have to start with a classic. Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” is the Godfather of modern vampire lore, its mark stamped firmly not only on vampire stories, but on the horror genre as a whole. While a lot of it takes place in London (as Count Dracula makes his way to England and starts sinking his teeth into the trouble he can get into there), our first moments involve Jonathan Harker going to an isolated Castle in Eastern Europe, only to be held prisoner in this lonely setting by the Count. Along with that, the unknown threat of the Count slowly starts to seep into our group in London, as he preys upon Lucy Westenra in a manor house, torments those around her on the estate with his lurking presence, and has influence over his servant Renfield, who is imprisoned in an insane asylum. This all ends with a showdown in the desolate mountains of Transylvania, the West meets the East. This remains one of my favorite horror novels of all time, and it just oozes Gothic sensibilities.

Book: “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson

Ghosts tend to have a big part to play in Gothic horror, as the haunted house story goes hand in hand with the themes in the sub-genre. One of my favorite traditional haunted house stories is “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson. Four people decide to investigate the notorious Hill House, an isolated mansion that has rumors of ghostly activity and a tragic past. As they stay at and spend their time in the house, strange things begin to happen, and they find themselves affected in different ways. For Nell, a woman with sensitivity and a fragile spirit, she starts to lose her grip in reality, and starts to feel connected to the house, and whatever is living there. Bumps in the night, unreliable characters, a little bit of melodrama, and the theme of decay, be it of an old house or one’s sanity, are abound in this book! Maybe don’t read it late at night. Or maybe DO read it late at night.

Book: “The Shining” by Stephen King

Being the huge Stephen King fan that I am, of course he was going to end up on this list one way or another. But darn it, “The Shining” is absolutely a Gothic horror novel! The Torrance family goes up into the mountains to serve as winter caretakers at an old hotel, knowing that once the snows come they won’t be leaving. That’s your isolation. The father, Jack, is struggling with addiction and anger issues, as well as the fact that he has been violent towards his loved ones in the past. That’s your tenuous grip on keeping it together. Oh, and the place also happens to be haunted by spirits of those who have died there, and the hotel itself may be an evil force hoping to corrupt not only Jack, but psychic little boy Danny. SUPERNATURAL ELEMENTS! And given that this book has so many damn scares, it hits all of my sub-genre points check list. “The Shining” is considered one of King’s masterworks, and the Gothic elements just pump the dread up even more. How do you escape from a homicidal patriarch when you’re snowed in?

Book: “Mexican Gothic” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

I think that it’s important to think outside the sub-genre box a little bit, and that is what Silvia Moreno-Garcia set out to do with her horror novel “Mexican Gothic”. After all, Gothic horror, and the Gothic milieu in general, has been pretty White and Western centric since its inception. But Moreno-Garcia was ready to push the boundaries, and created a Gothic gem in a setting some may not think of for the genre: 1950s Mexico. Noemí is a young woman living a fun party life in Mexico City, but when her newly wed cousin sends her an urgent letter, she rushes to be with her in an isolated mansion in the countryside. The family that lives there is English in origin and runs a mine, and they are both mysterious and alluring. When Noemí decides to stay to see what’s up, she starts to dream of threats, doom, and blood, as if the house itself is an ominous presence. The secrets of the family, the strange atmosphere, and the plucky heroine in over her head all make for a great Gothic tale of terror!

Book: “House of Leaves” by Mark Z. Danielewski

“House of Leaves” is a book that I read probably about ten years ago, and fully intend to revisit at some point. But only when I am willing to take on a huge commitment that is filled with complicated mind fucks, and stories within stories. The book has multiple narratives stacked into each other, with footnotes, deliberate design choices, and imagery to tell a huge and sprawling tale. But at the heart of it is the story of a family that buys a house that is impossibly larger than the blueprints and floorplan would imply. As the family tries to figure out what is going on, the house changes, and things become more and more sinister as they are seemingly unable to escape. But on top of that, there is someone who has stumbled upon the story of this family, who then in turn becomes mentally isolated and completely obsessed with the story. We have layers of isolation and creepiness here, folks, and while I’m not QUITE ready to revisit it, when I do I know it will suck me right back in.

Book: “Daughters Unto Devils” by Amy Lukavics

For a lot of people, the traditional Gothic setting is usually a house or castle in a European moor or forest or something along those lines. And while those are absolutely Gothic, how many people have thought about the vastness of the American prairie? I give you “Daughters Unto Devils”, one of the scariest YA horror novels I’ve read in my entire life. Teenager Amanda Verner and her family move from their home in the mountains to a new abandoned cabin in the prairie (which was completely covered in blood on the walls when they arrived, foreboding to the nth degree). The setting is new, the family has endured recent hardship, and Amanda is hiding the secret that she is pregnant. It slowly becomes clear that something is outside their cabin, something that has been stalking Amanda even before their move. Family secrets? Check. New setting that has cut them off from the rest of the world? Check! A woman coming into her own identity who is starting to question her sanity? Check and mate, my friends. “Daughters Unto Devils” messed me up pretty good, and the Gothic elements in a unique setting really make the book.

What horror books would you categorize as Gothic horror? What are some of your favorites? Share in the comments below!

Serena’s Review: “A Desolation Called Peace”

Book: “A Desolation Called Peace” by Arkady Martine

Publishing Info: Tor Books, March 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher and Edelweiss+!

Book Description: An alien armada lurks on the edges of Teixcalaanli space. No one can communicate with it, no one can destroy it, and Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is running out of options.

In a desperate attempt at diplomacy with the mysterious invaders, the fleet captain has sent for a diplomatic envoy. Now Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass—still reeling from the recent upheaval in the Empire—face the impossible task of trying to communicate with a hostile entity.

Whether they succeed or fail could change the fate of Teixcalaan forever.

Previously Reviewed: “A Memory Called Empire”

Review: I made the mistake of waiting over a year after “A Memory Called Empire” was published before reading it. Not this time! The second I saw the sequel pop up on Edelweiss I requested it. And then I had to diligently wait to read it so that I could cover more recent books in a timely fashion. That took some self-control, let me tell you. But the time finally came, and the payoff was definitely worth it! I think I may have enjoyed this book even more than the first.

The war that Mahit started to save her station has begun. Back home at Lsel Station, however, she thinks her part in this story is over, even with the reminder of what she’s done flying past in the form of Teixcalaan war ships. But soon enough, she’s called back into action. Three Seagrass arrives with a request: join her in making first contact with these strange aliens. With no coherent language and the mysterious ability to appear suddenly, these creatures are nothing like the Teixcalaan Empire has faced before. Maybe a barbarian is the only one who will understand them?

In the way of good second novels, “A Desolation Called Peace” is bigger than “A Memory Called Empire” in pretty much every way. Not only does the story expand outwards from the single city/planet that it was localize within in the first book, but the narrative itself expands to encompass not only Mahit’s storyline, but also Three Seagrass’s and several other new (and familiar) characters. These efforts to broaden the scope of the story result in an expansion that feels leaps and bounds ahead of the first book. And this is particularly impressive given how detailed and precise the world-building was there, already.

The culture, language, history, etc., of Teixcalaan felt fully realized in all of the little ways one doesn’t think about but that stand-out when you really step back to appreciate an author’s work. From its emphasis on poetry and literature in its speech and protocol, to the cloudhook technology that seems a natural extension from where our own smartphones are headed. And here, Martine takes that strong foundation, and blows it up to add not only a more detailed look at Mahit’s home, Lsel Station, but adds in an entire new species/culture of the aliens our main characters are interacting with. All while still exploring the ins and outs of the Empire itself, with a closer look at the different religions within it and at the inner workings (both technological and political) of Teixcalaan’s powerful military. Frankly, it’s incredible.

The expansion of character POVs was also really impactful. I loved Mahit in the first book, but in this one, she was probably the least interesting character. Now, don’t read that wrong! I still loved her and her arc, it’s more to say that the additional characters were just that interesting that the more familiar Mahit faded a bit into the background in comparison. I particularly enjoyed getting to see into Three Seagrass’s mind. She was a huge character in the first book, so getting to see finally through her eyes was amazing. Beyond her own interesting story, I was particularly impressed by the duel views that Mahit and Three Seagrass brought to similar issues. Three Seagrass is clearly not a malicious character, but being in her head was a great opportunity to witness a character recognizing and confronting their own privilege and biases.

Beyond Three Seagrass, we also had chapters from the leader of the military front, a powerful, female general, and from Three Antidote, the young partial clone of the previous emperor who we met in the first book. I won’t go into much regarding either of their stories as there are some spoilers there, but, needless to say at this point, I really loved them both. Perhaps, particularly, Three Antidote’s chapters were impressive for how well they capture the thinking of a young boy approaching maturity but still a child at heart. With all the complicated, fleshed out adults, it can be hard to write a compelling child character alongside them, but Martine perfectly captured the thinking and actions of a kid in Three Antidote’s unique position. Again, incredible.

I also really loved the twisty way the story unfurled, with pieces that you didn’t even realize were pieces falling together in the end to resolve many mysteries all at once and illuminate themes you thought were only brought up as passing anecdotes. This review is already long, but if I let myself, I could probably go on and on. Fans of the first book are sure to love this one, too, and any sci-fi reader who hasn’t jumped on board this train, really needs to!

Rating 10: A masterpiece of a space opera! All the more impressive for expanding so effortlessly from the highs of the first novel.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Desolation Called Peace” is on these Goodreads lists: Adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2021 and 2020/21 Space Opera.

Find “A Desolation Called Peace” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Distant Early Warning”

Book: “Distant Early Warning” by Elizabeth Hirst

Publishing Info: Renaissance, April 2021 (originally published 2014)

Book Description: Canada is in crisis. Global warming has taken hold, and amid the flooding and the super storms, another horror has risen, more devastating than the rest. The dead begin rising from the ground at night, screaming out strange gibberish songs that terrify and entrance anyone who hears them. With people dying and fleeing all around, the north quickly becomes a wild west, without the west.

Felicia “Denny” Dennigan lives far from the crisis, with a good job at the university and a roof over her head, but her life is far from perfect. A perpetual loner, she relies on sporadic visits from her Dad as her only lifeline to friends or family. So, when Dad doesn’t return one fall day, and his dog, Geoff, shows up without him, Denny is concerned for his safety. The last postcard he sent her was from Sudbury, on the edge of the chaos up North…

Denny’s worst fears are confirmed when she sees Dad on TV, dead, and screaming. Desperate to end his suffering, Denny gives up her job, buys supplies, and heads out with Geoff to discover the truth behind her father’s death, but truth always comes with a cost. What Denny discovers in the wilds of Northern Ontario will shatter all of her assumptions about her life, and what lies beyond.

Review: Thank you to Renaissance for sending me an ARC of this book!

It’s been a bit since I delved into a zombie tale, and I don’t know if it’s because I’m zombied out, or if I just haven’t been seeing as many lately. Whatever the case may be, I haven’t been hanging with the undead as of late. But when I was approached by Renaissance to read and review “Distant Early Warning” by Elizabeth Hirst, I was immediately interested, for a couple of reasons. 1) It sounded like a new take on a zombie tale, which I’m always down for, and 2) it’s a story set in the wilds of Canada! As a Minnesotan, I feel a deep kinship with our neighbors to the North, so I absolutely am game for any tale that takes place there. If you got a horror story on top of it, that sounds like a party!

And let me tell you, once international travel is safe again, I intend to go visit! (source)

Overall, I enjoyed about “Distant Early Warning”. I really liked Denny as our main character. For one, I thought that she was wry and funny, and I liked her scrappy spirit and her determination to figure out what happened to her father. She has a lot of relatable moments, and I liked that she is described in ways that feel not really of the norm from what you’d expect from a zombie story heroine. I loved her connection to Geoff, her father’s dog, and I liked seeing her slowly come into her own as she goes on her journey into the wild. And yes, I’m that sucker who liked the slow building relationship between her and Wayne, a man she meets under suspicious circumstances, but someone who she comes to rely upon for companionship (as he too relies upon her). Denny was easy to invest in, and was easy to root for. And the complicated relationship she had with her father is a journey that slowly unfolds and has a lot of pathos to it.

In terms of the zombie story themes, I thought that the Screamers and some of the ways that they functioned were pretty cool and original. They could range from the general menace to more of a boss fight in a video game, but what made it even more intriguing was that (without giving much away) Denny has the skills to counteract them in ways that hasn’t been seen in stories like this before. There are also clear moments of ‘the humans are the real monsters’ within the narrative, and we get the realization that 1) climate change that is man made has really screwed up everything else on top of the whole Screamers thing, and 2) it’s hard to know who you can trust when you stumble upon humans in these lawless areas. The climate change aspect felt pretty unique to me, even if the humans as the real threat has been done many times over in zombie tales. But I also liked the fact that there just kind of had a bit of hopefulness tinging the story as we go forward, from Denny finding strength that she didn’t know she had, to her being able to actually open up to people in face of hardship and loss.

In some ways “Distant Early Warning” keeps to well treaded paths of a zombie tale, but in other ways it has uniqueness to it that I enjoyed. It’s entertaining, has a great heroine, and a cute dog. What more could you want?

Rating 7: An at times unique take on a zombie tale with some mild eco-horror thrown in, “Distant Early Warning” is entertaining as well as hopeful in the face of the unknown.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Distant Early Warning” isn’t on any Goodreads lists as of yet, but I think it would fit in on “Eco Horror Books”, and “Horror Novels Set in Canada”.

Find “Distant Early Warning” on the publisher’s website!

ALSO, before I end this post, I want to share some links to organizations and groups that are collecting donations for Daunte Wright’s family members during this awful time, as well as the community of Brooklyn Center. Daunte Wright should be alive. Black Lives Matter.

Brooklyn Center Mutual Aid

Donations to Chyna, Daunte’s girlfriend and mother of his son, through a local health organization

A GoFundMe Campaign set up by Duante’s family

Emergency Housing Resources for families who live in the apartment buildings across from the police station (as tear gas and flashbangs have been going off right outside their home)

Serena’s Review: “The Bright and the Pale”

Book: “The Bright and the Pale” by Jessica Rubinkowski

Publishing Info: Quill Tree Books, March 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Seventeen-year-old Valeria is one of the only survivors of the freeze, a dark magical hold Knnot Mountain unleashed over her village. Everyone, including her family, is trapped in an unbreakable sheet of ice. Ever since, she’s been on the run from the Czar, who is determined to imprison any who managed to escape. Valeria finds refuge with the Thieves Guild, doing odd jobs with her best friend Alik, the only piece of home she has left.

That is, until he is brutally murdered.

A year later, she discovers Alik is alive and being held against his will. To buy his freedom, she must lead a group of cutthroats and thieves on a perilous expedition to the very mountain that claimed her family. Only something sinister slumbers in the heart of Knnot.

And it has waited years for release.

Review: Of course this new YA fantasy was marketed as similar to Leigh Bardugo’s work. If it’s not the Grisha series, it’s “Six of Crows. This nonsense has gotten completely out of hand. At this point, that comparison has been used so often (and so poorly) that it’s essentially meaningless. But, alongside the Leigh Bardugo comparison, this book was blurbed as being for fans of Katherine Arden’s “Winternight” trilogy, an all-time favorite series of mine recently. So that did the trick in getting me to pick this one up. Unfortunately, the book really doesn’t deserve either comparison…unless we’re back to the meaninglessness of the Leigh Bardugo spin where all it really signifies is that the book you’re about to pick up is a YA fantasy, which, then, yes.

To this point, Valeria’s life has been nothing but loss. First she lost her home and everyone she loved to a deep freeze. And later, after finding refuge in the Thieves Guild, she loses her best friend Alik to a brutal death. But she is also a survivor, eking out an existence beneath the very nose of the Czar who is out to silence anyone who has survived the freeze. Her life takes a turn, however, when she discovers that Alik is alive. Alive, but changed. To save him, she must venture back to the very place she fears most, the mountain that claimed her town to its cold power.

To get it out of the way from the start, this wasn’t a favorite read of mine. But the one thing I did enjoy, overall, was the world-building involved. Most especially, perhaps, the gods called the Bright and the Pale were very interesting. I liked the idea that neither is inherently good or bad, therefore choosing to follow one over the other doesn’t necessarily speak to any overall world-view or intent on an individual’s part. I also enjoyed the general world-building. It was easy to picture the frozen landscape and the ominous presence of the mountains and the magic that lurked there. The atmosphere itself worked very well for what the story was trying to accomplish.

However, I struggled to enjoy this book. The pacing was difficult, with a slow start that took quite a while to become engaging. This beginning was also hindered by a style of writing that too often veered into telling rather than showing, with information feeling squeezed into dialogue and in the narration in ways that felt unnatural and ponderous. The writing itself was rather clunky, and it took me several chapters to realize that part of the reason I was struggling with the book was the fact that I needed to re-read several sentences to try to piece together what the author was actually getting at. Hopefully, as I was reading an e-ARC, some of this will be cleaned up in edits (there were words missing from sentences even, though the sheer number of times this seemed to happen makes me think it might have just been a very poor writing style choice??).

Valeria was also not a character to write home about. There was nothing obviously wrong with her, and the attempts at giving her a dark back story with the loss of her home suited well enough. However, she still simply felt like every other YA heroine with “a past.” There wasn’t enough distinction to her voice or character to make her stand out from the increasingly crowded set of leading ladies in YA fantasy.

I also didn’t care for the romance or some of the twists in the story. I felt like most of the reveals were telegraphed way too early and too obviously to provide any sort of weight when they finally landed. And the romance struggled against some of the unlikable aspects of Alik’s character. There was too much time spent on him saying horrible things and then later apologizing for those same horrible things. From there, it just followed the typical YA romance arc without adding much or creating any real sizzle between these two.

Fans of Russian-inspired fairytales may enjoy this read, but I do think it has enough marks against it to not earn a strong recommendation. It definitely wasn’t for me, and I think there are likely better examples of similar works to read if one is looking for books like this. Katherine Arden’s “Winternight” series, for sure, and Naomi Novik’s “Spinning Silver,” come to mind.

Rating 6: A disappointing read that had promise but seemed to lack some of the writing proficiency needed to really pully it off.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Bright and the Pale” are on these Goodreads lists: Monsters and Magic Society and 2021 Young Adult Debuts.

Find “The Bright and the Pale” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Untamed Shore”

Book: “Untamed Shore” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Publishing Info: Agora Books, February 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: A coming-of-age story set in Mexico quickly turns dark when a young woman meets three enigmatic tourists.

Baja California, 1979. Viridiana spends her days watching the dead sharks piled beside the seashore, as the fishermen pull their nets. There is nothing else to do, nothing else to watch, under the harsh sun. She’s bored. Terribly bored. Yet her head is filled with dreams of Hollywood films, of romance, of a future beyond the drab town where her only option is to marry and have children. Three wealthy American tourists arrive for the summer, and Viridiana is magnetized. She immediately becomes entwined in the glamorous foreigners’ lives. They offer excitement, and perhaps an escape from the promise of a humdrum future.

When one of them dies, Viridiana lies to protect her friends. Soon enough, someone’s asking questions, and Viridiana has some of her own about the identity of her new acquaintances. Sharks may be dangerous, but there are worse predators nearby, ready to devour a naïve young woman who is quickly being tangled in a web of deceit.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia is one of the most exciting voices in fiction, and with her first crime novel, UNTAMED SHORE, she crafts a blazing novel of suspense with an eerie seaside setting and a literary edge that proves her a master of the genre.

Review: It is probably becoming clear to all of you that this blog is very much a Silvia Moreno-Garcia Stan page. Given that she has been dipping her toes into all kinds of genres, there are things for both Serena and myself to love. This time I’m taking on a good old fashioned crime thriller novel called “Untamed Shore”, which promises suspense, secrets, death, and sharks. All while also being a coming of age story in 1970s Baja, Mexico. I mean my goodness, everything about this just screams ‘YOU SHOULD BE READING THIS KATE, AND HOW DARE YOU MISS IT THE FIRST TIME AROUND?!’

Me to my reading tastes. Also, holy “Detroit Rock City” gif, Batman! (source)

Something that has become very clear about Moreno-Garcia is that she can genre hop with ease, and that her stories will always be incredibly strong no matter what kind of themes that they take on. This is something that I have seen not very often with authors I like, as they either stick to one thing, or if they do branch out it doesn’t work as well. But for Moreno-Garcia, she makes it look easy. “Untamed Shore” is both a crime novel and a bildungsroman about Viridiana, an eighteen year old living in small town Baja who dreams of more for herself. She’s smart, she’s feisty, she’s misunderstood due to her ambition and her background, and she’s also naive, due to her youth and her lack of worldliness. All of these things make for an easy to root for character, and she’s well rounded and tenacious and everything I like to see in a female protagonist at that. You completely understand why she would be drawn to Ambrose, Daisy, and Gregory, three American tourists with money, privilege, and a somewhat dark dynamic that Viridiana sees when she becomes a live in assistant. Ambrose is cold, Daisy is magnetic and unpredictable, and Gregory is charming and seductive, and I love how we get a sense for all of them through Viridiana’s eyes, but also through the behaviors that she sees but may not quite catch. It’s Gregory’s wooing of Viridiana that feels the most dangerous, as her pie in the sky romantic nature and hopes for better things makes their romance feel sinister, even as she is led to believe that it’s real. So our suspense is ratcheted up because Viridiana may be in serious danger the closer she gets to them, and yet as the story goes on Viridiana takes a very interesting journey in which she adapts, grows, and makes moves of her own. Bottom line, I loved Viridiana, and her growth was fascinating to watch. Especially when she has to start figuring out if she has alliances to her supposed friends/the man she loves, or to those who may want to take her supposed friends down.

Moreno-Garcia has also set her story in a place that, once again, feels unique to me and my reading tastes. When I think of crime novels, I tend to think of New York, Los Angeles, maybe somewhere in Europe or MAYBE Asia. I am always trying to expand my horizons, however, so the setting of 1970s Mexico was very enjoyable. I felt like I knew the ins and outs of Desegaño, the small fishing town that is becoming more and more suffocating to Viridiana as days go by, and that doesn’t see TOO many tourists (which means the three she falls in with are all the more compelling). The setting is compelling, and it also is the perfect way to explore the way that American tourists take places like this for granted, thinking that they can waltz in, throw their weight around, and use the locals in whatever way they feel like. Ambrose, Daisy, and Gregory have their own preconceived notions about Viridiana, because of her youth and her ethnicity/nationality, and it all feels like a very ugly but apt metaphor that I greatly enjoyed.

And oh, the suspense! It’s pretty clear to the reader what happened when one of the Americans ends up dead, so the story there on out is wondering if Viridiana is going to realize what exactly she has been pulled into, or if she is going to be so desperate to leave Desegaño and so desperate to believe that she and Gregory are in love that she will believe anything that the two left alive will tell her. Her desperation is palpable and understandable, and I was barreling through to the end not necessarily wanting to know if all the garbage the Americans did would come to light, but if Viridiana would come out okay.

Overall, I loved “Untamed Shore”. I ran the gamut of emotions and am now even more excited to continue on my Silvia Moreno-Garcia journey.

Rating 9: A sizzling and suspenseful crime thriller with a likable, if not a little morally ambiguous, protagonist and a fun backdrop.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Untamed Shore” is included on the Goodreads lists “Mysteries/Thrillers by BIPOC Authors”, and “Historical Fiction Set in Latin America”.

Find “Untamed Shore” at your library using WorldCat, or or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Book Club Review: “Red at the Bone”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Outside the Genre Box”, in which we each picked a book from a genre or format that we don’t usually read.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Red at the Bone” by Jacqueline Woodson

Publishing Info: Riverhead Books, September 2019

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Genre/Format: Literary Fiction

Book Description: Moving forward and backward in time, Jacqueline Woodson’s taut and powerful new novel uncovers the role that history and community have played in the experiences, decisions, and relationships of these families, and in the life of the new child.

As the book opens in 2001, it is the evening of sixteen-year-old Melody’s coming of age ceremony in her grandparents’ Brooklyn brownstone. Watched lovingly by her relatives and friends, making her entrance to the music of Prince, she wears a special custom-made dress. But the event is not without poignancy. Sixteen years earlier, that very dress was measured and sewn for a different wearer: Melody’s mother, for her own ceremony– a celebration that ultimately never took place.

Unfurling the history of Melody’s parents and grandparents to show how they all arrived at this moment, Woodson considers not just their ambitions and successes but also the costs, the tolls they’ve paid for striving to overcome expectations and escape the pull of history. As it explores sexual desire and identity, ambition, gentrification, education, class and status, and the life-altering facts of parenthood, Red at the Bone most strikingly looks at the ways in which young people must so often make long-lasting decisions about their lives–even before they have begun to figure out who they are and what they want to be.

Kate’s Thoughts

Although this genre doesn’t tend to make it onto the blog, I am not really a stranger to literary fiction. If a literary novel has a topic that sounds interesting, or has a lot of hype around it, I will probably pick it up, and a lot of the time I enjoy it as a genre. But somehow I missed “Red at the Bone” by Jacqueline Woodson when it came out, so when book club picked it as the Outside the Genre Box book I was eager to dive in. I read it in the course of an afternoon, as the family saga theme is one that I’ve always been a sucker for.

“Red at the Bone” is an emotional look at a family that has gone through a lot through the generations. We start with the society coming out celebration of Melody, a sixteen year old Black teenager living in New York City in 2001. She is wearing the dress that her mother Iris was supposed to wear before her, but her pregnancy at 16 cancelled the event. We look at the entire family, jumping through time, perspectives, and themes, and learn how Melody came to be, how her relationship with Iris has become what it has, and how the influence of her other family members, and the influences of their experiences, has affected her, and all of them. Woodson takes a good hard look at class differences, the way that parents have hopes for their children that don’t always mesh, and the way that trauma can be passed down through family lines, even if the later generations weren’t there to experience the initial traumatic event (for example, there is a lot of attention paid to the Tulsa Massacre, and how that horrible event has lingered down the family line). I found the different perspectives of different family members to be powerful, and Woodson gave all of them a lot of attention even in the comparatively lower number of pages. I was especially moved by the way that Woodson looks at mother and daughter relationships, and the difficulties that can be found there (I’m probably a bit biased in that regard, but I have no doubt that anyone will find it emotionally resonant as Woodson is so good).

I really liked “Red at the Bone”. It’s a quick read, but it hits in all the right ways.

Serena’s Thoughts

Unlike Kate, I really and truly don’t read a lot of literary fiction. Pretty much rules me out of being an adult librarian (rather than YA/children’s, which what I was trained for)! But I have read one or two here and there, usually upon recommendation, and often enjoyed them. I typically want more magic and unicorns in my reading, but if the writing and story are strong, I can get behind ordinary life as well.

I knew nothing about this author before reading this. Or, really, anything about what the story was about even. So I picked it up with no real preconceptions. And then I didn’t set it down until it was finished. Yes, it is a shorter book as well, but it was also compulsively readable. The layers of family history and personalities perfectly layered one on top of the other to weave together an intricate tapestry of lives lived through various trials and tribulations. We see the many ups and downs of everyone’s lives and how these experiences shape not only the character whose head we are in currently, but how these traumas, joys, choices ripple out to affect everyone else around them and following them.

Like Kate, I was particularly interested in the story of motherhood that is at much of the heart of this story. While I have two boys instead of a daughter, I am, of course, a daughter myself. It was heart-breaking and yet completely relatable to experience the fierce love and fierce hurt that can exist within this unique relationship. I also very much related to the sudden, sometimes harsh, reality of what parenthood looks like.

My own experience was very different, behind older, married to my husband, and both hoping for this outcome. But there were also moments of very real, very dark places in the actual experience of become a mother, too. The idea that overnight your entire identity seems to be sucked into this new born baby. It’s the first thing people ask you, it’s almost all you are to people for so long. And, you know, the baby isn’t even grateful! Just screaming and crying and demanding food all the time! Little punk. I kid, but it is also very hard. I can’t even imagine going through it as a young teenager and trying to find some way to be a good mother while also retain some part of a life for yourself that you hadn’t even had a chance to start.

There were so many incredible themes that resonated in this book: family, identity (both sexual and racial), history and legacy. For such a short book, it would be easy to write several essays covering different topics broached in this story. Fans of literary fiction, especially those focused on family and identity should definitely check this one out.

Kate’s Rating 8: An emotional and lyrical family saga, “Red at the Bone” is a quick and powerful read.

Serena’s Rating 8: Beautiful and heart-breaking, a must-read for fans of stories focused on family.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of the structure of the narrative? Was it easy for you to follow?
  2. Did you have a character that you liked the most, or wanted to learn more about beyond the story that they had in this book?
  3. What did you think about the way that Woodson presented this family and the dynamics within in?
  4. There is a lot of family trauma and grief that this family has gone through over the years, as well as hope for future generations. What did you take away from this story in terms of trauma that passes through family lines, as well as aspirations for legacy?
  5. Iris and Melody are the central relationship within this story. Do you think that their relationship has hope to evolve into something new beyond the end? Do you think that it needs to?

Reader’s Advisory

“Red at the Bone” is included on the Goodreads lists “Anticipated Literary Reads for Readers of Color 2019”, and “Popsugar 2021 #33: A Book Featuring Three Generations”.

Find “Red at the Bone” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “Annihilation” by Jeff VanderMeer