Kate’s Review: “Revenge of the Sluts”

Book: “Revenge of the Sluts” by Natalie Walton

Publishing Info: Wattpad Books, February 2021

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

Book Description: Double standards are about to get singled out.

In this stunning debut, author Natalie Walton tackles privacy and relationships in the digital age.

As a lead reporter for The Warrior Weekly, Eden has covered her fair share of stories at St. Joseph’s High School. And when intimate pictures of seven female students are anonymously emailed to the entire school, Eden is determined to get to the bottom of it.

In tracking down leads, Eden is shocked to discover not everyone agrees the students are victims. Some people feel the girls “brought it on themselves.” Even worse, the school’s administration seems more concerned about protecting its reputation than its students.

With the anonymous sender threatening more emails, Eden finds an unlikely ally: the seven young women themselves. Banding together to find the perpetrator, the tables are about to be turned. The Slut Squad is fighting back!

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

I thank my lucky stars that I got out of high school before social media became a huge thing, because my GOD I don’t know if I would have survived it all. I went to a prestigious and rigorous prep school, and as someone who was a bit of a weirdo who, for some time, bore the brunt of my meaner classmates, I can’t even imagine what might have happened if Snapchat, Tik Tok, or the like were available (I’m old, are those still popular with the youths?). “Revenge of the Sluts” by Natalie Walton addresses a number of the things that make my heart hurt when it comes to stories of teenage bullying and cruelty, specifically that of girls who send nudes to people they think they can trust, only to find their trust broken and their bodies exposed for laughs, revenge, or what have you. When I saw this book on NetGalley, I knew that I had to read it.

“The Revenge of the Sluts” is a VERY fast read that kept me interested, as I pretty much read it in one day during a long weekend. The mystery of who leaked the nudes of seven high school girls is technically the heart of this book, but it felt more like an examination of the difficulties of high school life for girls in modern society. I really enjoyed Eden, our protagonist and intrepid student reporter who is investigating the invasive and cruel leak of nude selfies of seven of her classmates. While Eden wasn’t a target herself, she and co-journalist/editor in chief Ronnie not only see a huge story, but a number of girls who deserve justice and deserve to have their voices heard. Eden has a few more layers to it as well, as she too has sent nude photos of herself in the past to her ex boyfriend, and while he never shared them so that they could potentially be leaked, she knows that she was just as vulnerable.

I liked that Walton brings up all of the complicated messy issues about teen dating and sex. Such things include the pressures that some may feel do do things that they may not want to do, and the self autonomy that others have to be comfortable in their sexuality which can lead to stigma and punishment from others when that is put on display. The victims are a wide variety, with some enjoying casual hook ups and sexual exploration, and others being in monogamous relationships with people they are supposed to be able to trust. Walton never frames any of these girls as anything but victims, and I really liked that we get to explore double standards when it comes to boy vs girl sexuality and the expectations that is foisted on the two, many times unfairly. I also liked the frustrating but probably pretty realistic subplot of the mishandling of the scandal by the school and the greater community, as the girls are treated less as victims and more as, well, ‘sluts’, like in the title.

Therein, however, lies some of the weaknesses in this book as well. These messages and themes are absolutely important, especially for teen readers who may have to navigate such things in their lives. But some of the lessons were presented in really awkward and clunky ways. Many times we would have these teachable moments with characters going into long lectures or diatribes about consent, bodily autonomy, double standards, and misogyny which felt like they were lifted from educational or resource materials. There would be debates between characters that go the way that one would expect from an after school special as opposed to an actual conversation between classmates or friends. It ended up making things feel a bit canned and packaged, and while I know that the YA audience may like things a bit more straight forward, I think that authors need to give teens a little more credit in how they can process the messages being conveyed.

All in all, I thought that “Revenge of the Sluts” had a few hiccups here and there in execution, but the themes and statements behind that are too important for me to write it off completely. It’s quick and engaging, and I hope that it can help people who may be going through the bad things it addresses.

Rating 7: A quick and entertaining read that often treads towards clunky monologues and lecturing, “Revenge of the Sluts” has good messages about bodily autonomy, consent, and rape culture, even if it felt a little canned.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Revenge of the Sluts” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Girls Take on the Patriarchy”, and “Best Books to Read When You Need a Reminder of Why Feminism Is Important”.

Find “Revenge of the Sluts” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “The Dragon Republic”

Book: “The Dragon Republic” by R. F. Kuang

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, August 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: Three times throughout its history, Nikan has fought for its survival in the bloody Poppy Wars. Though the third battle has just ended, shaman and warrior Rin cannot forget the atrocity she committed to save her people. Now she is on the run from her guilt, the opium addiction that holds her like a vice, and the murderous commands of the fiery Phoenix—the vengeful god who has blessed Rin with her fearsome power.

Though she does not want to live, she refuses to die until she avenges the traitorous Empress who betrayed Rin’s homeland to its enemies. Her only hope is to join forces with the powerful Dragon Warlord, who plots to conquer Nikan, unseat the Empress, and create a new republic.

But neither the Empress nor the Dragon Warlord are what they seem. The more Rin witnesses, the more she fears her love for Nikan will force her to use the Phoenix’s deadly power once more.

Because there is nothing Rin won’t sacrifice to save her country . . . and exact her vengeance.

Previously Reviewed: “The Poppy War”

Review: I read “The Poppy War” over the summer. And while I really enjoyed it (it even made it onto my Top 10 list for the year!), it was also a super hard read. Kuang doesn’t back away from the awful realities of war, and how often the innocents are the ones to suffer the worst. That being the case, while I knew I wanted to continue with the series, I had to give myself a break before getting to the next one. So, about six months later, now is the time! Plus, the third book just came out a month or so ago, so I want to get to that one in a somewhat timely way.

The Poppy War has ended due to the extreme measures taken by Rin at the end of the last book. But the Empress remains and Rin’s vengeance has not been completed. However, even a powerful fire shaman such as herself cannot take on the Empress alone. Not to mention the opium she has been using to control the Phoenix’ voice in her head has consumed more and more of her life. When she’s approached by the Dragon warlord to join a new cause, a new war, Rin sees her only path forward. And is a soldier without a war, anyways? Rin’s not sure she wants to find out.

I enjoyed this second book even more than the first. In “The Poppy War,” there was a bit of a jarring tonal shift from the first half which read like a boarding school/coming-of-age story and the second half that was pure war and pure devastation around every corner. It got darker and darker and ended pretty much in the darkest place yet. This second book not only had to move Rin’s story forward from a seemingly impossible personal low, but it also must set up Rin’s path forward in her path for vengeance against an almost all-powerful foe. And while it fully explores the challenges of both of these things in very satisfying ways, that’s all covered in about the first third of the book! And instead, the author takes us into an even more complicated brewing conflict where Rin’s abilities could be the crux of everything.

The story once again dives into the complicated nature of warfare, loyalty to one’s country, and making the tough decisions when weighing the balance of the greater good. For one thing, it explores whether “the greater good” is even a thing in these types of decisions. Alongside these themes, however, this book also explores concepts of religion and cultural power with the introduction of the Hesperians, a sophisticated society that has largely stayed out of previous wars but are beginning to makes moves in this book. Rin is a great character to explore these themes alongside. While she has shamanic powers, she’s by no means devote. She can see both the appeal and the danger in these others with their monotheistic faith.

There were also a bunch of twists and turns in this story. At this point, I’ve come to assume that almost every person in power is terrible, only telling part of the truth, and looking to exploit Rin somehow. But I never can quite pin down the intricate motives and histories that behind the decisions everyone is making. What’s more, we had some pretty big reveals about side characters in this book that I definitely didn’t see coming at all! Rin’s own story took a few pretty massive shifts that I didn’t expect, and I loved it all.

I also appreciated that, while this book is still dark, it wasn’t quite as tough to get through as the first one. This could also be simply because I was more prepared for what I was getting into, and Rin herself was more hardened to what she was seeing and doing. Fans of the first book are sure to love this second one. And I can guarantee that the wait time between this second book and the third will be much shorter than my wait between the first and second!

Rating 9: Excellent and somehow even stronger than the first!

Reader’s Advisory:

Strangely, “The Dragon Republic” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should be on Asian Speculative Fiction by Asian Authors — #ownvoices.

Find “The Dragon Republic” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Witch Hunt”

Book: “The Witch Hunt” (Jonny Roberts #3) by Alexander Lound

Publishing Info: Self Published, February 2021

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

Book Description: Two months on from the tragedy of the burned house, and Jonny has spent most of the long summer days in bed, hiding from the miserable rain. Ghost-hunting is in his past. After all, it has proved to be little more than a curse.

However, when his dad reaches out to him after an eighteen-month absence, Jonny can’t hide his fury. He also can’t say no when his father asks him to stay at his new home in the quaint, little village of Peene. Maybe it will heal the hurt between them. At the very least, it will take his mind off Grantford, and his haunting nightmares.

But, when he realizes ‒ feels ‒ that all isn’t quite right with his dad’s new partner, Bella, he has no choice but to turn back to his ability. To uncover a grisly murder of years past. Even if it means risking another date with death…

Review: Thank you to Alexander Lound for approaching our blog and sending me an eARC of this book!

It’s always a nice day when I get a notification from an author I’ve highlighted in the past that they have a new book coming out. Earlier this year it was “Atonement”, which saw the end of the Cerenia Chronicles, and now we finally get a new story from Alexander Lound’s Jonny Roberts Series, “The Witch Hunt”. I was already thoroughly invested in the stories about teenage medium Jonny, and when you throw the mere idea of witches into that, well, you officially have me snared.

I will never not be super interested in all things witch. (source)

When we left Jonny at the end of “The Burned House”, things had taken a turn for the worse for our teenage medium. His best friend Stephen was dead, his girlfriend Cassy had broken up with him because of the dangers of his ghost talking abilities, and Jonny was all around feeling lost. “The Witch Hunt” doesn’t walk any of that back, and in fact puts him in an even more precarious place in that his father, who abandoned him and his mother a year and a half prior, now wants Jonny to come visit him and his new lady friend, Bella. What is supposed to be an awkward reunion turns into another supernatural adventure, as it becomes clear that there is something wrong with Bella and the local historic site that was the location of witch hunts and burnings centuries ago may have a key. I liked getting Jonny out of his usual routine for this book, as it gave him more space to explore and a different approach, given that now the case is actually personal to him. Another change is that Lound doesn’t walk back the separation from Cassy, at least not yet. I was wondering if we were going to have a tug of war of feelings, and then just a reconciliation to get things back to ‘normal’, but it’s not as simple as all that, as it is made clear that Cassy’s hesitancy and fear is perfectly understandable. This also gives Jonny a little leeway to just be on his own for this story (well, outside of his mentor/friend Aaron, who does come in, which is fine by me because I really like Aaron!), and not have to continue an complex teen relationship on top of everything else.

I also didn’t expect, but really enjoyed, the approach that was taken towards Jonny’s father’s new partner, Bella. I think that it would have been super easy for her to be the unlikable home wrecker trope. I mean, I probably would have accepted that without any questions. But instead she is a very likable person who you care about, especially when it’s clear that something is very wrong with her that is putting her, and her loved ones, in danger. While I DO think that there could have been a little more ‘responsibility’ taken on her part when it comes to getting involved with a married man, just insomuch that it’s definitely mostly on Jonny’s Dad, Bella did have a part to play in a lot of pain caused to Jonny and his mother. But that said, I liked that she wasn’t what I expected her to be, and that she was, in fact, overall a decent person.

As for the mystery itself about what is ailing Bella and where the Witch Hunt site comes into it, it was pretty solid. I don’t want to give too much away, but Lound takes the opportunity to explore misogyny, violence towards women, and makes connections between the medieval witch hunts and modern day victims of what people think women should be, and what women owe men. And while it may be true that witches as characters weren’t really a part of this as much as I had hoped, the themes of witches and witchcraft and what they have represented throughout history is definitely a HUGE piece of the story. And I really liked that.

“The Witch Hunt” is another fun ghost story from Alexander Lound! I’m so happy this series has continued and cannot wait to see where it goes next!

Rating 8: Another tense and suspenseful YA paranormal thriller from Alexander Lound, and a new focus for teenage medium Jonny Roberts.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Burned House” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “YA Novels and Psychic Abilities”, and “Young Adult Ghost Stories”.

“The Burned House” isn’t available on WorldCat as of now, but it will be available for purchase this week. For more information, go to Alexander Lound’s WEBSITE.

Previously Reviewed:

Book Club Review: “The Widows of Malabar Hill”

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: “The Widows of Malabar Hill” by Sujata Massey

Publishing Info: Soho Press, January 2018

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Genre/Format: Cozy/Historical Mystery

Book Description: Bombay, 1921: Perveen Mistry, the daughter of a respected Zoroastrian family, has just joined her father’s law firm, becoming one of the first female lawyers in India. Armed with a legal education from Oxford, Perveen also has a tragic personal history that makes her especially devoted to championing and protecting women’s rights.

Mistry Law is handling the will of Mr. Omar Farid, a wealthy Muslim mill owner who has left three widows behind. But as Perveen goes through the papers, she notices something strange: all three have signed over their inheritance to a charity. What will they live on if they forefeit what their husband left them? Perveen is suspicious.

The Farid widows live in purdah: strict seclusion, never leaving the women’s quarters or speaking to any men. Are they being taken advantage of by an unscrupulous guardian? Perveen tries to investigate and realizes her instincts about the will were correct when tensions escalate to murder. It’s her responsibility to figure out what really happened on Malabar Hill, and to ensure that nobody is in further danger.

Kate’s Thoughts

I keep saying this over and over again and yet never really follow through, but I always feel like I’m in on the look out for a new mystery series to follow. While Kathy Reichs has returned to her Temperance Brennan mysteries after an illness, one series doesn’t seem like enough. So thank you to Book Club for introducing me to the Perveen Mistry series with the first book “The Widows of Malabar Hill”! Because I found this first entry in this historical/cozy (debatable to me) mystery collection to be exactly what I wanted!

For one thing, I really liked the setting, being in 1920s Bombay, when British Colonialism was still a thing, and our heroine Perveen is living life as an attorney in her father’s practice after her marriage fell through. I have very little knowledge of this time period in India specifically, and I really enjoyed getting some context into the many different people and cultures who lived there at the time, sometimes to great conflict. I loved Perveen as a main character, as she is determined and spunky, but still felt realistic for the time period based on the knowledge that I did have previously and what we learn in the story itself. There are two timelines here, the present day one in which Perveen is investigating the will of a man who left three wives behind after his death, and then finds herself involved in a murder investigation. This storyline was well done, with well plotted out intrigue and a mystery that kept me guessing. But it was the other storyline that really got my attention, in whcih we see Perveen’s previous doomed marriage, and how she came to be working for her attorney father in the first place. I thought that the situation she found herself in was deeply upsetting and fascinating, and it really gave her a good amount of depth and characterization that suited her in the present day storyline.

Overall, I really enjoyed “The Widows of Malabar Hill”, and am definitely going to continue reading the Perveen Mistry mysteries!

Serena’s Thoughts

Like Kate, I’ve also read many of the Temperance Brennan series. I’m pretty behind now, but it is also one of my favorite mystery series. But I also currently read a few historical mystery series, so it’s a genre that I’m still fairly involved with in my general reading. That said, most of the historical mysteries I’ve been reading for the last two years have been set in Britain in similar time periods in the last 1800s. So I was excited to read another historical mystery (a genre I clearly enjoy), but one set in a very different location and period of time.

Most of the praise that Kate has already covered I would second. Perveen, herself, is a really excellent character. I imagine it was difficult to write a character that takes on the roles she does (lawyer/detective) but who must also feel true to her time and deal with the many roadblocks that were present in women’s lives. I think the author does an excellent job of making Perveen a very believable character in this way. Her history, as we see it play out in the portion of the story set in the past, lays out a nice foundation for Perveen to find herself in the position she does in the present. And for her perspective that shapes her approach to tackling the mystery and murders at the heart of the story.

I also really liked the time period and setting. I, too, only knew a little about India during this time period. I’d read “A Passage to India” way back in college, but that was about it. So I really enjoyed the immersion in the culture and history that served as the backdrop and landscape for Perveen’s story.

The mystery itself was also very good. This book was chosen as a “cozy mystery” type story, so while there is tension and mystery throughout, it’s not as gruesome or scary as some of the other mysteries series you may read. If you enjoy historical mysteries this will probably be a good fit!

Kate’s Rating 8: A well plotted mystery and a compelling backstory combine along with a unique setting to make “The Widows of Malabar Hill” an intriguing start to a series I plan to continue!

Serena’s Rating 8: An excellent start to a new series with a compelling heroine at its heart!

Book Club Questions:

  1. What kind of mystery sub genre would you think this is? Does it feel more historical, or cozy?
  2. What did you think of the writing style? Do you think it matched the story tone and themes?
  3. What did you know about the various themes of the sotry, be it the setting, culture, religion, society?
  4. What did you think of the narrative structure of the two time periods that we follow in this book? Did you prefer one over the other?
  5. Who was your favorite character outside of Perveen? Who was your least favorite character?
  6. Do you think you’ll keep going in the series? Why or why not?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Widows of Malabar Hill” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Historical Mystery Series”, and “India: Fiction”.

Find “The Widows of Malabar Hill” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “The Right Swipe”

Monthly Marillier: “Son of the Shadows”

“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.

Book: “Son of the Shadows” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Tor, June 2002

Where Did I Get this Book: own it

Book Description: After years of comparative peace, darkness has fallen upon Ulster. Trouble is brewing and even those in the heart of the forest are not safe. Niamh, elder daughter of Sorcha, is required to make a strategic marriage, while her sister Liadan, who has the gift of Sight and her mother’s talent for healing, finds herself drawn into the shadowy world of the Painted Man and his warrior band. There Liadan begins a journey that is to transform her life.

Review: The second book in Marillier’s trilogy is really where the author gets to stretch her wings. The first story, while definitely fleshed out and expanded upon, is still essentially a fairy-tale retelling of the “Sevan Swans” so much of the bones were already in place. Without that framework, “Son of the Shadows” is really the book that lays the foundation for the rest of the series. It’s also probably one of my favorite books of Marillier’s.

The next generation is coming into their own. Niamh, the beautiful and wild-hearted eldest. Sean, the chieftain-in-training son. And Liadan, the unexpected second daughter, a young woman very similar to her mother, Sorcha, but who operates outside the Fair Folks’ plans. When their quiet life at Sevenwaters is interrupted by a series of misfortunes, Liadan begins to see hints of a darker force working around them. But while all fingers are pointed at a dangerous mercenary, the Painted Man, and his band of skilled fighters, Liadan suspects otherwise after spending time in their company and forming an unexpected bon with their leader.

In some ways, in this second book Marilliar simply switches the roles of her hero and heroine. Where Sorcha was the damaged character and Red the patient, steady force who drew her in, Liadan and Bran play opposite roles. By the nature of her curse, Sorcha was by necessity a quiet character. Here, Liadan is much more of a force. She has a similar quiet strength, but she’s also snappy, stubborn, and powerful in ways that make her a fascinating character to follow. Bran, of course, has his own strengths, but the mystery of his past, a wrong that makes him slow to trust and suspicious of women, affects him deeply. Much of their relationship is defined by Liadan’s sheer force of will to love Bran despite his best efforts. It’s a very different romance than the sweet, steady love story that played out in the first book. Here there are a lot more sparks, both of the good and bad variety.

I also really liked the secondary characters we get here. Red and Sorcha, of course, play a role, but Marillier does a good job keeping their page time limited so that they don’t overpower the new story she is trying to tell. We also see some familiar faces in Connor and Liam, but there, too, their roles are smaller. Sean, Liadan’s twin brother, plays an important role as the future leader of Sevenwaters, and we begin to see how he will differ from the generation that came before him. We also meet Eamonn, the son of the leader who betrayed Sevenwaters in the previous book. He plays an unexpected role here, adding a sense of building tension throughout the story.

I will give the book one ding here, with these secondary characters. Marillier falls prey to the writing trap where her characters could clear up much by simply communicating. There’s a lot of unnecessary secrecy and no good explanation is ever given. And the secrecy isn’t just a tiny side plot, it has big, important impacts on the story itself, which ultimately undermines those plot points.

The writing and world-building is a beautiful and complex as ever. Again, given the nature of Sorcha’s curse, much of the first book is dependent on the author’s ability to flesh out the world and characters without a talkative leading lady. Here, since Liadan not only can speak but is an opinionated character, we see a new strength of Marillier’s writing in the compelling dialogue. But it’s in the book’s quieter, sadder moments that her writing really shines, and there are several instances (some of them pretty unexpected!) that always make me cry.

One last, small criticim of the story has to be some of the smaller tales woven throughout. Storytelling is often featured in Marillier’s work and there is often a particular tale within the story itself that holds particular importance to a character’s arc. We have that here, too. But there were also several other stories, and while they also connected to characters and actions, they sometimes felt too long and that they were throwing off the balance of the actual story being told. I think a few of them could have been cut or reduced to help with the overall pacing of the book.

But, while I did rate this book one point down from the first, it’s still one of my favorites and maybe even preferred to that one. I really like Liadan as a leading character, and her romance with Bran is very swoon-worthy. It’s a solid sequel to the first and does a lot of the heavy-lifting for paving the way for future books.

Rating 9: Freed of the trappings of a fairytale retelling, we begin to see what Marillier is really capable of.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Son of the Shadows” is on these Goodreads lists: Best Heroine in a Fantasy Book and Fantasy Romance.

Find “Son of the Shadows” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Survivors”

Book: “The Survivors” by Jane Harper

Publishing Info: Flatiron Books, February 2021

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

Book Description: Coming home dredges up deeply buried secrets...

Kieran Elliott’s life changed forever on the day a reckless mistake led to devastating consequences. The guilt that still haunts him resurfaces during a visit with his young family to the small coastal community he once called home. Kieran’s parents are struggling in a town where fortunes are forged by the sea. Between them all is his absent brother, Finn. When a body is discovered on the beach, long-held secrets threaten to emerge. A sunken wreck, a missing girl, and questions that have never washed away… 

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

Someday, when the world isn’t dealing with a pandemic and I don’t have to worry about traveling with a little one, I have every intention of going to Australia. My time in the Sydney airport on the way to New Zealand doesn’t count. When I think about a trip there my mind hovers in big cities like Sydney, and also thinks about The Outback, but I’d do well to remember that there are also oceanside towns, which I tend to love no matter what the continent. I was reminded of such facts as I read “The Survivors” by Jane Harper, her newest mystery, another standalone that’s separate from the Aaron Falk Series (and I’m not sure when we’re getting another one of those, but patience is a virtue, I guess? So I’m told, I wouldn’t know).

One of the common strengths of Harper’s stories is the ability she has to bring out strong atmosphere and sense of place, and “The Survivors” is no different. Evelyn Bay is a seaside town in Tasmania, and you immediately feel the close knit strength of the community, the strength and reverence of and for the ocean, and the pitfalls that come with all of these things. Just as there is a strong sense of community, for some people that can be a downfall. Our protagonist, Kieran, knows this from first hand experience, and has only come back because he and his girlfriend Mia have a new baby, and because his father Brian is falling more and more into dementia. We know that a terrible accident happened that caused Kieran to flee this town as soon as he could, and we see the consequences, both the good and the bad, for those who stayed behind. There are those in town who hold a grudge against Kieran because of his role in the tragedy during a bad storm, and it is slowly shown just how much Kieran has held in and how much his guilt has weighed him down. Harper explores the complications of family in the wake of a tragedy, as well as unresolved trauma and grief. You throw in the worries and anxieties of being a new parent, and the sadness and stress of dealing with an ailing father, and Kieran is having a rough go all around, even BEFORE a local murder dredges up past hurts, suspicions, and ills. It’s a painful time unpacking a lot of this, and the emotions are raw and real, but that’s really the strongest aspect of this book.

The two mysteries that are the hearts of “The Survivors” are years apart, but similar in nature. During the storm that upturned Kieran’s life, a local girl went missing. She has connections to Kieran, as she was the younger sister of his friend Olivia, as well as the best friend of his now girlfriend Mia. And it just so happens that during Kieran’s visit, a young woman named Bronte is discovered dead on the beach, reigniting fears and suspicions in the community. The questions are who killed Bronte, is it connected to the past case, and who knows something. I was happy that from the get go it’s made clear that Kieran isn’t really a true suspect, at least in the reader’s eyes, as that would have been a red herring I would have had a hard time dealing with on top of all the other garbage in his life. But that isn’t to say that there aren’t red herrings; because boy are there. The mysteries take a bit of a backseat to Kieran’s inner turmoil and the atmosphere of a small town in disarray, which made it a little hard to be invested in either of them, at least to a level that I would have expected. But all that said, the clues are carefully plotted out, and there were enough curve balls thrown that I was left guessing and left pretty entertained. It was a little slow to be an addictive read, but that was alright in the end.

“The Survivors” is heavy and emotional, and certainly an interesting examination of one man’s baggage. Harper continues to show us her talents as a mystery author, and now we wait to see what she comes up with next!

Rating 7: An emotional mystery about trauma, family, and the darkness in small towns, “The Survivors” is a new entertaining thriller from Jane Harper.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Survivors” is included on the Goodreads lists “Down By The Sea”, and “Fictitious Australia”.

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

Serena’s Review: “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms”

Book: “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” by N.K. Jemisin

Publishing Info: Orbit, February 2010

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library

Book Description: Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north. But when her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the majestic city of Sky. There, to her shock, Yeine is named an heiress to the king. But the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not easily won, and Yeine is thrust into a vicious power struggle.

Review: Technically, this was a re-read for me. I picked it up originally right when it came out, so about ten years ago now. I really enjoyed it then, but for some reason didn’t continue on with the series. Well, I decided that now was a good time to revisit Jemisin’s first trilogy, so I picked up the second book from the library and started out. Whelp, turns out I remembered basically nothing from this first book and was super confused right out of the gate, so a re-read was definitely in order before continuing on. And I’m very glad I did! I had a few vague ideas about what this book was about, but I really had forgotten just how detailed and rich this story is.

Yeine Darr had only recently come into her role as the leader of her small sub-nation. Challenging as this new role is, it is nothing to the sudden upheavel to her life when she is summoned to the grand city of Sky and finds herself thrust into the middle of a political battle. From small provincial leader, she’s now one of three potential heirs to the ruler of the entire land. But there is much more going on than a simple political struggle: Gods are involved. As Yeine works to uncover the mysteries of her own past, she begins to unravel a complicated history of her own world that has been hidden for centuries. But what can a country nobody such as herself do in this grand opera of gods and magic?

What I remembered about this book could mostly be summed up as “girl goes to palace and falls in love with some sort of dark, magical being.” Which…is somewhat accurate but also so, so much less than what this book is really about! For one thing, I forgot just how skilled Jemisin’s writing and world-building was in this book. Having now read more of her work, this isn’t as surprising, I guess, but when I first read it, it’s a wonder I didn’t just immediately continue on!

In the midst of an action-packed story centered around a complicated mystery, Jemisin still somehow manages to introduce a large cast of characters, build up an intricate world full of an entire pantheon of gods and various nationalities, and create a magic system within which it all operates. And on top of all that, the story never falls into any “info dump” traps. Instead, our narrator casually introduces various aspects of this world and drops hints here and there that slowly begin to paint an intricate picture in the reader’s mind. Indeed, the image is almost fully complete before you even realize that one was being built in the first place!

I’ve also talked before about the challenges of writing first person narratives and how rare it is to find this style of writing in adult fiction. As challenging as it is to build a new fantasy world and magic system on its own without resorting to long, info-dumping paragraphs, it’s even harder to do it in a natural-seeming way coming directly from the mouth of a character who would already be familiar with all of these things and have no natural reason to be speaking it out loud. To tackle this challenge, Jemisin relies on a nice little trick where her narrator is recounting her own story to some unknown audience. While Yeine’s story largely plays out chronologically, it’s clear that the narrator herself is speaking after the fact in the recounting of this story. In this way, little tidbits of information and sneak peaks into events coming up are dropped throughout the narrative, building suspense in the story itself and building curiosity as to how the past Yeine whom we are following along with comes to be the one who is narrating and clearly has a different perspective on her entire world. It’s a really clever technique, and one that we see Jemisin utilize to great effect in many of her works.

I also really liked the cast of character Jemisin builds up around Yeine. The gods themselves are all very complicated, neatly balancing extreme charisma and appeal alongside an ever-present, trigger-haired sense of impending violence. And the humans aren’t much better. Indeed, in many ways, this book emphasizes just how much worse the humans are than the gods who are thought to not possess any sense of humanity themselves. Alongside the perils of power and the quest to retain it, the story explores the darker themes of love and the choices it will lead the unwary towards.

I really enjoyed revisiting this story. I really had forgotten most of it, and it was a joy to rediscover some of Jemisin’s earlier work. This is a fantasy novel that is fully reveling in being a fantasy novel. It checks all the boxes I look for in this sort of story. If you’re a fan of Jemisin’s work and haven’t gotten around to reading some of her earlier stuff, I definitely recommend checking this out!

Rating 9: Complicated and rich, Jemisin proves why she was a force to be reckoned with right from the very start!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” is on these Goodreads lists: Best “Strong Female” Fantasy Novels and Diversity in Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Find “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Project”

Book: “The Project” by Courtney Summers

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, February 2021

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

Book Description: Lo Denham is used to being on her own. After her parents died, Lo’s sister, Bea, joined The Unity Project, leaving Lo in the care of their great aunt. Thanks to its extensive charitable work and community outreach, The Unity Project has won the hearts and minds of most in the Upstate New York region, but Lo knows there’s more to the group than meets the eye. She’s spent the last six years of her life trying—and failing—to prove it.

“The Unity Project murdered my son.”

When a man shows up at the magazine Lo works for claiming The Unity Project killed his son, Lo sees the perfect opportunity to expose the group and reunite with Bea once and for all. When her investigation puts her in the direct path of its charismatic and mysterious leader, Lev Warren, he proposes a deal: if she can prove the worst of her suspicions about The Unity Project, she may expose them. If she can’t, she must finally leave them alone.

But as Lo delves deeper into The Project, the lives of its members, and spends more time with Lev, it upends everything she thought she knew about her sister, herself, cults, and the world around her—to the point she can no longer tell what’s real or true. Lo never thought she could afford to believe in Lev Warren . . . but now she doesn’t know if she can afford not to.

Welcome to The Unity Project.

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

Given how much I loved Courtney Summers’s previous novel “Sadie”, when I saw that her next book was going to be about a cult I was freakin’ stoked. The dark grittiness of “Sadie” kept me unsettled and on edge for a long while after finishing that book, and I figured that “The Project” would be almost darker, if only because of the root of the conflict (and because it sounded like it took a lot of inspiration from NXIVM from the summary, which is all kinds of yikes as more and more details come out about that group).

Once again we have a sister relationship that serves as the beating heart of this novel, a theme that Summers has used before and done very well. I had been a bit worried we’d get a bit more of the same because of it, but the relationship between Lo and Bea is very different from what I had imagined. I thought that Summers did a fantastic job of capturing the trauma and regret of both women, be it of Bea, who left her younger sister in a time of need, or Lo, who has resented the hole that Bea left behind but is also obsessed with finding her. You get both sisters perspectives, it it Lo’s journey as she goes deeper and deeper into The Unity Project, or Bea as she too finds herself drawn in more and more in a different time than Lo. The complexities of their relationship are there, and while we don’t see much interaction between them be it in the present or in flashbacks, you do get a good solid sense for the love and pain they share through their memories and feelings towards each other. It is also interesting seeing them take similar journeys when it comes to the mysterious, and perhaps deeply malevolent, Unity Project, and how they both parallel and yet invert each other. The suspense builds as Lo learns more and more about Bea’s time with Lev and other members, and by the time Lo is making some pretty drastic decisions (some of which I don’t think were QUITE built up to enough, but that’s all I will say because we’re keeping this generally spoiler free), you have been turned about and messed with as a reader about as much as she has as a character because she’s so easy to connect to. And while Bea is more mysterious, you still get a pretty good sense about other aspects of her personality, and how she could get caught up in something like The Project. While you know that things won’t be happily ever after for these sisters by the time the book is done, Summers still makes you ache for both of them on the journeys they are taking in trying to find, or trying to run from, each other.

Now let’s talk about The Project itself. As touched upon above, we are given so much information about them from inside sources, outside sources, and reliable and unreliable threads, that Summers effectively binds a reader up in becoming disoriented. I will say that given that I could see the NXIVM influences (the upstate New York setting, the beverage heiress who is a high ranking member, some of the more violent aspects of the group), there wasn’t really much question in my mind about what this group was ultimately going to be like, but had I not had that context I do think that Summers throws in a lot of things that could question that. She does a good job of showing how predatory cult leaders slowly lull their members into a sense of security, love, and faith, and then twist them and meld them into doing some really disturbing things. Lev is one of the more unsettling antagonists that I’ve encountered in YA literature in awhile, as his charisma and visage of kindness is rarely cracked as the book goes on, unless you know what to look for, just like psychopathic cult leaders in real life. There are Raniere influences here, but also shades of David Koresh and Charles Dederich, though Lev still stands on his own without being too much of a stand in for any one cult leader.

“The Project” is definitely a tragic and unsettling book, but it’s another strong narrative from an author who isn’t afraid to go dark. And it also has little bright spots of potential hope that are much appreciated in tales like this. Summers has a knack for balancing all of this out, and I think this will be another hit for her.

Rating 8: Intense, tragic, and unsettling as heck, “The Project” gets into the cult mentality and shows the power a charismatic leader can have.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Project” is included on the Goodreads lists “Cults and Communes in Fiction”, and “Cults, Mind Control, and Spiritual Abuse”.

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

Highlights: February 2021

The long winter continues, but at least in February we have an excuse for fancy chocolates and self-care thanks to Valentine’s Day and Galentines Day! And while we may not be feeling overly romantic this year, with quarantine meaning a nice dinner at home and children meaning a little less relaxation, our everlasting love for books continues to beat from our hearts. Here are some of the titles we’re looking forward to this month!

Serena’s Picks

Book: “Daughter of the Salt King” by A.S. Thornton

Publication Date: February 2, 2021

Why I’m Interested: After the “City of Brass” trilogy ended last summer, I’ve been having withdrawals from my djinn fantasy stories. So it didn’t take much more me to scoop up this book once I saw that it was set in a similar type world. Emel is the daughter of the Salt King. But unlike other princesses in other lands, this role brings her and her many sisters nothing but suffering. Instead of any freedom, they are used as lures by their father in his attempts to trap visiting dignitaries into advantageous marriages with his nation. Emel longs for nothing more than her freedom, and she might just gain it when she discovers a dark secret hidden by father, a wish-granting jinni who might be an ally to her cause.

Book: “Fireheart Tiger” by Aliette de Bodard

Publication Date: February 9, 2021

Why I’m Interested: I’m always on the lookout for a good short story or novella, so I was definitely interested when this book popped upon my radar. Plus, romantic fantasy and comparisons to “Howl’s Moving Castle” are sure to be wins in my book. The story follows Thanh, a princess who has grown up away from home as a political hostage. When she returns, however, things are very different than they were when she first left. She sees the wrongs taking place in her country and crosses paths again with her first love. Now Thanh has to decide for herself what role she wants to take in forming the future of her home and her own life.

Book: “We Are the Fire” by Sam Taylor

Publication Date: February 16, 2021

Why I’m Interested: I’m not going to lie, I initially clicked on this one only because of the cool cover and the fact that I think the cover models look bizarrely like Clarke and Bellamy from the show “The 100.” Look it up, tell me I’m wrong! But I was definitely pulled in by the description of fire warriors who have grown up together in an army they were unwillingly enlisted into. From what I can tell, this book also starts out with an established romance between the two, something you don’t often see in books with romance plots that are heavily featured. I’m excited to see what this book has in store!

Kate’s Picks

Book: “The Project” by Courtney Summers

Publication Date: February 2, 2021

Why I’m Interested: I loved Summers’s previous book “Sadie” so much that I knew that I was going to need to read whatever she came up with next. And just for good measure, this time it’s about a cult! BE STILL MY HEART. Lo is a young woman working for a magazine, whose sister Bea left her life and joined a group called The Unity Project, an organization that is as mysterious as it is powerful. When a man claims that The Project was responsible for his son’s death, Lo sees an opportunity to investigate and perhaps find out what happened to her sister. But as she gets closer to the leader, Lev, she starts to wonder if the rumors about the group are true. The premise alone sounds creepy and tantalizing, and given Summers’s grit you know that there will be lots of darkness to behold.

Book: “The Survivors” by Jane Harper

Publication Date: February 2, 2021

Why I’m Interested: Though we still aren’t revisiting the Aaron Falk series as of yet, I liked Jane Harper’s previous standalone mystery “The Lost Man”. Therefore, it was a no brainer that I read her newest standalone, “The Survivors”. Kieran has returned to his coastal Australian small town with his girlfriend and baby, this visit being the first after a long time away. Kieran and his family suffered a terrible trauma when he was younger, an accident that changed not only them but also the town, which then also had to deal with the fallout of a missing girl who never came home. Now, a body is found on the beach, and the paranoia and pain of the small town comes back to the surface. And long forgotten or pushed down secrets start to bubble up. Harper has shown that she knows how to craft a solid mystery that has a lot of very human elements to it, so “The Survivors” will no doubt have heart as well as suspense.

Book: “The Initial Insult” by Mindy McGinnis

Publication Date: February 23, 2021

Why I’m Interested: We have ourselves another reinterpretation of a story by Edgar Allan Poe, guys!! So of COURSE I’m interested! And while Mindy McGinnis has been a little hit or miss with me, an update of “The Cask of Amontillado” starring two teenage girls just reeks of awesome! Tress Montor and Felicity Turnado used to be best friends…. Until Tress’s parents disappeared while driving Felicity home, and Felicity claims to not remember what happened. Now Tress lives with her strange and mean grandfather on his exotic animal ranch, and Felicity is popular and powerful. So during a party, Tress decides to try and get her to tell the truth, by slowly bricking her into a coal shaft. But when their truths start to come to light, and a panther from the ranch escapes, the stakes go higher and higher. I mean, come on, this sounds SO cool

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

My Year with Jane Austen: “Death Comes to Pemberley”

I could probably continue on an entire extra year reviewing various adaptations and interpretations of Jane Austen’s works. There are plays, spin-off books, modern adaptations, the list goes on and on. Every year it seems there is a new version coming out in some form or another and this last year was no exception. Not only did we get a new feature film of “Emma” but the BBC also released an 8-part mini series of Austen’s unfinished work “Sanditon.” So I wanted to briefly touch on my thoughts of both those and to add in one other adaptation that has been a favorite of mine for quite a while, “Death Comes to Pemberley,” both the book and the 3-part mini series.

Mini Series: “Death Comes to Pemberley”

I’ve read the book this was based on as well (same title and written by P.D. James), but I wanted to focus on the mini series adaptation here as, ultimately, I enjoyed it the most of the two. The book was a solid “Pride and Prejudice” sequel; frankly, it’s probably the best, and only, sequel I’d recommend to people. So the fact that I liked the mini series more is in no way a ding against the book itself. I only read it the one time, so I also wouldn’t bet against my not remembering it well enough to give it the credit it deserves. But on to the mini series itself!

As I mentioned above, this story is a sequel to “Pride and Prejudice.” It takes place mostly at Pemberley and occurs 5 or so years after the book (Darcy and Elizabeth have a 4-ish son, so I’m just guessing, if they mentioned it in the movie/book, I don’t remember). The story is a murder mystery at its heart, revolving around Wickham (who else!) who has been accused of killing his dear friend Denny while in Pemberley woods. The show is a three part mini series that slowly follows Elizabeth and Darcy as they try to put together the clues as to what really happened and whether or not Wickham is innocent or guilty. Along the way, we meet a cast a familiar faces and are given extra information about their histories that wasn’t provided in the original story. We also meet a few new characters, but it’s mostly a returning cast, though the focus is more on characters who played only small roles in the original book, like Georgiana and Colonel Fitzwilliam.

This mini series succeeds at both of its main goals: It is a worthy (and believable!) sequel to a beloved story that ended in such a way that a sequel would typically feel completely unnecessary; and it holds up as a compelling murder mystery in its own right. Had this story been almost exactly the same but with original characters, it would likely be almost just as good (though more fleshing out for characters would obviously be necessary since you couldn’t count on general familiarity and previous knowledge). That is a truly extraordinary feat.

Obviously, much of this comes down to James’ heavy lifting with her book. But I’d wager that of all of the Jane Austen adaptations, “Pride and Prejudice” is the only one with a film/mini series that is almost as beloved and the book itself. Just like James’ had an uphill battle in writing a sequel to the book, this mini series was attempting to re-cast and continue the stories of characters whom many thought couldn’t be improved upon from Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle’s version. Both Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell Martin perfectly balance carrying forward characters who have already been seen on screen several times while keeping them familiar as well as bringing their own twists and mannerisms.

I really liked the mystery itself, too. There are plenty of red herrings and possible scenarios that can lead viewers down false trails. Even better, every aspect reveals new layers to Pemberley, its family, and the people that have lived on the estate for generations. I particularly liked the exploration of Darcy and Georgiana’s feelings towards stewardship and Pemberley. It’s an interesting topic, especially when contrasted with Elizabeth’s experience of life, that while they generally see eye to eye on many things, this is simply something that she can’t really understand. This feeling of responsibility to a place, its people, and one’s own history.

I also really liked the brief moments that showed us some of the challenges that Elizabeth faced (faces) as the new lady of Pemberley. It’s obvious that she’s not the lady of the house that anyone would have expected and with that would come its own set of trials. We also get a look into the insecurities and doubts that both Darcy and Elizabeth still struggle with. Yes, the ending of “Pride and Prejudice” was happily ever after, but marriage has its own set of challenges and one’s personal demons don’t simply disappear when one’s true love shows up.

The only ding I have against this adaptation is its depiction of Colonel Fitzwilliam (again, this was following the book’s lead so it’s not unique to the mini series itself). Personally, I really like what they do with the character here. So my quibble is more about continuality and what feels like a pretty thorough character re-write from what we’re given in the original novel. True, the novel really doesn’t show us much, but we have Darcy’s own esteem for the Colonel and his duel role in bringing up Georgiana to speak to his general good character. But unless you’re a die-hard Fitzwilliam fan, the changes shouldn’t be that distracting.

I really enjoy this mini series, and it’s my regular rotation of Jane Austen re-watches. Like I said, it’s the only worthy sequel to “Pride and Prejudice” I’ve come across, and it also checks all the boxes as a good historical mystery, another favorite of mine. If you haven’t read the book or watched this adaptation, I definitely recommend it for all Jane Austen fans!