Kate’s Review: “The Sandman (Vol.6): Fables and Reflections”

Book: “The Sandman (Vol.6): Fables and Reflections” by Neil Gaiman, Bryan Talbot (Ill.), Stan Woch (Ill.), P. Craig Russell (Ill.), Shawn McManus (Ill.), John Watkiss (Ill.), Jill Thompson (Ill.), Duncan Eagleson (Ill.), & Kent Williams (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Vertigo, 1993

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: FABLES & REFLECTIONS follows the Lord of Dreams through nine remarkable tales as he touches lives from the mists of the past to the nightmares of the present. In these episodes, kings and spies, emperors and actors, ravens and werewolves all share their stories and their dreams–dreams of life and love, and of power and darkness.

Review: When I picked up “The Sandman (Vol.6): Fables and Reflections”, I sighed in disappointment. We were once again going to be focusing on stories that exist within the universe and within Morpheus’s world and realities (or unrealities). While I do appreciate how expansive Gaiman is when it comes to his various mythologies, I admit that coming on the heels of “Game of You” I really just wanted to jump back in with Dream, Death, and the like. But as I started getting back into “Fables and Reflections”, I realized that even though we are still off the main storyline track, there are a lot of really excellent moments in these side stories.

The main thematics of “Fables and Reflections” is various dreamers and leaders throughout history, and how dreams and their dreaming natures affected their lives for better or for worse (worse probably being the story “Thermidor”, which focuses on Robsepierre during the Reign of Terror, the time that no one likes to think about when it comes to revolution fantasies). I had a couple of stories that I especially liked, the first being “Three Septembers and a January”. In this tale, we focus on the obscure but real story of Emperor Norton, a man who just kind of declared himself the Emperor of the United States back in the 1800s. Yes, he was real, and a bit of a local celebrity in San Francisco. In this tale, we get to see snippets of his life as the Endless siblings engage in a wager as to which will claim him before Death does so permanently (with Dream being the least nefarious in his intentions, though Delirium can’t know what she’s doing, she’s Delirium dammit!). We get to see Norton live his life under the delusion of his ‘power’, but also see that while he may be ‘mad’, he’s also just a harmless and pretty good guy. There is a lovely moment between him and Death at the end, which emphasizes the overarching point of the “Emperor” in this collection who had the least amount of power is the one who was the best and kindest ‘ruler’ (see Robespierre above, though Augustus also shows up in this collection). It’s a sweet story that really resonated with me.

The other story that stood out has the most connection to Dream and the Endless, and that is “The Song of Orpheus”. As mentioned in earlier collections, in this universe Orpheus is the son of Calliope and Morpheus, and this is basically a retelling of the Orpheus and Euridyce myth with that twist. It’s a story of fathers and sons, lost love, fate, and how parents can fail their children. It is a gut punch seeing Dream have to reconcile with the fact that Orpheus went against his warnings, and in turn refuses to put Orpheus out of his misery after his dismemberment by the Maenads, dooming his son to live eternity as a disembodied head, all because Orpheus didn’t listen to him about saving Eurydice (well, and because of a ‘rule’ The Endless have about killing family, but that feels second to his own wounded ego). It really emphasizes that while Dream is a great character in a lot of ways, he is horrifically pig headed when it comes to those that he loves, to the point where he treads away from morally grey and into villain territory. But, all the more complexity and depth that will no doubt be explored later!

The artwork shifts between the stories (did you SEE the list of artists at the top?!), and the strongest style for me was in “Ramadan”, a story of Harun al-Rashid ruling in historical Baghdad (I will also say that this story has a lovely grace to it, as it was written during the first Gulf War and Gaiman isn’t afraid to make comment of that). P. Craig Russell is the main artist for this story, and WOW. The style appears to be influenced by art from the time and place, as well as illuminated religious texts, and my goodness it’s just beautiful and vibrant.

(source: Vertigo)

All in all, I ended up enjoying “The Sandman: Fables and Reflections” more than I thought I would on this re-read. It’s wistful and dreamy, and it adds a lot of depth to this amazing world.

Rating 8: A ponderous collection of stories about power, empires, love, and death, “The Sandman: Fables and Reflections” doesn’t really advance the plot, but adds flourish to the universe it exists within.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Sandman (Vol.6): Fables and Reflections” is included on the Goodreads lists “Mythic Fiction Comics”, and “Graphic Novels With The Best Artwork”.

Find “The Sandman (Vol.6): Fables and Reflections” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed:

Kate’s Review: “The Last Final Girl”

Book: “The Last Final Girl” by Stephen Graham Jones

Publishing Info: Lazy Fascist Press, September 2012

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Life in a slasher film is easy. You just have to know when to die.

Aerial View: A suburban town in Texas. Everyone’s got an automatic garage door opener. All the kids jump off a perilous cliff into a shallow river as a rite of passage. The sheriff is a local celebrity. You know this town. You’re from this town.

Zoom In: Homecoming princess, Lindsay. She’s just barely escaped death at the hands of a brutal, sadistic murderer in a Michael Jackson mask. Up on the cliff, she was rescued by a horse and bravely defeated the killer, alone, bra-less. Her story is already a legend. She’s this town’s heroic final girl, their virgin angel.

Monster Vision: Halloween masks floating down that same river the kids jump into. But just as one slaughter is not enough for Billie Jean, our masked killer, one victory is not enough for Lindsay. Her high school is full of final girls, and she’s not the only one who knows the rules of the game.

When Lindsay chooses a host of virgins, misfits, and former final girls to replace the slaughtered members of her original homecoming court, it’s not just a fight for survival-it’s a fight to become The Last Final Girl.

Review: I’m sure it’s come up before, but I love slasher movies. There isn’t necessarily much depth to them, and there are certainly problematic elements to many of them, but I thoroughly enjoy sitting down and taking in the likes of “Friday the 13th”, “Sleepaway Camp”, “Halloween”, and “Nightmare on Elm Street”. And many, many others. High School Kate loved them because of The Final Girl trope, in which the nice, shy, virginal girl was ultimately the one to come out of it at the end, traumatized but alive and ready to fight another day, as there was a lot to relate to with that portrayal at the time. I still like The Final Girl idea, even if it, too, is a bit problematic, and the gang that includes Laurie Strode, Tree Gelbman, and Sidney Prescott (and MANY others) is a girls club that I love. Which brings me to Stephen Graham Jones and his book “The Last Final Girl”. Which is a love letter to the genre that I love that twists it all up into something wicked and fun.

You know I love a good subversion of a genre. (source)

“The Last Final Girl” is a meta, experimental narrative with shifting points of view, stage direction, a script like structure, and bucket after bucket of blood as a number of ‘final girls’ find themselves in a Thunderdome-like fight to the finish, all while a slasher killer in a Michael Jackson mask is picking them and others off. While I did find the narrative structure a bit jarring at first, once I eased into it and got used to it it was easier to follow. This is probably the biggest hurdle for this story, as everything else worked pretty damn well for me. “The Last Final Girl” is filled with oodles of slasher movie references, from characters sharing names with movie heroines and villains (characters with names like Ripley, or Baker, or my favorite Crystal Blake, as if you remove the B, what do you get?), to references to plot points, tropes, actors, actresses, what have you. It’s a major opus of taking so many things and blending them together into a story that’s part deconstruction, part satire, part gore-fest. I loved finding the little Easter Eggs sprinkled throughout, as I love a good game of ‘spot the reference’.

I also thought that Jones created some fun protagonists in our troop of Final Girls. Izzy, the weirdo misfit and main girl we follow, was particularly fun, as, like many of the characters, she’s aware that she’s in a slasher film scenario, and is doing her best to adjust to it and perhaps get through it until the end. And on top of all of that, Jones tweaks and toys with preconceived notions of slasher films, virginal final girls, and masked killers (though given the details that have come out more and more about Michael Jackson in the past year or so, what may have been a sly twist at the time now feels all the more ominous and icky). It never feels like these twists or subversions are trying to outdo the original source material; on the contrary, you definitely feel the affection that Jones has for the genre as a whole, even as he’s playing with it a bit. It feels more like “Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon” in that way as opposed to “Cabin in the Woods” when looking at deconstructing horror tropes. I felt that “Vernon” was parodying the genre with affection, with “Cabin” came off as feeling smugly superior to it (this is just my opinion, however).

I will say that if you aren’t well versed in the slasher genre, and if experimental writing styles confound you, “The Last Final Girl” is probably not going to be the book for you. I think that if I wasn’t so into the genre as a whole I would have been completely turned off by the narrative style, as the reason I kept going at first was because of the theme at hand. If it wasn’t a story by an author I really enjoy, and a genre homage that I hold close to my heart, I don’t know if I’d have been able to get past the experimental style choices. As mentioned above, I got into it as it went on. But it took a little adjustment.

Overall, I enjoyed “The Last Final Girl”. It made me want to have a full slasher movie marathon by the time I was done with it.

Rating 8: A brutal, fun, and funny love letter to slasher movies, though it may not translate as well if you’re unfamiliar with the topic.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Last Final Girl” is included on the Goodreads lists “Slasher Fiction (No Novelizations”, and “Books About Small Towns”.

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

Kate’s Review: “Flamer”

Book: “Flamer” by Mike Curato

Publishing Info: Henry Holt and Co. BYR-Paperbacks, September 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Award-winning author and artist Mike Curato draws on his own experiences in Flamer, his debut graphic novel, telling a difficult story with humor, compassion, and love.

I know I’m not gay. Gay boys like other boys. I hate boys. They’re mean, and scary, and they’re always destroying something or saying something dumb or both.

I hate that word. Gay. It makes me feel . . . unsafe.

It’s the summer between middle school and high school, and Aiden Navarro is away at camp. Everyone’s going through changes—but for Aiden, the stakes feel higher. As he navigates friendships, deals with bullies, and spends time with Elias (a boy he can’t stop thinking about), he finds himself on a path of self-discovery and acceptance.

Review: I never did the whole summer camp thing as a kid. As far as I got was the YMCA Day camp program, but I was such an anxious kid with separation anxiety issues like whoa, overnight sleep away camp was NEVER going to work. I do feel like I missed something, especially since my sister did do one and really enjoyed it. So I do like reading stories that take place at summer camp. I stumbled upon “Flamer” by Mike Curato on Goodreads, and the themes sounded very much in my wheelhouse.

In some ways, “Flamer” feels a bit like the graphic memoir “Honor Girl” in that it has a teenager at camp struggling with their sexuality in the mid 90s. But for me the difference is that Aiden, our main character and fictionalized portrayal of Curato, has a lot more self loathing and and a lot more fear about his sexuality. Aiden is an outsider already, in that he’s bi-racial, he’s on the chubbier side, and he’s an easy target at his middle school, as well as for his emotionally abusive father. So while he has usually felt like he fits in at Scout Camp, his burgeoning sexuality starts to drive his anxiety up, especially as the micro aggressions and flat out bigotry of the time start to become more and more apparent. The story is mostly the last week at Scout Camp, as his safe space starts to feel less safe, and he moves towards an unknown future of high school and self discovery. Curato doesn’t shy away from the ugliness that Aiden has to deal with, be it because of his heritage, because of how he presents as more femme than his fellow Scouts, and how these stresses and the bullying is taking a toll on him and driving him to dark places. Aiden could be a mirror for many kids who are dealing with their own identity discoveries, and how the world around them can make those discoveries hard. The cruelty isn’t limited to fellow Scouts, but also pops up with Leaders who seem supportive, but have their own prejudices that they are harboring and that aren’t as hidden as they may think.

There is also a prevalent theme about Aiden’s Catholic Faith, and how he has always been drawn to certain aspects of the religion and the rituals. I know VERY little about Catholicism, but I thought that Curato really evoked the appreciation that Aiden has, from being an Alter Boy to having a favorite Saint that he relates to, to the struggles he has with his sexuality because of what he believes his religion says about LGBTQIA people. It’s a really fine line that Curato walks in that he definitely condemns the bigotry of those who may practice the religion, but never points fingers at the religion itself, nor does he say that the religion is ‘bad’ in this situation. I think that it would be easy to either condemn the religion as a whole, or to let it and all of its adherents off. but Curato finds a balance in the middle, and it works very well, and makes some of the moments near the end of the story all the more heartbreaking and powerful.

Along with those aspects, Curato also has a great author’s note in the back, as well as a list of resources for kids who may be dealign with the same things that Aiden is dealing with. I love it when books do this, and it feels like a really great resource to have in this story in particular.

And finally, the art work. LOVED it. It’s black and white, but there are splashes of color, specifically those of reds, oranges, and yellows. All of those work for passion, for fire, for anger, for love, and it makes the moments they are used pop and all the more powerful.

“Flamer” is a bittersweet and hopeful graphic novel that I hope people get in kids hands. You never know who is going to need a story like this.

Rating 8: Evocative, emotional, and necessary reading, “Flamer” is a touching and hopeful story about learning to love and accept yourself.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Flamer” is included on the Goodreads lists “Summer Camp Teens”, and “Guides and Scouts”.

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

Kate’s Review: “Concrete Rose”

Book: “Concrete Rose” by Angie Thomas

Publishing Info: Balzer + Bray, January 2021

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

Book Description: International phenomenon Angie Thomas revisits Garden Heights seventeen years before the events of The Hate U Give in this searing and poignant exploration of Black boyhood and manhood.

If there’s one thing seventeen-year-old Maverick Carter knows, it’s that a real man takes care of his family. As the son of a former gang legend, Mav does that the only way he knows how: dealing for the King Lords. With this money he can help his mom, who works two jobs while his dad’s in prison.

Life’s not perfect, but with a fly girlfriend and a cousin who always has his back, Mav’s got everything under control. Until, that is, Maverick finds out he’s a father.

Suddenly he has a baby, Seven, who depends on him for everything. But it’s not so easy to sling dope, finish school, and raise a child. So when he’s offered the chance to go straight, he takes it. In a world where he’s expected to amount to nothing, maybe Mav can prove he’s different.

When King Lord blood runs through your veins, though, you can’t just walk away. Loyalty, revenge, and responsibility threaten to tear Mav apart, especially after the brutal murder of a loved one. He’ll have to figure out for himself what it really means to be a man.

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

Back in 2019 when Angie Thomas’s “On The Come Up” made my Favorite Read list for the year, I promised myself that even though her genre isn’t usually one I cover, I would make exception for her books. Both that one and “The Hate U Give” made my lists, so when “Concrete Rose”, her newest novel, was announced I knew that it would be the first to keep the promise. I was STUNNED when I saw that it was available for request on NetGalley, but took advantage of that and downloaded it. We were finally going to get the backstory for Maverick Carter, Starr’s compelling father in “The Hate U Give”. And I was very interested to see where that backstory went.

While her previous works have tackled social justice themes and Black girlhood, “Concrete Rose” now has a focus on that of Black boyhood, and the difficulties it can entail in a racist society. When we met Maverick in “The Hate U Give”, he is a loving father and very well respected member in his community of Garden Heights. In “Concrete Rose” he’s seventeen, he’s a member of the King Lords (the gang his father was a high ranking member of), and he’s just found out that he’s the father of a three month old baby that had previously been believed to be his best friend’s (you may remember King from THUG). It’s a lot of change and a lot of pressure, and Maverick doesn’t know how to tell his girlfriend Lisa about the baby, and doesn’t want to sell weed anymore now that he is a father who needs to be there. Thomas, unsurprisingly, captures Maverick’s voice very well, as he feels like an authentic teenager who can make bad decisions, but has a lot of heart and determination. We also see the barriers that he has to face due to systemic and societal racism and the poverty that his community is dealing with. He wants to support his son, and stay in school, AND go straight so that he doesn’t end up like his own incarcerated father, but there are few opportunities, and dealing, though dangerous, feels like the only way to be successful. It’s a very empathetic look at why decisions are made to join gangs and to deal, as for Maverick, when things get really hard, it feels like the only support system he has. While I don’t think that it connected with me as much as THUG and “On the Come Up”, I do think that “Concrete Rose” will connect with other readers, especially boys who see themselves in Maverick.

In terms of being a prequel to “The Hate U Give”, “Concrete Rose” does stand well enough on its own. There are certainly a couple of references to the other book with characters and some other plot points that are mentioned, but if you go into this one without any knowledge you aren’t going to feel like you’re missing anything. I really like that Thomas decided to look more at Maverick, as he was definitely one of my favorite characters in THUG. I loved seeing Mav and Lisa’s relationship as well, as in THUG they are Starr’s parents, but in “Concrete Rose” they are a burgeoning teenage couple with ups and downs. As someone who used to dabble in fiction writing, and as someone who ALSO found herself wanting to go back and explore characters that were supposed to be supporting characters only, I definitely LOVE that we got to see Mav and Lisa go through these ups and downs with the spotlight on the two of them. Some reviews I’ve seen has questioned whether this love story needed to be explored, but so what if it didn’t ‘need’ to be? It’s a great story regardless of ‘need’.

“Concrete Rose” is another well done book by Angie Thomas, whose voice and skills are undeniable and so, so important to YA fiction right now. I’ll be curious to see what comes next. While I wouldn’t mind a whole new tale, this book proves that she could go back and explore other characters and give them rich and emotional back stories.

Rating 8: A heartfelt and emotional prequel to one of the most important YA novels of the 21st Century, “Concrete Rose” gives a great backstory to a compelling character.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Concrete Rose” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Books for BLM Movement”, and “Contemporary Books with Black Leads”.

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

Kate’s Review: “Harrow Lake”

Book: “Harrow Lake” by Kat Ellis

Publishing Info: Dial Books, August 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: Ebook from the library!

Book Description: Things I know about Harrow Lake: 1.It’s where my father shot his most disturbing slasher film. 2.There’s something not right about this town.

Lola Nox is the daughter of a celebrated horror filmmaker–she thinks nothing can scare her.

But when her father is brutally attacked in their New York apartment, she’s quickly packed off to live with a grandmother she’s never met in Harrow Lake, the eerie town where her father’s most iconic horror movie was shot. The locals are weirdly obsessed with the film that put their town on the map–and there are strange disappearances, which the police seem determined to explain away.

And there’s someone–or something–stalking her every move.

The more Lola discovers about the town, the more terrifying it becomes. Because Lola’s got secrets of her own. And if she can’t find a way out of Harrow Lake, they might just be the death of her.

Review: Even though I generally have my finger on the pulse of upcoming horror fiction, it does happen that I miss titles here and there. Because of that, I like to see various lists of horror and thriller titles that are in the pipeline. “Harrow Lake” by Kat Ellis ended up being one of those titles, as I hadn’t heard of it before I saw it on a YA horror list. I was rather bummed that I missed it, as the elements of a slasher movie, a secretive small town, and an urban legend check a lot of boxes for my horror fiction jollies. Luckily the wait wasn’t too long for the eBook hold list, and I got “Harrow Lake” in a timely manner.

As mentioned, “Harrow Lake” has a lot of potential when it comes to hitting many a thing that I like in horror fiction. Our protagonist, Lola, is the daughter of a notorious slasher film director, so we get a fun and extensive look into a fictional filmography of splatter gore flicks that sound like a hoot. We also have the small town of Harrow Lake that has some strange inhabitants, a reputation because of the movie Lola’s Dad filmed there (where he met her mother, who disappeared from her life when she was little). The eeriness of the town was palpable and built slowly, which was a nice way to build unease as well. The biggest factor in the strangeness is the urban legend of Mister Jitters, a being that sounds like he has chattering teeth and who keeps haunting Lola at every turn as she finds herself stranded in Harrow Lake with her maternal grandmother after her father is attacked and hospitalized. I loved the lore of Mister Jitters, the kind of small town monster story that I never got to experience as a child given my upbringing in a bustling urban area, and I thought that Ellis really captured it well. Her writing style was also interesting, giving me a good feel for the town itself and the reasons why it was the way it was.

But as the book kept going, it became pretty clear that “Harrow Lake” wasn’t living up to the potential that was oozing from its description. Lola is an unreliable narrator in a lot of ways, but I didn’t really find myself connecting with her even as the story went on. It does start to make sense as to why she is the way that she is, but even that reveal and explanation didn’t quite make up for a cliched personality and uninteresting characterization. The ways that her background was slowly pulled out felt a little garbled in some ways, with the sudden appearance of an imaginary friend feeling abrupt while other ways that addressed her mental state not feeling well explored. I could see a few of the twists coming from a mile away, and there were a few plot points that built up mysteries that didn’t really pay off for me. And I don’t want to spoil anything for those who do want to go on and read it, but let’s just say that Mister Jitters didn’t live up to all that I had hoped for him. Ultimately the pay off wasn’t that scary, and I had gone in with high hopes of urban legend scares.

At the end of the day, I felt like there were a lot of missed opportunities in this book, and that was really too bad. It may be that this book will connect with other people who give it a try, but for me it was a bit of a miss. I could see myself trying again with Ellis as her writing style was intriguing, but this one didn’t work.

Rating 5: There was a lot of interesting potential here, but “Harrow Lake” never quite clicked with me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Harrow Lake” isn’t on many specific Goodreads lists, but it would fit in on “Small Towns with Secrets“.

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

Kate’s Review: “Atonement”

Book: “Atonement” (Cerenia Chronicles 3) by Angela Howes

Publishing Info: Fine Tuned Editing, January 2021

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

Book Description: They stopped Absalom. They saved the city. But what if recovery isn’t quite so easy? What if there are more monsters lurking inside the city walls? What if the true monster is one of them? In the much-anticipated conclusion to the Phoebe Ray series, Phoebe, Sky, Noah, and the gang must face a new kind of villain, make amends with the past, and learn what it means to truly belong.

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

There is a song by The Who called “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, which has the line ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’. While I wouldn’t say that it’s an anti-revolutionary ditty, I do think that it brings up a good point of you can’t always know that those you back who have lofty promises of change can be trusted to follow through. I also kind of liken it to how the French Revolution ultimately ended up with Napoleon in charge after all was said and done. In any case, whenever you hear Roger Daltrey yell “YEAAAAAAAAH”, it’s almost guaranteed that it’s from this song, and it’s legendary.

I am so sorry, I had to use this GIF, just pretend he’s yelling YEAAAAAH! (source)

I was thinking a lot about that song as I read “Atonement” by Angela Howes, the final story in the Cerenia Chronicles. After all, at the end of the previous book, “Containment”, our protagonist Phoebe had helped end the dictatorship that was run by Absalom, and Cerenia was on the cusp of a new dawn, as the system of Ones and Twos was finally to be done away with, and Phoebe was going to help rebuild society into something better. But as we soon learn, if only it were THAT easy.

We left “Containment” with Phoebe, boyfriend Sky, ex boyfriend Noah, and her other friends and family dealing with the fallout from Abasalom, the previous leader, being thrown in prison. “Atonement” decides to focus on how Phoebe is trying to change society from within the confines of its power structure, and that is already an interesting take that I haven’t encountered in my YA dystopia literature. Phoebe is confident that she and the Council can rebuild, but it’s pretty clear that it’s not going to be that easy, and that someone else in power likes the idea of a power grab. Our narrative focuses on Phoebe trying to keep everything together, as well as balancing out her relationships, the safety of those she loves, and trying to figure out the best way to rebuild a society that has a lot of damage and long lasting effects that can’t just be done away with so easily. I loved this focus, and I loved seeing her have to see how damn hard it is to fix things even after the corruption is gone. She has to make hard decisions that others don’t necessarily understand, and it gave her more depth and complexity.

Our perspectives expand once again from the last book to this one. While we still have the three main lines of Phoebe, Sky, and Noah, other characters like Phoebe’s sister Violet, fellow councilmember Roderick, and others have been added to the shuffle. I can’t really decide what I think about all the new perspectives, as on one hand I liked having more insight into how all of these other people are adjusting, some of them just felt a little superfluous. I was still mostly interested in Phoebe as she tries to weed out corruption, but it was Sky’s that brought the next most interesting themes, as he is clearly dealing with trauma and PTSD after the events in the previous book. Given that Sky and Phoebe are my favorite characters and I’m invested in their relationship, I was happy(?) to see that one of the central conflicts coming between them wasn’t Noah. Not that trauma is something I WANT for a couple as a hurdle, but it felt more realistic than trotting out a love triangle just for the sake of the drama.

And in terms of plot and pacing, the action and suspense in this book builds slowly and then really amps up the stakes as the story goes on. When things start to spiral, the action just increases, and I found myself very on edge about what was going to happen. There were a good number of twists thrown in too, and throw backs to previous plot points that all come back together for the grand finale. All in all, I was quite satisfied with how things shook out, for better or for worse.

“Atonement” went in a direction that I wasn’t expecting, and I think that it was better for it. We may not see as much dystopian fiction in YA these days, but The Cerenia Chronicles is definitely a worthy series to add to the selection.

Rating 8: A satisfying ending to an enjoyable series.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Atonement” isn’t on any Goodreads lists as of yet, but if you like books like “Divergent”“Matched”, or “The Testing” you will probably find this one fun as well!

“Atonement” isn’t in very many libraries as of now, but you can find it on Amazon.

Previously Reviewed:

Kate’s Review: “Eight Perfect Murders”

Book: “Eight Perfect Murders” by Peter Swanson

Publishing Info: William Morrow, March 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: Audible

Book Description: A chilling tale of psychological suspense and an homage to the thriller genre tailor-made for fans: the story of a bookseller who finds himself at the center of an FBI investigation because a very clever killer has started using his list of fiction’s most ingenious murders.

Years ago, bookseller and mystery aficionado Malcolm Kershaw compiled a list of the genre’s most unsolvable murders, those that are almost impossible to crack—which he titled “Eight Perfect Murders”—chosen from among the best of the best including Agatha Christie’s A. B. C. Murders, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, Ira Levin’s Death Trap, A. A. Milne’s Red House Mystery, Anthony Berkeley Cox’s Malice Aforethought, James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, John D. Macdonald’s The Drowner, and Donna Tartt’s A Secret History.

But no one is more surprised than Mal, now the owner of the Old Devils Bookshop in Boston, when an FBI agent comes knocking on his door one snowy day in February. She’s looking for information about a series of unsolved murders that look eerily similar to the killings on Mal’s old list. And the FBI agent isn’t the only one interested in this bookseller who spends almost every night at home reading. The killer is out there, watching his every move—a diabolical threat who knows way too much about Mal’s personal history, especially the secrets he’s never told anyone, even his recently deceased wife.

To protect himself, Mal begins looking into possible suspects—and sees a killer in everyone around him. But Mal doesn’t count on the investigation leaving a trail of death in its wake. Suddenly, a series of shocking twists leaves more victims dead—and the noose around Mal’s neck grows so tight he might never escape.

Review: As we say goodbye to the year 2020 (and hope that 2021 is better….), I look back at the complete shitshow that we leave behind and I see ways that I was affected that I hadn’t really thought about at the time. There are many, but for this review I’m going to talk about the lack of audiobooks on my list. In normal times I would probably listen to about one audiobook a month, mostly when driving to work or wherever. But with my job being on hold until the pandemic is better controlled and it’s safer, I haven’t been driving so I really wasn’t listening to things outside of my favorite podcast. But once the weather got a little cooler, I started taking my daughter on walks around the neighborhood, and my audiobook intake rose once more (though with winter being here now I am doing more listening at night before bed). Enter “Eight Perfect Murders” by Peter Swanson, the audiobook I got right before things went to hell. Months after I downloaded it, I finally dove in. Peter Swanson, I’m sorry I waited so long.

In true Swanson form, “Eight Perfect Murders” has a weird mystery at its heart, a narrator who is unreliable and perhaps hiding something from the reader, and a compulsively readable style that made my walks with the kid a bit longer than normal. Our protagonist is Malcolm Kershaw, a bookstore owner who finds himself being questioned in a string of murders, as the murders seem to be mimicking a blog post he made years ago where he selected ‘eight perfect murders’ from mystery fiction. The FBI agent, Gwen, knows that the theory is a bit nutty, but wants his insight after she rules him out as a suspect. Malcolm cooperates, if only to help clear his name, but also because he realizes that this is a cat and mouse game between him and the person who read his post and has started killing people. It’s pretty clear pretty early that Malcolm has some skeletons in his closet, and since Swanson has kind of made the ‘interesting and also kinda likable (or at least easy to root for) psychopath’ a bit of a trope, some aspects of this mystery were kind of predictable. Or if not predictable, not shocking when the reveals were done. I liked Malcolm a lot, actually. I also liked Gwen. And I wanted to know what was happening in the story, be it trying to see who was targeting Malcolm, or what Malcolm may have to hide. And at the end of the day, the big reveal did surprise me, which is the important thing when it comes to a mystery story.

What I liked more about this book is that it’s really a love letter to mystery books and book lovers. Swanson references so many authors, stories, series, and moments within the genre that I had a huge grin on my face basically the whole time I was listening. Swanson very clearly loves this genre and this book was a carefully crafted homage to it. I haven’t read a good number of the stories on the Eight Perfect Murders list, but because of this book I’m definitely going to look into a few of them.

On top of everything else, it is claimed on Goodreads that this is the first in a series that is implied to focus on Malcolm. I won’t go into spoilers here, but I will say that the book ends in a way that I am not totally certain how that is going to work, it it’s true. But if it is true?

“Eight Perfect Murders” was a fun and engrossing thriller mystery that (for the most part) kept me guessing. Swanson is still an author that I want more people to get on board with. If you’re looking for new authors to try in 2021, he may be a good choice!

Rating 8: A fast paced and thrilling mystery and love letter to books. Though somewhat predictable at times, I am VERY interested to see how/if Swanson will continue this series, as implied…

Reader’s Advisory:

“Eight Perfect Murders” is included on the Goodreads lists “Unreliable Narrators”, and “Books About Books”.

Find “Eight Perfect Murders” at your library using WorldCat, at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Redbone: The True Story of a Native American Rock Band”

Book: “Redbone: The True Story of a Native American Rock Band” by Christian Staebler, Sonia Paoloni, and Thibault Balahy (Ill.)

Publishing Info: IDW Publishing, September 2020

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

Book Description: Experience the riveting, powerful story of the Native American civil rights movement and the resulting struggle for identity told through the high-flying career of west coast rock n’ roll pioneers Redbone.

You’ve heard the hit song “Come and Get Your Love” in the movie Guardians of the Galaxy, but the story of the band behind it is one of cultural, political, and social importance.

Brothers Pat and Lolly Vegas were talented Native American rock musicians that took the 1960s Sunset Strip by storm. They influenced The Doors and jammed with Jimmy Hendrix before he was “Jimi,” and the idea of a band made up of all Native Americans soon followed. Determined to control their creative vision and maintain their cultural identity, they eventually signed a deal with Epic Records in 1969. But as the American Indian Movement gained momentum the band took a stand, choosing pride in their ancestry over continued commercial reward.

Created with the cooperation of the Vegas family, authors Christian Staebler and Sonia Paolini with artist Thibault Balahy take painstaking steps to ensure the historical accuracy of this important and often overlooked story of America’s past. Part biography and part research journalism, Redbone provides a voice to a people long neglected in American history.

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

As we all know, I am not really all that versed in Marvel movies, though I did see “Guardians of the Galaxy” once and enjoyed it overall. One of the things that made me realize I was in for a treat was when Star Lord started playing “Come And Get Your Love” on his Walkman as he went to salvage some stuff. I like that song, having first heard it via sample by Cyndi Lauper in her remix of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” for “To Wong Foo”. So I liked the song, but had no knowledge of the band Redbone, who sings it. When “Redbone: The True Story of a Native American Rock Band” was brought to my attention, I jumped at the chance to read it. I was expecting a pretty straightforward rock and roll biographic novel, but was pleasantly surprised to find out that it had a bit more to say.

“Redbone” tells two stories, one being a personal recollection and the other being of a growing movement in the United States. The book follows brothers Pat and Lolly Vegas (thought Pat’s eyes), who eventually formed Redbone, the first commercially successful Native rock band. We follow their history on the Sunset Strip in the 1960s, hanging out with famous acts like The Doors and Jimi Hendrix, and see how they formed their own band that seemed to be on the way to stardom. The other story is of the American Indian Movement (or AIM), a social justice/activist group that focuses on Native rights and formed in Minneapolis in the 1960s. As Pat, Lolly, and the rest of the band began to live the rock and roll lifestyle, the rights of other Native people started being promoted and fought for, which intertwined with their rock careers as they wanted to bring their heritage and own activism into the band.

I liked hearing the backstories of the band itself, and also seeing a broad but informative look into the Residential School system in this country, and AIM and the activism and protests that it brought to the public consciousness. I was fairly familiar with most of the activism and protests that this book covers, and found the explanations to be easy to understand and powerful in both the personal and the communal effects it had. Given that history classes neglect so much non-white history in our schools, I thought that this book would be a great resource for educators to use when wanting to give an introduction to AIM and the social justice issues it tackles both then and now. I also appreciated that this story did address the racism that Redbone had to face in the music industry because of their heritage, and how it’s very clear that their pride in their heritage and want to assert their rights as Native people is what ended their careers when they had SO much talent. I’m pretty damn mad that I didn’t know anything about this band before now, when their most famous song is one that I’ve known and liked for a long time. That’s partially on me, of course. And I’m happy that this book is out there to educate readers on their story, and the broader story of AIM.

I did have a little hard time with the graphic style at first. The images aren’t in a clear linear box design, in that a lot of the time they all bleed together into larger images. Sometimes I had a hard time parsing out which dialogue bits happened where, but I eventually adjusted. And it wasn’t exactly hard to figure it out based on context. Overall I like the unique and nontraditional style.

“Redbone: The True Story of a Native American Rock Band” is a great introduction to the greater fight for Native Rights in the U.S., and finally puts a spotlight on a band that had success taken from them. If you want to know more about an important part of Rock and Roll history, check this out!

Rating 8: A fascinating history of a long neglected band, as well as an overview of the beginnings and contributions of the American Indian Movement, “Redbone: The True Story of a Native American Rock Band” is an informative and interesting graphic novel!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Redbone: The True Story of a Native American Rock Band” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but I think it would fit in on “Native American Biography (Non-fiction)”, and “Best Books on Rock and Roll”.

Find “Redbone: The True story of a Native American Rock Band” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Favorite Reads 2020: Picks 5 Through 1

Another a year, another almost impossible task trying to each choose our Top 10 Reads of the year! Like past years I won’t be including re-reads, and I also realized that sometimes my opinion of a book could change and evolve after I had read it, so some surprises may be up near the top. Boy let me tell you it was a HARD year to pick ten, as it was a year of HIGH quality books. And since it’s the end of the reading year, don’t forget to enter our “Twelve Days of Christmas Giveaway”! Today I’m going to countdown my favorites reads, five to one. 

5. “This Is My America” by Kim Johnson

“This Is My America” Review

This YA thriller/mystery took a hard look at the racial disparities in the American Justice System and threw in a suspenseful mystery as well. I devoured this debut novel from Kim Johnson, in which Tracy, a Black teenage girl whose father is on Death Row for a murder he didn’t commit, now has to contend with her brother being accused of a murder he didn’t commit. As Tracy tries to find evidence to clear her brother’s name as well as bringing light to the miscarriage of justice regarding her father, she uncovers a corrupt and racist sector of her community that puts her and her family in danger. This book was fast paced, timely, and thought provoking, and I greatly enjoyed it.

4. “Grown” by Tiffany D. Jackson

“Grown” Review

Tiffany D. Jackson is one of my favorite YA thriller authors writing right now, and “Grown” is probably her best book yet. This gripping and raw look into misogynoir, rape culture, and sexual exploitation is a hard read, but again, necessary as well. Teenage Enchanted Jones has dreams of stardom, and when R and B megastar Korey Fields notices her talents and offers to make her a star, she jumps at the chance. When he romances her she thinks it’s too good to be true, but their ‘romance’ turns abusive, controlling, and dangerous. When Korey ends up dead, Enchanted has to clear her name. Inspired by true events, “Grown” shows how Black girls have to grow up too fast, and how society doesn’t protect them the way that it should. Again, hard to read. But necessary.

3. “The Glass Hotel” by Emily St. John Mandel

“The Glass Hotel” Review

Emily St. Mandel follows up her plague tale “Station Eleven” with a story about Ponzi Schemes, responsibility, and power. Lives intersect and weave in and out, as one man scams a number of people into financial ruin, another man makes a decision that costs him a job and a relationship, and a woman, before she disappears, has to confront the part she played in wrecking others lives by standing by in silence. St. Mandel pulls together a tragic yet hopeful and very haunting tale that finds the little things that keep people resilient, and how resilience can sometimes come at a terrible cost. Her writing style is lyrical and beautiful, and as a friend of mine once joked, ‘can make Ponzi Schemes seem interesting and gripping!’ What a beautiful literary tale.

2. “The Last Book on the Left” by Marcus Parks, Ben Kissel, and Henry Zebrowski

“The Last Book on the Left” Review

My favorite podcast turned into a book, and boy was it worth the wait and the hype in my mind. Marcus Parks, Ben Kissel, and Henry Zebrowski bring deep dive research, non fiction narration, and witty (and sometimes stupid) commentary to a number of stories of notorious serial killers. They manage to bring the best elements of their podcast to book form, and while I had been expecting the research and actual story aspects to translate just fine, it was the hilarious commentary that caught be my surprise in how well it worked. I would absolutely love it if these guys would do what “Lore” did and write more books within the other realms of their podcasts, and to do what “Lore” didn’t do and to continue making original and new content regarding these stories. Hail Yourselves, guys! This book was fantastic!!

1. “The Year of the Witching” by Alexis Henderson

“The Year of the Witching” Review

My number one pick of 2020 eked out “Last Book on the Left” because of the timeliness and cathartic nature of the story, as well was the theme: motherfucking witches, baby. Feminist witches at that. The story of Immanuelle Moore, a teenager in a puritanical society of zealotry and misogyny, is an outcast from society because of her mother, who ran into the woods where witches dwelled, and came back to give birth to a baby out of wedlock. Immanuelle has been drawn to the Darkwood, and after getting lost inside she encounters the dark things that live there, who give her her mother’s diary. As Immanuelle reads the diary, something inside of her starts to arise, and the hypocrisy of the Church and its leaders may not be able to silence her. The feminism! The witch lore! The damning of the Patriarchy! “The Year of the Witching” is scary, empowering, powerful, and my favorite read of 2020, a year where it was very hard to feel powerful sometimes.

So there’s my complete list! What were your top five reads of 2020?

Kate’s Favorite Reads of 2020: Picks 10 Through 6

Another a year, another almost impossible task trying to each choose our Top 10 Reads of the year! Like past years I won’t be including re-reads, and I also realized that sometimes my opinion of a book could change and evolve after I had read it, so some surprises may be up near the top. Boy let me tell you it was a HARD year to pick ten, as it was a year of HIGH quality books. And since it’s the end of the reading year, don’t forget to enter our “Twelve Days of Christmas Giveaway”! Today I’m going to countdown my favorite reads, ten to six. 

10. “Superman Smashes the Klan” by Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru (Ill.)

“Superman Smashes the Klan” Review

I love me some DC as you all know, and I am still super thrilled that Gene Luen Yang will take on various titles every one in awhile. But “Superman Smashes the Klan” is above and beyond his other Superman stories, if only because of how seamlessly he weaves in themes of social justice and anti-racism along with the Superman stuff. Not only do we have some well done and nuanced takes on the difficulties of immigrant families when it comes to dealing with racism and the expectations to assimilate, we get a fantastic juxtaposition with Superman, who has his own identity hurdles that he’s facing. And who doesn’t love seeing a stand in for the Klan get their asses handed to them by one of the most beloved superheroes of all time?

9. “The Return” by Rachel Harrison

“The Return” Review

Weird hotel? Check! A strained female friendship? Check! Creepy imagery and a totally unsettling horror undercurrent that ties these things together and more? Check mate! “The Return” is an unsettling horror story about a missing woman who suddenly reappears, and her closest (but waning) friend realizes that something about her is… off. But what “The Return” is really about is how sometimes friendships slowly melt away, and how we have to come to terms with letting go of something that is no longer giving us what we need, even though it brought us joy in the past. It’s a horror story that had the right amount of pathos, frustration, and bittersweetness to go with some really scary moments.

8. “Mexican Gothic” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

“Mexican Gothic” Joint Review

A Gothic horror story set in the rural Mexican countryside, starring a Latina woman who is battling an unknown malevolent force that is inside the home of a white, Colonialist family? Hot damn, now THAT sounds interesting! And “Mexican Gothic” certainly was a wild and disturbing read that subverted a lot of Gothic tropes. Noemí enters the strange and dark setting of My Place and introduces us to some twisted body horror, a screed against colonialism, and a genuinely haunting and atmospheric tale of terror that continues the grand tradition of using horror to address issues of social justice. And now Silvia Moreno-Garcia is on my must read list of authors.

7. “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” by Holly Jackson

“A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” Review

While sometimes popular YA thrillers don’t quite catch my attention as much as I want them to, “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” completely exceeded my expectations and became one of my favorite thrillers of 2020! Plucky teen Pip’s obsession with a local murder case sucks her into a tangled web of suspects, threats, and lies, and as she works to clear the name of a suspect whose family is still grieving, she finds twists, turns, and lots of surprises. I was completely enthralled by this book, and I cannot WAIT for the sequel, which will be arriving in April (and has already been pre-ordered from my favorite indie children’s book store)! “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” is a hoot and a half.

6. “The Only Good Indians” by Stephen Graham Jones

“The Only Good Indians” Review

2020 was the year I finally got in gear and read Stephen Graham Jones, and his newest horror novel “The Only Good Indians” was quite the story to start with. This folk horror tale about four Indigenous men who did something terrible on a hunting trip, and then become hunted themselves, burrowed into my brain and kept me thinking about it for days afterwards. But again, along with the horror comes a story about identity, tradition, grief, and trauma, and the heart and hope that glimmer amongst the despair and destruction was incredibly emotional and touching. A truly visceral and haunting horror tale that may not be for the faint of heart, but should be read by horror fans everywhere.

So that’s ten through six. Next time I will give a countdown of my top five. What have been some of your favorite reads of 2020?