Kate’s Review: “Two Can Keep A Secret”

38225791Book: “Two Can Keep A Secret” by Karen M. McManus

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, January 2019

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

Book Description: Echo Ridge is small-town America. Ellery’s never been there, but she’s heard all about it. Her aunt went missing there at age seventeen. And only five years ago, a homecoming queen put the town on the map when she was killed. Now Ellery has to move there to live with a grandmother she barely knows.

The town is picture-perfect, but it’s hiding secrets. And before school even begins for Ellery, someone’s declared open season on homecoming, promising to make it as dangerous as it was five years ago. Then, almost as if to prove it, another girl goes missing.

Ellery knows all about secrets. Her mother has them; her grandmother does too. And the longer she’s in Echo Ridge, the clearer it becomes that everyone there is hiding something. The thing is, secrets are dangerous–and most people aren’t good at keeping them. Which is why in Echo Ridge, it’s safest to keep your secrets to yourself.

Review: Thank you so much to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this book!

I know that I probably over reference “Twin Peaks” in my blog posts, but given that for me it’s the pinnacle of storytelling it’s a standard that I can’t help but hold certain types of stories to. Basically, if you are writing a book about a small town with seedy secrets, I’m going to immediately start chanting in my head about magicians longing to see and stuff of that nature. If a book doesn’t live up to those (probably unfair) expectations, woe be unto the author and the universe they create. But when they do?

giphy-4
(source)

And that brings me to Karen M. McManus’s newest YA mystery thriller “Two Can Keep A Secret”. Given my enjoyment of her previous book, “One of Us Is Lying”, I was excited and nervous to read her follow up to a stellar debut. The good news is that I liked “Two Can Keep A Secret” even more than “One of Us Is Lying”!

Once again, McManus has a compelling hook and likable characters that immediately pull the reader in. While on the surface our cast seems to fill various tropes of the genre (the cynical new girl, the misunderstood outsider, the manipulative and popular bitch), McManus writes them all in such a way that they feel fresh and unique. Our main two perspectives are Ellery, a true crime obsessed teen who has just moved to her mother’s home town of Echo Park, and Malcolm, the younger brother of a former golden boy. Both have outside connections to tragedy in this small town, as Ellery’s aunt disappeared when she and Ellery’s mom were teens, and Malcolm’s brother fell from grace after his girlfriend was murdered and he was the prime suspect. While it may have been easy to follow ever explored formulas for both our main characters, Ellery and Malcolm both surprised me with their depth. They both have moments of triumph and moments that were less than flattering, but at all times they felt like realistic teens who are trying to move past painful realities and traumas. While the supporting cast didn’t have as much time to shine as these two, when they were on the page they, too, felt like real teens with lives they were navigating as best they could. I especially liked Ezra, Ellery’s twin brother, whose love and loyalty to his sister was a good way to counterbalance the ever so tempting ‘all alone new kid’ plot line. It was also a thoughtful way to show how different people can approach and process a shared pain, as the twins have to navigate moving to a new place after their mother Sadie ends up rehab.

There are multiple mysteries tied up in “Two Can Keep A Secret”, but McManus juggles them with ease so they never feel overwhelming. Echo Park is a town filled with secrets, from who killed Lacey the Homecoming Queen, to the disappearance of Sadie’s twin sister Sarah (which, understandably, has possibly contributed to her mental problems), to secret familial connections that no one wants to talk about. The various tragedies at the center of this story were where the book most reminded me of “Twin Peaks”, and I think that’s in part due to how well McManus laid out this town and those who inhabit it. While there were some answers I was able to discern on my own before their reveals, for the most part I was left guessing and theorizing up until the answer was given. I greatly enjoyed the many different mysteries, from the tragic to the sudsy. They were all satisfying from start to finish, and McManus did a superb job of making sure all of her threads were pulled together by the end of the book.

“Two Can Keep A Secret” was a fun and suspenseful mystery, and it solidifies Karen M. McManus as a talented thriller author. Readers of thrillers, no matter their age, will almost assuredly find something to like here. And if you like the less surreal aspects of “Twin Peaks”, this book could be a good fit for you as well!

Rating 9: A fabulous follow up to a great debut, “Two Can Keep A Secret” is a tantalizing mystery with fun characters and many satisfying twists and turns. Fans of thrillers should check it out.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Two Can Keep A Secret” is included on the Goodreads lists “Secrets and Lies”, and “Mystery Thriller 2019”.

Find “Two Can Keep A Secret” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Once Upon a River”

40130093Book: “Once Upon a River” by Diane Setterfield

Publishing Info: Atria/Emily Bestler Books, December 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher!

Book Description: A dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the Thames. The regulars are entertaining themselves by telling stories when the door bursts open on an injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a little child.

Hours later the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life.

Is it a miracle?

Is it magic?

Or can it be explained by science?

Review: I’ve heard the name “Diane Setterfield” tossed around here and there over the last few years. Her novels, that often combine fantastical elements and historical settings, are the type that would likely appeal to me, so she’ll pop up on lists here and there that I glance through. All that said, for some reason or another, I’ve never actually taken the time to pick up one of her books. Big mistake! Apparently, I needed someone to take the choice out of my hands, so I’m very thankful for the publisher sending me a copy and giving my butt a good kick towards this excellent book and author.

There is an inn on a river. An inn where late nights are full of stories, tellers and listeners all gathering together over their beers to share new and familiar tales. Until one night, a story unfolds at their feet with the unexpected appearance of a little girl, apparently dead until…she’s not. But who is she? Where did she come from? Everyone has their own story, their own connection to this strange young girl. But what is the truth?

The very first thing that struck me is the writing tone of this book. In my opinion, any story that is going to also focus on storytelling as its subject matter must master this element first and foremost, and Setterfield accomplishes this quickly and thoroughly. From the very first few pages, one is swept into a lyrical story that reads like the best fairytales and folklore stories. The language is simple, but beautiful, and it’s easy to imagine sitting in the very same smoky inn, drinking mulled cider, while someone recounts this story aloud. The atmosphere is set incredibly, and while it only takes a few pages for the small girl to arrive, I already felt completely immersed in this world.

As the story progressed, I enjoyed the introduction of a larger cast of characters, all with their own distinctive stories and connections to the girl. In each story, we’re given just enough to begin forming assumptions and connections ourselves, but mysteries are ever present. Half of the fun of the book was attempting to weave all of these narratives together to form a complete circle.

Further, the setting was left a bit nebulous, but in this type of story, it seemed to work. It took a while for me to settle on what time period this was taking place in, which seems like it could be a criticism. But, like the best stories, a tale should be able to simply exist, without hard dates lodging it in time. Further, as the summary alludes to, there is a running question throughout the story of the fantastical. The little girl was dead. Everyone who saw her could confirm this. But then she wasn’t. Various characters come down on different sides when attempting to prescribe an explanation for this event. And readers, too, are left questioning what exactly is going on. Is there a level of fantasy being introduced here? Or is it the type of “fantasy” that we can all see in our everyday life, now, if we really look for it?

“Once Upon a River” is a beautiful story, mysterious and ever-flowing like the river that is at its heart. Fans of Setterfield’s previous books are sure to be pleased with this more recent entry. And new readers, like me, who enjoy stories about stories and lyrical writing will also come away satisfied. It’s just the kind of cozy book that is perfect to settle down with on these cold, winter nights.

Rating 8: A story that immediately draws you in with its beautiful writing and mysterious weave of intersecting tales.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Once Upon a River” is on these Goodreads lists: “Winter Seasonal Reads” and “Historical Fiction 2018.”

Find “Once Upon a River” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review and Giveaway: “An Anonymous Girl”

39863515Book: “An Anonymous Girl” by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, January 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The publisher sent me an ARC.

Book Description: Seeking women ages 18–32 to participate in a study on ethics and morality. Generous compensation. Anonymity guaranteed. 

When Jessica Farris signs up for a psychology study conducted by the mysterious Dr. Shields, she thinks all she’ll have to do is answer a few questions, collect her money, and leave. But as the questions grow more and more intense and invasive and the sessions become outings where Jess is told what to wear and how to act, she begins to feel as though Dr. Shields may know what she’s thinking…and what she’s hiding. As Jess’s paranoia grows, it becomes clear that she can no longer trust what in her life is real, and what is one of Dr. Shields’ manipulative experiments. Caught in a web of deceit and jealousy, Jess quickly learns that some obsessions can be deadly. 

Review: I want to extend a very special thank you to St. Martin’s Press for sending me an ARC of this novel!

In my younger years I was deeply fascinated with psychology, specifically of the abnormal type. During my undergraduate program I was especially taken with the various unethical studies that were conducted in the name of ‘science’. While studies of these natures could never get past an IRB today, I think about the Milgram Experiment (where a subject thought that they were giving people violent electric shocks and were told to keep going no matter what) and The Zimbardo Prison Experiment (where students were separated into prisoner and guard roles in a faux prison setting, and horrific abuse began almost instantly), and wonder just how these things were ever thought to be okay. Because of this lingering fascination, when I saw the new book “An Anonymous Girl”, written by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen of “The Wife Between Us” fame, was about unethical psych subjects I was excited to read it. I really enjoyed “The Wife Between Us”, so my expectations were set pretty high for their newest work.

“An Anonymous Girl” has a similar narrative structure to “The Wife Between Us”, with dual narrators who have distinct voices and their own takes on unreliability. The first and more prominent of the two is Jess, a make up artist who is living a meager and somewhat unfulfilling existence. She used to have dreams of making it on Broadway as a make up artist, but has since stalled out and settled for a job that sends her to private appointments around New York City. Her past is a bit hidden at first, though you know she’s sending money to her family to help care for her younger sister, who suffered a traumatic brain injury as a child. Jess is a narrator whose motivations are always laid out and clear, and while she has a tendency to make questionable to poor decisions, she’s written in a way that makes you totally believe why she would make said decisions. The other narrator is Dr. Shields, and she is a bit more muddled in her motivations. The mystery of the novel is just what Dr. Shields is doing with the experiment that Jess volunteers for, and as her intent is slowly revealed her character’s layers are peeled back to show a dark mind at work, far darker than Jess’s. Both characters are interesting enough that I was invested in figuring out just what Dr. Shields wanted with Jess, and how far Jess would be pushed within the ‘experiment’ she was participating in. I kept thinking back to Milgram and how the subjects would sally forth, no matter how uncomfortable they were, because they thought that they had to.

The mystery sustained itself as long as it wanted to, laying out various hints towards both womens’ overall story arcs and their pasts. But eventually the narrative shifts from a mysterious question of intrigue to a pins and needles cat and mouse game. And it is that shift where “An Anonymous Girl” stumbled a little bit for me. Once we found out what it was that Dr. Shields was trying to accomplish, the reveal was a bit disappointing if only because it’s something we have seen many times before within this genre. I’m not going to spoil it here because I do think that getting there and the ensuing predator and prey dynamic is worth the read. But I will say that I went in hoping for a send of of unethical experiments of the past, where the likes of Milgram and Zimbardo were doing awful things in the name of science and learning about human nature. And what is very much not the case here at the end of the day.

“An Anonymous Girl” is a strong follow up to Hendricks’s and Pekkanen’s previous hit. While I do wish it had thought outside the box a little more, it was still an enjoyable thriller that serves the genre well. And I have some good news for you! I am going to give my ARC away so a lucky winner can read it for themselves! This giveaway runs through January 14 and is open to U.S. Residents only.

Click Here To Enter The Giveaway!

Rating 7: A suspenseful and engrossing thriller that mostly kept me on my toes, “An Anonymous Girl” was enjoyable, though I wish it hadn’t fallen on some old reliable plot points of the genre.

Reader’s Advisory:

“An Anonymous Girl” is including on the Goodreads lists “Psychological Chillers by Women Authors”, and “Chilling New York Novels”.

Find “An Anonymous Girl” at your library using WorldCat!

Highlights: January 2019

Oh man, only one more year until we have to start typing out the year “2020.” That’s just too weird and disturbing to contemplate. So, instead, let’s look at some upcoming titles that we’re excited to check out this month!

Serena’s Picks

35839460Book: “The Kingdom of Copper” by S.A. Chakraborty

Publication Date: January 8, 2019

Why I’m Interested: “The Kingdom of Brass” was on my “Top Ten” list last year and took my completely by surprise. Not again! This time I know enough to be already ALL IN on this sequel. While the first book didn’t end on a cliffhanger, necessarily, things were definitely reaching a peak in the story and our two main characters were in tough positions: one banished from his home land, likely to be set upon by assassins at any moment, and the other trapped in said home land, preparing to be bargained off in a political marriage to ensure the control of a ruling family that wronger her own many centuries ago. There is just so much in this series: so much history, so much deep characterization, and so many conflicting histories and wrongs that it’s almost impossible to imagine resolution. And we won’t even be getting it here, as this is just the second in the trilogy! But I’ll take what I can get!

36621586Book: “The Winter of the Witch” by Katherine Arden

Publication Date: January 9, 2019

Why I’m Interested: January is truly a month of riches, as far as my reading choices go. Alongside “The Kingdom of Brass,” Arden’s “Winternight” trilogy has been one of my most unexpected and most loved series to read in the last few years. And alas, this will be the final book in the trilogy! (You can’t win either way: it’s either second books that won’t resolve the story, or final books that sadly will.) This series has only gotten stronger from book to book, and given the description of this story, it seems that Vasya is going to expand her power and influence even further. I can’t wait to see what happens in the story, but I’m also so excited to spend more time with our favorite witty horse, Solovey, and to see what, if anything, will come from the cautious romance being struck up between Vasya and the Winter King.

43204703Book: “A Curse So Dark and Lonely” by Brigid Kemmerer

Publication Date: January 29, 2019

Why I’m Interested: It’s also important to try new things, dear readers, rather than just obsess over known factors, like previously-loved series. Enter: “A Curse So Dark and Lonely.” I don’t know where I first heard of this book, but it’s been hanging out on my mental lists of books to highlight come January for several months now. We all know what my luck has been like recently with “Beauty and the Beast” retellings, but I just can’t help myself! From the looks of things, this should be yet another interpretation of the story, but one that takes on a darker tone and features multiple POVs, including one from the cursed Prince himself. Color me intrigued!

Kate’s Picks

39863515Book: “An Anonymous Girl” by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

Publication Date: January 8, 2019

Why I’m Interested: Given that I really enjoyed “The Wife Between Us”, I was very stoked to see that Hendricks and Pekkanen had a new collaboration coming out in the New Year! And given that my B.A. is in psychology, a story about potential psychological manipulation and gaslighting is always going to catch my eye. When Jessica signs up for a psychological experiment in hopes of making a few bucks, she meets Dr. Shields, the conductor of the study. As the sessions become more controlled and disturbing, however, she starts to wonder what in her life is real and what is just part of the experiment. Hendricks and Pekkanen did a great job with their previous book, and this one sounds a little beyond the usual ‘domestic thriller’ fare. The twistier, the better!

34723130Book: “Slayer” by Kiersten White

Publication Date: January 8, 2019

Why I’m Interested: In high school I was a complete and total “Buffy” addict, so when I saw that Kiersten White was taking on the Slayerverse for her new book, I was ECSTATIC! It follows Nina and her twin sister Artemis, both going to the Watcher’s Academy and training to be Watchers to Slayers, girls with supernatural powers to protect the world from evil. But then Nina’s path changes, and she finds out that she is actually a Slayer herself. And not only that, she’s going to be the last Slayer. White has shown that she knows how to tackle nuanced and fascinating women in both historical fiction and fantasy, and I have every amount of faith in her that she will do the Slayerverse justice! And, uh, maybe we’ll get a cameo from Spike, my all time favorite bad-boy with a heart of gold vampire. Maybe? PLEASE?

38225791Book: “Two Can Keep A Secret” by Karen M. McManus

Publication Date: January 8, 2019

Why I’m Interested: I was completely taken in by McManus’s previous work, “One Of Us Is Lying”, so when I saw that she had a new book coming out I, of course, really wanted to read it. This time it concerns a small town that has a history of girls going missing or ended up dead. When Ellery moves to Echo Ridge, she knows the tragedies of the town mostly because her aunt disappeared there years ago. Five years previous, the homecoming queen was murdered. And now, with a new Homecoming season under way, someone has decided to repeat history, as another girl goes missing. Ellery has her own secrets to contend with, but with a potential killer on the loose she may be in more trouble than she realizes. Oh man I cannot WAIT to read this because it smacks of homages to “Twin Peaks”!

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

 

Serena’s Review: “Spindle Fire”

30163661Book: “Spindle Fire” by Lexa Hillyer

Publishing Info: HarperCollins, April 2017

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

Book Description: It all started with the burning of the spindles.

No.

It all started with a curse…

Half sisters Isabelle and Aurora are polar opposites: Isabelle is the king’s headstrong illegitimate daughter, whose sight was tithed by faeries; Aurora, beautiful and sheltered, was tithed her sense of touch and her voice on the same day. Despite their differences, the sisters have always been extremely close.

And then everything changes, with a single drop of Aurora’s blood—and a sleep so deep it cannot be broken.

As the faerie queen and her army of Vultures prepare to march, Isabelle must race to find a prince who can awaken her sister with the kiss of true love and seal their two kingdoms in an alliance against the queen.

Isabelle crosses land and sea; unearthly, thorny vines rise up the palace walls; and whispers of revolt travel in the ashes on the wind. The kingdom falls to ruin under layers of snow. Meanwhile, Aurora wakes up in a strange and enchanted world, where a mysterious hunter may be the secret to her escape…or the reason for her to stay.

Review: I don’t really remember how/when this book showed up on my radar, but I have a pretty good guess that it likely had something to do with the beautiful cover. Call me a sucker, but a detailed, non-model-featuring fantasy book jacket is likely to get a second look by me most days! Plus, it’s a fairytale re-telling, and we all know how I feel about those!

In this twisted take on “Sleeping Beauty,” the cursed princess, Aurora, is joined by a half-sister, Isabelle. Together, they’ve navigated the complicated pathways of a royal upbringing, all while missing portions of their senses that were tithed away to fairies at Aurora’s birth. Aurora, beautiful and kind, has lost the sense of touch and the ability to speak; Isabelle lost her sight. Through a secret language of tapping and a strong sisterly bond, the two have faced down every challenge thrown their way. This all comes to an end, however, when a dreadful curse finally comes to pass. But Aurora isn’t just asleep; she’s somewhere else, in a new land that is rife with danger. Just as she works to find her way home, Isabelle sets out to rescue her sister, traversing the country to find a young man capable of kissing her sister awake.

While this book never hit the highs of some of my favorite fairtyale re-tellings, it did have some factors that played heavily in its favor. For one thing, in the multitude of “Beauty and the Beast” and “Cindrella” re-tellings that are out there, I haven’t come across as many “Sleeping Beauty” stories. Kind of obvious, when you think about it. It’s definitely a challenge to tell a story where the main action all takes place while your heroine is asleep. But Hillyer had a somewhat brilliant, two-fold answer to that. Not only does Aurora experience a different world while her physical body back in “reality” sleeps, but we’re given an entirely new, secondary heroine in the form of Isabelle who inherits much of the plot often relegated to the Prince.

Stating the obvious once again, I do love me some stories about strong sisterly bonds and, as that’s at the heart of this story, I was also predisposed to enjoy it for that reason. We have just enough time and background detail given in the beginning of the story to appreciate the special relationship the two sisters have built with each other. For one one thing, each is approaching the world from a challenging position. Aurora cannot feel or speak. She doesn’t know when she’s injured and can’t communicate with those around her. Isabelle can’t see. Of the two, Isabelle, through either nature or necessity, is still the much more capable one. But even with that being the case, we see how Aurora’s more quiet goodness has protected Isabelle throughout their childhoods, as well. But when separated, we truly see them shine. Aurora comes into her own, having to play a more active role in her own story without the guiding force of her sister. And Isabelle escapes the confines of a palace that has always looked down on her as mostly just a nuisance.

I did end up enjoying Isabelle’s story more, of the two. Her experiences navigating the world without sight were interesting and spoke to the strength and abilities of those who are blind. She always manages to find clever ways of accomplishing things that one would at first guess to be beyond her. She is also able to use her better developed other senses to suss out information that others might have missed. She is also given the better story arc as far as romance goes, though there is a whiff of a love triangle in the air that I didn’t appreciate.

Aurora’s story fails pretty miserable in the romance department, introducing an instalove romance quite quickly and never really delving into much more than that. But luckily, her story is the one that takes place in the heart of an enchanted land where the mysteries behind her curse are truly at play. So we’re giving a good number of distractions on that front, and the secret history of the fairies is definitely worth the wait.

The story is also broken up with various chapters from some of the fae perspectives. Not only do we get into the mindsets and histories of the two fairy sisters who brought this all to pass, but other, secondary fairies are also given perspectives. Some of these felt more useful than others, but I also found the interludes to be nice breaks from the standard POV switches between our main heroines. We were given a lot of great world-building and the fairy history and politics were padded out, as seen through the eyes of the various fairies involved.

The story doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, but it also definitely doesn’t end at all, making it necessary to read the second book to complete the story. While this one felt a bit light, as far as storytelling goes, I was definitely invested enough in the princesses’ stories to want to complete the duology. Here’s to hoping the love triangle is stomped out quick and the instalove…I don’t know, does something. For fans of fairytale retellings, I think this one is definitely worth a shot. Go in expecting a lighter, quick read and you’ll likely be left satisfied.

Rating 8: A few stumbles in the romance department, but still a sweet fairytale retelling at its heart.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Spindle Fire” is only on variations of the same list on Goodreads, so here it the broadest one: “Fairy tales & Retellings.”

Find “Spindle Fire” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Monstress (Vol. 2): The Blood”

33540347Book: “Monstress (Vol. 2): The Blood” by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Image Comics, July 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Maika Halfwolf is on the run from a coalition of forces determined to control or destroy the powerful Monstrum that lives beneath her skin. But Maika still has a mission of her own: to discover the secrets of her late mother, Moriko. 

In this second volume of Monstress, collecting issues 7-12, Maika’s quest takes her to the pirate-controlled city of Thyria and across the sea to the mysterious Isle of Bones. It is a journey that will force Maika to reevaluate her past, present, and future, and contemplate whether there’s anyone, or anything, she can truly trust–including her own body.

Review: A popular definition of ‘insanity’ is repeating the same behaviors and expecting a different outcome each time. In this regard, I can call myself ‘insane’, because even though I wasn’t totally taken in by “Monstress” in it’s first volume, I went into “Monstress (Vol. 2): The Blood” thinking that perhaps this time something would be different. I really want to like this series, because it has so many features that draw me in: the art is beautiful; the world is dark and foreboding; two of the main characters are a Fox/human child and a necromancing CAT! Plus, monsters. Like, a seriously CREEPY monster. And yet, the joy that others get from “Monstress” continues to elude me.

I will start with the positives of this volume of Maika’s journey. Marjorie Liu has certainly made a creative world that her characters roam in. It continues to be complex and intricate, and it just keeps expanding. This time we get to spend time with a band of pirate Arcanics (those that are part human and part Ancient, and tend to have Animal characteristics), and on a mysterious Island of Bones where an Ancient creature named Blood-Fox resides. Maika is desperate to get answers about her mother, and perhaps figure out how to get rid of the Monster that’s living inside of her. All the while she’s being pursued by the Dawn Court’s Warlord, a military leader who also happens to be Maika’s Aunt. Ultimately, “Blood” isn’t really about the blood of battle, but the blood that runs in our veins and whom it connects us to. I liked seeing Maika try to find out some answers, and I liked that both Maika AND the Monster inside of her have to confront truths about their pasts that make them both uncomfortable. I also still have a great affection for Maika’s sidekicks, the sweet and adorable Kippa, and the sarcastic and somewhat mysterious necromancing cat Ren. As these three continue to travel together, they become more connected to each other, and they all balance each other out.

The art also continues to be gorgeous. There is less time in urban settings in this volume, in favor of taking it to the high seas and to a creepy as all get out island, which means there’s a bit less Art Deco influence. But Takeda’s style remains intricate and sumptuous, and I found my breath taken away a number of times as I turned the pages. The style for her characters also feels so unique, as all of the characters are stark contrasts from each other in their designs. I was especially impressed with the ghostly imagery that’s found on and near the Isle of Bones, as the ghosts are both ethereal but very present.

monstress10_3
(source)

But, like with the first volume, “Monstress: The Blood” still hasn’t made me fall head over heels for this series. I like the characters and the art, but the high fantasy aspects have not worked for me, and I found myself not as interested in it as I had hoped I would be. As the world continued to expand, I wanted more focus on the witches we’d seen in the previous volume. I’m connected to Maika as a character, but I’m not really invested in her story, which is hard for me to wrap my head around. Ultimately, it just comes back to my tastes about high fantasy, and how limited they are. That isn’t “Monstress”‘s fault.

And yes, I’m going to keep going. Even though I have been kind of left cold by the first and second volumes of this series, I REALLY want to like it, and I think that there are shades within these two volumes that make me think that I still can. So I’ve put Volume Three on my request list. And maybe next time I will have a more positive review to give. For now, know that my opinions of “Monstress (Vol. 2): The Blood” probably don’t and shouldn’t reflect the merits and positives of this series. So, like I said in my previous review, if you like high fantasy that has a bit of a darkness to it, you should absolutely check this series out. It will probably work for you better than it does for me.

Rating 6: Once again, I’m blown away by the amazing artwork, and I have a fondness for a few of the characters. But the high fantasy setting still isn’t gelling with me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Monstress (Vol. 2): The Blood” is included on the Goodreads lists “Girls Read Comics”, and “SFF Written by WOC and Non-Binary People of Color”.

Find “Monstress (Vol. 2): The Blood” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed:

Serena’s Review: “Radiance”

24473763Book: “Radiance” by Grace Draven

Publication Info: self-published, January 2015

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: THE PRINCE OF NO VALUE

Brishen Khaskem, prince of the Kai, has lived content as the nonessential spare heir to a throne secured many times over. A trade and political alliance between the human kingdom of Gaur and the Kai kingdom of Bast-Haradis requires that he marry a Gauri woman to seal the treaty. Always a dutiful son, Brishen agrees to the marriage and discovers his bride is as ugly as he expected and more beautiful than he could have imagined.

THE NOBLEWOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE

Ildiko, niece of the Gauri king, has always known her only worth to the royal family lay in a strategic marriage. Resigned to her fate, she is horrified to learn that her intended groom isn’t just a foreign aristocrat but the younger prince of a people neither familiar nor human. Bound to her new husband, Ildiko will leave behind all she’s known to embrace a man shrouded in darkness but with a soul forged by light.

Two people brought together by the trappings of duty and politics will discover they are destined for each other, even as the powers of a hostile kingdom scheme to tear them apart.

Review: This book showed up on some list or another that focused on lesser know romantic fantasy stories. I had already read many of them but was intrigued by the list author’s description of this one which focused on the incredibly positive romantic pairing at the heart of the story. All too often with romance novels, I find myself having to hold back my eyerolls or intentionally speed read through sections where one member of the central pairing (or both) is exhibiting behaviors that are pretty unhealthy and sometimes border on abusive. It’s one of the main reasons that I tend to avoid books where romance is too much of the focal point at the heart of the story. But since its healthy romance was at the heart of the list author’s reason for including “Radiance,” I thought that this one was worth giving a shot!

Brishen and Ildiko come from to very different races. Ildiko is a human, born to live during the day. Brishen is a Kai, a human-like being who lives at night, possesses certain magical powers, and looks terrifying to most humans with his dark skin, white eyes, and sharp teeth. Unlike the book description above would imply, both know they are destined for a marriage that would align their people and have resigned themselves to this fate. Together, they face the challenges of skepticism from their own people who resist seeing a bond such as theirs and threats of violence from outside nations who feel threaten by the increased tie between human kind and the Kai.

It was difficult to write even that short synopsis above because this book is definitely a character-driven story. There is a story arc, but it is one that is only sprinkled in here and there and comes into play only at the very end of the book. Instead, most of the story is devoted solely to getting to know Ildiko and Brishen and portraying their blessedly realistic (and devoid of instalove!) relationship.

Through them, we get some interesting world-building. Ildiko’s people seem to be standard humans. We don’t spend much time in her world, however, as the story quickly shifts to the land of the Kai, as Ildiko and Brishen travel their to establish their home. I really enjoyed the descriptions of Kai culture, their dress, food, and lifestyle. It was all very different from humanity, but also struck closely enough that a marriage between the two peoples still makes sense.

Some of the more intriguing portions of these descriptions, the cultural norms and the physical appearance of each race, came from the blunt evaluations offered up by Brishen and Ildiko. In the very first few chapters, they establish a strong, trust-based style of communication that allows them to express their bewilderment and sometimes fear at the other’s way of life and looks. See, right off the bat, healthy relationship norms! Communication, it will do wonders! These descriptions and conversations also highlight the witty dialogue that makes up much of the book and was incredibly enjoyable. Brishen teases Ildiko about her “horse-like teeth” and Ildiko points out some the disturbing aspects of Brishen’s all-white eyes.

As I said, much of the story is simply focused on these two characters and how they slowly build a friendship and romance over the course of the book. They are also, at the heart of things, both just very good people. It seems like a weird thing to have to highlight, but this aspect of the story, their inherent goodness and the healthiness of the relationship they build, is what makes this book stand out as so satisfying. There are real challenges they face and neither simply brushes off the disturbance they feel at the other’s physical appearance, but mutual respect, friendship, and trust is slowly laid out as the foundation of their growing attachment. It’s just a lovely example of how you can write a romance novel without having to make your main characters brooding, bizarrely non-communicative, or just constantly misunderstood.

It looks like there are follow up books to this story, but it can also mostly be read as a standalone novel. It’s definitely a light, romantic read, so don’t go in expecting epic world-building or elaborate magical systems. The fantasy elements are all clearly there as support systems for the character-driven story at its heart. I very much enjoyed this book, and I agree with the author of the original list (I can’t seem to find it or I would link it!): this book is rare for what it is doing right with its romance.

Also, a quick note. This is a self-published novel, but I was able to check out an ebook at the library. Just another plug for all self-published authors out there: libraries are often willing to stock your ebooks, especially if you’re local and can point to some interest in your story. There’s definitely no harm in asking!

Rating 8: A magical unicorn of a romance novel where the main pairing is based on healthy relationship norms!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Radiance” is on these Goodreads lists: “Slow-burn romance” and “Fantasy Romance.”

Find “Radiance” at your library using WorldCat!