Kate’s Review: “A Lesson in Vengeance”

Book: “A Lesson in Vengeance” by Victoria Lee

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, August 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Felicity Morrow is back at Dalloway School.

Perched in the Catskill mountains, the centuries-old, ivy-covered campus was home until the tragic death of her girlfriend. Now, after a year away, she’s returned to graduate. She even has her old room in Godwin House, the exclusive dormitory rumored to be haunted by the spirits of five Dalloway students—girls some say were witches. The Dalloway Five all died mysteriously, one after another, right on Godwin grounds.

Witchcraft is woven into Dalloway’s history. The school doesn’t talk about it, but the students do. In secret rooms and shadowy corners, girls convene. And before her girlfriend died, Felicity was drawn to the dark. She’s determined to leave that behind her now; all Felicity wants is to focus on her senior thesis and graduate. But it’s hard when Dalloway’s occult history is everywhere. And when the new girl won’t let her forget.

It’s Ellis Haley’s first year at Dalloway, and she’s already amassed a loyal following. A prodigy novelist at seventeen, Ellis is a so-called “method writer.” She’s eccentric and brilliant, and Felicity can’t shake the pull she feels to her. So when Ellis asks Felicity for help researching the Dalloway Five for her second book, Felicity can’t say no. Given her history with the arcane, Felicity is the perfect resource. And when history begins to repeat itself, Felicity will have to face the darkness in Dalloway–and in herself.

Review: You give me a YA thriller that involves a boarding school with a bloody history, and I am one hundred percent here for that kind of narrative. And if you throw in witches, or even the rumor of them, I’m even MORE interested. So obviously when I read about “A Lesson in Vengeance” by Victoria Lee, I definitely wanted to give it a read.

The thing that worked best in “A Lesson in Vengeance” was the eerie setting and atmosphere of Dalloway School, the prestigious boarding school that our protagonist Felicity attends. It has a long history of educating women, but a notorious past involving five students who were supposed witches, and who died under strange circumstances. Lee builds this history up through Felicity’s perspective, as well as research that she and new student/prodigy author Ellis are conducting. We know that Felicity has been through some kind of trauma involving her former girlfriend Alex, who also died, and whose death is haunting Felicity for various reasons. As she and Ellis start to dig into the occult rumors, the tension builds at a well paced rate. I was definitely wondering just what Felicity was hiding, both from the reader as well as herself, and while I kind of figured out some of (okay, a lot of) the twists and reveals that we had along the way, the creepy setting and atmosphere that Lee had in place made the journey work for me. I also thought that the tension between Felicity and Ellis was nice and taut, as they are playing a game of sexual and romantic desire and want, while also perhaps not being able to trust each other for various reasons that are slowly peeled back as the book goes on.

But that brings us to the characters themselves. “A Lesson in Vengeance” has a harder time with keeping the characters interesting as the story goes on, as I felt that both Felicity and Ellis were pretty two dimensional. Or at the very least, tropey in their characterizations. Felicity is the unreliable poor little rich girl, whose toxic relationship with her now dead ex girlfriend has damaged her, but also perhaps has her hiding something. Ellis is the cold and blunt child prodigy whom everyone loves due to her fame (as she is a published author) but who is also potentially hiding secrets and ulterior motives. They have a slow building romance that may or may not be dangerous, but it isn’t anything we haven’t seen before in thrillers where characters are potentially fatales, femme or otherwise. The tension is there, and it is effective, but at the end of the day neither Felicity nor Ellis had much unique to their characters, and came off more flat than anything else.

“A Lesson in Vengeance” is definitely an effective Dark Academia thriller, but it doesn’t reach the high levels I was hoping for.

Rating 6: A creepy and atmospheric thriller involving a history of witches, dangerous romance, and a school full of secrets. The characters, however, are a little flat for the tale they inhabit.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Lesson in Vengeance” is included on the Goodreads lists “Dark Academia”, and “2021 Sapphic Releases”.

Find “A Lesson in Vengeance” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Diving Into Sub-Genres: Cozy Mysteries

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

I’ll be the first to admit that cozy mysteries get a bad rap. Even I am sometimes prone to dismissing this sub-genre as a bit fluffy and insubstantial. But…why should fluff or light-heartedness be looked down on? Mystery is a broad genre and the carrying over enjoyment factor would seem to be readers getting a chance to piece together small clues to solve a mystery. Why should there then be a rule that said mystery must be extremely violent, gory, or unsettling? Surely there are readers who enjoy solving puzzles but would prefer to avoid some of these more graphic or gloomy topics. Enter: cozy mysteries.

Part of the reason this sub-genre is so often looked down upon is likely due to a very specific sort of cozy mystery that often comes to mind when the sub-genre is referenced. Picture a mystery series where every book has a title featuring a different baked good or craft item. And while these fluffy concept series are definitely a solid example of a cozy mystery, they are certainly not the only type out there. Indeed, several of the historical mystery series I’ve read and reviewed on this blog would qualify. An emphasis on characters, humor, and a lighter touch on the darkness around the mystery (a murder can be involved, but no gory descriptions please!) is really all that is required. So, here is a list of a few cozy mysteries that serve as good example of the types of books that are found in this sub-genre.

Book: “Meet Your Baker” by Ellie Alexander

This is kind of your classic cozy mystery: a series based on a comfy theme (this time baking), a bright colorful cover, and a punny title. But the story goes beyond that! Set in Ashland, Oregon, home of the Shakespeare Festival (I’ve attended this, and yeah, the town goes all out!), Juliet Capshaw (get it??) returns home to help her mother run the family bakery. But of course, murder comes calling and Juliet quickly finds herself drawn in, searching to discover the killer. She also meets a high school sweet-heart who is also attempting to solve the case. The book has a bunch of quirky characters, an emphasis on Juliet’s emotional arc, a little love story, and, oh yeah, the mystery. This is a long-running series and is chock full of these pun-ridden titles. “Fudge and Jury” and “A Batter of Life and Death” are just a few other examples.

Book: “Crocodile on the Sandbank” by Elizabeth Peters

Those familiar with this blog will be quite familiar with Elizabeth Peters’ “Amelia Peabody” series. It’s one of my tried and true mystery series that I return to regularly, whenever I’m in need of a light-hearted historical mystery. This is the sort of book that I think less often comes to mind when people mention cozy mysteries. However, it still fits perfectly within the category. The mysteries often involve murder, but there isn’t a focus on the more grizzly aspects of the crime scenes. Instead, much of the focus of the story is on the familial relationships between Amelia, her husband, and their children. There are a rotating cast of side characters who make various appearances, as well. And while our characters may face danger around every corner, the reader can rest assured that Amelia and co. will prevail in the end, and many laughs will be had along the way!

Book: “Murder at the Vicarage” by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie is one of the OG cozy mystery authors. She’s prolific and one of the most recognizable names in the larger mystery genre itself. And one of the best examples of her work in cozy mysteries is her Miss Marple series. This is the first book which features, as may be guessed, a murder at the vicarage. And the next door neighbor is none other than Miss Marple herself, a sharp, self-deprecating woman who handily takes the case in hand, stringing together the many clues dropped by the colorful cast of characters. Christie’s “Poriot” is perhaps her better known detective, but Miss Marple fits the mold perfectly for a leading lading in a cozy mystery.

Book: “The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie” by Alan Bradley

This is another historical cozy, set in England in the 1950s, but it stands out for its unique protagonist: a genius 11-year-old girl named Flavia de Luce. Flavia is the heart and soul of this series, with her quirky personality and dazzling brilliance, being much more perceptive and intelligent than the adults who surround her. This book starts out with the cover image, a dead bird delivered to a door with a postage stamp pinned to its beak. But there are more than dead birds at stake, and soon enough, a human body appears on the scene. Flavia suddenly discovers a calling, putting her keen knowledge of chemistry, especially, to the task. This is another long series, with something like ten books published, the latest in 2019.

Book: “How to Wash a Cat” by Rebecca M. Hale

This is kind of everything you’d expect from the title and cover art: a woman and her two cats solve mysteries! There is also a decent about of San Francisco history in this first book. It seems to be generally understood that this first of the series isn’t one of the weaker installments, but the series as a whole seems to be well-received. Readers could perhaps start with later books, but I always like highlighting the fist in a series for lists like this, for those completionists out there. There are a lot of wacky side characters, but the two cats probably steal the show. So, this is definitely the kind of series/book that will appeal to a very specific sort of person!

Do you have a favorite cozy mystery?

Serena’s Review: “Six Crimson Cranes”

Book: “Six Crimson Cranes” by Elizabeth Lim

Publishing Info: Knopf, July 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Shiori, the only princess of Kiata, has a secret. Forbidden magic runs through her veins. Normally she conceals it well, but on the morning of her betrothal ceremony, Shiori loses control. At first, her mistake seems like a stroke of luck, forestalling the wedding she never wanted, but it also catches the attention of Raikama, her stepmother.

Raikama has dark magic of her own, and she banishes the young princess, turning her brothers into cranes, and warning Shiori that she must speak of it to no one: for with every word that escapes her lips, one of her brothers will die.

Penniless, voiceless, and alone, Shiori searches for her brothers, and, on her journey, uncovers a conspiracy to overtake the throne—a conspiracy more twisted and deceitful, more cunning and complex, than even Raikama’s betrayal. Only Shiori can set the kingdom to rights, but to do so she must place her trust in the very boy she fought so hard not to marry. And she must embrace the magic she’s been taught all her life to contain—no matter what it costs her.

Review: Here’s the second “Seven Swans” retelling, right after the fist! What a strange thing. But after seeing three different versions of “Red Riding Hood” this summer, should I really be surprised? This one, however, folds in many other fantasy elements and stories, so while the “Seven Swans” framework is still there, it’s less of a straight-forward thing than “A Rush of Wings.” Let’s dive in!

While once close, Shiori has since fallen out with her mysterious step-mother Raikama. But when Shiori discovers Raikama’s secret, that she, like Shiori, possess a forbidden gift for magic, Shiori finds herself and her brothers cursed. Now, outcast from the comfortable court that was her home, with no voice and no ability to be recognized, Shiori must find a way to return her brothers to their human form, freeing them from the daily transformation to cranes that they must now endure. While struggling in this endeavor, Shiori comes across yet another challenge, uncovering a plot to overthrow her father’s throne. Will her magic, so long hidden, be the thing to save her and her brothers?

While this book had some definite highs and lows, there were a few things it immediately had going for it. I really liked that the author brought together two different fairytales and seamlessly wove them together. We have the obvious “Seven Swans” story with brothers being turned into swans/cranes and one, single sister left voiceless to complete a painful task to save them from this curse. But on top of that, Lim tied in the Japanese folk tale. “Hachikazuki,” a “Cinderella”-like story featuring a beautiful young girl cursed to wear a bowl over her head that disguises her beauty before she is found by a prince. It was really neat seeing how these two different stories were paired up so well. not only does Shiori lose her voice, but the bowl covering her head makes her unrecognizable to everyone around her and disrupts her magical abilities.

Shiori is also a strong main character. We see early on her strength and stubborn mindset, two traits that lead her into some rebellious and rather thoughtless actions. But as the story progresses and she falls to the curse, we also see how these two weaknesses can also turn into her greatest strengths, especially when now paired with the sense of purpose and love for her brothers that the curse has drawn out. I also thought the brothers and love interest were all interesting. I had a decent understanding of all of the brothers as individuals, a difficult task when there are many of them and you only meet them all briefly. The love interest was also fine, though I didn’t find myself overly invested in his story or the romance of the story, overall.

However, the book did have a few points where I began to struggle. First, the pacing felt all over the place. The first half, especially, felt like it played out in a set of fits and starts, strangely broken by supreme lulls in the action. There is one particular chunk that almost felt like it had come from a different draft and didn’t fit in well at all with the rest. There were a few important things that took place during this chunk, but the entire thing felt like a vehicle to get these plot points in, rather than an organic part of the story.

Lastly, while I liked the combination of two different fairytales, there were a lot of other magical elements piled on top of these two stories. We have a bunch of lore and legend about dragons, a history of magic that bas been banned from this land for various reasons, and a rebellion against the king and his court. It all began to feel like a bit too much. The middle part of the book especially began to feel weighted down by all of this. Because there were so many elements at play, I found myself beginning to lose interest in them all together. There were a few twists to the end of the story that paid off some of these storylines, but I still feel like the sheer number of story elements hurt the main thrust of the story.

While I still struggled with portions of this book, I did enjoy it more than “A Rush of Wings” that I read early. So if you’re looking at the two and trying to decide which to go with, I would recommend this one first. There is also a sequel in the works, and I’ll likely check that out.

Rating 7: Pretty ok. Not blowing my mind in any way, but a few clever twists and turns held it together for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Six Crimson Cranes” is on these Goodreads lists: Covers by Tran Nguyen and The Wild Swans/The Six Swans Retellings.

Find “Six Crimson Cranes” at the library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Mary Shelley Club”

Book: “The Mary Shelley Club” by Goldy Moldavsky

Publishing Info: Henry Holt & Company, April 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: New girl Rachel Chavez is eager to make a fresh start at Manchester Prep. But as one of the few scholarship kids, Rachel struggles to fit in, and when she gets caught up in a prank gone awry, she ends up with more enemies than friends.

To her surprise, however, the prank attracts the attention of the Mary Shelley Club, a secret club of students with one objective: come up with the scariest prank to orchestrate real fear. But as the pranks escalate, the competition turns cutthroat and takes on a life of its own.

When the tables are turned and someone targets the club itself, Rachel must track down the real-life monster in their midst . . . even if it means finally confronting the dark secrets from her past.

Review: Though Halloween is over, we all know that it lives on in my heart year round, and that I’m always into reading something creepy and crawly no matter the time of year. But I am definitely kicking myself a bit for not reading “The Mary Shelley Club” by Goldy Moldavsky during the Halloween Season, because it would have been SO PERFECT. I was basically able to read it in one day, for one, and for another it wraps itself up in the comfort and familiarity of horror movies, and those who love them. Honestly, that sounds like a great Halloween read. Kicking myself just a little bit here for sitting on it.

When it comes to the foundation and bare bones of this book, we have Rachel Chavez, a teenage girl who survived a traumatic home invasion that left her attacker dead, and her psyche on edge. She’s moved to a new school for a fresh start, but is having trouble fitting in outside of her one friend Saundra, so she turns to horror movies to try and control her anxiety. Rachel as a main character is great. I thought that her characteristics have all the boxes you like to see for a ‘final girl’, so following her made narrative sense. I also liked how her trauma is introduced early, but parsed out over time and shows actual mental and emotional fallout for her. And her love for all things horror is so, so endearing, as I am always for stories that have spooky girls whose love for scary things may be more about exploring the horrors of life in a safe way (because I feel this on a deep cellular level). I also liked seeing her interact with various members of The Mary Shelley Club, a secret group that specializes in all things horror as well as setting up elaborate and scary pranks on unsuspecting targets. From the sarcastic and catty Thayer to charismatic and charming Freddie, Rachel has her allies and people she can bond with, while making the usual mistakes that someone desperate to fit in may make. Especially when other members, like sullen Felicity and mysterious Bram aren’t as warm to her presence as a new member.

The plot and mystery itself is a little bit weaker. The big question about this story is who is starting to target the members of the Mary Shelley Club as their pranks start to go wrong, and there may be an outsider who is hoping to take one of them out. While I thought that Moldavsky has the pacing down well, and while there were a couple moments of surprise as the mystery continues, overall I thought it was kind of easy to see what was happening in terms of red herrings and reveals. But some of those weaknesses were easy to overlook, because what I liked best about “The Mary Shelley Club” that elevated it from mere ‘okay’ status is the love of horror movies that is displayed on the page. Moldavsky has made a cast of characters, especially in Rachel, that showcase a wide range of horror movie affection, and the references are ample and peppered throughout the narrative. And while they aren’t as in depth or expansive as, say, “My Heart Is a Chainsaw”, there are still so many that made me smile from ear to ear. Rachel and the other club members debate the merits of the original “Black Christmas”, they dress up as various horror movie icons for Halloween, the movies on their watch lists are fun to spot, and even when I didn’t agree with the things Rachel said about various horror movies, I still appreciated the references(but seriously, “Sleepaway Camp” being described as the worst horror movie of all time is a BIT much. Cheesy, yes. Inadvertently transphobic, probably. But the WORST?).

When stupid trying to be funny but completely unwatchable dreck films like “ThanksKilling” exist, there is no way “Sleepaway Camp” is the worst horror film of all time, (source)

Overall, “The Mary Shelley Club” is a fun book because it has such an earnest love of horror and all the beautiful things and people that come with it. Goldavsky has set up for potential sequels, and I would probably read them with relish.

Rating 7: A fun tribute to horror movies and the people who love them, “The Mary Shelley Club” isn’t super unique narrative wise, but has a couple surprises, and some good moments of suspense.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Mary Shelley Club” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books in Academia”, and “2021 YA Horror Written by Women (cis and trans) and Non-Binary Femmes”.

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

Serena’s Review: “A Rush of Wings”

Book: “A Rush of Wings” by Laura E. Weymouth

Publishing Info: Margaret K. McElderry Books, November 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Rowenna Winthrop has always known there’s magic within her. But though she hears voices on the wind and possesses unusual talents, her mother Mairead believes Rowenna lacks discipline, and refuses to teach her the craft that keeps their Scottish village safe. When Mairead dies a sinister death, it seems Rowenna’s one chance to grow into her power has passed. Then, on a fateful, storm-tossed night, Rowenna rescues a handsome stranger named Gawen from a shipwreck, and her mother miraculously returns from the dead. Or so it appears.

This resurrected Mairead is nothing like the old one: to hide her new and monstrous nature, she turns Rowenna’s brothers and Gawen into swans and robs Rowenna of her voice. Forced to flee, Rowenna travels to the city of Inverness to find a way to break the curse. But monsters take many forms, and in Inverness Rowenna is soon caught in a web of strangers who want to use her raw magic for their own gain. If she wishes to save herself and the people she loves most, Rowenna will have to take her fate into her own hands, and unlock the power that has evaded her for so long.

Review: I’m always down for a fairytale retelling of “The Seven Swans.” I have a pretty solid favorite in Juliet Marillier’s “Daughter of the Forest,” but there have been a few surprising contenders of the years. This month, strangely enough, I’ll be getting through two very different versions of the story! First off is “A Rush of Wings” featuring a very pretty cover! Alas, the story didn’t quite hold up to that promising start.

With latent magical abilities, there is nothing Rowenna wants more than to follow in her mother’s footsteps, using her gift to protect her family and the land. But where her mother is calm and serene, Rowenna’s spirit is wild and rebellious. So much so that her mother refuses to teach her, worried that Rowenna would lack the discipline to use such a gift wisely. But when Rowenna’s mother dies before teaching her, and then, disturbingly, returns changed for the worse, Rowenna is left without the tools to combat this powerful enemy. Now, with her loved ones trapped as swans and deprived of her voice, Rowenna must fight to understand and control the powerful magic within herself.

Obviously, I love the bare bones fairytale at the heart of the story: the young woman proving that strength comes from within, willing herself to keep going to save those she loves, pushing through pain and fear until the end. And that story can be found in this book. However, I was already struggling before we even got to that point, unfortunately.

For one thing, Rowenna was a difficult character for me to like. I understand her arch, one of coming to realize her own strengths and temper her more reckless moments. But that story seemed to mesh awkwardly with the typical character arch to be found in this fairytale. In the originally, you need to be wholly behind the heroine, to feel her pain with her, to urge her onwards and feel completely involved in the challenge before her. But with Rowenna, because she is set up originally in weaker position character-wise, I struggled to care for her story. She wasn’t outright unlikable, but she also didn’t have any particular aspects to her character that made her quickly appeal to me. Right there, the entire story was a bit hobbled going forward.

Beyond that, I found the writing to be stilted and awkward. Dialogue didn’t feel natural, and, worst of all, there was an abysmal lack of descriptive additions to scenes and characters. I couldn’t describe what almost any of the characters looked like or what their world truly held. It almost felt like the author was in such a rush to get to the action of her story, that she forgot to fully flesh out the world her story took place within. Without being grounded in any clear world or attached to the main character, the book felt like a rather sterile plot machine rather than a story.

One example of this problem came when fairly early in the story a few fantastical creatures were casually mentioned. I had no idea we were fully operating in this type of second world fantasy! Obviously there was magic, but the story went full on “magical creatures” on me, and without any descriptions of the world given to me, I had already established the world as largely based on our own. This is the kind of mental disconnect that can happen between a reader and a book when the author hasn’t done enough to establish the world firmly.

I was so sad to find myself struggling to finish this book. I think the author had some interesting ideas, but her characters and unclear world let the story itself down. Fans of fairytale re-tellings could perhaps add this to their list, but I think there are better versions of the story out there.

Rating 6: A bland main character and stilted writing left me feeling disconnected from the story overall.

Reader’s Advisory: “A Rush of Wings” is on these Goodreads lists: “Rowena” and YA Releases of November, 2021.

Find “A Rush of Wings” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Our Violent Ends”

Book: “Our Violent Ends” by Chloe Gong

Publishing Info: Margaret K McElderry Books, November 2021

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

Book Description: Shanghai is under siege in this captivating and searingly romantic sequel to These Violent Delights, which New York Times bestselling author Natasha Ngan calls “deliciously dark.”

The year is 1927, and Shanghai teeters on the edge of revolution. After sacrificing her relationship with Roma to protect him from the blood feud, Juliette has been a girl on the warpath. One wrong move, and her cousin will step in to usurp her place as the Scarlet Gang’s heir. The only way to save the boy she loves from the wrath of the Scarlets is to have him want her dead for murdering his best friend in cold blood. If Juliette were actually guilty of the crime Roma believes she committed, his rejection might sting less.

Roma is still reeling from Marshall’s death, and his cousin Benedikt will barely speak to him. Roma knows it’s his fault for letting the ruthless Juliette back into his life, and he’s determined to set things right—even if that means killing the girl he hates and loves with equal measure.

Then a new monstrous danger emerges in the city, and though secrets keep them apart, Juliette must secure Roma’s cooperation if they are to end this threat once and for all. Shanghai is already at a boiling point: The Nationalists are marching in, whispers of civil war brew louder every day, and gangster rule faces complete annihilation. Roma and Juliette must put aside their differences to combat monsters and politics, but they aren’t prepared for the biggest threat of all: protecting their hearts from each other.

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

Last year I took a bit of a chance on the book “These Violent Delights”, Chloe Gong’s historical fiction fantasy romance thriller retelling of “Romeo and Juliet”. That’s a true mouthful for a genre description, but it’s the only way to truly describe the wide breadth that this book had. I ended up enjoying it, and found myself waiting anxiously to find out what happened next. Well great news! The conclusion, “Our Violent Ends”, has been released, and let me tell you, the year long wait was worth it. Juliette and Roma are back, and I happily dove into the sweet, sweet agony that was sure to follow.

Me fully ready to watch things go horribly south for all my favorite characters in 1920s Shanghai. (source)

Just as a quick additional refresher, this “Romeo and Juliet” retelling takes place in 1920s Shanghai, as two rival gangs, the Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers, have a blood feud that has led to constant tension and violence. Juliette is the heir to the Scarlet Gang, Roma is the heir to the White Flowers, they had a passionate love affair and in the last book teamed up to try and stop a monster from wreaking pure havoc on the city they love. When we finished the first book, Juliette had just killed Roma’s best friend Marshall, though she hadn’t REALLY killed him, it was all a ruse to keep Roma safe vis a vis his hatred of her.

Plot wise, Gong balances the source material with a lot of new themes and plot points, as well as an update to the time and place that the story takes place. There are still threats from monsters in this one, which makes the Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers have an uneasy truce/team up in hopes that Juliette and Roma can find the vaccine that is rumored to stop the monsters (and of course the tension is off the charts in all kinds of ways). But there are also threats of the time period, like the simmering tensions between the Nationalists and the rising Communists. And we are still dealing with the two gangs having conflicts, which could be ceasing due to a common enemy of the monsters, but is always on the precipice. It’s a lot to cram in there, and while sometimes it felt like it was a little too much (and that we’d gloss over aspects of the plot because of it), overall Gong still managed to have a clear connection to the original play through things that would happen in the story. Even when she would twist some things around to better fit the story that she was telling. These moments were done in such a way that usually felt more true to the circumstances, however, and never like she was just trying to fit square pegs into round holes.

It is still the characters, however, that are the books greatest strengths. While the original cast of “Romeo and Juliet” has a kind of charisma to a degree (I mean, I don’t like the play but I recognize the appeal of the characters), Gong continues to draw far more complexity from her versions of the players. With Roma you have a brooding and brokenhearted Romeo, who is mourning the supposed death of his friend Marshall at the hand of his former lover. With Juliette you have a woman who is being torn up by her feeling of duty to her family as the heir to the Scarlet Gang, as well as her deep love for a man that she had to pretend to betray. And oh how I continued to love this version of Juliette. She gets shit done and isn’t given ANY credit for it, and I loved her inner turmoil even as she has to hold EVERYTHING together to be the strongest player in the whole damn story. It gives both the main characters FAR more pathos than the play did, and I really enjoyed how Gong gave both of them a lot more agency, smarts, and will than their inspirations were ever given. I was actively rooting for both of them, but especially Juliette, who is constantly trying to prove herself as worthy, though as a woman she is never going to be seen as such (and her psychopathic cousin Tyler is given more glory than she ever gets). But it’s also side players that are highly enjoyable, be it Juliette’s cousins Kathleen and Rosalind, or Roma’s younger sister Alisa. For me, though, I LOVED Marshall and Benedikt, the two lovers who have been separated due to Marshall faking his death, and Benedikt’s agony over it. Oh these two. You cannot help but root for them.

“Our Violent Ends” finished out the duology on a perhaps expected but still satisfying high note. Chloe Gong made me into a “Romeo and Juliet” fan, at least the way she tells it, and I definitely recommend checking it out if you want to see a really unique twist on the original tale!

Rating 8: A complex and satisfying end to a truly unique Shakespeare retelling.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Our Violent Ends” is new and not included on any Goodreads lists yet, but it would fit in on “Rewriting Shakespeare (YA Edition)”, and “YA Fiction Set in the 1920s”.

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

Previously Reviewed: “These Violent Delights”.

Joint Review: “Comfort Me With Apples”

Book: “Comfort Me With Apples” by Catherynne M. Valente

Publishing Info: Tor.Com

Where Did We Get This Book: Received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: Sophia was made for him. Her perfect husband. She can feel it in her bones. He is perfect. Their home together in Arcadia Gardens is perfect. Everything is perfect.

It’s just that he’s away so much. So often. He works so hard. She misses him. And he misses her. He says he does, so it must be true. He is the perfect husband and everything is perfect.

But sometimes Sophia wonders about things. Strange things. Dark things. The look on her husband’s face when he comes back from a long business trip. The questions he will not answer. The locked basement she is never allowed to enter. And whenever she asks the neighbors, they can’t quite meet her gaze

But everything is perfect. Isn’t it?

Kate’s Thoughts

Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novella!

I will be the first to admit that, unlike Serena, I haven’t really found myself connecting with the works I’ve read by Catherynne M. Valente. I know that fantasy readers really love her stories, and I recognize the talent there, though the content itself hasn’t ever wowed me. But when Serena asked if I’d be interested in joint reviewing Valente’s new horror/dark fantasy novella “Comfort Me With Apples”, I was totally game. After all, the description was mysterious, with hints of Bluebeard and suburban horror, and I figured that all those things combined would make for an interesting tale. And then Valente went and shocked me with a whole other element that TOTALLY WORKED… and that I can’t really talk about because I don’t want to spoil anything.

Frustrating I know, but really, you should go in a bit blind. (source)

But here is what I will say about “Comfort Me With Apples”: Valente has created a very well plotted novella that slowly builds the unease from the jump, and it eventually escalates to dread, and hope, and frustration, and a bit more dread. We get two different ways of telling this story: the first is the story of Sophia, a young wife living in the perfect community of Arcadia Gardens, with a perfect husband that she feels completely devoted to and defined by, who shouldn’t have any care in the world as everything is so laid out and, well, perfect. As she lives her day to day life of perfection, she starts to have niggling doubts due to how secretive her husband can be, and small, creepy discoveries she’s making in her home that imply that someone was there before her. We also have the rules of this community interspersed in the narrative, as they go from general (if not incredibly stiff) HOA guidelines, to things that sound far more punitive and threatening. I loved how Valente used both these ways to clue you in to what Sophia was slowly discovering about herself, and the secrets her husband, and neighbors, are keeping. And boy did it build up and seep into my veins. I don’t know what I expected from this short story, but it definitely blew past them, and hit every single thing that I wanted it to hit when the big picture was finally clear for all to see.

I enjoyed this novella quite a bit. If you want a quick, creepy, and in some ways frustrating (in a good way?) read, definitely look into “Comfort Me With Apples”.

Serena’s Thoughts

I’ve really liked Valente’s books before, most especially her “Fairyland” series. Knowing her writing style, very lyrical and and fanciful style, I was really curious to see how that would adapt to a more chilling tone and story. I had high hopes, which is why I brought in our resident horror expert! But even with that in mind, I was still struck with just how well her unique use of words and phrasing would work to draw an increasingly disturbing picture. The build is slow, but the tension and dread wrap around you from quite early on, even if you can’t put your finger on just what is wrong.

Like Kate mentioned, this book is incredibly hard to review without spoiling the many secrets that are slowly unveiled as the story progresses. I think it is particularly interesting, though, having both Kate and I read it, because in some ways, we both came at this book from very different perspectives. Kate is more familiar with general horror and thrillers, giving her a unique perspective on the story. And I….

More like, I have a particular background knowledge set that I can’t mention because it will spoil the story. That said, those who have the same history will be quick to pick up on some elements of the story and can see where things are going a bit early on. Not to brag, but I was even able to put names to characters who never make the page. Yeah, be impressed. But that’s really neither here nor there in the end, as I don’t think being able to predict some of these twists or not really affects the reading experience too much. It was still super creepy and a very unique twist on some familiar elements.

Kate’s Rating 8: Unexpected and creepy, and hits all the right buttons for the kind of story it ends up being!

Serena’s Rating 8: A quick but creepy read that wraps up some familiar (and less familiar) elements into a brand-new tension-filled tale.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Comfort Me With Apples” is included on the Goodreads lists “Suburban Gothic”, and “2021 Horror Novels Written by Women (Cis and Trans) and Non-Binary Femmes”.

Find “Comfort Me With Apples” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Jade Legacy”

Book: “Jade Legacy” by Fonda Lee

Publishing Info: Orbit, November 2021

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

Book Description: Jade, the mysterious and magical substance once exclusive to the Green Bone warriors of Kekon, is now known and coveted throughout the world. Everyone wants access to the supernatural abilities it provides, from traditional forces such as governments, mercenaries, and criminal kingpins, to modern players, including doctors, athletes, and movie studios. As the struggle over the control of jade grows ever larger and more deadly, the Kaul family, and the ancient ways of the Kekonese Green Bones, will never be the same.

The Kauls have been battered by war and tragedy. They are plagued by resentments and old wounds as their adversaries are on the ascent and their country is riven by dangerous factions and foreign interference that could destroy the Green Bone way of life altogether. As a new generation arises, the clan’s growing empire is in danger of coming apart.

The clan must discern allies from enemies, set aside aside bloody rivalries, and make terrible sacrifices… but even the unbreakable bonds of blood and loyalty may not be enough to ensure the survival of the Green Bone clans and the nation they are sworn to protect.

Previously Reviewed: “Jade City” and “Jade War”

Review: This has been one of the biggest break-out, surprise fantasy trilogies I’ve read in a while. I went in with pretty much zero expectations and have come out having read something so unique and so precisely written that I struggle to find apt comparisons. With my expectations sky high, I was both really excited to start this final chapter and incredibly nervous. The end really makes the entire thing, and what a tragedy would that be for it to crash?

What had been distinct and local to Kekon has blown up the outside world: Jade and it’s incredible powers to enhance human abilities. Not only does this type of powerful substance shift political powers and economies, but the tradition and regulation that grew up around it on Kekon is shaken by exposure to outside forces. The Green Bone way of life teeters on a perilous balance, and the Kaul family feels the threat to their clan and way of life. The walls are closing in and soon they may be forced to make a terrible choice to ensure their continued existence.

It has become increasingly clear as this trilogy has continued that it is largely a political fantasy. Arguably, the first book has more of an action-feeling and is largely concentrated on smaller, more individual stories, thus making it feel like a more straight-forward urban fantasy story. But the second book blows the scope outwards, landing several of our characters in other countries. On top of that, we begin to see Jade trickling out into this greater world. But here, in the last book, all of that comes fully into its own. All of the pieces that were laid down into the foundation of the political struggles ahead come to fruition, and the story fully embraces the larger, political clashes as the focal point of the story. Depending on your enjoyment of political fantasy, this will either be a boon or a bit of a let-down. I feel like it has built steadily in the first two books, and as I enjoy political fantasy, I was more than down to read a book that really delved into the complicated political maneuverings required in this new world order that involves Jade.

This switch in focus is even more apparent given the story’s generational approach. While the first books focused on smaller chunks of time and a fairly steady cast of characters, here the story jumps in huge leaps and bounds. Readers are left to either keep up or fall behind. I typically don’t enjoy stories that involve huge jumps in time. And while I think it worked here (indeed, I’m not sure how the same story could have been told without using this device), I will say that I did miss the closer character work that I had seen in the first two books. I’m a very character-driven reader, however, so this is definitely a subjective perspective.

The ending is everything the trilogy deserves. I think it may also be a bit divisive. There are a lot of twists and turns within the story, with it rarely going the direction I had anticipated. And the ending is no different. I think it ties everything up perfectly, but throughout the story, Lee doesn’t shy away from getting her hands dirty with the realities of the world she has created. I, for one, found this book to be a surprising, yet pitch perfect, end to a fantastic urban fantasy trilogy.

Rating 8: Magnificent. With this incredible conclusion to the Green Bone Saga, Lee has vaulted herself into the realms of the likes of N.K. Jemisin and other award-winning fantasy authors of the day.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Jade Legacy” is on these Goodreads lists: Best Asian Diaspora Sci-fi and Fantasy Books and Best Adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy Trilogies.

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

Kate’s Review: “The Keeper of Night”

Book: “The Keeper of Night” by Kylie Lee Baker

Publishing Info: Inkyard Press, October 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I won an ARC in a contest run by the author.

Book Description: Death is her destiny.

Half British Reaper, half Japanese Shinigami, Ren Scarborough has been collecting souls in the London streets for centuries. Expected to obey the harsh hierarchy of the Reapers who despise her, Ren conceals her emotions and avoids her tormentors as best she can.

When her failure to control her Shinigami abilities drives Ren out of London, she flees to Japan to seek the acceptance she’s never gotten from her fellow Reapers. Accompanied by her younger brother, the only being on earth to care for her, Ren enters the Japanese underworld to serve the Goddess of Death… only to learn that here, too, she must prove herself worthy. Determined to earn respect, Ren accepts an impossible task—find and eliminate three dangerous Yokai demons—and learns how far she’ll go to claim her place at Death’s side.

Review: Thank you to Kylie Lee Baker for the ARC she sent me through a contest!

As well all know by now, for the most part fantasy as a genre isn’t my jam. There are a couple of exceptions to this rule: “The Lord of the Rings” is my favorite book series of all time, and if there are dark elements or things that have to do with creepy things in the story, I am definitely all in. And this brings me to “The Keeper of Night” by Kylie Lee Baker, a dark fantasy novel about demons, death collectors, and the trauma of being rejected due to one’s identity. When I read the description I knew that this would be one of my exceptions. And given that I had recently read another book that talks about Yokai and Japanese folk lore (and wanted more), “The Keeper of Night” was a great follow up to “Nothing But Blackened Teeth”.

First and foremost, I loved our main character Ren. Right from the start she’s a bit rougher around the edges than I was expecting. Since she grew up being targeted by other Reapers due to her Shinigami heritage, and since her father has merely tolerated her but favored her half brother Neven, Ren has dealt with constant Othering and emotional abuse. It makes sense that she is desperate to find a place where she fits in, so going to Japan in hopes of allying herself with the Shinigami is a logical choice. Of course, Ren soon realizes that in Japan she is also out of place due to her Reaper heritage. It makes for a protagonist who has to internalize a lot of self loathing, and as her journey to find acceptance goes on she makes harder and harder decisions, which push her more and more morally grey. I liked seeing this progression, and I felt that Baker was careful to show the reasons why someone who has dealt with so much oppression, pain, and harm could turn to violence and cruelty, without necessarily condoning some of the darker choices Ren made. And without spoiling anything, the place that she ended up not only set up for the sequel in a really well done manner, it also took me by surprise in where it went, I will DEFINITELY be picking up the next in the series to see where Ren is going to go next.

The one constant better angel with her is Neven, whose genuine goodness has two effects on Ren: the first is that she wants to be better, because she loves her brother and he’s the only person who has shown her true warmth and kindness. The other is that she resents him, because his naïveté is not only hard to deal with, but it also reflects the comparatively privileged existence he has had compared to her. Things become more complicated when they meet Hiro, a disgraced Shinigami who offers to help Ren prove her worth to the Goddess of Death to serve her. Ren feels connected to Hiro due to their heritage, and this causes tension between her and Neven, as he can’t understand some of the things Hiro, as a former Shinigami, does. And this of course, makes Ren feel judged by the one person who never judged her BECAUSE it’s based in cultural differences. It’s no surprise that a lot of this can serve as allegories to sexism, racism, and privilege, and while I think Neven probably could have used a bit more of a dressing down from Ren on occasion, overall the dynamic was enjoyable. And treaded towards heart wrenching in some moments.

As for the fantasy elements, Baker uses a lot of Japanese folk lore, exploring Death mythology as well as a litany of Yokai, from fox spirits to fish spirits to very disturbing and threatening creatures. We got to see these things act out within the story, as well as got some actual folk lore stories to give the various characters Ren meets along the way context. And a lot of it is very dark and creepy, which made it all the more enjoyable for me, as someone who does love dark fantasy within the fantasy realm.

I definitely enjoyed “The Keeper of Night”, and will be waiting on pins and needles for the next book. And if you like dark fantasy, you should definitely seek this one out.

Rating 8: A unique and dark fantasy that threw me for a loop by the end, and makes me excited for the next in the series!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Keeper of Night” is included on the Goodreads lists “Monsters and Magic Society”, and “Awesome Swordswomen”.

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

Giveaway: “Jade Legacy”

Book: “Jade Legacy” by Fonda Lee

Publishing Info: Orbit, November 2021

Book Description: Jade, the mysterious and magical substance once exclusive to the Green Bone warriors of Kekon, is now known and coveted throughout the world. Everyone wants access to the supernatural abilities it provides, from traditional forces such as governments, mercenaries, and criminal kingpins, to modern players, including doctors, athletes, and movie studios. As the struggle over the control of jade grows ever larger and more deadly, the Kaul family, and the ancient ways of the Kekonese Green Bones, will never be the same.

The Kauls have been battered by war and tragedy. They are plagued by resentments and old wounds as their adversaries are on the ascent and their country is riven by dangerous factions and foreign interference that could destroy the Green Bone way of life altogether. As a new generation arises, the clan’s growing empire is in danger of coming apart.

The clan must discern allies from enemies, set aside aside bloody rivalries, and make terrible sacrifices… but even the unbreakable bonds of blood and loyalty may not be enough to ensure the survival of the Green Bone clans and the nation they are sworn to protect.

Giveaway Details: I’ve really been enjoying this fantasy series by Fonda Lee. It’s such a complicated, interesting world filled with complicated, interesting people. At various points in both of the first books I would be actively disliking a character only to have the entire board be flipped and finding that character to be one of the most compelling.

The story is also vast, tackling big concepts such as globalization, generational change, and the tenuous relationship between history and culture. Between the actual individual conflicts (full of fantasy action that feels nonstop) and the larger conflicts between the various gangs and countries at play, the story is full of tension and escalating consequences as the series has progressed. With this increasingly grand scale in mind, I’m really curious to see where this story is headed. It seems to be setting up a story that will move beyond the generation that we’ve mostly followed in the first two books. My full review is coming out this Friday. But in the mean time, make sure to enter to win a copy! The giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and ends Nov. 17.

Enter to win!