Kate’s Review: “White Horse”

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Book: “White Horse” by Erika T. Wurth

Publishing Info: Flatiron Books, November 2022

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

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: Heavy metal, ripped jeans, Stephen King novels, and the occasional beer at the White Horse have defined urban Indian Kari James’s life so far. But when her cousin Debby finds an old family bracelet that once belonged to Kari’s mother, it inadvertently calls up both her mother’s ghost and a monstrous entity, and her willful ignorance about her past is no longer sustainable

Haunted by visions of her mother and hunted by this mysterious creature, Kari must search for what happened to her mother all those years ago. Her father, permanently disabled from a car crash, can’t help her. Her Auntie Squeaker seems to know something but isn’t eager to give it all up at once. Debby’s anxious to help, but her controlling husband keeps getting in the way. Kari’s journey toward a truth long denied by both her family and law enforcement forces her to confront her dysfunctional relationships, thoughts about a friend she lost in childhood, and her desire for the one thing she’s always wanted but could never have.

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

It is such a good time to be a horror fan right now. I’m sure I’ve said that before, but it remains true. We are getting so many varied stories with so many different perspectives and voices right now, and it makes for such rewarding and interesting reading. I saw “White Horse” by Erika T. Wurth on a few different platforms, and it took me a few times to really look into it. Once I did, however, I knew that I needed to read it. The buzz was promising and the premise really caught my eye. And once I started reading I slowly began to realize that this was going to be an awesome reading experience. “White Horse” is a fantastic horror novel from a new Indigenous voice in horror literature.

The horror elements in this book are some of the most unique moments and beats that I have read in recent memory. Wurth takes a concept that sounded pretty straightforward (a haunted bracelet that brings protagonist Kari visions of her dead mother as well as some kind of monster), but it never feels hokey and it feels fresh and original with the way she approaches it. The visions she has are unsettling bordering on scary, with the imagery of her mother Cecilia being both eerie but also filled with a deep sadness that permeates the pages. Kari, who is of of Apache and Chickasaw descent and lives in urban Denver, is realizing that her missing mother Cecilia didn’t leave, but is actually a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman, and that Kari’s visions are going to haunt her and drive her into despair if she doesn’t find out what really happened. It is clear that Wurth has a very clear idea of how she wants to construct these supernatural and real life horrors, and it works very, very well, especially since so much Indigenous culture and spiritual aspects drive the story themes. Whether it’s visions or the story of the Lofa, Wurth uses these mythologies and beliefs and fits them into the story at hand perfectly. We also get a love letter to a more familiar horror icon, as Kari’s love for Stephen King connects to her journey as she finds herself at the Stanley Hotel, where King was inspired to write “The Shining”, and this part of the book was so jovial AND creepy that it was one of the horror highlights I’d experienced in my reading this year. Wurth really captured the Stanley, from the descriptions to the history to the way that it can make a Stephen King fan feel just be stepping foot inside (as someone who visited a few years ago, it was like going back and experiencing it all over again). I loved all of these elements so much.

And Kari herself is a very compelling protagonist, for so many reasons. She is wry and funny, for one, and I loved the way she gives no fucks about how other people think of her. I love her complicated relationship with her cousin Debby, how she clings to her and loves her fiercely, and I ached over her relationship with her father, whom she cares for after he was in an accident that left him with some pretty significant brain damage. Kari is rough and tumble, but she has endured a lot of trauma and loss in her life, which also enters into the horror themes of this book. So much of the foundation for this horror story is rooted in generational and communal trauma, specifically towards Indigenous women living in modern American society. From the MMIW aspect to microaggressions Kari endures here and there to the way that addiction can strain a person and make them do monstrous things, to even aspects of the magical and supernatural systems at hand, this story is from an Indigenous lens and perspective, and it make the book stand out all the more.

“White Horse” is a must read horror novel. I urge horror fans to pick it up, because it’s phenomenal.

Rating 10: Dark and soulful, “White Horse” is an effective horror story that also examines modern Indigenous life and the trauma that can come with it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“White Horse” is included on the Goodreads lists “Magical Realism”, and “Colorado”.

Serena’s Review: “The Golden Enclaves”

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Book: “The Golden Enclaves” by Naomi Novik

Publishing Info: Del Rey Books, September 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: The one thing you never talk about while you’re in the Scholomance is what you’ll do when you get out. Not even the richest enclaver would tempt fate that way. But it’s all we dream about, the hideously slim chance we’ll survive to make it out the gates and improbably find ourselves with a life ahead of us, a life outside the Scholomance halls.

And now the impossible dream has come true. I’m out, we’re all out–and I didn’t even have to turn into a monstrous dark witch to make it happen. So much for my great-grandmother’s prophecy of doom and destruction. I didn’t kill enclavers, I saved them. Me, and Orion, and our allies. Our graduation plan worked to perfection: we saved everyone and made the world safe for all wizards and brought peace and harmony to all the enclaves of the world.

Ha, only joking! Actually it’s gone all wrong. Someone else has picked up the project of destroying enclaves in my stead, and probably everyone we saved is about to get killed in the brewing enclave war on the horizon. And the first thing I’ve got to do now, having miraculously got out of the Scholomance, is turn straight around and find a way back in.

Previously Reviewed: “A Deadly Education” and “The Last Graduate”

Review: This was probably my most anticipated release for the entire year. My sister was getting married the week it came out, and I forewarned her that I would have limited time to help as I would need to prioritize reading. JK, I didn’t actually do that (though, as she’s also an avid reader and loves this trilogy, she might just have joined me in avoiding wedding work for reading!). So, without any more prelude, let’s get into it!

Things both did and yet so very much did NOT go to plan. Yes, El and her friends managed to save the students of the Scholomance, fill the school with mals, and send it careening off into the void. No, they did not live happily ever after. In one last heroic effort, Orion was trapped and left behind in the Scholomance, doomed to a horrific end at the mercy of the most terrible type of mals there is, a mawmouth. And now a mysterious force is crippling the enclaves, provoking them into suspicion and fear, a hair’s breath away from all-out war with one another. With forces spiraling out of control and only an array of awful choices before her, El must find away to avoid her fate of becoming a world-destroying maleficier.

I was worried about this book in much the same way that I was worried about the seventh “Harry Potter” book when it came out. For one thing, the books that came before were pretty much perfection in my estimation, but the end to a series can really make or break the entire thing, even ruining excellent books that came before. For a second thing, both “Deathly Hollows” and “The Golden Enclaves” abandon the formula and setting that was so central to the series up to this point. The Scholomance was not just a school, it was a character that drove almost all of the story and plot of the first two books. So, without it…would the story hold up? Well, long story short, yes, yes it did!

What I continue to love about this series is how creatively Novik tackles concepts and themes that are very relatable to a modern reader. But under all the magical guild and guise, they’re also presented as completely organic to the story, no one message feeling particularly preachy or heavy-handed. Given the title, it will come as no surprise that much of this story revolves around the Enclaves, the powerful communities that provided shelter from the many dangers facing magical beings. But these communities are incredibly difficult to get into, leading to a very stratified culture between the haves and have-nots. Like the other two books, a large part of this book is taken up by El’s exploration and explanation of how these Enclaves work, many of their secrets being new to not only the reader but El as well. And from there, the book dives into the real meat of the story: where is the line in “the sacrifice of one for the good of the many?”

What I really appreciated in the exploration of this theme throughout the book was how handily Novik avoided coming to any easy, pat explanations. Instead, she meticulously lays out a problem, a world, and the people in that world handling that problem as nuanced and complicated. El must make choices, but these choices do not come with all the feel-good material of a righteous easy path. Instead, her path is full of rage, devastation, and the hard realization that more often than not the world is not made up of monstrous people but of monstrous situations or systems that cause people to make monstrous choices again and again.

I also loved how so many aspects of the first two books were tied up into this one. Not only do we have the prophesy that has hounded El her entire life (that she will become a destroyer of worlds), but there is also the question surrounding Orion and his unique abilities. There were some genuinely shocking reveals in this book. I had the inkling of a guess on one tiny aspect of it, but most of it was a complete surprise and I was there for it.

This book is also much darker and more grim than the previous two entries (not that they were particularly light-hearted, what with all the discussion about child and teen death rates). But from the very first page, El’s journey is one of bare, tortured persistence in the face of horror after horror. Those looking for much in the realm of quirky teenage romance (not a lot to be found before, but at least some) should prepare for a much darker tale than that. However, all of that being said, El, and this book, doggedly strive towards the hopeful, even in the face of horrible odds and terrible choices. I loved how it all came together in the end. And while no one rides off into a utopian sunset, the story felt complete and completely satisfying. Fans of the first two books (as long as you weren’t only in it for the love story) are should to love this book just as I did!

Rating 10: Superb! A perfect landing for what feels like a perfect trilogy full of challenging themes of power, family, and hope.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Golden Enclaves” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Dark Academia and Best Adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy Trilogies.

Kate’s Review: “House of Hunger”

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Book: “House of Hunger” by Alexis Henderson

Publishing Info: Ace, September 2022

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

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: A young woman is drawn into the upper echelons of a society where blood is power, in this dark and enthralling gothic novel from the author of The Year of the Witching. Marion Shaw has been raised in the slums, where want and deprivation is all she knows. Despite longing to leave the city and its miseries, she has no real hope of escape until the day she spots a peculiar listing in the newspaper, seeking a bloodmaid.

Though she knows little about the far north–where wealthy nobles live in luxury and drink the blood of those in their service–Marion applies to the position. In a matter of days, she finds herself the newest bloodmaid at the notorious House of Hunger. There, Marion is swept into a world of dark debauchery–and at the center of it all is her.

Countess Lisavet, who presides over this hedonistic court, is loved and feared in equal measure. She takes a special interest in Marion. Lisavet is magnetic, and Marion is eager to please her new mistress. But when her fellow bloodmaids begin to go missing in the night, Marion is thrust into a vicious game of cat and mouse. She’ll need to learn the rules of her new home–and fast–or its halls will soon become her grave.

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

Alexis Henderson’s debut novel “The Year of the Witching” was my favorite book in 2020. Her unique and dark witchcraft story really connected with me, as Henderson took familiar witch themes and turned them into broader commentaries on identity, groupthink, and fanaticism, and hell yes did it work for me. It’s probably no shock that when I heard she was writing a new book I was very excited. And when I read the description of “House of Hunger”, and realized that it was going to be Henderson’s take on vampires, my excitement went that much higher. I’m very particular about vampire stories, as I’ve mentioned before, but I had high hopes and full trust in Henderson.

This book is just awesome. It’s a fascinating deconstruction and reworking of a typical vampire story, and it also delves into the always complicated themes of class and privilege from our society and applies them to a fantasy world that is well conceived and interesting. Henderson’s world of the North and the South has a great set up and some fantastic world building, and I had a solid feel for the world that the story is set in. The nobles of the north who take on the bloodmaids are never referred to as vampires, per se, though there are plenty of hints that this is kind of what we are working with here: they live in a part of the world that has longer nights than the area that our protagonist Marion comes from, for one. There is the very obvious aspect of the blood drinking, and the harkening back to Lisvet’s ‘illness’ (probably extreme hemophilia) and how she needs blood to survive. And there is also the aristocratic lives that the nobles live, a theme that has been connected to vampire lore from the early days of the genre. I liked that Henderson opted to not go full vampire in the story, as it makes Lisvet and the other nobles of the houses more mysterious and seductive, and gives the story more room to explore the mythology of the world at hand. And we slowly get to see the tension and threat build, going at a pace that makes not only Marion, but also the reader, in a ‘frog in the pot of boiling water’ situation, unaware of the actual threat at hand until it is far, far too late. There are so many unsettling aspects of this story in terms of horror, and once it builds to some of the bigger reveals it jumps off the page and is solidly scary, scary stuff.

Speaking of Marion, I really liked her as our protagonist, as she is so many shades of grey and incredibly multi-faceted as a character. She is the perfect way to explore the other themes of the upper class exploiting the lower classes out of the sheer desperation that the have nots experience. When we meet Marion she is living in poverty with a sick and abusive brother, working under a cruel mistress at a backbreaking job with nothing to show for it. Of course the temptation of escape to live in the opulence of being a bloodmaid is going to tempt her! Sure, you have to give your mistress your blood, but in exchange Marion gets pampering, glamorous housing, all the delicious food she can eat, and then the attention of Lisvet, who makes her feel special and extraordinary. Marion is desperate, but she’s also ambitious, and Henderson definitely delves into darker areas with her character as she sees things that are questionable, but opts to explain them away as she loves her new life as a bloodmaid and the perks that it seems to have. And oh the metaphors of a wealthy elite like Lisvet literally drinking the blood from a lower class girl with few options like Marion and her other bloodmaid companions! I mean, there is a reason that Lisvet’s last name is Bathory, after all. It’s a great commentary on how the haves take the have nots for everything they’re worth, and can make them think that it’s some kind of honor or choice.

“House of Hunger” is a fantastic horror dark fantasy. Alexis Henderson is a horror voice to be paying attention to, as her deconstructions of familiar tropes turn into stories that are so incredibly special and unique. Cannot wait to see what she does next.

Rating 10: Unsettling, suspenseful, and a well done exploration of the haves and have nots, “House of Hunger” is another successful horror novel from Alexis Henderson.

Reader’s Advisory:

“House of Hunger” is included on the Goodreads list “Bathory Books”.

Kate’s Review: “The Weight of Blood”

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Book: “The Weight of Blood” by Tiffany D. Jackson

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegan Books, September 2022

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

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: When Springville residents—at least the ones still alive—are questioned about what happened on prom night, they all have the same explanation . . . Maddy did it.

An outcast at her small-town Georgia high school, Madison Washington has always been a teasing target for bullies. And she’s dealt with it because she has more pressing problems to manage. Until the morning a surprise rainstorm reveals her most closely kept secret: Maddy is biracial. She has been passing for white her entire life at the behest of her fanatical white father, Thomas Washington.

After a viral bullying video pulls back the curtain on Springville High’s racist roots, student leaders come up with a plan to change their image: host the school’s first integrated prom as a show of unity. The popular white class president convinces her Black superstar quarterback boyfriend to ask Maddy to be his date, leaving Maddy wondering if it’s possible to have a normal life.

But some of her classmates aren’t done with her just yet. And what they don’t know is that Maddy still has another secret . . . one that will cost them all their lives.

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

I’ve reviewed Stephen King’s “Carrie” on the blog before, and in my review I mentioned how much I love that book. Like, I LOVE it and have loved it since I was in middle school. I have also come to love the books of Tiffany D. Jackson, one of my favorite YA authors writing today, as her stories are always rife with well done tension as well as great examinations of social issues about race in the U.S. So when it was announced that Jackson was going to write a book that was a reimagining of “Carrie”, I just about lost my mind with glee. Suffice to say, I had been looking forward to “The Weight of Blood” ever since the publishing notice fell across my Twitter feed. When I finally sat down to read it, I told myself to go slow and savor it… and immediately burned through it in two days time. She’s done it again, folks, and this time she took one of my favorite horror novels along for the ride.

I really, really enjoyed this book, so buckle up for a long review.

First and foremost, this is a “Carrie” re-telling/re-imagining, and Jackson really does a good job of making it her own while still drawing clear connecting lines to the original plot, themes, and characters. But I really love how she takes it a few steps further and bolder and makes it not only a story about bullying, but racial bullying and systemic racism that fosters and creates environments where racial bullying thrives. Maddy is our protagonist, who is a biracial teenage girl that has been able to pass as white in her small southern town, mostly due to her fanatical father and his insistence that she do so. Once she is outed as Black due to a rain storm having a reaction with her hair, her white classmates, already using her as a target because of her social awkwardness, amp up the bullying in ways that become far more vicious. It’s biting commentary and it works really, really well, as plot points from the source material are tweaked to take on more complex meanings. The Prom that Maddy ends up going to (to disastrous results of course) is the first desegregated Prom the high school has ever had. Her tyrannical parent this time is her white father, and his zealotry is as much Christian Evangelism as it is worshiping at the altar of whiteness in America. Our Sue Snell analog, Wendy, is a white girl with a Black quarterback boyfriend named Kenny, and her motives for getting Kenny to take Maddy to Prom are more a white savior complex at work than a nice girl feeling bad about being an accessory to bullying. And so forth. It all feels like “Carrie” but it goes further and feels like a different kind of gut punch as racism is at the forefront, and it works incredibly well.

The story is told through a third person narrative between a few different characters, as well as podcast transcripts, official police reports, and articles and book excerpts, and they all come together in ways to slowly show not only what disaster happened the night of Prom, but also to show the racist history of Springville, and how the town has been fostering racial animosity and inequity up through the events of the book. I really liked learning about the town and the people in it in this way, as it really does drive home the greater point that the the ugly truths about race and racism have rotted the town through, and by the time we get to the story at hand, it all comes to a head on Prom night. Again, a direct line to the story that the book is paying homage to with the transcripts and interviews, but expanding upon it to make the story at hand all the richer.

And finally, and this is probably one of the less important points of this re-telling (mild spoiler alerts here too), but I loved, LOVED that Jackson fully leans into the romance between Maddy and popular quarterback turned prom date Kenny. I have always been a huge proponent of the Tommy Ross and Carrie White romance, as the book and both movies make it clear, at least to me, that had the Prom not ended up with Carrie burning it all down and Tommy being killed by a falling bucket, they absolutely would have ended up together PROBABLY FOREVER, OKAY? So when it became clear that Maddie and Kenny were absolutely falling in love with each other, I was hooting and hollering, and then, of course, preparing for the worst given how the source material ends for them both. Though, all that said, Jackson definitely makes this tale her own in spite of the great homage, and that is all I am going to say about THAT, so….

Did I put my kindle down for a moment during my read just to rewatch the ‘Someone Like Me’ scene in this movie and then cry a little bit to myself? You’re DAMN RIGHT I DID! (source)

“The Weight of Blood” is a great remix of one of my favorite books, and Jackson knows how to draw the comparisons out while making her own points and plot. I really enjoyed this one as a fan of her work, and a fan of “Carrie”. Just stupendous.

Rating 10: A fantastic re-imagining of “Carrie” that takes on social issues of racism and bigotry that are, unfortunately, still all too relevant, “The Weight of Blood” is another page turner from Tiffany D. Jackson!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Weight of Blood” isn’t on many Goodreads lists as of yet, but it would fit in on “Popsugar 2022 #33: A Social Horror Book”.

Book Club Review: “Circe”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing book club running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Book Bingo” where we drew reading challenges commonly found on book bingo cards from a hat and chose a book based on that.  For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Circe” by Madeline Miller

Publishing Info: Little Brown and Company, April 2018

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Bingo Prompt: a book with a map

Book Description: In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child – not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power – the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.

Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.

But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

Kate’s Thoughts

I was obsessed with Greek Mythology as a kid, so much so that I would be constantly checking out books of that topic from the library, or taking little extracurricular classes on the subject in my grade school (these classes were called ‘Minis’ and we could sign up for just about any topic). In high school I took a class on Greek mythology, and one of the books we read was “The Odyssey”, the well known tale of Odysseus trying to make his way home after the Trojan War. I didn’t REALLY care for the book, but I did love the time he spent on Aeaea with Circe, the witch who turns his men into pigs. When Serena picked “Circe” for book club I was happy for two reasons. The first is that I love Madeline Miller’s book “The Song of Achilles”. The second is that “Circe” had been sitting on my shelf ever since it first came out and this was the kick to the pants I needed to pick it up.

Much like “Song of Achilles”, Miller takes a well known Greek myth and character and delves into a backstory that fits the greater mythology while exploring more modern themes and notions. In this we get the backstory of Circe the witch, from her time as the child of a Titan and a nymph to her banishment to her desert island to her time with Odysseus and beyond, while also exploring her womanhood, her isolation, her thought process, and her traumas. We see her role in other parts of Greek Mythology, sometimes being a passive player and other times being very active, and so in turn see new perspectives on some of these stories. Who could make the Minotaur pitiful, or Medea a little more complicated, or Odysseus less heroic? Madeline Miller can, and it works perfectly through the eyes of Circe as she weathers her own storms and learns her own lessons.

You need not be a fan of Greek Mythology to pick up “Circe”, as the themes are broad and relatable as a woman who has been disenfranchised has to stake a claim to her ability to live her life and keep herself and her loved ones safe. It’s resonant and powerful and I really enjoyed it.

Serena’s Thoughts

I’ve had “Circe” sitting on my TBR pile for quite a while also. That said, I also have “Song of Achilles” right there next to it. While I’ve heard great things, I’m just not up for all the tears! So it was an easy pick to just skip ahead to “Circe,” a tale that, while tragic at times, didn’t come with a foregone, ball bawl-worthy conclusion.

I can echo everything Kate said. I, too, very much enjoyed Greek mythology as a kid and teen. I didn’t have the same resources for taking classes on the subject, but I definitely gobbled up everything I could. Even with that being the case however, I haven’t re-familiarized myself with the pantheon or myths for quite some time, so reading this book, I can speak to the fact that it’s still approachable for those with less (or older) knowledge of the original stories. For one thing, I didn’t remember just how entwined some of these stories became. It was truly impressive how many various different myths, gods, heroes, and monsters the author was able to weave Circe’s story through and around.

Circe’s story was also very much one of power, especially the unique power of being a woman. It was an all inclusive exploration, not looking away from the restrictions placed on women with power but also acknowledging the specific destructive tendencies that some powerful women can turn to in a world that would limit their options. Circe’s own experience with her magic progress over literally centuries. And we see several examples of other powerful women working with their own forms of power and existence, both to good and bad outcomes. I also really liked the versions of womanhood we see through Circe’s life. We see a daughter, a sister, a lover, a mother, a friend. All tied within her own ongoing story of self-acceptance and growth.

I really liked this book. I think it’s the kind of story that has a lot of great cross-over appeal, likely to please fans from almost all genres.

Kate’s Rating 9 : A truly marvelous exploration of a notorious character of Greek Mythology, “Circe” gives the Witch of Aeaea a compelling backstory and some well done connections to other myths while taking on themes of womanhood, power, and resilience.

Serena’s Rating 10: Simply brilliant, a powerful re-imagination of a powerful female character who has existed largely on the sidelines of mythology.

Book Club Questions

  1. How familiar were you with the Greek myths that are touched on in this story? Particularly “The Odyssey” itself?
  2. Circe and her siblings all take very different paths in life. In what ways did their upbringings make them similar and in what ways did they differ? Why do you think they each chose the paths they did?
  3. This book has many themes revolving around women and power. What aspects of this theme stood out to you? How did Circe’s attitude towards her own power shift throughout the book?
  4. Circe come from a dysfunctional family. In what ways do we see this impact her choices when raising her son? Does she fall into any of the same traps? How do her choices compare to those she was raised with?
  5. What did you think of the portrayal of the various gods and titans we see in this story? Did they align with what you knew of these mythical beings from before? In what ways did they surprise you?

Reader’s Advisory

“Circe” is on these Goodreads lists: Best Books About Mythology and Awesome Women of the Ancient World.

Kate’s Review: “The Pallbearers Club”

Book: “The Pallbearers Club” by Paul Tremblay

Publishing Info: William Morrow, July 2022

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

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: A cleverly voiced psychological thriller about an unforgettable—and unsettling—friendship, with blood-chilling twists, crackling wit, and a thrumming pulse in its veins—from the nationally bestselling author of The Cabin at the End of the World and Survivor Song.

What if the coolest girl you’ve ever met decided to be your friend?

Art Barbara was so not cool. He was a seventeen-year-old high school loner in the late 1980s who listened to hair metal, had to wear a monstrous back-brace at night for his scoliosis, and started an extracurricular club for volunteer pallbearers at poorly attended funerals. But his new friend thought the Pallbearers’ Club was cool. And she brought along her Polaroid camera to take pictures of the corpses. Okay, that part was a little weird. So was her obsessive knowledge of a notorious bit of New England folklore that involved digging up the dead. And there were other strange things – terrifying things – that happened when she was around, usually at night. But she was his friend, so it was okay, right?

Decades later, Art tries to make sense of it all by writing The Pallbearers’ Club: A Memoir. But somehow this friend got her hands on the manuscript and, well, she has some issues with it. And now she’s making cuts.

Seamlessly blurring the lines between fiction and memory, the supernatural and the mundane, The Pallbearers’ Club is an immersive, suspenseful portrait of an unforgettable and unsettling friendship.

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

It’s finally time, everyone! Paul Tremblay has a new horror novel out, and it’s one that caught my attention VERY quickly when I read about it. For one reason, obviously, is that it’s Paul Tremblay. He’s one of my favorite horror authors, and one of the best ones writing today. But the bigger issue at hand is that while he has taken on other horror themes and twisted them onto their head (possession, zombies, ghosts, etc), he is taking on a subgenre that is near and dear to my heart, and that I am VERY picky about: vampires. I love vampire stories, but I want very specific things from my vampire stories. And Paul Tremblay gave me everything I need. Oh, and yes, like in most of his other works, I ended up weeping relentlessly by the end.

It almost always comes to this when I read his books. (source)

Let’s start with the plot and the way this story is told. The narrative structure of this book is so fantastic. It is framed as a memoir written by Art Barbara. Going in, we know nothing about Art, or why he would have written a memoir about himself. We also almost immediately notice that there are seemingly handwritten annotations and footnotes written by a mystery voice, and those footnotes are critiquing the story as written. We soon realize that this story Art is telling is about his friendship with mysterious cool girl Mercy Brown, whom he met through the Pallbearers Club, a group he formed in high school as a community service opportunity. Teens work at funerals of forgotten people to serve as mourners and pallbearers. Mercy saw the ad Art put out, and called him. Thus began a friendship built on punk music, 80s yearning, and a mutual interest in working funerals. Art for extracurricular brownie points, Mercy for… other reasons. As Art talks about their friendship, he slowly reveals that he believes her to be a vampire. Mercy, in the footnotes, is constantly questioning his words, editorializing, and it is through both of their POVs that we see a slow burn creepy story about toxic friendship and potential vampirism come to be. I loved how Tremblay decided to tell this story, as it makes both of our narrators have truths and lies that the are sprinkling in. And given that Tremblay is a master at creating deeply disturbing horror moments, the vampire stuff (as Art describes it) is well done, unique, and taps into an actual folktale from New England that is about, in fact, a woman named Mercy Brown who was thought to be a vampire. Look it up! Start HERE. I loved how he brought in this actual story of American mythology and connected it to a metaphor about toxic friendships. The vampire mythos that we get feels fresh and new, and it taps into the non-romanticized themes of vampires as users, superstitions around illness, and codependence. It’s so damn good.

Now I need to talk about Mercy. Mercy is the shining star of this book, of all Paul Tremblay books. He so effortlessly captures the ‘cool girl as seen through the geek boy’s eyes’ trope and turns it into something that is both malevolent as well as bittersweet. We have this great tactic in which we see how Art views Mercy through his memoir, and we also get to see Mercy’s voice not only tell him how badly he has projected his own insecurities into he perception of her (which I believe so many ‘cool girls’ have to deal with when it comes to these kinds of geek boys and their worshiping), but also reflect that cool girl-ness she absolutely DOES have, as well as the clear love (and resentment) she also has for him. There is no question that both Art and Mercy are terrible for each other, and that they both get a lot of things wrong about each other. But the way that Tremblay gives both of them voices to construct a broader truth is great, and he does it in a way that doesn’t make Mercy just a potential vampire that is also a well worn manic pixie dream girl trope. She is basically what I wanted Samara Weaving’s character in “The Babysitter” to be in terms of meeting her full potential, and I absolutely adored her with my entire heart.

Bee is pretty great too, don’t get me wrong, but Mercy is Bee with a bit more depth. (source)

And finally I need to talk about this pathos I keep mentioning. Because this book is just brimming with it in the way that Tremblay does. He really, really knows how to just gut the reader. As said above, Art and Mercy’s friendship is not healthy, really, given that the entire ‘is it a vampire thing?’ question harkens back to the parasitic nature of vampirism, and therein the parasitic natures of some bad human relationships. But I will say, without spoiling things, there is some serious emotional depth that Tremblay taps into with their friendship, about their mutual outcast status and loneliness that connected them in the first place, and at once makes you think ‘this is so unhealthy’, while also feeling the mutual, real love they have for each other. And, once again, I found myself bawling during a Paul Tremblay horror novel. God DAMN do I love how this man knows how to destroy my soul.

“The Pallbearers Club” is a phenomenal take on a vampire story. It is definitely my favorite of Tremblay’s books. I urge horror fans, especially if you like new takes on vampire stories, to pick this one up.

Rating 10: Loved it so much. Mixing humor, horror, and a whole lot of pathos, “The Pallbearers Club” is Tremblay’s best work.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Pallbearers Club” is included on the Goodreads list “Horror To Look Forward To in 2022”, and it would fit right in on “The Ultimate List of Vampire Books”.

Serena’s Review: “Nettle & Bone”

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Book: “Nettle & Bone” by T. Kingfisher

Publishing Info: Tor Books, April 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: After years of seeing her sisters suffer at the hands of an abusive prince, Marra—the shy, convent-raised, third-born daughter—has finally realized that no one is coming to their rescue. No one, except for Marra herself.

Seeking help from a powerful gravewitch, Marra is offered the tools to kill a prince—if she can complete three impossible tasks. But, as is the way in tales of princes, witches, and daughters, the impossible is only the beginning.

On her quest, Marra is joined by the gravewitch, a reluctant fairy godmother, a strapping former knight, and a chicken possessed by a demon. Together, the five of them intend to be the hand that closes around the throat of the prince and frees Marra’s family and their kingdom from its tyrannous ruler at last.

Review: Somehow I seem to have missed out on T. Kingfisher. She’s a fairly popular and pretty universally beloved fantasy author. And yet…here I am, I think reading my first book from her! And, spoiler alert, I really did myself a disservice by waiting this long to read her books! You can likely look forward to seeing her name crop up quite a bit from here on out.

Marra has been the lucky princess. The one to escape the confining life of a princess to grow up at a convent, largely unknown and allowed to become a grown woman free of the trappings of royalty. But while she has been afforded this quiet life, she’s watched her sisters suffer at the hands of a cruel prince. When it becomes clear that her sister’s life is teetering at the brink of her husband’s rage, Marra knows that only she is willing to risk the wrath of the prince and his kingdom to save her. And so she sets out on a perilous quest to find the power to overcome a man protected by a powerful godmother’s gift. Along the way, she picks up a ragtag troupe of fellow outsiders. Together, can they save Marra’s sister?

Oh man, I loved this book. It was everything I love about fantasy fiction. The story has a very fairytale vibe, especially in the first half of the book when Marra is attempting to complete three magical tasks to gain the aide of a powerful gravewitch. The fantasy elements included were all unique but grounded in fantasy traditions that are familiar and oddly comforting. Godmothers with curses and blessing. Goblin markets with capricious deals. And animal companions of the most bizarre sort. We have both a possessed chicken and a dog made of bones! And man, who would have thought you could get so attached to a bone dog? Tears may have been shed (but in a good way).

I also loved the way the story was told. In the first bit of the book, the story jumps between Marra’s current quest and brief glimpses of her growing up. In this way, we’re immediately grounded in the high action of Marra’s current storyline, but we are also quickly filled in on her character, life history, and motivations through these flash backs. The second half follows a more straight-forward arc, but by that time, we fully understand the stakes involved and have come to know Marra more fully. From there, the action is fast and fun. There are numerous smaller conflicts, all touching on unique magical elements, before we get to the big confrontation at the end. And there, the story definitely goes about solving this challenge in a surprising way.

Marra was such a great main character. She was strong, funny, and determined to do what she can for her sister. Her task is almost impossible from the start. And we see as the story unfolds that she is successful purely due to sheer stubbornness and the insistence that if know one else will act, even if she’s not the best person for the job, she will do it herself. There’s also a very sweet, slow-burn romance that develops in the second half of the story. For me, this was the perfect balance of a smattering of romance alongside the more central rescue story at its heart.

I also really loved the writing style. It was lyrical and descriptive when painting the magical scenes and elements, fast-paced and exciting during the action scenes, and surprisingly funny throughout the entire thing. So many of the side characters are quirky and hilarious, and there were a number of entertaining observations about people and life sprinkled throughout the book.

This book is definitely not trying to be literary fantasy or any complicated epic. Instead, it feels completely comfortable for what it is: a fun, sweet fairytale. And I think it’s important to not see it as anything lesser for that fact. There’s a tendency to dismiss these more simple, straight-forward fantasies as somehow not as worthy of acclaim as massive tomes of epic fantasy or magical realism that leans heavily on commentary of human existence. But these fantasy stories have just as much value. And I will give this the ten rating I think it deserves simply because it feels like the best of what these kinds of books can be.

Rating 10: A perfect mixture of romance, comedy, action, and tragedy with unique magical elements sprinkled throughout.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Nettle & Bone” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2022 and Recommended by Seanan McGuire.

Serena’s Review: “This Woven Kingdom”

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Book: “This Woven Kingdom” by Tahereh Mafi

Publishing Info: HarperCollins, March 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: To all the world, Alizeh is a disposable servant, not the long-lost heir to an ancient Jinn kingdom forced to hide in plain sight.

The crown prince, Kamran, has heard the prophecies foretelling the death of his king. But he could never have imagined that the servant girl with the strange eyes, the girl he can’t put out of his mind, would one day soon uproot his kingdom—and the world.

Perfect for fans of Leigh Bardugo, Tomi Adeyemi, and Sabaa Tahir, this is the explosive first book in a new fantasy trilogy from the New York Times bestselling and National Book Award-nominated author Tahereh Mafi.

Review: I’ve had a lot of luck in the past with books featuring Jinn. Several of my favorite fantasy novels both old (“City of Brass”) and new (“Daughter of the Salt King“) have featured these magical creatures and the, often unique, cultures and mythologies built up around them. So when I saw another fantasy novel coming out with a Jinn main character, I knew I had to read it ASAP!

Working as a lowly house maid, Alizeh is cautiously optimistic that, at last, she will be able to lead a quiet life in the shadows, no one ever knowing who she is. That is, a Queen to the powerful, but oppressed, Jinn who have been dispersed across the land and only await the call of a leader to come together once again. For Kamran, any threat to his father’s reign is one to take seriously. So when he bumps into a house maid with skills that should not belong to one in such a class of people, he immediately senses a spy and threat. As he circles closer to the truth, Alizeh also begins to feel the stirrings of change, much as she wishes to repel it.

This book had everything I look for in the start of a new fantasy trilogy. To begin with, the world felt vast yet understandable. The history was rich and complicated, but presented in an approachable way. I particularly enjoyed the history and legends of the Jinn themselves. We get some early backstory to their existence early in the book, but as the story continues to unfold, we get a closer look at how their current standings in society have affected Alizeh’s existence. Mafi deftly nails how a once powerful race could become reduced to a scrap of people who exist in the shadows, how comprise to end bloodshed does not end oppression and prejudice, and how power struggles can go beyond who has the most force (magic, in this case).

Alizeh was such a great character. Her life is full of struggle and hardship, and yet we see her persevere in the face it all. There were very strong “A Little Princess” vibes from her. We also got to see examples of the power she must keep hidden within herself. And while it gives her advantages, she’s not presented as an over-powered Mary Sue. Instead, we see hardships that have come with her “gift” of being the chosen Queen, pains that tax her daily, both physically and emotionally. Her life has been one of tragedy, and when we meet her, she’s all but given up on any hopes of fulfilling her role, preferring instead to exist in a safe, quiet life in the shadows.

For his part, Kamrad’s life has been much more straight forward and existing in whites and blacks, trusting that his family is on the right side of all conflict. His story is much more that of someone losing the blinders they’ve hid behind throughout their life. The story never shies away from the crippling pain that would come with these sorts of revelations, especially about people who are dear. But with all of this, his story was believable, in that all of these revelations and challenges to his perceptions would result in slow, incremental change. His life has been one of duty, and we see the constant tensions playing within him between this loyalty and his inherent sense of right and wrong.

I also appreciated that the romance of the story was quiet and often in the background of the story. It slowly builds as the story unfolds, but neither character is swept up so much as to forget their own challenges and priorities. It’s the exact sort of start to a grand romance that I look for. There are several books to go and, for the most part, these two barely know each other at this point. There’s still plenty of room to grow, and I’m glad the author didn’t give it all way in the very first book.

The book does end on quite a cliffhanger, so readers should beware of that going in. However, it’s so strongly written and imaginative, that I still very much recommend fantasy fans check it out!

Rating 10: Beautiful and compelling while exploring themes of loyalty, oppression, and the challenge of seeing one’s world as it is.

Reader’s Advisory:

“This Woven Kingdom” is on these Goodreads lists: South Asian Representation and Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2022.

Kate’s Review: “The Violence”

Book: “The Violence” by Delilah S. Dawson

Publishing Info: Del Rey Books, February 2022

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

Book Description: A mysterious plague that causes random bouts of violence is sweeping the nation. Now three generations of women must navigate their chilling new reality in this moving exploration of identity, cycles of abuse, and hope.

Chelsea Martin appears to be the perfect housewife: married to her high school sweetheart, the mother of two daughters, keeper of an immaculate home. But Chelsea’s husband has turned their house into a prison; he has been abusing her for years, cutting off her independence, autonomy, and support. She has nowhere to turn, not even to her narcissistic mother, Patricia, who is more concerned with maintaining the appearance of an ideal family than she is with her daughter’s actual well-being. And Chelsea is worried that her daughters will be trapped just as she is–then a mysterious illness sweeps the nation.

Known as The Violence, this illness causes the infected to experience sudden, explosive bouts of animalistic rage and attack anyone in their path. But for Chelsea, the chaos and confusion the virus causes is an opportunity–and inspires a plan to liberate herself from her abuser.

Review: Thank you to Del Rey for providing me with an eARC of this novel via NetGalley.

As this seemingly never ending pandemic goes on, there has been a pattern in my reading and other media consumption that has been consistent: I have been having a hard time with anything that has to do with mass illness and epidemic plotlines. It has tainted my reading experiences, it has made me put off shows I would normally be interested in (“The Stand”? “Station Eleven”? Not right now, thanks!), and I just don’t want to think about it in my reading or viewing things. So when “The Violence” by Delilah S. Dawson ended up in my inbox, I was hesitant. I eventually relented, expecting it to be an entertaining but probably difficult read.

But apparently all a pandemic story needs for me to be completely and utterly in love with it is professional wrestling?

By the way I’m still bitter that this show was cancelled before the last season could happen. (source)

Okay that’s not the only reason that I absolutely adored “The Violence”, but it was definitely one of many lovable aspects of this angry, snarky, and highly entertaining pandemic book. Dawson has created a scary virus mythology that she tackles with suspense, humor, and believability as to how it would unfold, given everything we’ve seen in the past two years. A strange virus causes people to completely disassociate and turn lethally violent, and we follow three generations of women in one family as they experience this new disease through the lens of their own experiences of victimhood and generational trauma. Our first is Claudia, a housewife who has been in a picture perfect but deeply abusive marriage to her nasty husband David. The second is Ella, Claudia’s oldest daughter who has seen the pain her mother has gone through, has protected her younger sister Brookie, and has found herself in a similar relationship with her seemingly wonderful boyfriend at school. And then there’s Patricia, Claudia’s narcissistic mother who is in her second marriage as a trophy wife and lives in privileged wealth. When The Violence strikes, and Claudia sees a potential out from her abusive marriage, all three have their lives change dramatically.

And I loved all three of these characters in all of their well rounded, complicated, and messy glory. Dawson explores all of them and all of their depths, and she has created strong, sometimes maddening, always relatable characters who I ended up caring about very deeply. I also loved how she draws out explorations of trauma and abuse and how victims of abuse find themselves in terrible cycles that they can’t escape from so easily, and how that in turn can make them do things that are harmful. It’s all so sympathetic and raw, and even when I thought that I was going to feel one way about a character, Dawson would surprise me with how I would end up feeling about them. I loved everyone in this book. I loved all of their journeys, be they literal ones or ones within themselves, and how they all changed and grew. And yes, without spoiling too much, I will say that Claudia ends up as part of a pro wrestling league during her storyline, so she absolutely became Betty Gilpin in my head during my time with this book.

And what of the Violence itself? I really enjoyed this virus mythology in this book, as Dawson creates something that feels as scary as it should without becoming overwrought with aspects that would make it ultimately untenable in a real world setting. The transmission of The Violence, the way that people try to study it, the things they discover about it, and the way that the public reacts to it all feel correct after all we’ve seen these past few years dealing with COVID. Dawson doesn’t feel a need to over explain, but she does find ways to make it seem believable in terms of transmission and origin, as well as how society would deal with it (there is a whole plot point about vaccine hoarding and how the privileged can deal better with pandemics than lower income people can, and man oh man do we know that that’s absolutely correct after everything). And while it’s all dark, it’s also supremely entertaining. As our characters find themselves in dangerous situations, and they certainly do, the tension is always on point and is paced in a way that it reads quick while still keeping the reader into what is coming next. There were plenty of moments where I was on the edge of my seat, and the tone definitely goes to twisted places, but still inspires a lot of hope. And I absolutely needed that hope in this story, since hope has felt hard to come by in the face of the inevitability of Omicron. Seeing these relatable and likable characters find hope in the hopelessness really, really resonated.

“The Violence” is my first 10 read of the year. It’s phenomenally entertaining and cathartic in this moment. Just great.

Rating 10: So. Much. Fun. Not to mention twisted, hopeful, and cathartic.

Reader’s Advisory

“The Violence” is included on the Goodreads lists “Anticipated 2022 Horror/Thriller Releases”, and “Books Containing One of the “Clue” Game Weapons On the Cover Or in the Title” (I had to, the concept is too good).

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

Kate’s Review: “The Love Hypothesis”

Book: “The Love Hypothesis” by Ali Hazelwood

Publishing Info: Berkley Books, September 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: As a third-year Ph.D. candidate, Olive Smith doesn’t believe in lasting romantic relationships–but her best friend does, and that’s what got her into this situation. Convincing Anh that Olive is dating and well on her way to a happily ever after was always going to take more than hand-wavy Jedi mind tricks: Scientists require proof. So, like any self-respecting biologist, Olive panics and kisses the first man she sees.

That man is none other than Adam Carlsen, a young hotshot professor–and well-known ass. Which is why Olive is positively floored when Stanford’s reigning lab tyrant agrees to keep her charade a secret and be her fake boyfriend. But when a big science conference goes haywire, putting Olive’s career on the Bunsen burner, Adam surprises her again with his unyielding support and even more unyielding… six-pack abs.

Suddenly their little experiment feels dangerously close to combustion. And Olive discovers that the only thing more complicated than a hypothesis on love is putting her own heart under the microscope.

Review: So this is a bit of a surprise! I’m sure you are thinking ‘now wait a minute, usually Serena is doing reviews of romance, not Kate! What is going on lately?!’ Well, I had to review this one. I just had to. I know that I’ve mentioned on here that I’ve been doing my fair share of romance reading this year (you saw last week’s review of “The Ex Hex”, which wasn’t representative of my overall positive experience of romance reading), and let me tell you, do I have a treat for you all. I am here to review “The Love Hypothesis” by Ali Hazelwood. A steamy and STEM-y romance that I just LOVED, with an unexpected “Star Wars” connection. Yep. This is repurposed Reylo fan fiction, everyone!

As someone who only saw the first two movies in the new trilogy once, and never bothered with ROS, this is out of context for me but also kinda really hot? (source)

So for those who don’t know, “The Love Hypothesis” was originally an AU Reylo fanfic that put the characters into an academia setting. Now they are Olive, an ambitious and driven graduate student in biology, and Adam, a greatly feared professor within the program, and they are both well formed and conceived characters on their own, “Star Wars” inspirations noticeable but certainly not constraining. In an act of desperation, Olive kisses Adam in hopes of convincing her best friend Rose Anh that she has moved on from the man she had been dating previously, and whom Anh has a huge thing for. Olive and Adam eventually cut a deal to fake date each other, as it’s mutually beneficial (Olive can keep Anh feeling secure in her feelings, and Adam can convince Stanford that he isn’t considering leaving and therefore stopping the institution from freezing his research funds). It’s the perfect set up for a fake dating trope, and Hazelwood makes Olive and Adam so likable it’s impossible not to root for them in their perpetual optimism (Olive) and reserved grouchiness (Adam). There are silly misunderstandings, witty banter, and a slow burn build up to some really sexy scenes, and I have found that all of this is EVERYTHING I NEED IN A ROMANCE NOVEL. But Hazelwood also tackles some pretty hefty issues, like sexual harassment in academia, abusive mentors, and trauma and loss, and does it all in a way that feels genuine and not just to keep a plot going. We also get to know all these characters (albeit through Olive’s perspective for the most part) and really find something to like about almost all of them, from Olive and Adam (boy do I love Adam) to their various friends and foils. I especially loved Adam’s bestie Dr. Rodriguez, a sarcastic and devil may care professor who is almost assuredly the Poe Dameron analog from the original fan fiction. Everyone is just so darn lovely.

And the sexiness. I mentioned how it’s a slow burn progression, and as I said, that’s just how I like it. But let me tell you, the sweet sweet build up in this book makes for a very satisfying pay off, and when it pays off, IT PAYS OFF. I lent my copy to my dear friend and fellow “It” reviewer Laura (who is as big an Adam Driver fan girl as I am), and in a video chat she said, ‘this is good, but when does it get GOOD?’ Well, the next day I got a text that just said ‘IT GOT GOOD’. For someone who loves a slow burn and wrote some pretty salacious fan fic in her own time (I’m not telling which fandom it was for), even I was clutching my pearls a bit by how graphic it was once it finally came to a simmering head. In the best way. There is also some really solid and realistic demisexual representation in this book, which I always love to see. Sometimes I encounter romance novels that (for me) lay the horniness on a little too thick, and then there are others that are a bit too chaste. “The Love Hypothesis” meets in the middle.

Hoo boy, I am not used to reviewing romance novels. All I can say is that I LOVED “The Love Hypothesis”. I know that there are lots of opinions about Reylos on the Internet, but I gotta say, Ali Hazelwood has written an awesome romance, and I can’t wait to see what she has in store next! Olive and Adam forever!

Rating 10: Just hook this up to my veins whenever I need a pick me up. SO DAMN ADORABLE.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Love Hypothesis” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Grumpy Sunshine Romances”, and “Romance Novels With STEM Heroines”.

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

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