Kate’s Review: “My Heart Is a Chainsaw”

Book: “My Heart Is a Chainsaw” by Stephen Graham Jones

Publishing Info: Gallery/Saga Press, August 2021

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

Book Description: “Some girls just don’t know how to die…”

Shirley Jackson meets Friday the 13th in My Heart Is a Chainsaw, written by the author of The Only Good Indians Stephen Graham Jones, called “a literary master” by National Book Award winner Tananarive Due and “one of our most talented living writers” by Tommy Orange.

Jade Daniels is an angry, half-Indian outcast with an abusive father, an absent mother, and an entire town that wants nothing to do with her. She lives in her own world, a world in which protection comes from an unusual source: horror movies…especially the ones where a masked killer seeks revenge on a world that wronged them. And Jade narrates the quirky history of Proofrock as if it is one of those movies. But when blood actually starts to spill into the waters of Indian Lake, she pulls us into her dizzying, encyclopedic mind of blood and masked murderers, and predicts exactly how the plot will unfold.

Yet, even as Jade drags us into her dark fever dream, a surprising and intimate portrait emerges…a portrait of the scared and traumatized little girl beneath the Jason Voorhees mask: angry, yes, but also a girl who easily cries, fiercely loves, and desperately wants a home. A girl whose feelings are too big for her body. My Heart Is a Chainsaw is her story, her homage to horror and revenge and triumph.

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

I’m going to be repeating myself a bit here, given that back in July I reviewed “The Final Girl Support Group” by Grady Hendrix, and I waxed poetic about my deep deep love for slasher movies. I don’t know why it was that a super anxious teenager like me was so enthralled by horror, especially horror that involved slicing and dicing teenagers, but I’m sure it’s the ability to explore such anxieties in a safe way. So you can imagine how thrilled I was when I found out that Stephen Graham Jones, one of my favorite horror writers writing today, was writing a book that was an ode to the slasher genre. “My Heart Is a Chainsaw” is that ode, and I was excited to see what a well known slasher lover like he would do with it, especially since he’s also SO good at weaving in social issues and metaphors into his horror stories that make them all the more brilliant. And holy moly, did “My Heart Is a Chainsaw” NOT disappoint. I assure you, this book is FANTASTIC.

Would I steer you wrong? (source)

There are so many things I want to talk about in regards to this book, but let’s start with the obvious: the slasher stuff. Jones is, as I mentioned, a well known fan of the slasher genre (as seen on his social media but also in her previous ‘Final Girl’ novel “The Last Final Girl”, which I reviewed on this blog as well). In “My Heart Is a Chainsaw”, our main character, Jade, is a slasher movie fanatic of epic proportions. And since she is the one that we are mostly seeing the story through, we, too, get to bathe in all the slasher movie knowledge and lore as she is convinced that her small town of Proofrock, Idaho is falling victim to the start of a slasher massacre. Jade is working out theories based on all kinds of movies and franchises, and we are hard hit with references to so many movies that it was tricky (but super fun) to keep up. From the well known lore of the likes of “Friday the 13th” and “Halloween”, to lesser known treasures like “Trick or Treat” (not “Trick R Treat’, “Trick or Treat” a movie about a heavy metal musician whose ghost comes back to wreak havoc through a record, IT IS THE BEST) and the like, this book hits so many movies with love and affection. We even get history lessons and thematic breakdowns via essays that Jade has written to her favorite teacher, Mr. Holmes, which then tie into the plot line as it is progressing in real time. It’s meticulous and incredibly well done, and Jones balances all of it without it ever feeling overdone or hokey.

But the thing that really, really made this stand out for me and brings it to a whole other level is the layered and heartbreaking portrayal of Jade, and her circumstances. One of the big issues is that of the town itself, as Proofrock is seeing an influx of outsider cash and influence as a gentrified community called Terra Nova is starting to move in (and it is this group of people that seems to be dropping like flies). It’s not the first time a community has had this kind of development, while the new people move in and their influence of money and value start to make things harder for the less fortunate. There are also references to the Indigenous community there, of which Jade is a part, as her father is Native, and the way that they are perceived and in a number of ways left behind or forgotten about. This also plays into the overall horror arc, as, without giving too much away, the violence of Colonialism against the Indigenous groups who lived there is still being felt in this community, and there are repercussions that are starting to bubble up.

And this leads into the brightest part of this story, and that is the character of Jade herself. When we first meet her, Jade is very easy to fit in the box of weirdo teenage girl who loves horror movies, who humorously could find herself living a horror movie and her know how will surely make her plucky and easy to root for. And yes, that is true, but Jones slowly unfolds layer after layer of Jade, and what we get is an incredibly complex girl who has experienced numerous traumas and heartbreaks over the years. She has an abusive father, an absent mother, no friends, and cannot see any escape out of her life except through slasher films, which she clings to because they are a better alternative to the horrors that she has seen and experienced. So when she thinks that an actual horror movie is unfolding in her town, now is her time to shine. BUT THAT SAID, there is also this heartbreaking aspect that comes forth, as while Jade has all of the components of a slasher in her mind that are unfolding, and while she is definitely piecing things together, she has such a struggle with how she views herself that she cannot see the value or part that she could be playing when all is said and done. And that is why not only is “My Heart Is a Chainsaw” a super fun slasher homage, it’s also an incredibly emotional story about a girl who is dealing with a lot of terrible shit.

I loved “My Heart Is a Chainsaw”. If you have been sleeping on the genius that is Stephen Graham Jones, I implore you, STOP IT. Go get this book! ESPECIALLY if you love slasher movies! But even if you don’t! There is so much to love about this story! JUST READ IT!

Rating 10: Intense, heartfelt, and filled with slasher goodies, “My Heart Is a Chainsaw” is my favorite Stephen Graham Jones book yet.

Reader’s Advisory:

“My Heart Is a Chainsaw” is included on the Goodreads lists “2021 Horror Releases”, and “Horror To Look Forward to in 2021”.

Find “My Heart Is a Chainsaw” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Firekeeper’s Daughter”

Book: “Firekeeper’s Daughter” by Angeline Boulley

Publishing Info: Henry, Holt, & Co., March 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: As a biracial, unenrolled tribal member and the product of a scandal, eighteen-year-old Daunis Fontaine has never quite fit in, both in her hometown and on the nearby Ojibwe reservation. Daunis dreams of studying medicine, but when her family is struck by tragedy, she puts her future on hold to care for her fragile mother.

The only bright spot is meeting Jamie, the charming new recruit on her brother Levi’s hockey team. Yet even as Daunis falls for Jamie, certain details don’t add up and she senses the dashing hockey star is hiding something. Everything comes to light when Daunis witnesses a shocking murder, thrusting her into the heart of a criminal investigation.

Reluctantly, Daunis agrees to go undercover, but secretly pursues her own investigation, tracking down the criminals with her knowledge of chemistry and traditional medicine. But the deceptions—and deaths—keep piling up and soon the threat strikes too close to home. Now, Daunis must learn what it means to be a strong Anishinaabe kwe (Ojibwe woman) and how far she’ll go to protect her community, even if it tears apart the only world she’s ever known.

Review: Sometimes, when you are reading a book, there is a moment where you just know that it is going to knock your socks off. I couldn’t pinpoint where it was in “Firekeeper’s Daughter” by Angeline Boulley, but I know it was early. I know there was a moment where there was a switch that flipped, and I said to myself ‘this is going to be fantastic’. I bought it after hearing a bit of buzz, but it admittedly sat on my pile for awhile. I happened to pick it up the same day that I had the pleasure of seeing Boulley talk during a virtual conference, and what began as ‘oh, that’s cool serendipity’ shortly thereafter morphed into something more.

It was very this. (source)

I loved this book. I LOVED it. Angeline Boulley is a fantastic writer who has a gift for imagery, characterization, and plotting, and the result is a hell of a debut novel. The mystery at hand as so many layers, and not just in terms of evidence and components, but also in terms of the consequences and difficult realities that it has because of the community it is affecting. Our main character, Daunis, is such an effective and complicated but easy to root for protagonist, and she is completely believable in every step she takes based on her experience, background, and personality. We slowly learn her backstory while we are meeting her in the middle of a huge traumatic change, as her maternal grandmother has just had a stroke and months previously her maternal uncle was found dead of a meth overdose. Daunis is feeling adrift, even when she has already felt a bit adrift, being the biracial daughter of a white mother and an Anishinaabe man, so her very existence was a huge scandal (parentage aside, her mother was a teenager when she became pregnant, and shortly thereafter he left her for another girl he’d also gotten pregnant). Daunis has had to straddle the privileged white identity as well as her Indigenous one, and has never felt truly and fully accepted by either side of the family, no matter how much love she feels from both sides. Her need to find herself, and her need to avenge the death of her best friend Lily (whose murder she witnessed), as well as her uncle, drives her even more. Daunis is such a compelling main character, I just loved her and loved everything about her. When I saw Boulley speak during the Virtual U.S. Book Show, she described Daunis as a ‘Native Nancy Drew’, and while meth is a bit more high stakes than secrets in old clocks, her pluckiness and likability is totally an homage to young women detectives in literature. And yes, her chemistry with Jamie is…. it’s just wonderful, and heartbreaking, and beautiful, and that’s all I am going to say about her and Jamie. Because you gotta read the book.

But Daunis’s Indigenous cultural identity plays a huge part in this story, and Boulley weaves it all in spectacularly. I think that in a lot of YA thrillers in which a young adult protagonist would be asked to be a CI for the government, it may be a hard and dangerous decision, but on that they would ultimately do for ‘the greater good’ without many personal qualms outside of danger. But that isn’t so in Daunis’s case, nor can it be. Her decision to work with the FBI and the BIA is certainly not one to take lightly, given the terrible history both organizations have with Indigenous people in this country (really, the United States Government in general has just been awful in this regard). But once she’s in it, we get a gritty and suspenseful, as well as critical, look at what it means to be a CI, as well as the way that the FBI and BIA approach communities with such systemic and cyclical oppression. Daunis approaches this as ‘the greater good’, but never truly trusts Ron, the FBI agent, as his motivation is to stop the criminals, as opposed to helping the community that is being affected by the meth supply heal and get better.

There is also the complicated relationship that Daunis has with her maternal side, in particular her Grandmary, who absolutely loves her granddaughter, but is racist towards the Indigenous population in the community as seen through flashbacks and second hand accounts. While it could be written that Daunis either completely excuses her grandmother, or completely shuns her grandmother, instead we find a very realistic and complicated middle ground for her. Along with both those really complicated examinations, every time we get information about Daunis’s culture, be it through conversation, demonstration, or flat out explanation, it is done in a way that is so natural that it always fits the moment. It feels strange to say that it’s ‘unique’, as the uniqueness of it probably comes from the fact that Indigenous voices in literature have been underrepresented for far too long, but it was certainly a fair amount of new information to me, someone who grew up on Dakota Land and has spent a lot of time north on Ojibwe/Anishinaabe Land.

AND, as if I haven’t gushed on long enough, BUT I’M GOING TO CONTINUE, the mystery is also great. I may have guessed some parts of it, but that didn’t even matter to me because it was well crafted, complex, and it was really able to hit home the tragedies of meth running in this community and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women that are at the center of the mystery. There is so much power in this story. As well as a lot of darkness (content warnings here an there, from domestic abuse to murder to a sexual assault that happens off page, but is definitely upsetting). But the darkness always has a bit of hope and resilience to go along with it, and that made all the difference.

“Firekeeper’s Daughter” is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Do yourself a favor and read this book. It is almost assuredly going to be on my Top Ten list this year.

Rating 10: It’s just fantastic. A healthy and powerful mix of a well done mystery and a meditation on being Indigenous in the 21st century, “Firekeeper’s Daughter” blew me completely away.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Firekeeper’s Daughter” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books by Indigenous Women”, and “Hello Sunshine YA Book Club Book List”.

Find “Firekeeper’s Daughter” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “A Desolation Called Peace”

Book: “A Desolation Called Peace” by Arkady Martine

Publishing Info: Tor Books, March 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher and Edelweiss+!

Book Description: An alien armada lurks on the edges of Teixcalaanli space. No one can communicate with it, no one can destroy it, and Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is running out of options.

In a desperate attempt at diplomacy with the mysterious invaders, the fleet captain has sent for a diplomatic envoy. Now Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass—still reeling from the recent upheaval in the Empire—face the impossible task of trying to communicate with a hostile entity.

Whether they succeed or fail could change the fate of Teixcalaan forever.

Previously Reviewed: “A Memory Called Empire”

Review: I made the mistake of waiting over a year after “A Memory Called Empire” was published before reading it. Not this time! The second I saw the sequel pop up on Edelweiss I requested it. And then I had to diligently wait to read it so that I could cover more recent books in a timely fashion. That took some self-control, let me tell you. But the time finally came, and the payoff was definitely worth it! I think I may have enjoyed this book even more than the first.

The war that Mahit started to save her station has begun. Back home at Lsel Station, however, she thinks her part in this story is over, even with the reminder of what she’s done flying past in the form of Teixcalaan war ships. But soon enough, she’s called back into action. Three Seagrass arrives with a request: join her in making first contact with these strange aliens. With no coherent language and the mysterious ability to appear suddenly, these creatures are nothing like the Teixcalaan Empire has faced before. Maybe a barbarian is the only one who will understand them?

In the way of good second novels, “A Desolation Called Peace” is bigger than “A Memory Called Empire” in pretty much every way. Not only does the story expand outwards from the single city/planet that it was localize within in the first book, but the narrative itself expands to encompass not only Mahit’s storyline, but also Three Seagrass’s and several other new (and familiar) characters. These efforts to broaden the scope of the story result in an expansion that feels leaps and bounds ahead of the first book. And this is particularly impressive given how detailed and precise the world-building was there, already.

The culture, language, history, etc., of Teixcalaan felt fully realized in all of the little ways one doesn’t think about but that stand-out when you really step back to appreciate an author’s work. From its emphasis on poetry and literature in its speech and protocol, to the cloudhook technology that seems a natural extension from where our own smartphones are headed. And here, Martine takes that strong foundation, and blows it up to add not only a more detailed look at Mahit’s home, Lsel Station, but adds in an entire new species/culture of the aliens our main characters are interacting with. All while still exploring the ins and outs of the Empire itself, with a closer look at the different religions within it and at the inner workings (both technological and political) of Teixcalaan’s powerful military. Frankly, it’s incredible.

The expansion of character POVs was also really impactful. I loved Mahit in the first book, but in this one, she was probably the least interesting character. Now, don’t read that wrong! I still loved her and her arc, it’s more to say that the additional characters were just that interesting that the more familiar Mahit faded a bit into the background in comparison. I particularly enjoyed getting to see into Three Seagrass’s mind. She was a huge character in the first book, so getting to see finally through her eyes was amazing. Beyond her own interesting story, I was particularly impressed by the duel views that Mahit and Three Seagrass brought to similar issues. Three Seagrass is clearly not a malicious character, but being in her head was a great opportunity to witness a character recognizing and confronting their own privilege and biases.

Beyond Three Seagrass, we also had chapters from the leader of the military front, a powerful, female general, and from Three Antidote, the young partial clone of the previous emperor who we met in the first book. I won’t go into much regarding either of their stories as there are some spoilers there, but, needless to say at this point, I really loved them both. Perhaps, particularly, Three Antidote’s chapters were impressive for how well they capture the thinking of a young boy approaching maturity but still a child at heart. With all the complicated, fleshed out adults, it can be hard to write a compelling child character alongside them, but Martine perfectly captured the thinking and actions of a kid in Three Antidote’s unique position. Again, incredible.

I also really loved the twisty way the story unfurled, with pieces that you didn’t even realize were pieces falling together in the end to resolve many mysteries all at once and illuminate themes you thought were only brought up as passing anecdotes. This review is already long, but if I let myself, I could probably go on and on. Fans of the first book are sure to love this one, too, and any sci-fi reader who hasn’t jumped on board this train, really needs to!

Rating 10: A masterpiece of a space opera! All the more impressive for expanding so effortlessly from the highs of the first novel.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Desolation Called Peace” is on these Goodreads lists: Adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2021 and 2020/21 Space Opera.

Find “A Desolation Called Peace” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Sandman (Vol.7): Brief Lives”

Book: “The Sandman (Vol.7): Brief Lives” by Neil Gaiman, Jill Thompson (Ill.), & Vince Locke (Ill.).

Publishing Info: Vertigo, 1993

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Dream’s youngest sister, the loopy Delirium, convinces him to go on a quest for their missing brother, Destruction. But Dream may learn that the cost of finding his prodigal sibling is more than he can bear.

Review: This was the storyline in “Sandman” that I was most looking forward to revisiting. My love for Morpheus’s younger sister Delirium knows no bounds, and I remembered that the story that has so much to do with her was the one that touched me the most on my first read through of this series. Her childlike innocence and whimsy, which is also steeped in the darkness of her past, has always been so utterly charming and lovely, and “Brief Lives” puts her at the forefront as she gets in her mind the idea of finding the long lost Endless Sibling, Destruction. When both Desire and Despair say no, she turns to Dream, who is mourning the end of a romantic relationship and decides to go. What comes next is a story that sets the wheels in motion for where this series eventually ends. As well as a road trip tale between the unlikeliest of companions, Delirium and Dream. And I LOVE a good road trip.

Someday we will road trip again! (source)

I, of course, loved “Brief Lives” thanks mostly to Delirium, whose character and design is just a joy as well as a little sad. She is very clearly not in her right mind, gravitating towards those who are in the same boat, so seeing her and the stoic and matter of fact Dream is both quite amusing and bittersweet. It is interesting, however, that she is the Endless that is so determined to find Destruction, who left the family and disappeared three hundred years previously. We see flashbacks of Destruction interacting with some of his siblings, as well as the moment that he decided to go, foreseeing that the Age of Enlightenment and a move towards reason across humanity would bring forth things that would almost make him a bit pointless. Delirium is the perfect sibling to want to find him, as one must only seek Destruction if they were in a similar place as she is. I hesitate to say ‘crazy’. It’s far more complex than that. We get some great moments of humor with her and Dream on this trip, as her driving a car or interacting with nonplussed humans is really great fun.

We also get to see that she didn’t start as Delirium, but as Delight, and that the change she went through was in part thanks to Destruction. This change or multi faceted characterization is a HUGE theme in this tale, especially for the dysfunctional siblings; Destruction talks about how the Endless are two sided coins and aren’t just one thing, but also the inversion of that thing. Delirium is insane, but also one of the most clear headed of her siblings. Death brings, well, Death, but is also the kindest. Desire is both filled with want, but also incredibly vicious. And so forth. I loved seeing these concepts explored as Dream and Delirium go on their journey, inadvertently causing destruction on their quest to find Destruction. This is probably the arc in which we get to see the intricate relationships between The Endless, who are both otherworldly beings with scope and metaphysical attributes that tie into humanity, but also a dysfunctional family group with shifting alliances, petty grievances, and old hurts that siblings know far too well.

And finally, we do get a final visit to the relationship between Morpheus and his son Orpheus, who, cursed with immortality, is just a head being cared for by a family on an island off of Greece. As we saw in “Fables and Reflections”, Orpheus begged his father to kill him, as he is really the only one that can grant him that wish, and Dream turned his back on his son. Now Morpheus has to confront that decision, and to face the child that he abandoned for reasons that Orpheus does not understand. I don’t really want to spoil how this all plays out, but it’s significant and sets the course for what is going to happen next in the series. Also, it made me weep.

And finally, once again, the artwork is lovely. I haven’t gushed enough about Delirium’s design, which is excellent and cheerful and creepy at once. But there was one particular panel that really stuck out to me near the end that just sums up the vast, ever-changing realities of The Endless and their worlds.

Source: Vertigo

“Brief Lives” is a significant story arc and is still my favorite thus far. It really captures the philosophy, the humor, the pathos, and the wonder of the entire series.

Rating 10: A lovely story arc about family, grief, and change, “The Sandman: Brief Lives” is my favorite tale in the series.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Sandman (Vol.7): Brief Lives” is included on the Goodreads lists “Mythic Fiction Comics”, and “Death Gods and Reaper Protagonists”.

Find “The Sandman (Vol.7): Brief Lives” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed:

Serena’s Review: “Monsters of Men”

Book: “Monsters of Men” by Patrick Ness

Publishing Info: Candlewick, May 2010

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: As a world-ending war surges to life around them, Todd and Viola face monstrous decisions. The indigenous Spackle, thinking and acting as one, have mobilized to avenge their murdered people. Ruthless human leaders prepare to defend their factions at all costs, even as a convoy of new settlers approaches. And as the ceaseless Noise lays all thoughts bare, the projected will of the few threatens to overwhelm the desperate desire of the many. The consequences of each action, each word, are unspeakably vast: To follow a tyrant or a terrorist? To save the life of the one you love most or thousands of strangers? To believe in redemption or assume it is lost? Becoming adults amid the turmoil, Todd and Viola question all they have known, racing through horror and outrage toward a shocking finale.

Previously Reviewed: “The Knife of Never Letting Go” and “The Ask and the Answer”

Review: So remember how I was all whiny about the cliffhanger ending in the first book? Yeaaaah, Ness definitely leaned into that inclination with the end of “The Ask and the Answer” with both the arrival of another ship from Viola’s fleet and an army of Spackle marching in on New Prentisstown full of righteous vengeance. Betwen all of that, you’ll understand why my reviews for these books came on after another. I simply never put down the series and blew through all there in a matter of days!

Todd and Viola have finally managed to reunite only to be immediately set off on separate missions. For Todd, his victory over the Mayor is fleeting as the Spackle army marches down upon the town and the Mayor’s army still recognizes only one leader. For Viola, two more of her people have finally arrived only to find themselves in the midst of an ongoing war with terrible choices all around. To engage in a war against a wronged native people? To side with a terrorist group? To side with the maniacal Mayor whose cruelty sparked much of the violence? With no good choices, once again, both Todd and Viola must face just how far they will go to save one another. And at what cost to the greater good?

Following the path set in the first two books, Ness expands even further on the questions he presents his characters (and the readers) regarding violence, justice, and priorities. The first book was a very insular look at one boy’s, Todd’s, struggles to cope with one-on-one violence in his efforts to protect himself and those around him. In second book, we see Viola confronted with a terrorist organization that is working against a truly evil man but which is operating within its own questionable morality. And in the third book, we see the righteous fury of the native Spackle as they finally bring the Mayor’s great war to fruition. And we experience the horror of Viola, Todd, and, importantly, the two new comers as they are forced to pick sides in a volatile situation that seems to have no good outcomes.

The book jumps right into things with the first battle playing out between the Spackle, equipped with new powerful weaponry, and the Mayor’s army. There is no glory or exciting action here. Ness, through Todd’s eyes, is committed to presenting the horrors of war. Even from the Spackle whose mistreatment at the hands of the humans would justify much. It is all death, pain, and misery, as brought to home most poignantly in Todd’s eyes as he witness the death of a random man in the army whose Noise is projecting fear and longing for his wife and small son right up until the end. There’s no escaping the sheer nightmare of war as described in this battle scene. It’s powerful and painful and an excellent precursor to much of the rest of the book.

In the second book, we were given an extra POV through Viola’s eyes. Here, we get a third and begin to learn more about the Spackle themselves. I can’t talk to much about this without some fairly big spoilers. But I can’t emphasize how pleased I was with this addition. The first two books show a people who have been forcibly silenced by colonizers. All that is known of them is what the humans around them have projected upon them, with the original war and memories of what the Spackle were like before their enslavement all but gone in people’s memories. There were so many intriguing aspects of this portion of the story. I particularly liked the way Ness handled Noise and how, for the Spackle who are natives of this world, it is seen in a completely different light than it is by the humans who have torn themselves apart because of it.

Todd and Viola, for their part, are still excellent characters. We see each of them struggle with the choices before them, making missteps that are driven by what seems like the right choice at the time but that has lasting implications for everyone around them. Each has grown so much from the first book, but we almost get that much character growth all again in this single, last book. As a whole, their journeys are each spectacular and even more wonderful as a pair.

This entire trilogy is so very, very good. It challenges readers at every turn to evaluate the price of every action or reaction, regardless of how righteous the cause. Ness is smart enough to leave many of the conclusions left unsaid but obvious enough. It’s always nice to see an author trust his readers like that. The ending was rough, but so was the entire series. Sad, but hopeful. I think that’s how I’d sum up the the trilogy anyways. If you’ve enjoyed the first two books, I think it’s a given that you’re already planning on reading this given (yet again!) the massive cliffhanger at the end of that book. But I will reassure you all that Ness stick the landing perfectly.

Rating 10: Heartbreaking in the best way possible.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Monsters of Men” is on these Goodreads lists: Most Interesting World and Best War Novels.

Find “Monsters of Men” at your library using WorldCat!

Monthly Marillier: “Son of the Shadows”

“Monthly Marillier” is a review series that is, essentially, an excuse for me to go back and re-read one of my favorite author’s back catalog. Ever since I first discovered her work over fifteen years ago, Juliet Marillier has been one of my favorite authors. Her stories are the perfect mixture of so many things I love: strong heroines, beautiful romances, fairytale-like magic, and whimsical writing. Even better, Marillier is a prolific author and has regularly put out new books almost once a year since I began following her. I own almost all of them, and most of those I’ve read several times. Tor began re-releasing her original Sevenwaters trilogy, so that’s all the excuse I needed to begin a new series in which I indulge myself in a massive re-read of her books.

Book: “Son of the Shadows” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Tor, June 2002

Where Did I Get this Book: own it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

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

Serena’s Rev-Up Review: “Graceling”

Book: “Graceling” by Kristin Cashore

Publishing Info: Harcourt, October 2008

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Katsa has been able to kill a man with her bare hands since she was eight—she’s a Graceling, one of the rare people in her land born with an extreme skill. As niece of the king, she should be able to live a life of privilege, but Graced as she is with killing, she is forced to work as the king’s thug.

She never expects to fall in love with beautiful Prince Po.

She never expects to learn the truth behind her Grace—or the terrible secret that lies hidden far away . . . a secret that could destroy all seven kingdoms with words alone.

Review: I read this book right around when it came out and instantly loved it. I went on to re-read it a few times in the next couple of years. But as my list of re-read favorites grew and grew, after those first few years, I never got back around to this one. So now it’s probably been about ten years since I last read it. Then when I saw that Cashore was returning to her “Graceling” world after so many years with the release of “Winterkeep” later this month, I knew that now was the time and this was the perfect excuse! So in anticipation of this new book, I will be re-reading all three of the “Graceling” books that came before, starting out with this, the first and my favorite.

In a world dotted with individuals with extraodinary powers, marked by their duel colored eyes, Katsa’s unparalleled ability to fight and kill just about anything is frightening to the extreme. Not the least of all to her. Under the thumb of her cruel uncle the king, for years, Katsa has served as his unwilling enforcer. To protect her own sanity and the safety of those she can, Katsa’s also built up an underground life of small rebellions and resistence. During one of these missions she meets Prince Po, another Graceling and one who finally opens her eyes to the opportunities before her. When the two begin to uncover a lurking darkness in the far reaches of the kingdom, they set out to unravel an increasingly malicious tangle. And while they do, they begin to discover there is more to Katsa’s Grace than just killing after all.

There’s a lot to love about this book. I but I think most people can agree that one of its biggest selling points is its main character herself. I can think of a number of books that have attempted an all-powerful, badass female character like this before and bungled it up so badly that the book becomes practically unreadable. So it’s a testament to Cashore’s ability that her main character not only avoids pulling the book down with her but actually turns out to be one of its biggest selling points.

Katsa’s biggest strengths, her seemingly endless ability to excel at practically anything, is just what makes her such a challenging character to write. She arrives on page one seemingly capable of easily handling anything that the story throws out her. So where’s the plot to go? What type of development can you give a character like this? Well, instead of physical limitations, Cashore dives deep into the psychological damage and challenges that a character with these abilities would face. Katsa’s fear of her own strength hinders her ability to trust and form friendships, probably the low hanging fruit as far as personal struggles for this type of character goes.

But Cashore goes even deeper. Because Katsa operates alone so much of the time and has a deep-seated fear, verging on hatred, for herself, her interactions with those around her can be quite toxic at times. She’s rash and prone to striking out. She also struggles to recognize the limitations of others and will push people (and horses!) past their breakingpoint. From this starting point, Cashore weaves together a beautiful character arc that focuses on themes like trust, self-acceptance, and self-control. And throughout this all, Katsa’s very brashness and inability to pick up on the most basic of social cues makes her an incredibly endearing lead character.

Beyond Katsa, the story excels in several areas. While it takes a bit to get started, once it does, there are bunch of fantastic action set-pieces and challenges that are posed to our seemingly unstoppable heroine. And the story quickly moves past the more straightforward aspect of her Grace that would just be one fight scene after another. I also really like the romance in this story. Unlike a lot of other YA books, here the romance establishes itself about halfway through the book. Of course, as any romance novel author will tell you, getting your characters together is only half of the story, and I really appreciate that Cashore left room to dive into the later stages of a romantic storyline. Things like facing losses together, going through fights, figuring out how to be a couple while also maintaining your sense of individuality, making decisions about your future.

I also really like the villain we have here. The build up to the reveal successfully creates a lot of tension that is only compounded upon once the reader discovers what is really going on. The villain is also a great foil for Katsa, being appropriately powered but not in a way that feels like their abilities were created specifically with her in mind (a failing of many archvillains, in my opinion.) My only complaint is that there isn’t more page time with this individual. But, then again, given the nature of the villain, there’s not really a very good way to include more scenes with them that doesn’t hurt the story overall.

So, given my ravings above, it’s pretty obvious that I found this book just as enjoyable ten years later as I did the first time I read it. I’m excited to read the next two books as well since, unlike this one, I never re-read either of those and remember very little about them.

Rating 10: Definitely deserves its place in the YA fantasy ranks as one of the bests.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Graceling” is on these Goodreads lists: Best “Strong Female” Fantasy Novels and Magic, Adventure, Romance.

Find “Graceling” at your library using Worldcat!

Monthly Marillier: “Daughter of the Forest”

“Monthly Marillier” is a review series that is, essentially, an excuse for me to go back and re-read one of my favorite author’s back catalog. Ever since I first discovered her work over fifteen years ago, Juliet Marillier has been one of my favorite authors. Her stories are the perfect mixture of so many things I love: strong heroines, beautiful romances, fairytale-like magic, and whimsical writing. Even better, Marillier is a prolific author and has regularly put out new books almost once a year since I began following her. I own almost all of them, and most of those I’ve read several times. Tor began re-releasing her original Sevenwaters trilogy, so that’s all the excuse I needed to begin a new series in which I indulge myself in a massive re-read of her books.

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Book: “Daughter of the Forest” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Tor Books, April 2020 (originally published in 1999)

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Lovely Sorcha is the seventh child and only daughter of Lord Colum of Sevenwaters. Bereft of a mother, she is comforted by her six brothers who love and protect her. Sorcha is the light in their lives, they are determined that she know only contentment.

But Sorcha’s joy is shattered when her father is bewitched by his new wife, an evil enchantress who binds her brothers with a terrible spell, a spell which only Sorcha can lift–by staying silent. If she speaks before she completes the quest set to her by the Fair Folk and their queen, the Lady of the Forest, she will lose her brothers forever.

When Sorcha is kidnapped by the enemies of Sevenwaters and taken to a foreign land, she is torn between the desire to save her beloved brothers, and a love that comes only once. Sorcha despairs at ever being able to complete her task, but the magic of the Fair Folk knows no boundaries, and love is the strongest magic of them all… 

Note: I originally posted this review about nine months ago. But I wanted to start this re-read with Marillier’s first book so that the series would be complete, so I’m re-posting it here today.

Review: I was thrilled to see this book pop up on NetGalley. It’s been one of my favorite reads (and the book that introduced me to one of my favorite authors) for many, many years. I couldn’t think of a series that is more due for a re-release than the original Sevenwaters trilogy. Plus, this was the perfect excuse to re-read this book and finally feature a full review for the story on this blog!

Sorcha’s life is full of family and love. With six older brothers who adore her and seek to protect her from everything, her life seems to be on a straight, bright path. Until her family falls under the shadow of her father’s new wife, a powerful sorceress who puts her brothers under a terrible spell, dooming them to the short life of swans. Now Sorcha must become the protector, undertaking a near-impossible task, forced to weave shirts out a painful plant and not allowed to make any noise until task is finished and spell lifted. Life is not made easier when she finds herself caught up by the enemy English and now living in a foreign land among those who distrust and fear her. But Sorcha persists in the face of it all, even has her task seems more and more doomed.

I love fairytale retellings, and this book really introduced me to them and set the bar for what they can be. The “Seven Swans” fairytale is a lesser known tale, and while there have been several other ones that I’ve found since reading this, none have even come close to fully realizing the full potential of the story. Marillier doesn’t simply stick to the basic outline; she creates an entire world, magic system, and fully-fleshed cast of characters, many of whom don’t feature in anything other than name in the original tale and some not at all. But beneath this all, the heart of the story is consistent (though some details differ). All the major plot points are hit, but the book is over 500 pages long, so you know it is rich in detail and not in a rush to get through its story.

Too often fairytale retellings fail to really establish themselves as anything unique from the original stories. Main characters are often lacking in any real personality (fairytales themselves often give them basically none, so there’s not much to go off for the author adapting it). And often the story doesn’t expand much further out than the original tale. Not so, here. Sorcha is the cornerstone around which this entire story hinges. And, given the she spends two thirds of the book not able to speak out loud, it’s important that her character feel real and compelling. We spend the entire book in her head and experience some fairly traumatic things alongside her. But, importantly, you’ll notice that I said “two thirds.” That’s because, smartly, Marillier adds a bunch of extra story to the beginning of this book. This not only gives Sorcha ample opportunity to be set up as a compelling character, but it adds stakes to her quest. We’ve met her brothers. We know their individual strengths and weaknesses, and, importantly, their close attachment to their sister. This makes their loss feel real and helps the reader feel fully committed to the terrible task set out before our leading lady.

The book also deals with some pretty serious and tough topics. There’s a very graphic, traumatic scene that occurs fairly early in the story. The author doesn’t hold back on the details of this attack, but what justifies this, I think, is the great work she does to explore how this affects Sorcha going forward. It’s not swept away or easily solved. Instead, we see how this experience shapes all of Sorcha’s choices and reactions going forward. And, ultimately, we see how she slowly goes through the experience of healing from it. This book is probably the best example I can point to for how a tough topic like this can and should be handled. Not only does our heroine go through the entire process, the book lays down some needed examples of how those around her help and wait as she deals with this.

Marillier’s writing is also exceptional. Atmospheric, lyrical, and emotional, she makes you feel the same strong connection to the forests and lakes of Sorcha’s wild home. Small moments land with unexpected emotion, and the action is tense and high stakes while not straying far from the intimate perspective we have through Sorcha’s eyes with everything that is going on around her. Throughout all of Marillier’s books, her writing is always consistent, but it’s a joy to go back to this first book that I read of hers and see why it stood out so much in the first place.

Marillier started a new trilogy this last fall, and I’m eagerly awaiting getting my hands on the second boo, due out this September. If you’re waiting as well, take this chance to explore her backlog with this beautiful renewed edition. I love the cover art for this and the other two books in the trilogy. If you haven’t read any of Marillier’s work before, boy, are you in for a treat! Get started with this one, and away you go!

Rating 10: Everything that a fairytale retelling should be and then some!

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Daughter of the Forest” is on these Goodreads lists: “The Best Fairytales and Retellings” and “Best Romance in Traditional Fantasy.”

Find “Daughter of the Forest” at your library!

Next up is “Son of Shadows” on the first Friday of next month!

Serena’s Review: “A Memory Called Empire”

Book: “A Memory Called Empire” by Arkady Martine

Publishing Info: Tor, March 2019

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

Book Description: Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in the center of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor, the previous ambassador from their small but fiercely independent mining Station, has died. But no one will admit that his death wasn’t an accident—or that Mahit might be next to die, during a time of political instability in the highest echelons of the imperial court.

Now, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, rescue herself, and save her Station from Teixcalaan’s unceasing expansion—all while navigating an alien culture that is all too seductive, engaging in intrigues of her own, and hiding a deadly technological secret—one that might spell the end of her Station and her way of life—or rescue it from annihilation.

Review: I feel like I’ve been on the audiobook holds list for this title for…forever. The wait made worse by the fact that I was continuously being barraged by stellar reviews, recommendations, and notifications of the awards it was sweeping in. But, finally, my time has come! Time to, belatedly, say pretty much the same thing every one else has been saying for over a year now!

Teixcalaan is both the wonder of many galaxies as well as a persist threat: an empire that is the heart of culture, but that is also an ever-hungry beast looking for the next part of space to absorb. As such, Ambassador Mahit has always balanced a strange love for the very empire she is sent to protect her independent Station from. But what is already a delicate balancing act is made all the more challenging when she’s called to duty by the mysterious death of her former Ambassador. Upon arrival, Mahit quickly discovers that her predecessor has been into things much deeper than she could possibly have imagined. And now, not knowing who to trust in this polished world, Mahit must begin untangling a knot of intrigue and politics that will determine not only the future of her own Station but perhaps the future of Teixcalaan itself.

It’s been a while since I’ve read a sci-fi novel, but man, did I choose the right one to jump back in with! Like I said earlier, it’s a bit hard to review a book like this, one that’s been out for over a year and has been very popular in its genre. And unlike the hype for many YA fantasy novels that I often feel is undeserved and more pushed on readers by hopeful publishers than anything else, sci-fi still has a comparatively smaller readership, so if a book is popular in the genre, it’s usually for good reason. And that’s definitely true here!

The world-building alone make this book an excellent read. Teixcalaan and the idea of empire as a whole is immediately appealing. It’s easy to see the comparison to the Roman empire or the British empire or any culture that swept across our own world seemingly unstoppable in the way it centered the entire planet around itself. I loved the deep dive this story took into the complicated nature of empire, how it is at once a destructive, violent force, but also one that holds a strange appeal to even those potential new conquests quivering in its path. How it can be like a shining sun of culture and sophistication while also overshadowing and consuming others that may have their own lights to add. It’s really fascinating while also not coming across as preachy. The book allows the reader to view Teixcalaan through their own eyes and form their own opinions.

Mahit is also an excellent character to take this journey with. As a scholar of Teixcalaan from an early age, she’s always struggled with her fascination and love for this empire that views her and her people as barbarians. And while there, she’s clever with her use of this knowledge, both in how others view her and how her actions are interpreted. But, at the same time, she still feels herself drawn to the language and poetry of this culture and longs to belong as one of them. This tension is at the heart of all of her decisions, and it’s supremely relatable.

And even with all of this reflection and grander commentary, the story itself feels action-packed and fast-moving. The mystery surrounding Mahit’s predecessor is compelling and trying to untangle the political maneuverings of everyone Mahit comes in contact with was definitely a challenge. I also really liked that this book wraps up its main storyline while also leaving a sufficient number of clues and shadowy threats to spur interest in the next book that comes out this spring. I’ll definitely be checking it out!

Rating 10: Succeeds in every way and introduces a fantastic new sci-fi world.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Memory Called Empire” is on these Goodreads lists: Hugo Awards 2020 Finalists and Excellent Space Opera.

Find “A Memory Called Empire” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Silence of the Lambs”

Book: “The Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, July 1988

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: A serial murderer known only by a grotesquely apt nickname—Buffalo Bill—is stalking women. He has a purpose, but no one can fathom it, for the bodies are discovered in different states. Clarice Starling, a young trainee at the FBI Academy, is surprised to be summoned by Jack Crawford, chief of the Bureau’s Behavioral Science section. Her assignment: to interview Dr. Hannibal Lecter—Hannibal the Cannibal—who is kept under close watch in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.

Dr. Lecter is a former psychiatrist with a grisly history, unusual tastes, and an intense curiosity about the darker corners of the mind. His intimate understanding of the killer and of Clarice herself form the core of The Silence of the Lambs—an ingenious, masterfully written book and an unforgettable classic of suspense fiction.

Review: I first read “The Silence of the Lambs” when I was a freshman in high school. My mom and I were at a local drug store and they had the mass market paperback for sale, and she was kind enough to purchase it for me because she never censored what I wanted to read (even if she probably sighed to herself about her daughter’s morbid curiosities). I read it very quickly, completely immersed in the story. I saw the film shortly thereafter, and both are now very high on my lists in terms of favorite books and films. There has been a debate lately between film fans on Twitter as to whether “The Silence of the Lambs” is horror or not. Given that I watch it ever Halloween Season and my friends and I did a Netflix Party of it on one of our weekly Terror Tuesdays, I can see the argument for it being within the horror genre (though I myself flip flop between yes and no). Because of this, I decided that it was time to revisit the story in book form, and that I would include it in this year’s Horrorpalooza. And picking it up again felt like I was visiting an old friend.

But not one that I’m planning on having for dinner or anything… (source)

This book is still so good. While I think that I PROBABLY like the movie better, that is only because the movie is so perfect at bringing all of these three dimensional and amazing characters to life. Hannibal Lecter is a literary villain who stands above so many, but this book is 100% Clarice Starling’s. Harris created a ‘badass female protagonist’ who feels so real, so relatable, and so nuanced that I’m continually shocked that a man wrote her (given that sometimes male authors can miss the mark when it comes to writing lady characters). You feel Clarice’s ambition, her frustration, her smarts and her anxiety and her need to solve the Buffalo Bill case, and you completely understand why she would go to the lengths she does… like getting close to Hannibal, even though he is incredibly manipulative and dangerous. I also really appreciated the moments of misogyny and sexism that she has to endure, as for 1988 for a guy to put those in, and to make them sting and hurt without feeling overdone or corny, that’s impressive. Clarice is such an important and formative feminist icon for me, and I was worried that revisiting her might not hold up as well. But it did. Hannibal, too, is a fascinating character, and while he doesn’t have the same amount of page time as Clarice (which is just fine), his insidiousness and his charm makes him very creepy, as well as vastly entertaining. But for me, it’s all about Clarice.

I had also forgotten how well Harris slowly builds to the Buffalo Bill mystery that is the true heart of “The Silence of the Lambs”. You get small references to it here and there, but it takes awhile to realize that this story is the one that Clarice is going head first into. Seeing her slowly gather her evidence, be it through talking with Lecter or going into a storage container to find evidence, or going to an autopsy and finding a bug, we get to go along with Clarice, see the pathology unfold, and then see Bill in action. And Harris really knows how to write a suspenseful scene. Even though I have read the book before and seen the movie countless times, I found myself getting nervous and anxious during some of the action moments. Especially during the Buffalo Bill kidnapping we get to witness on the page.

I will say that Buffalo Bill, while a really well done villain (and completely under appreciated in the movie. Ted Levine is GOD TIER and gets overshadowed by Hopkins. I get why, but my GOD, every time I watch Levine just blows me away), feels problematic now given that Bill is clearly dealing with some kind of gender dysphoria. I do know that Bill is based on a whole smorgasbord of serial killers, and that Jerry Brudos is almost assuredly the one who manifests in Bill’s obsession with womanhood (as during one of his attacks he was dressed like a woman, would dress up in his victims clothing, and had a huge thing about womens shoes). But while it’s stated that Bill isn’t ‘actually transsexual’ (paraphrasing from the text here) in the book, it still feels like there are shades of transphobia with the character. I think it says more about the time it was written than much else, but it’s definitely something to think about, and stands out for all the wrong reasons today.

Overall, “The Silence of the Lambs” is still a gripping, scary, and masterful classic that blurs the lines between thriller and horror. Re-reading was a joy, and I am glad I jumped back into it.

Rating 10: An enduring thriller classic that touches on real life horrors and (mostly) holds up.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Silence of the Lambs” is included on the Goodreads lists “I Like Serial Killers”, and “Best Female Lead Characters”.

Find “The Silence of the Lambs” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

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