Serena’s Review: “Given”

Book: “Given” by Nandi Taylor

Publishing Info: Wattpad Books, January 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: As a princess of the Yirba, Yenni is all-but-engaged to the prince of a neighboring tribe. She knows it’s her duty to ensure peace for her people, but as her father’s stubborn illness steadily worsens, she sets out on a sacred journey to the empire of Cresh, determined to find a way to save him at any cost, even though failure could mean the wrath of her gods and ruin for her people. One further complication? On the day she arrives at the Prevan Academy for Battle and Magical Arts, she meets an arrogant dragon-shifter named Weysh who claims she’s his “Given”, or destined mate. Muscular, beautiful (and completely infuriating), he’s exactly the kind of distraction Yenni can’t afford while her father’s life hangs in the balance.

But while Yenni would like nothing more than to toss Weysh the man into the nearest river, Weysh the dragon quickly becomes a much-needed friend in the confusing northern empire. Yet when her affection for the dragon starts to transfer to the man, Yenni must decide what is more important: her duty to her tribe, or the call of her own heart.

Review: This book had two things going for it immediately: first, the cover is so cool! There was an alternative cover that was much less compelling, but the one I highlighted here was the one I saw and the one that initially drew me in. And second, it’s a book about dragons. Lump me in with all the other unoriginal fantasy fans who love dragons, I don’t care! A good dragon story will always be right up my alley. A bad dragon story, however….

Yenni has always grown up with duty at the heart of her life. But when her father falls prey to a mysterious illness, this duty takes on a new form. Not only must she travel to a distant academy to follow through on her next steps to queendom, but while there, she desperately hopes to find a cure for her beloved father. The last thing she needs is distractions. Especially not distractions that show up in the form of infuriating, handsome, young men. And frankly, the only thing in this particular young man’s favor is his dragon form whom Yenni forms a close relationship. Sadly, one comes with the other. But as Yenni finds herself growing closer to man and dragon, the choices before her and the duties that call to her begin to blend and meld.

I probably should have known from the description that this probably wasn’t going to be a winner for me. YA books that describe their romantic heroes as “infuriating” and “arrogant” are almost always underselling it, with the terms “demeaning” and “borderline-abusive” often being the words I would substitute. Alas, so was the case here.

There were so many cringe-worthy lines (also to be expected from most fantasy romances that center around some sort of “mate bond”…can we just stop with this entire idea??). And what was worse was how quickly Yenni ultimately got over her first impression made by some of these rude interactions. Her initial reaction of dislike is completely justified. Her 180-turn like five pages later was….less so. And that’s all without touching the utter lack of romance involved in an insta-love connection. Or any of the other trope-ridden high school romance boxes that were dutifully checked off as the story progressed. All the worse in that these were supposedly more adult characters! Sadly, every aspect of this romance didn’t work for me and pretty much ruined my experience.

Perhaps it’s for the best, then, that I also didn’t feel like there was overly much to ruin in the first place. The writing was strong enough, but wasn’t accomplishing anything truly note-worthy. There was an over-reliance on the author telling readers how they should feel about things, rather than creating situations and dialogue that would resonate with readers and do the showing for her. And the world-building and magical school were incredibly predictable and unoriginal feeling. Sure, one can say that with “Harry Potter” looming large, it’s almost impossible to write a magical school book that doesn’t feel like either a straight-up copy attempt or a pale comparison. But in response, I will point you to Naomi Novik’s “A Deadly Education” and leave it at that. It definitely can be done. This one just doesn’t manage it.

Ultimately, I was really disappointed by this book. Not only did it not live up to the awesome, bad-ass heroine who seemed to be depicted on the cover, but it fell into every negative romance trope you can think of in recent years. I really wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone. There are better dragon stories out there. Better leading ladies. Better worlds. In a word, better books.

Rating 4: Not only did it not bring anything new to the table, but it highlighted another unhealthy romantic dynamic as some sort of wish-fulfillment.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Given” is on these Goodreads lists: 2020 Fantasy and Science Fiction Books by Black Authors and Fantasy That Isn’t Fantastic Straight White Men Doing Epic Things….

Find “Given” at your local library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “What She Found in the Woods”

Book: “What She Found in the Woods” by Josephine Angelini

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Fire, December 2020

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

Book Description: Running from a scandal at her New York private school, Magdalena heads to her family home to recover under the radar.

Over-medicated and under-confident, she’s fearful she’ll never escape her past.

Until she meets Bo out hiking. Wild, gorgeous and free, he makes her believe she might finally be able to move on.

But when a mutilated body is discovered in the woods, Magdalena realises she can’t trust anyone. Not even herself.

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

In a moment of ‘why did no one tell me this’, last November I was looking at my Highlights list for December, only to discover that one of the books I had highlighted had been postponed until Spring of this year. So I needed to go looking for a new title that I could highlight, and hit a bunch of lists for December publications. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I panic! But I was happy when I saw “What She Found in the Woods” by Josephine Angelini, as the description was checking off a LOT of my boxes. A privileged girl running from a private school scandal, a strange boy who may be hiding something, and dead bodies popping up in the wilderness, my gosh, what a treasure trove! I was lucky enough to get a copy via NetGalley, and dove in hoping for a fun read. But sadly, checked boxes or no, “What She Found in the Woods” ended up not gelling for me.

While it certainly has a promising premise and it did have some moments of tension because of a solid build up, “What She Found in the Woods” just didn’t thrill me the way that I wanted it to. The first issue I had was the characters themselves. Magdalena, our protagonist, had a well plotted slow burn of a reveal to her past, but I feel like there was too much piled on once we got past the first initial ‘bad thing’ that was revealed just to make it ‘extra bad’. We really didn’t need the additional issues after the first one (being vague as best as I can here), as it felt like too much to me. There was also a huge reliance on mental health problems as plot progression, or being used as potential foreshadowing, which doesn’t really count as character development, and is a bit problematic as it’s seen as a weakness or potential for violent behavior. And then there is Bo, the mysterious Wild Boy who lives in the wilderness with his family. I thought that Angelini did address how his social skills may not be up to par, though he felt a little manic pixie dream boy for a good amount of the time. There was also a glossed over ‘oh he’s going to go to college’ aspect to his storyline which didn’t feel very thought out, as how? How is he going to go to college? There are so many hoops that he would have to jump through within the context of him going that just saying ‘oh he’s going to’ doesn’t really cut it.

On top of that, the story itself wasn’t too thrilling for me. I wasn’t invested in who was maybe killing people in the woods, as to whether it was Bo or a mysterious entity known as Dr. Goodnight. The commentary on addiction and poverty was interesting enough, but ultimately it barely scratched the surface and the bigger priority was whether or not the instalove between Magdalena and Bo was going to work out, either because of her mental issues, or his potential for having a role in what was happening in the woods. By the time we got to the big climax, I just kind of wanted to be done for the sake of being done.

I’d been really struggling with if I wanted to go into spoilers for this review, just because those who may want to read it should go in without having to worry about having aspects of the mystery ruined. But one of my biggest gripes outside of ‘it just didn’t thrill me’ is tangled with a pretty big spoiler. But I think that I need to address it, so, as always, here is your

So, one of the big questions in this mystery is why Bo and his family have been living in the woods off the grid, and why they are so paranoid about Bo being discovered, and why he has to pretty much say goodbye to them once he leaves the woods for a college life. It is eventually revealed that Bo’s father Ray was an anesthesiologist who started doing a Dr. Kevorkian kind of service, where people who were dying and in agony wanted him to euthanize them to end their suffering. I actually liked that this book brought up issues of euthanasia and bodily autonomy, and whether or not people should have the right to decide when they end their life with the assistance of those who can make it painless and with dignity. This is the worst thing that he has done in this book (so this is the big spoiler: he is NOT Dr. Goodnight), a string of acts that are illegal, but seen as a huge grey area depending on whom you speak to. SO THAT SAID, since he is eventually shown as a medical professional who was participating in illegal, but morally complicated, acts, and wasn’t actively seeking out to cause pain and suffering to others, it felt COMPLETELY incongruous when in the story he encourages Magdalena to go off her very complex prescription regimen when that is SO dangerous to do. When it was possible that he was doing that as a sadist, I was thinking ‘okay, maybe’, but when it’s revealed that no, he’s NOT a sadist, that whole aspect just felt like either a lazy red herring (which IS incredibly damaging, as even though Magdalena eventually gets back on medication that she needs, it’s mentioned in passing, which doesn’t stand out), or a complete disservice to the character in that it just doesn’t mesh with who we eventually see him as.

“What She Found in the Woods” really had potential on paper, but just didn’t live up to it. I think that if I knew someone was just starting to dabble in unreliable narrator tropes in their stories I could see myself recommending it, but there are many that are better executed.

Rating 4: A promising concept to be sure, but a ho hum and at times uneven execution.

Reader’s Advisory:

“What She Found in the Woods” isn’t on many specific Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “YA Involving Mental Health Issues (2000-Present)”.

Find “What She Found in the Woods” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Blood & Honey”

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Book: “Blood & Honey” by Shelby Mahurin

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, September 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: After narrowly escaping death at the hands of the Dames Blanches, Lou, Reid, Coco, and Ansel are on the run from coven, kingdom, and church—fugitives with nowhere to hide.

To elude the scores of witches and throngs of chasseurs at their heels, Lou and Reid need allies. Strong ones. But protection comes at a price, and the group is forced to embark on separate quests to build their forces. As Lou and Reid try to close the widening rift between them, the dastardly Morgane baits them in a lethal game of cat and mouse that threatens to destroy something worth more than any coven.

Previously Reviewed: “Serpent & Dove”

Review: Well, after enjoying the first book well enough this summer, it was kind of a given that I’d include it in my fall reading schedule. After all, I’d had a lot of success this summer with reading books that had been very popular last year and then were followed up by equally good, if not better, sequels (“The Merciful Crow” and its sequel, for example!). And, while the first book in this duology (ugh trilogy) wasn’t as strong as that one, it still caught my interest, and I had hopes the trend would continue. Alas, no. Not only did the trend decidedly not  continue, but I actively disliked this book and am probably out on this (again, ugh ) dulogy-turned- trilogy.

After the dramatic events at the end of “Serpent & Dove,” Reid, Lou and their friends find themselves on the run and in need of allies. Their search is a long and arduous one, pushing them all to the limits. On top of this all, Reid and Lou are still managing the new waters of their marriage after secrets on both of their sides have now been revealed. Will they all be able to stand strong together and will they be able to outwit the powerful force amassing against them?

So, that’s a pretty junky book summary that I just wrote. And that’s because…this is a pretty junky book? Seems harsh, but I really am having  a hard time coming up with any positive to say about this book. The problems start right away when I can’t write a good summary of this book because nothing happens in it. And it’s over 500 pages long! Instead of any plot to speak of, it’s made up of angst, drama, out of character actions/thoughts, and the worst case of “middle book syndrome” that I’ve ever seen. Part of the blame for this is, of course, because either the publisher or author (I’m guessing this was pushed by the publisher after the success of the first book) decided to stretch what originally envisioned as a duology into an unnecessary trilogy. And it shows. In a bad, bad way.

There is practically no action in this book until the last 40 pages. It’s just Lou, Reid and the others looking for allies, and with not much success. It’s not so much a story plot as a story plot point…a small one, at that. Definitely not one that justifies this book’s extreme length either. I mean, on one hand, it was always going to be a hard sell changing what was meant to be a duology into a trilogy kind of late in the game. But then to make the now-added middle book into a massively long middle book? The plot can’t support it. The character arcs (if there are any to speak of) can’t support it. It’s just not good storytelling.

The other major problem for me was in in the character arena and the romance. As I pointed out, this book was clearly stretched too thin on plot, and it feels the same with the characters. Their arcs no longer felt natural, but instead each character felt, at best, wildly out of character at times, and at worst, like they had been made into totally unlikable, totally different characters altogether. I struggled with Reid’s likablity in the first book. He was downright unpleasant in this one. His overly protective attitude towards Lou was in no way endearing and was often aggressively sexist in its portrayal. When he wasn’t caught up in that, it was internal angst and indecision all the live long day. Lou was a bit better, but still less likable than she was in the first. For her, much of her “arc,” such as it was, was more confusing than anything. She seemed to lose much of the personality she had in the first book and was at times almost unrecognizable.

To top a bad situation off, the book ends on a massive cliffhanger. And at this point, given how bad the rest of the book had been, this did not have the desired affect of cajoling last minute interest out of me, but instead just pissed me off more. It’s almost as if the publisher/author knew the book on its own wasn’t enough to keep most fans around, so they added this final twist as a last ditch effort. Really, the entire book seems to serve an example of publishing greed gone to far. If it had remained as a duology, with this the second and final portion, I’m sure we would have had a lot more actual plot and a lot less unnecessary character drama. The tone of the entire series could have remained consistent, and fans would have been satisfied. Instead, out of a need to squeeze the last drops out of the golden goose that was the first book, the series was stretched to a breaking point that is now losing fans. At least, they’ve lost me.

Rating 4: Supremely disappointing and barely recognizable as having come from the same author as the first book.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Blood & Honey” is on these Goodreads lists: “2020 YA Sequels” and “Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2020.”

Find “Blood & Honey” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Some Kind of Animal”

41016362Book: “Some Kind of Animal” by Maria Romasco Moore

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, August 2020

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

Book Description: A story about two girls guarding a secret no one would ever believe and the desperate lengths they will go to in order to protect each other from the outside world.

Jo lives in the same town where her mother disappeared fifteen years ago. Everyone knows what happened to Jo’s mom. Now people are starting to talk about Jo. She’s barely passing her classes and falls asleep at her desk every day. She’s following in her mom’s footsteps. Jo has a secret — she has a twin sister. Her sister is not like most people. She lives in the woods, wild and free. Night after night, as often as she can manage, Jo slips out of her bedroom window and meets her sister in the woods, where together they run, fearlessly.

When Jo’s twin attacks a boy from town, the people in town assume it must have been Jo. Now Jo has to decide whether to tell the world about her sister or to run. SOME KIND OF ANIMAL is an accessible, feminist thriller that digs into themes of sisterhood, family, and friendship.

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

My bachelor’s degree is in Psychology, and one of the most interesting topics from one of my classes was the story of Victor of Aveyron, aka the Wild Boy of Aveyron. In the late 1700s in France a feral twelve year old boy was found roaming the countryside. He was eventually taken into society and studied, and various people attempted to acclimate him to the human world. While he never fully acclimated, there was some progress while he was in the care of a medical student named Jean Marc Gaspard Itard. Feral children have been seen in history and in literature, and “Some Kind of Animal” by Maria Romasco Moore brings that theme to a YA thriller. The feral child plot point is what drew me in initially, I think, though I had theories that this story couldn’t possibly actually be dealing with a feral child, because it seemed like it would be difficult to pull off in the setting that it was functioning in. And yet.

I went into “Some Kind of Monster” believing that our main character Jo didn’t actually have a twin sister named Lee who was living in the wilderness outside her small town. Given Jo’s traumatic childhood, after her mother disappeared and was possibly murdered, and growing up with a harried aunt and a toxic grandmother, as well as being unable to shake the reputation her mother had, I thought it would be a manifestation of her trauma. But I can tell you right now that no, there is absolutely a feral twin living in the woods, and reader, I just don’t think that I quite believed it. Don’t get me wrong, the groundwork is kind of laid to show how Lee ended up there, and how she stayed and survived out there without anyone knowing about her existence outside of Jo. Explanations are given, but I’m still not totally certain that I buy them. I also don’t quite buy Jo not telling anyone who MIGHT listen to her about her twin. Grandma Margaret, sure, that woman is awful and her reaction to what she perceives as a lie definitely tracks, therein making Jo’s reluctance to insist upon Lee’s existence completely believable. But not telling her Aunt Aggie? Not telling her best friend Savannah? I can’t suspend my disbelief that hard. On top of that, there are a lot of twists and reveals that happen once the action in this book gets going, but once they are revealed a fair number of them don’t have much pay off. There is a rather big one regarding a character’s paternity that I thought would have a lot of reverberations, but it’s barely touched upon for the rest of the book, at least in a way that might bring some insight into both characters. It just felt rushed. And the ending? VERY rushed.

Along with a hard to believe and hasty plot, most of the characters weren’t very interesting or multifaceted. Again, I thought that this book was going to be an exploration of Jo’s traumatic childhood, but while it’s acknowledged it was a hard time and that she has trouble trusting people, it’s a whole lot of telling and not much showing. Lee, too, is relegated to feral girl role, and she just isn’t terribly interesting outside of ‘so is she going to attack someone again?’ I will say, however, that there was one character who didn’t feel two dimensional or incomplete, and that is the character of Jo’s Aunt Aggie. There was a very quiet sadness about Aggie, who has been raising Jo as best she can while also mourning the loss of her little sister, and trying to keep Jo away from Aggie’s toxic mother Margaret. I thought that Aggie was the most compelling character because she is very obviously in over her head when it comes to being the guardian to her neice, and doesn’t make the wisest decisions when it comes to her own life and choices (shacking up with the new pastor in town when she herself has turned her back on God seems like maybe not the BEST idea, especially since the pastor is clearly trying to save himself by saving others). She really reminded me of Parker Posey’s character Libby Mae in “Waiting for Guffman”, if Libby Mae was a bit more beaten down by life.

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I was quite disappointed that “Some Kind of Animal” didn’t gel for me. But that doesn’t mean that it won’t gel for you! I could definitely see myself recommending it to the right person. After all…

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Rating 4: A promising idea falls short. Improbable plot points and two dimensional characters really dragged this story down.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Some Kind of Animal” is included on the Goodreads list “2020 YA Mysteries and Thrillers”.

Find “Some Kind of Animal” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “This Is How I Lied”

52000813Book: “This Is How I Lied” by Heather Gudenkauf

Publishing Info: Park Row, May 2020

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

Book Description: Everyone has a secret they’ll do anything to hide…

Twenty-five years ago, the body of sixteen-year-old Eve Knox was found in the caves near her home in small-town Grotto, Iowa—discovered by her best friend, Maggie, and her sister, Nola. There were a handful of suspects, including her boyfriend, Nick, but without sufficient evidence the case ultimately went cold.

For decades Maggie was haunted by Eve’s death and that horrible night. Now a detective in Grotto, and seven months pregnant, she is thrust back into the past when a new piece of evidence surfaces and the case is reopened. As Maggie investigates and reexamines the clues, secrets about what really happened begin to emerge. But someone in town knows more than they’re letting on, and they’ll stop at nothing to keep the truth buried deep.

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

Both of my parents grew up in Iowa, so I have many childhood memories of going to various parts of that state and having a lot of fun. Because of this, Iowa has a special place in my heart, even if my parents considered their move to Minnesota something of an escape. So when I saw that Heather Gudenkauf’s new book “This Is How I Lied” took place in a fictional small Iowa town, that was what pulled me in. I was immediately thinking of cornfields, Bozwellz Pub and Eaterie, and Prairie Lights Bookstore, and I will admit that nostalgia is what got me here. And nostalgia was what kept me going, mostly, because unfortunately “This Is How I Lied” didn’t connect with me.

As always, I will start with what I did like. And that can be summed up as such:

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For the most part, Grotto did feel like an Iowan small town. I liked that there is absolutely a center of commerce and businesses, but it’s just as accessible to farms, ranches, and the rural life of the community. One of our characters who gets perspective chapters is Nola, the potentially psychopathic younger sister of murder victim Eve, who has grown up to become a large animal vet. I liked the moments that we had with her doing her vet work, visiting patients on ranches and farms. I was also tickled by the idea of underground caves in this town, though I didn’t find it too unbelievable, as there are definitely interesting geological formations in this state. Fossil pits, cave systems, cliffs, I’ve been to a few and Gudenkauf really nailed the geology of the state, and how complex it can be. And as I mentioned above, nostalgia played a big factor into my enjoyment of this. I haven’t been to Iowa since my aunt died in Iowa City in 2017, and honestly, I miss it.

But the story itself and the characters within really didn’t connect with me. We had three characters whose perspectives we worked with. The first is Maggie, the pregnant cop who was the best friend of Eve the murder victim back when they were teens. The second is Nola, Eve’s disturbed younger sister who wants revenge. The third is that of Eve herself, and her last days leading up to her murder. None of them really moved past two dimensional tropes. Maggie is the haunted cop with potential secrets, Nola is the violent psychopath, and Eve was the tragic victim who was too good for the world she lived in. The closest we come to interesting is Nola, as seeing psychopathic women characters isn’t nearly as common within the genre as men. But she was too stereotypical psychopathic to make me feel like due diligence was being done to make her interesting. Did she have a dead animal fascination as a kid? Check. Violent tendencies? Check. Menacing presence and sometimes supervillain-like soliloquies? Check and mate. And on top of all that, the mystery itself was never terribly engrossing to me. I had a feeling that I knew who it was early on, and any red herring curveballs thrown to the reader were far too obvious as being red herrings because of how they were placed and where. Once it all shook out to it’s conclusion, due to lack of investment I didn’t really care one way or another. This book doesn’t push any boundaries or reinvent the wheel, and while it’s true that I am perfectly okay with that in a lot of books, that is only if I feel like the journey itself was worthwhile enough to make up for it. In this book, that simply wasn’t the case.

I was disappointed that this book didn’t connect for me. That doesn’t mean it won’t connect for you, though. Remember.

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Give it a go if you are so intrigued. Be like a stubborn Iowan that way. As someone who comes from a long line of them, I can tell you that isn’t a bad thing.

Rating 4: The description held promise but it never really took off. Flat characters, predictable plot points, just all around disappointing.

Reader’s Advisory:

“This Is How I Lied” is included on the Goodreads list “Psychological Suspense for 2020 (U.S. Publications Jan-July 2020)”.

Find “This Is How I Lied” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Catherine House”

51934838Book: “Catherine House” by Elisabeth Thomas

Publishing Info: Custom House, May 2020

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

Book Description: You are in the house and the house is in the woods. You are in the house and the house is in you . . .

Catherine House is a school of higher learning like no other. Hidden deep in the woods of rural Pennsylvania, this crucible of reformist liberal arts study with its experimental curriculum, wildly selective admissions policy, and formidable endowment, has produced some of the world’s best minds: prize-winning authors, artists, inventors, Supreme Court justices, presidents. For those lucky few selected, tuition, room, and board are free. But acceptance comes with a price. Students are required to give the House three years—summers included—completely removed from the outside world. Family, friends, television, music, even their clothing must be left behind. In return, the school promises its graduates a future of sublime power and prestige, and that they can become anything or anyone they desire.

Among this year’s incoming class is Ines, who expects to trade blurry nights of parties, pills, cruel friends, and dangerous men for rigorous intellectual discipline—only to discover an environment of sanctioned revelry. The school’s enigmatic director, Viktória, encourages the students to explore, to expand their minds, to find themselves and their place within the formidable black iron gates of Catherine.

For Ines, Catherine is the closest thing to a home she’s ever had, and her serious, timid roommate, Baby, soon becomes an unlikely friend. Yet the House’s strange protocols make this refuge, with its worn velvet and weathered leather, feel increasingly like a gilded prison. And when Baby’s obsessive desire for acceptance ends in tragedy, Ines begins to suspect that the school—in all its shabby splendor, hallowed history, advanced theories, and controlled decadence—might be hiding a dangerous agenda that is connected to a secretive, tightly knit group of students selected to study its most promising and mysterious curriculum.

Combining the haunting sophistication and dusky, atmospheric style of Sarah Waters with the unsettling isolation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Catherine House is a devious, deliciously steamy, and suspenseful page-turner with shocking twists and sharp edges that is sure to leave readers breathless.

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

If you are going to market a book as a Gothic novel, I am most likely going to be interested based on that alone. The isolated creepiness of the average Gothic novel gets me amped, and I’m glad that more and more authors, both adult and YA, are paying more attention to this genre. And when you throw in a mysterious boarding school/university setting, that’s practically catnip for me! “Catherine House” by Elisabeth Thomas, therefore, caught my eye. I downloaded it from NetGalley, eager to dive into a Gothic boarding school thriller with twists, turns, and nefarious misdeeds. Unfortunately, “Catherine House” missed the mark for me, by quite a bit.

Starting with the positive, this book has a LOT of potential. As I said, it both aspires to be a Gothic read set in a mysterious school that serves as alternative to university, and it promises to give its graduates all sorts of power and keys to mysterious opportunities. It can make powerful politicians, business people, power players of all stripes, and all you have to do is master it’s odd and super secretive curriculum and devote your entire life to Catherine House for three years, with no contact to the outside world. Ines, our protagonist, is fleeing a checkered past in hopes of starting on the right foot and with huge advantages to a new life. It’s pretty standard fare for this kind of book, and that’s not to say that that’s a bad thing. I liked seeing the odd quirks to Catherine House, the little shifts from what one might consider a ‘normal’ college experience, from food to decor to class types. There is also the fact that students at Catherine, Ines included, are involved in strange rituals involving something called plasm, and pins that you can insert into your body that can help harness the potential of this so called plasm…..

I mean, I think. Honestly, this wasn’t very clear to me. While it’s very possible I may have missed something, it seemed to me that the sticking point of the mystery of this book was at the plasm storyline and what it does, and why Catherine House wants to mess with it. So the fact that I could have missed the big conflict resolution doesn’t really imply that there was much detail or due diligence paid to said conflict. There is also the plot line where Ines’s roommate Baby has tragedy befall her all in hopes of fitting into the strict and high standard mold that Catherine House has, but I didn’t really get the sense that Ines was terribly concerned with it. Sure, I was TOLD that Ines was concerned, it’s even in the plot description. But there is very little actual time devoted to Ines feeling guilty, or suspicious, or vengeful over Baby’s fate. When that is touted as a main plot point in the description, I expect it to be more at the forefront. It just felt like more time was put into describing the quirks and strangeness of this place than there was devoted to the actual main plot. Because of this, I was mostly confused and uninvested throughout the narrative. Which is a shame, because there were so many good ideas here that had a lot of potential.

Suffice to say, I was quite disappointed with “Catherine House”. Hopefully the next time I find my literary catnip I will have a better experience.

Rating 4: While this book had a lot of promise, ultimately I didn’t feel like it committed to any of the themes it set out to explore.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Catherine House” is included on the Goodreads lists “Dark Academia”, and “Black Heroines 2020”.

Find “Catherine House” at your library using WorldCat, or at your local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “The Shrike & the Shadows”

51012361._sx318_sy475_Book: “The Shrike & the Shadows” by Chantal Gadoury and A.M. Wright

Publishing Info: The Parliament House Press, March 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Men have gone missing before.

The village of Krume is plagued by a haunted wood and a hungry witch. It’s been that way for as long as Hans and Greta can remember, though they have never seen the witch themselves; no one has.

When men start to disappear once again in the cover of night – their bloody hearts turning up on doorsteps – the village falls into frenzied madness.

Hans and Greta, two outcast orphans, find themselves facing accusations of witchcraft and are met with an ultimatum: burn at the stake, or leave the village forever.

With nowhere else to go, they abandon their only home.

As they venture into the strange forest, their path is fraught with horrific creatures, wild and vivid hallucinations, and a mysterious man tied to the witch’s past.

The Shrike is watching, just beyond the deep darkness of the woods.

Review: A lot of fairytales have been retold a million different times in a million different ways. And I, being the sucker I am for fairytale retellings, am more than happy to read the millionth and one version of many of these popular tales. That said, it’s always particularly exciting when I see a new book coming out that it tackling one of the less popular story. I’m sure I’ve read a “Hansel and Gretel” story in the past, but I couldn’t think of one off the top of my head, so I immediately placed a request for this book. Unfortunately, this was not only a disappointment as far as new fairytale retellings go, but also, in my opinion, just not a very good book overall.

The village where Hans and Greta have grown up has long been haunted by an evil that claims the lives of its men, leaving their hearts on the doorsteps of the grieving families. It is under this constant threat that Greta and Hans have tried to make a life for themselves, praying each night that Hans won’t be next. But when they are driven out of the only home they’ve ever know, the two siblings find themselves alone in the very same forest in which lurks this evil force. Will they make it through this woods? And what waits on the other end?

I was really bummed to find that this book was such a miss for me. I seem to have had a recent run of either books I’ve really enjoyed or ones that have really, really not worked for me. I’m hesitant to make this comparison, but what first came to mind was that this book read like a bad fanfiction story. I say this having read and enjoyed a good amount of fanfiction, some of which with writing as good or better than many published novels I’ve read. So this is in no way a ding against fanfiction as a whole. That said, this book exemplifies several of the pitfalls that poor works of fanfiction have been known to fall into: lackluster world-building, washed out characters, and, unfortunately, over use of sex scenes and trauma, seemingly to make up for a lack of real story at its heart.

The world-building is lacking and transitions from scene to scene are awkward at best and nonexistent at worst. I’d have a hard time describing much of anything about the world in which this book takes place. In the beginning of the story we have a scene with Greta frantically searching for her brother. She runs around quite a bit, but I was completely unable to track her movements. She’s at one point in her cabin, then outside, then, I think, in a field. Shortly after that, she and Hans are in the village itself. This action takes place in the first few pages, but it is a perfect example of the lack of attention that went into setting the scenes for this story. There is no foundation upon which any of this happens, and the writing makes no effort to draw a picture in the reader’s mind.

The writing didn’t serve the story any better as far as the plot goes either. Early in the book there’s a scene depicting an attempted assault (this comes out of nowhere, by the way, and was jarring in and of itself). It’s a serious topic, but the way it is depicted is cartoonish in its villainy. The assaulter’s lines of dialogue were cringe-worthy, and the villain himself was made up of only the broadest strokes of stereotypes without any effort to delve into the seriousness of the real-life history behind the power imbalance that was being described. Again, this was only an early example, but this writing problem continued throughout.

Hans and Greta were also difficult to care about. While the writing seemed a bit better equipped to handle these two main characters, they still often felt flat at times. Hans, in particular, was very hard to sympathize with. Greta had the stronger moments of the two, but as the story was split between them, this wasn’t enough on its own to balance out Hans.

And then there’s the sex scenes. As I mentioned, there’s an attempted assault that comes out of nowhere within a few pages of the start of the book. There’s very little build up to this, and, overall, it doesn’t feel handled particularly well. I’m not in the camp that says every book that has scenes like this should have an overt trigger warning on the cover. Mostly this is because strong writing will build to an event of this nature in a way that allows readers time to decide whether to read the event or not. But with weaker writing, these scenes are a bit trickier. And from there, once our characters are in the woods, there are still numerous sex scenes. I enjoy romances here and there and am not a prude about scenes like this in my books. But the sheer volume of them was off-putting, not to mention the jarring juxtaposition of these scenes against the story’s effort to build up the horror and threat of their travels through the woods. Like I said, kind of like bad fanfiction.

I didn’t enjoy this book. I’m not familiar with either of these authors, so I’m not sure if this is indicative of either of their other works. But on its own, this wasn’t a strong story. I had a hard time connecting to the characters, and the world-building was so superficial that I couldn’t describe much of the book if you asked.

Rating 4: Very disappointing, “Hansel and Gretel” deserve better.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Shrike and the Shadows” is on this Goodreads list: “Parliament House Novels.”

 

Kate’s Review: “Pretty Dead Girls”

32972117Book: “Pretty Dead Girls” by Monica Murphy

Publishing Info: Entangled: Teen, January 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Beautiful. Perfect. Dead.

In the peaceful seaside town of Cape Bonita, wicked secrets and lies are hidden just beneath the surface. But all it takes is one tragedy for them to be exposed.

The most popular girls in school are turning up dead, and Penelope Malone is terrified she’s next. All the victims so far have been linked to Penelope—and to a boy from her physics class. The one she’s never really noticed before, with the rumored dark past and a brooding stare that cuts right through her.

There’s something he isn’t telling her. But there’s something she’s not telling him, either.

Everyone has secrets, and theirs might get them killed.

Review: I strive to go through my Kindle every once in awhile and see what books I’ve purchased that I haven’t read yet. I’ll be honest, I mostly use my Kindle for the eARCs that I receive, but every once in awhile I do get ebooks for it. As I was scrolling through my library I was reminded that about a year back I bought “Pretty Dead Girls” by Monica Murphy. It had shown up on my twitter feed, as a popular YA twitter account was singing its praises. There are so many things that should have worked in this narrative, at least for me. You have a climbing body count. You have popular mean girls who may be the top suspects. You have a local bad boy who may be misunderstood, MY KRYPTONITE! These are the ingredients for a stew that would normally set my tastes aflame. But by the time I had finished “Pretty Dead Girls”, I was left disappointed and wanting a whole lot more.

As I always try to do, I will start with what did work for me, and that is the aforementioned bad boy Cass. This is in all likelihood due to the fact that he seems to have been written to fit each and every trope that I love to see in a misunderstood outsider; there are rumors about him at school, he has a tragic back story, he dresses all in black and freaks people out, but at the end of the day he’s a genuinely good person who shows the protagonist (Penelope) what real love and loyalty is. Is it an overdone trope? For sure. My inevitable reaction to the character when he shows up?

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Never fails. (source)

But even this doesn’t quite work in the broader context of the book. Because Cass’s relationships with other characters feel at times forced, and at other times a bit problematic. While I wanted to like him and Penelope and their budding relationship, I didn’t like that his ‘bad boy’ persona/plot device pushed him into almost psychopathic territory. For example, at one point he drives like a maniac that scares the hell out of Penelope, and it’s played off as ‘sexy and daring’, as well as used as a way for Penelope to perhaps question as to whether or not he is the mysterious killer. It feels lumped in and a bit lazy, and while I know that in real life bad boys are probably not going to be good dating choices, this is fiction, dammit! And these things, in the words of the drag queen Valentina, do not make sense with my fantasy! Especially since that wasn’t the overall point that was trying to be made.

On top of that, other characters never really move outside of their tropey boxes. Penelope is likable enough, but she doesn’t experience much growth outside of realizing that her friends are jerks and that Cass isn’t what he seems. Penelope’s main nemesis Courtney is the prototypical mean queen bee who also has some private pain. The other characters are pretty much relegated to being there as potential suspects, or eventual body count padding. I was hoping that we would get more growth from every one, but they basically remained two dimensional and static.

This could have been brushed aside and/or justified by myself as a reader had the plot been able to carry the weight, but as it was I wasn’t really invested in the mystery of ‘who is the killer and who is going to be next?’. The characters who did die (with the exception of one, but I won’t spoil it here) weren’t really characters that held emotional weight when they were killed. And while the identity of the killer was played up, with first person perspectives from the mystery person to boot, by the time it was revealed whodunnit, the solution fell flat due to a lack of real motive building and characterization before they were ‘unmasked’. It just felt like a ‘gotcha!’ that wasn’t earned.

I was disappointed because I had high hopes for “Pretty Dead Girls”. But it just goes to show that sometimes the perfect ingredients aren’t going to combine to make a well done final product. While I think that it would work for other readers, it didn’t work for me.

Rating 4: While the premise had a lot of potential, I was underwhelmed by “Pretty Dead Girls”. Not even a romance between a brooding bad boy and uptight good girl could save it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Pretty Dead Girls” is included on the Goodreads lists “Teen Screams”, and “YA Suspense/Thriller/Mystery”.

Find “Pretty Dead Girls” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Grave Mercy”

9565548Book: “Grave Mercy” by Robin LaFevers

Publishing Info: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 2012

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

Book Description: Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous gifts—and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must destroy the lives of others.

Ismae’s most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany—where she finds herself woefully under prepared—not only for the deadly games of intrigue and treason, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Death’s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?

Review: Our bookclub theme this go-around is books that have been on our TBR list for over two years. And there are a lot. My lists is somewhere in the mid-300s though, so cut me some slack! But while going through it, I tried to match up a few titles with ones that are currently available at the library in audiobook format and I struck across “Grave Mercy” and thought “Why not? Killer nuns sounds pretty neat.” And here we are. Sadly, killer nuns were not, in fact neat. But one could argue that the story wasn’t really about that anyways, so some other author could still cash in on what sounds like a cool idea.

Just as Ismae’s life is taking a distinct turn for the worst (an arranged marriage, said husband being an abusive jerk, etc. etc.), she’s caught up by a mysterious organization., a convent that follows an old god, one who calls upon his followers to take out evil in the world. The convents train in these deadly arts to carry out this work. With a new route before her, Ismae excels in her new life and role. But when the straight-forward plan of killing targets gets caught up in a much more murky world of courtly politics, Ismae finds herself out of her depth. Add in some romantic feelings, and she’s in a real mess.

To start with any pros, the best thing this book has going for it is the cool premise. I was excited to pick up this book, as assassins always seem like they would be good for an action-packed story full of potentially interesting moral quandaries. Unfortunately, the book itself fails to follow through on this premise, so even that is a pretty luke warm pro.

My biggest problem with this book comes down to the writing itself, both the style of sentences construction as well as the numerous plotting issues. I’m not personally a fan of first person present tense writing, and this one definitely falls prey to the weaknesses of this tense. The voice is often wooden and off-putting. Her emotions are conveyed using a handful of cliches that do nothing to really show us Ismae’s feelings, rather just informing us of them, as a matter of fact. I’m not sure I would have loved the character of Ismae had she been presented in another way, but this definitely didn’t help.

The other big problem with the writing is the way numerous writing crutches are used. The story opens with Ismae’s abusive first day of married life, quickly moves on to her being taken in by the convent and informed, succinctly, of their role in the world. Then two seconds later Ismae’s all on board and we have a time jump. Suddenly, she’s now this badass assassin out on her first mission. It all happens too fast and readers are left to just swallow it all, no questions. There is far too much telling and no showing. We never see Ismae gain any of these so-called skills, and with the introduction of a magical knife that kills with just the barest touch, we’re left wondering why any training is needed at all.

Frankly, it feels as if the author did the barest amount of work in the beginning of her story to get to the part she really wanted to write about. Which, fine. But if that’s your goal, just skip it all together and introduce these pieces of history as the current story plays out. This method would have worked much better and solved several of these problems.

I also struggled with the romance. It’s pretty much just what you would think, so I don’t really need to even bother explaining any of the details. But given Ismae’s early marriage (which, by the way, seems fairly valid and never is addressed again) and the abuse that came with it, I would have hoped for a more nuanced approach to her love story. Instead, we have generic googly eyes at the hawt guy and, again, a long list of cliched descriptions and emotions.

Assassin books are a strange thing for me, now. I feel like I really like them. But when I try to think of examples of books with this theme that I’ve enjoyed, there are really very few. And on the other hand, a rather long list of books with this plot that I’ve absolutely hated. It makes sense: how do you write about something as brutal as assassination without also taking the time to really address the moral issues at the heart of it? Far too many authors simply want the badass points of it all without the latter responsibility to the emotions and decisions behind it. So we end up with books like this, where we’re told that our main character is a badass and then proceed on to a pretty bland love story that is more focused on court politics that assassinations, anyways.

Rating 4: The weak writing really killed this one for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Grave Mercy” is on these Goodreads lists: Books With Heroes/Heroines Who Are Assassins and Young Adult Books Without Love Triangles.

Find “Grave Mercy” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Innocent Wife”

32187685Book: “The Innocent Wife” by Amy Lloyd

Publishing Info: Hanover Square Press, January 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Twenty years ago, Dennis Danson was arrested and imprisoned for the brutal murder of a young girl. Now he’s the subject of a true-crime documentary that’s whipping up a frenzy online to uncover the truth and free a man who has been wrongly convicted.

A thousand miles away in England, Samantha is obsessed with Dennis’s case. She exchanges letters with him, and is quickly won over by his apparent charm and kindness to her. Soon she has left her old life behind to marry him and campaign for his release.

When the campaign is successful and Dennis is freed, however, Sam begins to discover new details that suggest he may not be quite so innocent after all. 

But how do you confront your husband when you don’t want to know the truth?

The winner of the Daily Mail First Novel Competition, Amy Lloyd’s The Innocent Wife is gripping psychological suspense from a brilliant new voice in crime fiction.

Review: I listen to a whole lot of podcasts, mostly ones that dabble in true crime, and sometimes through those podcasts I get reading ideas. While usually these idea come in the form of non fiction books (usually thanks to Marcus Parks being a thorough researcher who likes to share his sources), occasionally a fiction title will catch my ear. So when Georgia Hardstark of “My Favorite Murder” mentioned the book “The Innocent Wife” by Amy Lloyd, I immediately threw myself on the request list. Eventually it arrived, and I was eager to open it up and dive on in. Happily, the moment I opened it it pretty much took my full attention until I was finished. Yes, it’s that readable and that addicting. But while it is absolutely readable and addicting, it also left a sour taste in my mouth when all was said and done. And to really explain why, I’m going to have to give you a big ol’ spoiler alert before I really break it down.

But, as always, I will first concentrate on the aspects of this book that I enjoyed. Lloyd has clearly done her research and has no problems showing the dark underbelly of American prison systems and how prisoners exist within them. The central question of this book is whether or not Dennis, a convicted murderer sitting on death row, is actually guilty of the crime he committed. There are similarities between this case and other cases of potentially innocent/clearly innocent people on death row, though I see many parallels to Damian Echols of The West Memphis 3. One consequence of sitting in a small confined cell for so many years is that Dennis’s eyesight has been warped so that he has to wear dark lenses on his eyes at all times. From being in a controlled and isolated environment for so long, Dennis doesn’t know how to function in the outside world, and things that we would take for granted such as newer slang or long passed world events are new and unexplained to him. There is also a focus on incompetence or corruption of law enforcement, and how sometimes law enforcement officials are far more interested in putting a collar on someone, anyone, to close a case, even if that person doesn’t necessarily fit the evidence or the realities of said case. I liked that Lloyd brought up these issues when other authors may not have, just to show that there are consequences to our systems, especially for those who shouldn’t be there in the first place.

But beyond those pertinent issues and themes “The Innocent Wife” was a quick but ultimately frustrating read for me. For one, I had a hard time with the characters. Our main character, Samantha, is completely unlikeable and unrelatable. She makes terrible decision after terrible decision, and is very self involved, getting married to a convicted murder that she barely knows (even if she’s convinced he didn’t kill the girl he supposedly killed) without thinking of potential consequences of said actions. She has temper tantrums of jealousy regarding women who visit Dennis in prison, gets petulant about how the public sees her after he’s been let out of prison, and has moments of feeling ugly because he is having problems with intimacy after he’s been INCARCERATED FOR TWO DECADES. While I don’t doubt that these are certainly realistic and believable traits, I had a really hard time stomaching them. The only character that I really liked in this book was Carrie, the filmmaker of the documentary that focuses on Dennis whose tenacity and will to expose a corrupt system was very enjoyable.

And why didn’t I like Dennis, you may ask? Well let me tell you. And here is your

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(source)

No, Dennis didn’t commit the crime for which he went to prison. But he SURE HELPED MURDER A NUMBER OF OTHER MISSING GIRLS AND WOMEN IN HIS HOMETOWN. Once that was revealed, I was pretty much miffed, and hate read the rest of the book. What frustrates me about this is that I felt like it negated all of the other legitimate injustices and concerns that were brought up within the narrative, as now the reader has his actual guilt which seems to negate the issues that were brought up earlier in the book. I felt like it knocked the legs out from under very reasonable arguments about inhumane treatment and corruption and incompetence, because now the ‘gut feeling’ the police officers had has been legitimized and the corruption of the conviction doesn’t have any weight anymore. I hated that. 

“The Innocent Wife” was a fast read, but an unsatisfying one. I won’t stop taking reading advice from podcasts, but I may be inclined to look into the titles a bit more from now on.

Rating 4: While “The Innocent Wife” did bring up interesting and grave truths about incarceration in this country, the ultimate solution was frustrating and I didn’t care for most of the characters.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Innocent Wife” is included on the Goodreads lists “Murderino Reading List!”, and “The Girl Who Didn’t See Her Husband’s Wife When She Disappeared Twice From The Train.”

Find “The Innocent Wife” at your library using WorldCat!