Serena’s Review: “Echoes and Empires”

Book: “Echoes and Empires” by Morgan Rhodes

Publishing Info: Razorbill, January 2022

Where Did I Get this BOok: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Josslyn Drake knows only three things about magic: it’s rare, illegal, and always deadly. So when she’s caught up in a robbery gone wrong at the Queen’s Gala and infected by a dangerous piece of magic—one that allows her to step into the memories of an infamously evil warlock—she finds herself living her worst nightmare. Joss needs the magic removed before it corrupts her soul and kills her. But in Ironport, the cost of doing magic is death, and seeking help might mean scheduling her own execution. There’s nobody she can trust.

Nobody, that is, except wanted criminal Jericho Nox, who offers her a deal: his help extracting the magic in exchange for the magic itself. And though she’s not thrilled to be working with a thief, especially one as infuriating (and infuriatingly handsome) as Jericho, Joss is desperate enough to accept.

But Jericho is nothing like Joss expects. The closer she grows with Jericho and the more she sees of the world outside her pampered life in the city, the more Joss begins to question the beliefs she’s always taken for granted—beliefs about right and wrong, about power and magic, and even about herself.

In an empire built on lies, the truth may be her greatest weapon.

Review: So, I was sucked into this one by the cover. I’ll even admit that I only barely glanced at the general description before requesting it. That said, had I looked at said description a bit more closely, I might have been a bit more wary. But I also know that a book description isn’t the be all end all of books, and I’ve seen more than one example in the last year where the description completely undersold or misrepresented an excellent story. Unfortunately, this one is pretty much exactly what you’d expect based on its description.

Joss has always lived her life in the spotlight, and until the last year when tragedy struck her family, she’s reveled in it. Still, the show must go on, so Joss dutifully makes an appearance at a grand event. Unfortunately, while there, she gets caught up in a robbery that leaves her in possession of a magical infestation. And in a land where magic is outlawed, she must now creep into the shadowy world of the thieves and outlaws in hopes of curing herself before she is executed. While there, she begins to uncover new truths about her glittering world that throws her entire existence into question.

Sadly, I don’t have a lot of positive things to say about this book. I guess I can say that the writing seems strong enough, and the author was blessedly free of any repetitive word choices or an overly-simplistic style. There was also a fairly high level of action throughout, especially if you’re the type of reader who sees action in some of the smaller, social moments between characters.

Unfortunately, some of that “action” was unnecessary drama. Joss, herself, is introduced as a fairly unlikable main character who is made up of many of the more annoying stereotypes applied to teenage girls. She’s very self-focused, on her looks and her own actions, has made friends with a bunch of “popular girls” who, of course, participate in this the type of sniping and backstabbing that we’ve all seen in one too many teenage movies, and her focus on things like fancy dresses and shopping (while not bad on their own, of course) comes across as frivolous when paired with the rest of her character. The story does go on to reveal much that is wrong with Joss’s view of herself and her world, but for me, it was both too little too late and a bit hard to truly buy any of her changes.

I also had quibbles about how Joss was introduced. The way she talks, interacts with others, and generally carries herself through the world is very much in step with how a 20-something young woman would, decidedly NOT a teenage girl. It read as both unbelievable and, at times, borderline inappropriate. Also, fairly neglectful of her caretakers?

I also had massive, massive eye rolls at romance and the romantic interest. Not only was it all so predictable, but the banter was also very tired and expected. Also, the name “Jericho Nox.” Can’t not mention the ridiculousness of that name. From there, you move on to all of the other non-twists that come through this book. If you haven’t guessed most of them from the book description itself, I’d be shocked.

I was also very confused about the setting of this book. The cover, for one, makes it seem as if it is set in your typical bland, slightly Medieval European setting. But no. There are cars, phones, and a sort of social media apparatus. But also magic that still feels like it would come from one of those second world fantasies. Obviously, urban fantasy exists and that is probably the best subgenre for this. But that, too, didn’t quite fit. I don’t dislike the concept of the world, overall, but as it was, it felt jarring and hard to really place myself within it as a reader.

This book wasn’t really for me at all. Perhaps readers who aren’t as tired of some of these tropes will enjoy it, but I can’t really say anyone should run out and get their hands on it immediately.

Rating 5: Not for me. Too full of tropes and an unlikable main character really hurt it for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Echoes and Empires” is on this Goodreads lists: YA Novels of 2022.

Find “Echoes and Empires” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “It Will End Like This”

Book: “It Will End Like This” by Kyra Leigh

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, January 2022

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

Book Description: For fans of The Cheerleaders and Sadie comes a psychological thriller that reminds us that in real life, endings are rarely as neat as happily ever after. A contemporary take on the Lizzie Borden story that explores how grief can cut deep.

Charlotte lost her mother six months ago, and still no one will tell her exactly what happened the day she mysteriously died. They say her heart stopped, but Charlotte knows deep down that there’s more to the story.

The only person who gets it is Charlotte’s sister, Maddi. Maddi agrees—people’s hearts don’t just stop. There are too many questions left unanswered for the girls to move on. But their father is moving on. With their mother’s personal assistant. And both girls are sure that she’s determined to take everything that’s theirs away for herself.

Now the only way to get their lives back is for Charlotte and Maddi to decide how this story ends, themselves.

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

Boy did I think that the timing on this was golden! Around the time that I sat down to start “It Will End Like This” by Kyra Leigh, my favorite podcast was starting their two part series on Lizzie Borden and the Borden Axe Murders. “It Will End Like This” is a YA thriller that takes that story and updates it with modern times and sensibilities, so to me this was going to be the perfect pairing, to my mind.

But I think that it actually worked against the book’s favor, at the end of the day. Which is a real bummer, as I was amped for a YA thriller a la “Sadie” or “The Cheerleaders” that tackled a notorious murder mystery. Because “It Will End Like This” fell pretty flat.

I will start with the positive, and that is the very concept of updating the Lizzie Borden tale with YA protagonists and in a modern setting. There are so many aspects of the original tale (at least how it has evolved over time) that have so much storytelling potential: murder! Potential family strife! A freakin’ axe! I was really hoping for a creative and engaging update that would put all of these Victorian Themes (and all the mess that comes with that kind of baggage) into a modern lens. Like, that is just teeming with potential!

But there were some glaring missteps with this story that reminded me that a story can’t float on potential alone. The first is just a narrative style and set of choices that I didn’t like. For one, while we got a lot of Charlotte perspectives, the Maddi chapters were quite limited. I would have liked to have a bit more of an even distribution for their narrations, unreliability between them notwithstanding. Along with that, it’s all very disjointed, which is a fair choice to make given that Charlotte (and to some extent Maddi) is slowly losing her faculties due to grief, resentment, and rage. But the execution feels a bit heavy handed as well as too messy, and it makes Charlotte and Maddi rather two dimensional in their depictions.

But for me, the biggest issue is that while this book is inspired by the Borden Axe Murders, it’s more inspired by the myths surrounding Lizzie Borden versus the actual case at hand. And this is why my podcast timing probably ruined it for me. This book gives Charlotte and Maddi all the reasons in the world to want their father and stepmother dead, the biggest being that they were clearly having an affair and potentially had something to do with their mother’s very recent death. But the real Lizzie Borden had no obvious motive, as her mother had been LONG dead, and there is no reason to think that her father had anything to do with her death. That’s the big mystery surrounding these murders at the end of the day: Lizzie Borden as a suspect is hard to believe given lack of substantiated motive (note: I say substantiated because of speculation about a lesbian love affair being found out as a motive. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the case, but I don’t know if there is actual evidence to suggest this? And it wasn’t even used in this book as a plot point, so…) and some timing issues on the day of the murders (seriously, the timing would have to be insane for her to pull it all off). Buuuuut there is also a difficult argument to be made for some random person to have done it without being noticed by someone! Instead of taking inspiration from a truly puzzling murder mystery, “It Will End Like This” takes the “Lizzie Borden Took An Axe” nursery rhyme and speculation run amok and ran with that narrative. I think that if the final product had been stronger and less confusing, and had I not JUST listened to a breakdown of the actual facts of the case, I could have overlooked this all, but with all of these issues at hand, it was a bit too much to get over.

“The Cheerleaders” and “Sadie” this is not. I was sad that “It Will End Like This” was the disappointment that it was. I will say that it makes me want to go read other adaptations of the story to see what they do with it. I’m just not sure I’m convinced that Lizzie Borden did take that axe, and this book didn’t rise up high enough for me to look past that.

Rating 5: A good concept is muddled down by confusing narrative choices and straying a bit from the inspirational event it touts in the description.

Reader’s Advisory:

“It Will End Like This” is included on the Goodreads list “2022 YA Mysteries and Thrillers”.

Find “It Will End Like This” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Ex Hex”

Book: “The Ex Hex” by Erin Sterling

Publishing Info: Avon, September 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: New York Times bestselling author Rachel Hawkins, writing as Erin Sterling, casts a spell with a spine-tingling romance full of wishes, witches, and hexes gone wrong.

Nine years ago, Vivienne Jones nursed her broken heart like any young witch would: vodka, weepy music, bubble baths…and a curse on the horrible boyfriend. Sure, Vivi knows she shouldn’t use her magic this way, but with only an “orchard hayride” scented candle on hand, she isn’t worried it will cause him anything more than a bad hair day or two.

That is until Rhys Penhallow, descendent of the town’s ancestors, breaker of hearts, and annoyingly just as gorgeous as he always was, returns to Graves Glen, Georgia. What should be a quick trip to recharge the town’s ley lines and make an appearance at the annual fall festival turns disastrously wrong. With one calamity after another striking Rhys, Vivi realizes her silly little Ex Hex may not have been so harmless after all.

Suddenly, Graves Glen is under attack from murderous wind-up toys, a pissed off ghost, and a talking cat with some interesting things to say. Vivi and Rhys have to ignore their off the charts chemistry to work together to save the town and find a way to break the break-up curse before it’s too late.

Review: Though on this blog I’m known as the resident horror, thriller, and graphic novel reviewer (with non fiction on occasion), Serena is fully the romance reader in terms of blog content. But this past year I’ve been reading more romance, if only because of the pure escapist good feeling vibes it has. I mean, during these past couple of years we could all use as many good vibes as we can get, right? So I told myself that I should review at least ONE romance book for the blog, especially if it could fall into the parameters of my other genres. Enter “The Ex Hex” by Erin Sterling, a romance about witches, hexes, lost love, and talking cats. I got it from Book of the Month Club, feeling like it would be a good fit for the month of October, and finally sat down to read it recently. I had made up my mind that it would be a good way to combine my recent genre adventures with the old reliables, so that I would review it on the blog. After all, witches, right? Well…. the results were mixed.

Solidly meh. (source)

But I will start with the good. Because I like to start on positive notes most of the time. “The Ex Hex” is absolutely cute, and has a fun premise that I just ate up. The idea of a broken hearted witch half seriously casting a hex on a man who broke her heart, and therein cursing him and causing havoc that they have to solve together is a solid premise. I also liked Vivi, said broken hearted witch, as she is plucky, and relatable, and comes from the typical supportive and kooky but ultimately powerful witch family that consists of sarcastic cousin Gwyn and wise aunt Elaine. I also liked Gwyn as a banter-y side character, as her cousinly relationship with Vivi is fun to read about, mostly because Gwyn is clearly the bad girl of the two. I would probably be super into a spin off book with Gwyn, as I see a lot of potential with her. And once the magic in the town of Graves Glen starts to go awry, there are some genuinely entertaining fall out consequences, like a cat that can now talk bust mostly just screams ‘TREATS!’. Because of course that’s exactly what a cat would do if it could talk.

But I think that the rest of the book didn’t really click with me as well. For one, the other half of our romance, Rhys, wasn’t nearly as endearing as Vivi. Like, he was fine as a character, but he was pretty darn boring in my opinion. We have the usual ‘he broke her heart but had no choice and didn’t really want to’ trope, and that’s fine, but it means that the reunification of the two characters really needs to pay off. And this one didn’t. One reason it didn’t bounce back is because I didn’t feel like Rhys did enough apologizing for the way he treated Vivi back in the day, in which they had a very intense romance and he neglected to tell her that he was betrothed to someone else (hence the broken heart and hex). The other reason is that I didn’t really feel the chemistry between the two of them. We are told that they were deeply, deeply into each other, and yes, there are sexy moments and scenes to convince us of this, but I wasn’t ever really into the two of them as a couple, as there weren’t enough little moments of romantic build up for me, or moments of actual resolution of their past issues that felt real and productive. On top of that, I think that the magic aspects of the book probably could have used some more fleshing out, but I mean at the same time we all know that my grasp on fantasy elements can be tenuous as best. But it all just seemed cobbled together to be magical without much thought into how it would actually need to work.

Honestly I feel a little bad, because while “The Ex Hex” didn’t really move beyond the ‘meh’ for me in the romance department, I’ve read some really good romances this year! And also, don’t let my general ambivalence towards this book deter you! It has cute moments and a fun premise. I mean, who doesn’t like witches going on misadventures with sexy results? This could be a good holiday read if that sounds fun, even if the holiday it best matches was over two months ago.

Rating 5: Cute for the most part, but not the highest tier romance I’ve read this year, “The Ex Hex” brings witches into a rom com setting with some mixed results.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Ex Hex” is included on the Goodreads lists “All Hallows Reads”, and “Feel Good Rom Coms”.

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

Serena’s Review: “Another Beast’s Skin”

Book: “Another Beast’s Skin” by Jessika Grewe Glover

Publishing Info: GenZ Publishing, November 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: When Neysa, a market trader from Los Angeles, rents a cottage on the coast of England, she would never have imagined the secrets she would uncover and a new world beyond this one.

In befriending a family in town, Neysa learns that they are emissaries from a fae realm, charged with keeping guard of the volatile Veil between realms. And the four crystals that kept the Veil secure have gone missing.

In a race to protect the realms, Neysa must learn about the new world she’s been thrust into and uncover the secrets in her blood. Luckily fae guardian Caderyn and his cousin are willing to help Neysa in her quest. But even if they can get the crystals back, there may be great consequences for the future of the fae realm.

Rating 5: I requested this book a while ago from NetGalley, mostly because of the beautiful cover and the promise of a good Fae story. I’ve had a hard time finding one that I really enjoy for quite a while now. Frankly, I’m having a hard time thinking of one I’ve enjoyed more recently than “An Enchantment of Ravens” which I read several years ago now. Alas, this was not to be the one to break that streak.

When Neysa quits her home of Los Angles to spend time in a remote section of England she does it only with the mind to clear her mind and heal her heart after her recent divorce. Quickly, she befriends a local family. But as she grows to know them better, she uncovers mysteries beyond her wildest dreams. Soon enough, she’s drawn into a brewing conflict between two worlds and begins uncovering an untold history of her own past. And while the danger escalates, Neysa begins to realize that her injured heart may be ready to love again.

I knew almost immediately that this book wasn’t going to be it for me. It’s always such a disappointment when this happens. A slow start or an uninteresting leading character can grow and change as a story develops, so while disheartening to start with, I don’t necessarily count the book out with just that. Alas, stilted, poor writing is almost never to be recovered from and this book had it in spades right from the start.

There was an abundance of a “telling” style of writing, with readers bluntly informed how they were meant to feel about certain characters and their relationships. Scenes would jump from one place/time/plot to another with absolutely no transition. Very little attention was given to describing the setting or atmosphere of any particular scene. And the magic system was a garbled mess. At one point, a character sprouts wings and this is never commented on further. Can all Fae do this? How does this even work in what before this point had seemed a fully human body? Obviously, as a reader of fantasy fiction, I’m happy enough to bend the laws of physics, but I do need a bit more effort done to make it feel as if the author hadn’t simply plopped down bullet points of fairies she found from Google.

The pacing was also very off-putting, seeming to crawl at certain points and then jump immediately into the action at others. There is no time devoted to carefully cultivating the relationships between the characters, and the romance suffered most from this. There is a love triangle (sigh) and most frustrating of all, the author resorted to creating situations where her heroine is sexually harassed as a way to create drama and force “romantic gestures” from said love interests. I absolutely hate this tactic, and if I hadn’t been already feeling pretty poorly about the book before, this would have been the final straw.

This book ultimately seemed as if it were in sad need of editing. I don’t like comparing books to fanfiction because I’ve read so many excellent fanfiction stories that have writing as good as if not better *side eyes this book* than actual published works. But that was the comparison that came to mind: lack of effort in world-building, juvenile tactics to build romantic drama, and clunky writing. I always hate writing reviews that are as harsh as this one has been, but I truly did not enjoy this book and was so, so disappointed, especially by the romance.

For those who do enjoy love triangles and Fae stories, this may, may, be something that interests you. But I do think there are better examples out there. Even books like “The Cruel Prince” by Holly Black that I didn’t personally enjoy would be better. At least that one was well written.

Review: A big let down, worst of all falling into terrible tropes of using sexual harassment as a romance-building tool.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Another Beast’s Skin” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on Everything Fae.

Kate’s Review: “Horseman: A Tale of Sleepy Hollow”

Book: “Horseman: A Tale of Sleepy Hollow” by Christina Henry

Publication Info: Berkley Books, September 2021

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

Book Description: Everyone in Sleepy Hollow knows about the Horseman, but no one really believes in him. Not even Ben Van Brunt’s grandfather, Brom Bones, who was there when it was said the Horseman chased the upstart Crane out of town. Brom says that’s just legend, the village gossips talking.

Twenty years after those storied events, the village is a quiet place. Fourteen-year-old Ben loves to play Sleepy Hollow boys, reenacting the events Brom once lived through. But then Ben and a friend stumble across the headless body of a child in the woods near the village, and the sinister discovery makes Ben question everything the adults in Sleepy Hollow have ever said. Could the Horseman be real after all? Or does something even more sinister stalk the woods?

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

I’ve definitely mentioned it before on this blog, but I will do it again and again: I really love “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving. I’ve enjoyed it ever since I was a little kid who watched the Disney adaptation, and I eventually got around to reading the short story, just in time for the Tim Burton adaptation that totally changes the story, but in the best way. The last adaptation I read was “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel”, which I reviewed here and really loved. So quite obviously I was interested in “Horseman: A Tale of Sleepy Hollow” by Christina Henry. For one, I’ve heard good things about Henry as an author and wanted to give her a try. And the other, of course, is the setting of Sleepy Hollow.

When a Halloween Party involves this kind of shenanigans, I definitely am going to love the place that throws it. (source)

“Horseman”, unfortunately, didn’t really live up to my high hopes for a new Sleepy Hollow story. But, as always, I am going to start with the things about this book that did for for me, and that is mostly our protagonist, Ben. Ben is the grandchild of Brom Bones and Katrina Van Tassel, important characters from the original story in that Ichabod Crane was pursuing Katrina, and Brom Bones was almost assuredly the ‘horseman’ that chased Ichabod out of town. We now see that they have married and Brom is still the town hero, as well as being a successful farmer. Ben is short for Bente, as while Ben appears to be a girl, Ben actually is a boy at heart who wants to live life as his true self. I really liked seeing how Christina Henry had a trans character at the forefront, and how it was presented in a way that felt rooted in the time period as how Ben saw himself. It was also really nice seeing Ben’s relationships with his grandparents Brom and Katrina, as he was orphaned at a young age and Brom and Katrina raised him. I liked how Brom nurtures Ben’s gender identity (though this is most likely because he misses his dead son Bendix, but still, the genuine love he felt for Ben was really good), and while Katrina has a harder time, it’s less based in Ben’s identity and more based in the fact that she wishes that she could have the same relationship that Brom has with Ben, and during this time period gender roles make it so that she can’t connect with Ben as easily. All of this felt pretty genuine and novel to me. Big caveat here, however: as a cis woman, I could be totally off base about how Henry decided to portray a trans character. If there are problematic things about this depiction, please let me know.

But here’s the thing: “Horseman” stumbles in a lot of ways for me when it comes to the things that I like about the “Sleepy Hollow” stories. For one, it’s difficult for me to see Brom Bones as anything other than an antagonistic force. I clearly can’t say that Irving meant for him to be something other than a somewhat bullyish but ultimately ‘boys will be boys’ kind of character, but he has ALWAYS come off as a loutish asshole to me ever since I was a little girl watching the Disney version. I especially have little to no patience for men who do very cruel or abusive things and then have no consequences, or get painted as perhaps tricky but certainly not malevolent. To me, Brom Bones is a villain in the original story, as while Ichabod’s intentions towards Katrina are probably dubious at best, taking advantage of his superstitions and throwing a flaming pumpkin at his head because you are mad he likes the woman you like is pretty gross. So I didn’t like how Henry decided to make him this ‘well boys will be boys’ character, especially given how some things shook out for characters from the original story (no spoilers here, though). Along with that, I thought that the reveal of what was behind the new murders involving headless victims didn’t have the resonance that it needed. Henry didn’t really lay the foundation well, and then by the time we found out what was going on, it didn’t have the emotional impact it should have had. And the biggest issue I had with this? The Horseman plays VERY little role in this book. Ben has a mysterious emotional connection to him, but again, the reasons for it aren’t constructed terribly well, and once THAT whole thing plays out, that, too, felt like it didn’t get to the narrative punch it wanted, and needed, to have.

So while I liked the main character quite a bit, as a “Sleepy Hollow” tale “Horseman” didn’t work very well for me. I am not opposed to check out other books by Christina Henry, but perhaps my next move will be with a story I’m not as connected to or picky about.

Rating 5: I love me a good “Sleepy Hollow” reimagining and Ben was a good protagonist, but “Horseman” didn’t have enough Horseman and was a little too kind to characters who probably didn’t deserve it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Horseman: A Tale of Sleepy Hollow” is included on the Goodreads list “2021 Horror Releases”.

Find “Horseman: A Tale of Sleepy Hollow” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “How We Fall Apart”

Book: “How We Fall Apart” by Katie Zhao

Publishing Info: Bloomsbury YA, August 2021

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

Book Description: Students at an elite prep school are forced to confront their secrets when their ex-best friend turns up dead.

Nancy Luo is shocked when her former best friend, Jamie Ruan, top ranked junior at Sinclair Prep, goes missing, and then is found dead. Nancy is even more shocked when word starts to spread that she and her friends–Krystal, Akil, and Alexander–are the prime suspects, thanks to “The Proctor,” someone anonymously incriminating them via the school’s social media app.

They all used to be Jamie’s closest friends, and she knew each of their deepest, darkest secrets. Now, somehow The Proctor knows them, too. The four must uncover the true killer before The Proctor exposes more than they can bear and costs them more than they can afford, like Nancy’s full scholarship. Soon, Nancy suspects that her friends may be keeping secrets from her, too.

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

Awhile back, probably the early Spring, I saw a really interesting book cover and read an interesting description. And then, being a dope, I didn’t write down the title of the book, because surely, SURELY, I would remember it. Shockingly enough, I didn’t, and I kept trying to remember what it was called. I knew that it was a thriller, and that it had an all Asian American cast of characters. Eventually I did stumble back upon it, and that was when I finally added “How We Fall Apart” by Katie Zhao to my reading list. After the self-inflicted strife of trying to remember the title, I was eager to sink into it and read it, sure that my anticipation and need to remember would be worth it, but I’m sad to say that “How We Fall Apart” didn’t quite live up to the self made hype.

But as always, we’ll look to the positive first. “How We Fall Apart” has its greatest strength in the characters and how Zhao shows a wide range of circumstances between them. Nancy, Akil, Krystal, Alexander, and even possible murder victim Jamie all have similar cultural backgrounds, as they are all Asian American and many of whom have immigrant parents. But they also have varying circumstances, from the very wealthy and privileged to the lower income with many financial hurdles to overcome. In flashbacks Jamie lords her wealth and power over her best frenemy Nancy, always happy to point out that Nancy’s mother is the family maid, along with other moments of classist bullshit. And unlike a couple of her friends, Nancy has a LOT more to lose if things come out, as her scholarship could very well be on the line if she is revealed to be part of some past controversies and ‘incidents’. It’s nice seeing the complexities within a community, and this book shows them in a simple and easy to understand way. There are also moments where Zhao reminds us that no matter how privileged some of these students are, they still have to face racism from their white student counterparts, and it was moments of nuance like these that worked for me.

But in terms of a thriller, “How We Fall Apart” doesn’t really have much new to offer to the genre. It has a very similar premise to a few popular YA thriller series, from a group of kids who are suspected of a murder they didn’t commit to an anonymous tormenter who is slowly making their lives living hellscapes, the tropes are well worn and not really expanded upon. It just feels a lot like “Pretty Little Liars” (even with a student/teacher relationship subplot, though the good news is that here it is NOT glorified at all nor is it portrayed in any positive light) meets “One of Us Is Lying”, and I was hoping that we would get something a bit more than that. I didn’t really find myself invested in who “The Proctor” was, or how things were going to shake out for Nancy and company in terms of the future as well as in the past (there are many references to an ‘incident’ that Nancy is trying to hide). Ultimately, I felt like I’ve seen this before, and that made for not as enjoyable reading.

But that said, there are absolutely people out there (especially Young Adults) who aren’t as seasoned as I am when it comes to YA thrillers (is “PLL” even a thing anymore?). I have no doubt that “How We Fall Apart” would probably be effective for them. But for someone who has done more than just dipping their toes into the genre, it will probably leave you feeling like there could have been more.

Rating 5: Not offering much beyond what we’ve seen many times before (outside of some well done character insight), “How We Fall Apart” would probably be a good read for those new to the genre, but will probably disappoint old pros.

Reader’s Advisory:

“How We Fall Apart” is included on the Goodreads lists “Dark Academia”, and “Asian MG/YA 2021”.

Find “How We Fall Apart” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “These Hollow Vows”

Book: “These Hollow Vows” by Lexi Ryan

Publishing Info: HMH, July 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Brie hates the Fae and refuses to have anything to do with them, even if that means starving on the street. But when her sister is sold to the sadistic king of the Unseelie court to pay a debt, she’ll do whatever it takes to get her back—including making a deal with the king himself to steal three magical relics from the Seelie court.

Gaining unfettered access to the Seelie court is easier said than done. Brie’s only choice is to pose as a potential bride for Prince Ronan, and she soon finds herself falling for him. Unwilling to let her heart distract her, she accepts help from a band of Unseelie misfits with their own secret agenda. As Brie spends time with their mysterious leader, Finn, she struggles to resist his seductive charm.

Caught between two dangerous courts, Brie must decide who to trust with her loyalty. And with her heart.

Review: Yeah, yeah. What was I thinking? There’s an obvious love triangle right there on the cover! But what can I saw, I was lured in by good-looking heroine and the summary describing Fae courts. “But Serena, doesn’t that sound like ‘Court of Thorns and Roses?’ A book you hated??” Why yes, it does. But it also sounded slightly like “An Enchantment of Ravens,” another book with fairy courts that I happened to love. Alas, my wiser side was correct and this was a huge mistake of a read for me.

Brie is a thief. A good one, yes, but she and her sister still live on the very edge of survival, barely making ends meet from month to month. Those who can’t pay their debts often find themselves sold to the powerful and dangerous Fae, a fate that Brie hates more than anything. So when her sister is sold to pay off a late debt, Brie knows she must do anything she can to spare her sister from a terrible fate. With a dangerous mission to steal three priceless artifacts and a nebulous disguise as a potential bride for prince of the Seelie court, Brie’s task is a steep one. It’s made all the more difficult when she begins to find herself torn between two Fae men, each more handsome (and untrustworthy) than the other.

Man, even writing that description reinforced what a mistake picking this book up was. I don’t love writing negative reviews, so I often try to just avoid books that I know will be obvious misses for me. But I have recently found a few stories here and there that have managed to pull off a love triangle in surprising ways, so I didn’t want that to forever be an instant “pass” from me. But, unfortunately, this one did nothing to further that cause and instead only reinforced how much I hate that trope.

Not only do I always struggle with the very concept of two love interests actually holding equal interest at once, but it was particularly hard here. I found neither of her love interests compelling in any way. There was the roguish, “bad boy” and then the super-good, upright one. Neither had anything truly unique or layered to their characterization. There were a few reveals towards the very end that maybe, maaaayybbbeee, helped a bit. But not enough for me to change my mind from my original assessment: that this book is just “Court of Thorns and Roses” all over again, love interest arc and all.

Brie also wasn’t particularly interesting. I do love sisters books, and her strong connection to her sister was one of the better parts of the book. Unfortunately, there is very little of their relationship, as the sister quickly disappears to become plot fuel. Brie is also supposedly an excellent thief, but in the very first scene we meet her in, she makes several fairly foolish and inept choices. It’s a hard sell when the author is telling me one thing (Brie is a great thief) but showing me something very different (Brie is a hot mess).

There also wasn’t a whole lot added to the fairly typical Seelie/Unseelie dueling fairy courts theme. The Fae didn’t really read like Fae much at all, seeming more human than anything, without many of the characteristics that one usually finds with depictions of these beings (cold, capricious, etc.) And, of course, Brie is “not like other girls [Fae]” which makes her oh, so attractive to both love interests.

Towards the end, there are a very few pages that sparked my interest once again. Brie seems to finally come into her own and come alive. But pacing and plot-wise, it’s all very abrupt and then the book just…ends. I wish we’d had more of that tone throughout the entire story. As it is, it was not only too little, too late, but it felt like a very abbreviated and strange way to end the book. Almost like the author just wrote the entire duology in one go, then was told to split it into two books, and literally just chopped it in half, no other attempts at a true ending needed.

So, yes, this book wasn’t for me at all. I won’t be continuing with the duology, I don’t think, even though the last few pages were the strongest bit of the lot. I’m sure Brie will go back to being her nonsense self, and it’s too obvious what’s going to happen in the romance department anyways to spark any remaining interest. Fans of “Court of Thorns and Rose” may like this, especially if you’re wanting to read a very, very similar story. But if you’re looking for much beyond two hot guys and a love triangle, this probably isn’t for you.

Rating 5: The love triangle strikes again, this time with two bland love interests and a heroine bland enough herself to deserve them.

Reader’s Advisory:

“These Hollow Vows” is on these Goodreads lists: Epic High Fantasy/Romance/Mythology in 2021 and YA Releases of July, 2021.

Find “These Hollow Vows” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “We Were Never Here”

Book: “We Were Never Here” by Andrea Bartz

Publishing Info: Ballantine Books, August 2021

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

Book Description: An annual backpacking trip has deadly consequences in a chilling new novel from the bestselling author of The Lost Night and The Herd.

Emily is having the time of her life–she’s in the mountains of Chile with her best friend, Kristen, on their annual reunion trip, and the women are feeling closer than ever. But on the last night of their trip, Emily enters their hotel suite to find blood and broken glass on the floor. Kristen says the cute backpacker she’d been flirting with attacked her, and she had no choice but to kill him in self-defense. Even more shocking: The scene is horrifyingly similar to last year’s trip, when another backpacker wound up dead. Emily can’t believe it’s happened again–can lightning really strike twice?

Back home in Wisconsin, Emily struggles to bury her trauma, diving head-first into a new relationship and throwing herself into work. But when Kristen shows up for a surprise visit, Emily is forced to to confront their violent past. The more Kristen tries to keep Emily close, the more Emily questions her friend’s motives. As Emily feels the walls closing in on their coverups, she must reckon with the truth about her closest friend. Can she outrun the secrets she shares with Kristen, or will they destroy her relationship, her freedom–even her life?

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

I enjoyed Andrea Bartz’s previous novel “The Herd” particularly because of how she tackled the fraught, complicated, and sometimes deadly relationships between women characters in high stress, high ambition situations. It was kind of a no brainer that I would be interested in her new book “We Were Never Here”, about two friends who find themselves once again with a dead body in a foreign country. Talk about your high stress situations! I had high hopes, but unfortunately, the hopes weren’t really met.

But like I always do, I will start with what I did like about this book, and that is how well Bartz captured the ins and outs of a codependent and toxic friendship. I have found myself in a couple of bad and toxic friendships, that have either healed through time and distance, or fell by the wayside and good riddance to them, and Bartz really clocked the ways that people can hurt each other, manipulate each other, and bend over backwards to make excuses for each other’s behavior. I found myself cringing as I read it as it hit very close to home, and was definitely impressed by all the little details she had that weren’t even necessarily connected to the main conflict. Both Kristen and Emily were realistic in the parts that they played, and the unreliability of Emily was interesting not because she necessarily had something to hide from the reader, but because she had to convince herself that her friendship with Kristen was normal and not steeped in toxicity that may have led to murder. I enjoyed that angle a lot, and thought it had a lot of potential because of it.

But the execution of “We Were Never Here” was pretty standard and run of mill with a lot of predictability and not many big surprises (except for one but we’ll get to that). I really liked the beginning of the book, where Emily and Kristen are in Chile, and the ensuing killing of a fellow traveler and disposal of his body. I thought that was genuinely suspenseful and interesting. But then it turns into Emily slowly realizing that maybe Kristen isn’t the great and true blue friend she always thought she was, and it kind of goes on a road well travelled from there. It’s no surprise as things are alluded to early and then revealed as huge red flags. It’s not shocking when Emily learns more and more and Kristen gets seemingly more and more obsessed with being near Emily. As more parts of Kristen’s history come out, beats that should be surprising aren’t, and by the time we get to the big climactic moment it feels rushed, and yet drawn out as we follow some MORE exposition after the fact, and then have some will there or won’t there be fallout from this that also fizzles out. And THEN, as if for good measure, Bartz tries to flip the script one last time in the last few pages for one more twist that really feels out of place and just hackneyed. It’s super disappointing that this story never quite got off the ground, as at first I was really digging it.

“We Were Never Here” was a bit of a disappointment for me, but it may work for other people! I haven’t given up on Bartz as a whole, she does portray relationship strife really well. I’m hoping her next one will hit a little better.

Rating 5: A promising premise, but a lot of predictability and a bit of an anti-climactic (and then out of nowhere) end made “We Were Never Here” fall a bit flat.

Reader’s Advisory:

“We Were Never Here” is included on the Goodreads list “Mystery and Thriller 2021”.

Find “We Were Never Here” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Sinful Lives of Trophy Wives”

Book: “The Sinful Lives of Trophy Wives” by Kristin Miller

Publishing Info: Ballantine Books, July 2021

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

Book Description: Meet the trophy wives of Presidio Terrace, San Francisco’s most exclusive–and most deadly–neighborhood in this shrewd, darkly compelling novel from the New York Times bestselling author of In Her Shadow.

Mystery writer Brooke Davies is the new wife on the block. Her tech-billionaire husband, Jack, twenty-two years her senior, whisked her to the Bay Area via private jet and purchased a modest mansion on the same day. He demands perfection, and before now, Brooke has had no problem playing the role of a doting housewife. But as she befriends other wives on the street and spends considerable time away from Jack, he worries if he doesn’t control Brooke’s every move, she will reveal the truth behind their “perfect” marriage.

Erin King, famed news anchor and chair of the community board, is no stranger to maintaining an image–though being married to a plastic surgeon helps. But the skyrocketing success of her career has worn her love life thin, and her professional ambitions have pushed Mason away. Quitting her job is a Hail Mary attempt at keeping him interested, to steer him away from finding a young trophy wife. But is it enough, and is Mason truly the man she thought he was?

Georgia St. Claire allegedly cashed in on the deaths of her first two husbands, earning her the nickname “Black Widow”–and the stares and whispers of her curious neighbors. Rumored to have murdered both men for their fortunes, she claims to have found true love in her third marriage, yet her mysterious, captivating allure keeps everyone guessing. Then a tragic accident forces the residents of Presidio Terrace to ask: Has Georgia struck again? And what is she really capable of doing to protect her secrets?

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

Soapy trashy stories about potentially villainous men and women who are hiding and spilling secrets is something of a guilty pleasure of mine, and I mostly try to own that fact. I loved the first few seasons of “Desperate Housewives” (after season 4 it went downhill VERY fast, in my honest opinion), and while I haven’t been able to bring myself to consume reality TV like “The Real Housewives” or anything like that, I do enjoy watching drama porn like “Untucked” when watching “RuPaul’s Drag Race”. So a book with the title and description of “The Sinful Lives of Trophy Wives” by Kristin Miller absolutely caught my attention. I’ve found some really fun books involving bored housewives behaving badly (Hello, “Big Little Lies”!), and if you have some potential murder and whodunnit elements to go with it, I am absolutely there! I went into this book with high hopes for soapy thrills. And I got that. But I also remembered why sometimes that isn’t enough.

But, as I always try to do, I will start with what I did like about this book. It was a very fast, very entertaining read in the moment. I picked it up over the Fourth of July weekend, and basically read it over the course of two days. It has some really good moments of sudsy drama, and there were pretty well done moments of shocking reveals as well as a build up to a nutty and soapy climax that is hinted at right at the start. So it tantalized me as a reader, and definitely gave me that “Desperate Housewives” vibe of manipulation, bitchiness, and over the top whodunnit/who are these people really and what are they hiding. A breezy read it always a plus in my book, as it makes the experience enjoyable in the moment.

But there were a few things that really bogged down “The Sinful Lives of Trophy Wives” and made it a pretty meh book once all is said and done. The first is the cast of characters. Our main focus are on the perspectives of Erin, the neurotic and (horror and shock!) aging news anchor who is trying to keep her allure and lost youth at the forefront, lest her husband Mason stray, and Brooke, a mystery writer who is trying to keep up appearances for her much older husband, but is sniffing out a potential new plot with Georgia, the supposed Black Widow. Both Erin and Brooke have things that they are hiding, but getting into their heads doesn’t make them all that interesting, nor does it let them branch out from their two dimensional character tropes (admittedly there is a bit of a twist here, but I’m not going to go into that because spoilers). We see Georgia through their eyes, and while we do learn a bit about her through various reveals that each character has through action in the moment and past actions, she TOO is very flat and predictable. On shows like “Desperate Housewives” this kind of thing can work for awhile, but that is because we also get to see characters complexities come out as stories go on (well, in some cases; Teri Hatcher’s Susan was always two dimensional). But in this book, we don’t really get to see any growth. Even aforementioned twist couldn’t save it in the end. The other issue is that once I was done and I was no longer in the moment, upon reflection there wasn’t really much new or interesting to the story and how the mystery all shook out. It felt a bit like it was trying to be similar to “Big Little Lies”, but never really hit the emotional plot beats that that book did. The problem with gooey sudsy tales is that in the moment I really enjoy them, but without some solid foundation and substance to keep it up I look back and realize that there wasn’t really much to work with.

“The Sinful Lives of Trophy Wives” could be a good read if you just need something to pass the time. Pass the time it will! But I found it to be middling when all was said and done.

Rating 5: The read itself was quick and breezy, but the characters were middling and the story upon reflection was a bit ho hum.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Sinful Lives of Trophy Wives” is included on the Goodreads lists “Mystery & Thriller 2021”, and I think it would fit in on the list “Desperate Housewives”.

Find “The Sinful Lives of Trophy Wives” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “The Stolen Kingdom”

Book: “The Stolen Kingdom” by Jillian Boehme

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, March 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: For a hundred years, the once-prosperous kingdom of Perin Faye has suffered under the rule of the greedy and power-hungry Thungrave kings. Maralyth Graylaern, a vintner’s daughter, has no idea her hidden magical power is proof of a secret bloodline and claim to the throne. Alac Thungrave, the king’s second son, has always been uncomfortable with his position as the spare heir—and the dark, stolen magic that comes with ruling.

When Maralyth becomes embroiled in a plot to murder the royal family and seize the throne, a cat-and-mouse chase ensues in an adventure of dark magic, court intrigue, and forbidden love.

Review: I’m always down for some good ole court intrigue, which is why I initially requested this book. Of course, that’s also one of those phrases that book blurbs often use that more often than not simply translates to “unrealistic drama” of the sort that reduces me to eye rolls. Sadly, that was the case here.

Maralyth has grown up helping to run her father’s renown vineyard. Though she is skilled at tending the vines (more so than her family even knows, with a magical ability to help plant flourish), she finds herself minding the kitchen and serving the workers meals after her mother dies, leaving this role vacant. But Maralyth knows there is a bigger future before her. Bigger even that she could have expected, when she is snatched away from this lowly life and finds herself caught up in plots to overthrow the throne. As for Alac, the second son of the king, he, too, is uncomfortable with his lot and life. And when a mysterious young woman shows up in court, he finds he, too, has an unexpected future before him.

Sigh. So, this wasn’t what I had hoped it could be, and I always struggle with these types of reviews. I don’t like to just spend an entire post ragging on a book, but sometimes it really is hard to come up with things I liked about some of these. Perhaps, if you’re appetite for fairly generic YA fantasy (super light on the fantasy and more heavy on the romance), this book could appeal to you. The writing is competent enough, and while the plot is very “write-by-numbers,” is also comfortingly predictable, if that’s what you’re looking for. Unfortunately, it was decidedly not what I was looking for.

The biggest problem for me was the characters. I’m definitely a reader whose experience of a book is largely defined by how I feel about the characters. Of course, I like the magic and mystery, but if the characters feel flat, it’s really hard for me to get past that. And here, there was nothing really going for either of the two leads (another ding against this was the fact that there even were two leads to begin with, as, more and more, I’m growing to dislike these fantasy romance stories that feature both love interest’s perspective). Sadly, each character falls into the worst tropes of the YA genre. The leading lady (dumb name Maralyth) is essentially a special snowflake who is plucked out of her ordinary life to discover that she has a magical and wonderous heritage. The leading man (dumber name/spelling Alac) regularly demeans the looks of the women around him (at one point going so far as to mentally fat shame a young woman) and only falls for Maralyth because she’s “not like other girls.” If you’ve been reading this blog for long, you’ll know that the “not like other girls” motivation for love is probably one of my absolute biggest pet peeves. It’s pretty much a guaranteed “out” for me. That’s not even getting into some of his violent thoughts when he gets angry with Maralyth, a fact that is glossed over and somehow even romanticized.

The world-building and plot were perhaps better in that they weren’t actively enraging, but that’s not saying much. Like I said above, the story follows a fairly predictable path, with many of the character’s choices being easily predicted early in the story. And, while I appreciated that the author wrote a stand-alone story, it also ended up crippling much of the world-building. There is a religion that is included but given very little depth or explanation. Wars and other countries/regions are mentioned, but the story never takes the time to fully flesh any of this out. It left the entire reading experience feeling fairly flat, relying too heavily on its main characters who weren’t up to the task of carrying the story on their own.

This book was a pretty big disappointment. The main characters were incredibly unlikable, proving that some tropes are too persistent to die in the fiery pit from whence they should be thrown. It’s really too bad, especially because stand-alone YA fantasy stories are so hard to find.

Rating 5: The main characters were too rage-inducing for me to focus on much else.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Stolen Kingdom” is on this Goodreads list: Female fantasy authors – Children’s, YA and adult.

Find “The Stolen Kingdom” at your library using WorldCat!