Serena’s Review: “In the Woods”

46650269._sy475_Book: “In the Woods” by Carrie Jones and Steven E. Wedel

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, July 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: It should have been just another quiet night on the farm when Logan witnessed the attack, but it wasn’t.

Something is in the woods.
Something unexplainable.
Something deadly.

Hundreds of miles away, Chrystal’s plans for summer in Manhattan are abruptly upended when her dad reads tabloid coverage of some kind of grisly incident in Oklahoma. When they arrive to investigate, they find a witness: a surprisingly good-looking farm boy.

As townsfolk start disappearing and the attacks get ever closer, Logan and Chrystal will have to find out the truth about whatever’s hiding in the woods…before they become targets themselves. 

Review: This was kind of a whim request on my part. The description itself sounds more like the kind of book Kate would typically read than me. But I knew I’d need to have a few scary-ish stories lined up for October to at least pretend to be in the season of things, so here we are! However, it turned out that this book was more closely aligned to my reading habits than I had thought. Alas, that didn’t necessarily translate into increasing my enjoyment of it.

Something or someone is attacking things in Logan’s rural hometown. First it was cattle, but now people are beginning to be attacked as well. And the killer is only growing more bold, coming literally out of the shadows to attack in broad daylight. When Chrystal and her father, a man who chases adventure, arrive on the scene, they team up with Logan and his family to try and catch whomever or whatever is behind these mutilations. And as Logan and Chrystal grow steadily closer to each other romantically, and closer to the truth of the mystery, they soon find themselves no longer the hunters, but now the hunted.

So this was a tricky book for me. It’s so different than what I thought it would be that it’s hard to know how much of my experience was due to my expectations and how much was due to the book just not hitting the mark for me. It’s a strange twist, however, when the fact that I had thought I was intentionally reading out of my preferred genre somehow backfired when I found out I was actually reading more within it. I’m not quite sure what the marketing decisions were behind why this book was presented as it was, but I definitely went in thinking it was going to be some type of creepy, YA, serial killer story. Nope! Much more aligned with monster horror and cryptozoology stories. And yeah, on the face of it, those are my thing, but something about the way it was presented here just didn’t click for me.

Really, I don’t think it had anything to do with the monster angle. Yeah, I was looking for serial killer, but let’s face it, I’m not super dedicated to that or anything. My bigger problems had to do with the story itself and its two main character. There are hints of good characters here, but the writing itself let them down. The dialogue was almost laughable at times, and their relationship falls into the worst traps of instalove. They literally first meet and “feel a connection.” Not only is this not interesting, but it’s the laziest kind of romance building. No need to establish why two characters come together when they both “just know” instantly! Done, hard work finished. Now onto the mushy stuff! Ugh. My feelings about instalove have been well-established, so I’ll stop there.

The plot itself was rather lackluster. Sure, there were some fun, tense scenes sprinkled here and there, but there were too many moments where things happened that didn’t make sense or stretched my sense of plausibility beyond enjoyment. Much of the mystery is telegraphed to the reader pretty early in the story, so the reader is often ahead of the characters in terms of reveals. This is all made harder due to the writing which was just kind of banal. As I mentioned before, the dialogue was the real problem; didn’t read as natural which made it a constant distraction.

In the end I think it was six of one as to why this book didn’t click for me. On one hand, it wasn’t what I expected and contemporary stories featuring instalove have to be up there on my “most disliked” list. On the other hand, the strained writing and lackluster plot didn’t recommend it to me either. Readers who are more interested in contemporary YA and monster stories (notably NOT serial killers) might enjoy this. But I also think there are better options out there doing similar things.

Rating 5: Right down the middle of my rating system and largely forgettable.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“In the Woods” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Cryptofiction.”

Find “In the Woods” at your library using Worldcat!

Kate’s Review: “The Institute”

43798285Book: “The Institute” by Stephen King

Publishing Info: Scribner, September 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: From #1 New York Times bestselling author Stephen King, the most riveting and unforgettable story of kids confronting evil since It—publishing just as the second part of It, the movie, lands in theaters.

In the middle of the night, in a house on a quiet street in suburban Minneapolis, intruders silently murder Luke Ellis’s parents and load him into a black SUV. The operation takes less than two minutes. Luke will wake up at The Institute, in a room that looks just like his own, except there’s no window. And outside his door are other doors, behind which are other kids with special talents—telekinesis and telepathy—who got to this place the same way Luke did: Kalisha, Nick, George, Iris, and ten-year-old Avery Dixon. They are all in Front Half. Others, Luke learns, graduated to Back Half, “like the roach motel,” Kalisha says. “You check in, but you don’t check out.”

In this most sinister of institutions, the director, Mrs. Sigsby, and her staff are ruthlessly dedicated to extracting from these children the force of their extranormal gifts. There are no scruples here. If you go along, you get tokens for the vending machines. If you don’t, punishment is brutal. As each new victim disappears to Back Half, Luke becomes more and more desperate to get out and get help. But no one has ever escaped from the Institute.

As psychically terrifying as Firestarter, and with the spectacular kid power of It, The Institute is Stephen King’s gut-wrenchingly dramatic story of good vs. evil in a world where the good guys don’t always win.

Review: Whenever a new book I really want to read is about to come out, I try to get myself positioned high on the request list at the library. When this doesn’t work, I will make sure it’s going to be available at my former job on the day it comes out, as copies from that branch don’t go to the request list. And then once it’s publication day, if I can I will rush to that branch before opening, and become that patron that I used to kvetch about: the one who hangs out outside before the doors open and rushes the new wall as soon as they do. This made it so I got a copy of Stephen King’s “The Institute” at the library the day it came out, and yeah, I was a bit of a sore winner when I snagged it off the display. We are kind of in the midst of a King Renaissance right now, from new books to adaptations of his works in movie theaters and on TV and computer screens. I’m always going to be stoked for anything King related, and he has so much content to explore that you have a lot to work with. Unfortunately, on the flip side of that is the fact that not everything is going to be a winner, and “The Institute”, for me, was not a winner.

But like usual, we’ll start with the good. Even in books he’s written that don’t quite click with me, I am almost always happy with the way that King portrays childhood experiences and childhood friendships. From “It” to “The Body”/”Stand By Me”, the way that he can capture the innocence and yet importance of these childhood bonds and put them on the page is almost always incredibly effective. He brings this talent to “The Institute”, as whenever he focuses on Luke Ellis, Kalisha, and the other child prisoners it feels like you’re seeing real kids interacting with each other. I was worried that the innate precociousness of the children, especially super genius Luke, would stunt the dialogue and relationships, but I greatly enjoyed all of them whether they were playing, scheming, or mourning. While I didn’t feel like I got to know all of them as deeply as I got to know The Losers Club or the four boys who went looking for a dead body, I still liked seeing the glimpses into the relationships that we did, as it was always entertaining. With a resurgence in popularity of ‘kids solving mysteries/fighting back against more powerful entities’ because of “Stranger Things”, I definitely get tapping back into that kind of tale. It is also very hard to deny that, given the horrific reality that children are being imprisoned in cages at the Southern Border, some of the themes are all the more resonant in this story. King does a good job of drawing comparisons without treading into distaste, and given that I’m sure this book had already been submitted to the publisher before some of the more recent developments I definitely couldn’t help but connect his story to the horrible things our Government is doing. Especially as the slow reveal of The Institute’s true intentions is carefully peeled back. Plus, the pacing was well done and it never felt slow, so it was mostly entertaining.

The reason that this doesn’t get a higher score from me is because “The Institute”, while being entertaining, didn’t quite evoke the emotions I have come to want from Stephen King novels. Yes, the concept is horrible and scary, and there were certainly thrilling aspects of the plot as we reach the end, but I never felt the actual tension, elation, sadness, and fear. For whatever reason it just didn’t connect with me. I think that part of it was that this felt less like a horror novel and more like a conspiracy thriller, and while that’s fine and I generally like a good conspiracy thriller, this one just didn’t quite click. And I think the other part I already kind of touched on earlier, in that while I liked the characters and the relationships they had with each other (the kids especially), I don’t think that we got to know them well enough for me to really connect with them. And if I’m not as connected, I’m not as invested. I don’t think “The Institute” was a bad read by any definition, but if a book falls into these traps that I’ve mentioned, I’m just not going to enjoy it as much.

I’m so happy that Stephen King is still writing, and that he’s getting all kinds of attention right now. While “The Institute” was a miss, the man is still my favorite horror author of all time. And given that there’s already rumors of this book being adapted into yet another TV series based on King source material, it may be in your interest to give it a go regardless of what I thought!

Rating 6: While “The Institute” was an entertaining read and had its moments and details that I liked, overall it fell a little flat for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Institute”, surprisingly, isn’t included on many relevant or specific Goodreads lists. But I think that it would fit in on “Conspiracy Fiction”, and “Books like Stranger Things”.

Find “The Institute” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Mooncakes”

44774415._sy475_Book: “Mooncakes” by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Lion Forge, October 2019

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

Book Description: A story of love and demons, family and witchcraft.

Nova Huang knows more about magic than your average teen witch. She works at her grandmothers’ bookshop, where she helps them loan out spell books and investigate any supernatural occurrences in their New England town.

One fateful night, she follows reports of a white wolf into the woods, and she comes across the unexpected: her childhood crush, Tam Lang, battling a horse demon in the woods. As a werewolf, Tam has been wandering from place to place for years, unable to call any town home.

Pursued by dark forces eager to claim the magic of wolves and out of options, Tam turns to Nova for help. Their latent feelings are rekindled against the backdrop of witchcraft, untested magic, occult rituals, and family ties both new and old in this enchanting tale of self-discovery.

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

I know that not everyone has the same love and affinity for all things horror that I do. And while I know that for me the month of October is all about the ghosts, ghouls, slashers, and monsters that I want to associate with, for others that may not be as appealing. So for today’s Horrorpalooza book, we’re actually inching away from the horror, and looking at a kinder, gentler kind of book of the season, where witches and werewolves fall in love, and magic can lead to self discovery. Today I’m going to talk about the sweet and romantic graphic novel “Mooncakes” by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu, a story about a witch named Nova and a werewolf named Tam and the magic that surrounds their lives, for better or for worse.

“Mooncakes” takes the kinder, gentler witch story and gives it some new and unique twists. Nova’s family life is the familiar matriarchal witch household, as she is living with her grandmothers Quili and Nechama and learning about magic and spells from them. While I do love a vengeful or spiteful witch, or one who has legitimate grievances with society and the patriarchy, I do have to say that I also like the positive stories of witches empowering other witches through education, family, and love. “Mooncakes” really embodies this positive trope, and Quili and Nechama are the perfect supportive and bustling mother figures that fill the void of Nova’s parent’s deaths. Nova herself is a unique main character. She is Chinese American, so her culture influences not only her home life but also her magic. Along with that she also has hearing aids, and after she lost her hearing she began to master the art of nonverbal magical spells, a concept that we may see (as sometimes witches don’t have to say ANYTHING to make magic happen in stories), but is rarely explored. But it’s her romance with Tam that is the center of the story. Tam and Nova were childhood friends, but Tam left town and has been wandering on their own, living as a werewolf and distancing themself from an abusive home life. When Tam and Nova reconnect, their lingering feelings for each other start to re-boot. Their romance is sweet and not terribly complicated, and I liked that Tam’s nonbinary identity wasn’t the focus of the conflict, and that they were easily and readily accepted by the other characters.

The plot and the magical aspects of this story, however, weren’t as strong as I had hoped they would be. We know that Tam is being targeted for some kind of nefarious spells, as when we meet them they are in conflict with a horse demon in the woods. Nova is there for Tam and is determined to figure out what is going on, but I never felt like that aspect of the plot was really focused on. We get hints as to who may be behind it, and while I feel like Walker tried to hide the culprit, it felt pretty obvious as to who it was going to be. While we are told that Tam is in some serious danger, it never feels like the stakes are all that high. And once we got to the big showdown, things resolved themselves rather easily, and threw in some obvious tropes that have been seen many times before for good measure in terms of resolution. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily! I love a ‘the love for the other person is able to fight through a spell’ twist as much as the next person, but when the rest of the magical plot and conflict feels a little haphazard, that doesn’t exactly make the twist seem stronger. I think that had this story paid more attention to building up the conflict and magic issues, it would have worked better. As it was, it felt more like an afterthought.

The art, however, is totally adorable and sweet! I really like Wendy Xu’s style, and I love the details and designs that she brought to the characters.

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(source)

If you want a sweet romantic story with magical elements, “Mooncakes” could be a good choice. I wouldn’t go in expecting a whole lot of magical system building, but it does have charming characters and some great representation. And if you don’t want something scary this witchy season, it’s a good alternative.

Rating 6: A cute and romantic story about witches, family, and magic, “Mooncakes” is filled with a lot of sweetness, though not much complexity.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Mooncakes” is included on the Goodreads lists “Comics for Witches”, and “Graphic Novels Featuring LGBTQ Themes”.

Find “Mooncakes” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Turn of the Screw”

12948._sy475_Book: “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James

Publishing Info: The Macmillan Company, October 1898

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: A very young woman’s first job: governess for two weirdly beautiful, strangely distant, oddly silent children, Miles and Flora, at a forlorn estate…An estate haunted by a beckoning evil.

Half-seen figures who glare from dark towers and dusty windows- silent, foul phantoms who, day by day, night by night, come closer, ever closer. With growing horror, the helpless governess realizes the fiendish creatures want the children, seeking to corrupt their bodies, possess their minds, own their souls…

But worse-much worse- the governess discovers that Miles and Flora have no terror of the lurking evil.

For they want the walking dead as badly as the dead want them.

Review: I’ve mentioned in the past that I have a huge gap in my literature experience when it come to ‘the classics’. I took a rather unconventional load of English and Lit courses in high school and college, and because of that a number of stories have been left behind. The horror genre is no exception, surprisingly enough. I have had “The Turn of the Screw” in the back of my mind since I was a teenager, and it sat on my Kindle for a few years after I purchased a few old school horror reads that then just sat there. My motivation to finally read this book came from two places; I read “The Turn of the Key” by Ruth Ware and knew I was probably missing less known references, and the next Mike Flanagan “Haunting” series is going to be based on this Henry James ghost story. It was obviously time to dive in and read the tale of terror that has influenced so much of the genre.

“The Turn of the Screw” was one of those game changing tales that pushed the ideas of horror and what you could do within the genre itself. There is no denying that Henry James paved the way for modern haunted house tales like “The Haunting of Hill House” and movies like “The Others” when he took ideas of unreliable narrators and unsettling ghosts vs over the top ghosts and put them on the page. Some of the things that I really liked about this book were because of these tweaks and experimentations. “The Turn of the Screw” takes great Gothic elements and completely acknowledges the influence from Gothic stories, be it references to “Jane Eyre” or “The Mysteries of Udolpho”. Bly is isolated and distant, and the unnamed Governess is left there with two strange children, another servant, and no head of house for guidance or direction. As she falls more and more into physical isolation, so too does her mind fall into mental isolation, which is really what you need for a Gothic theme to really have a punch. I also really appreciate how James wrote this story in a way that makes the Governess a completely unreliable narrator, and that we can’t quite figure out whether or not there are actual ghosts and Bly that want to take the children, or if she is slowly descending into madness and she is the actual threat the whole time. It’s left up to interpretation, and arguments can be made for either scenario. I honestly don’t know where I fall on the ‘was it ghosts or insanity’ argument, James was so convincing of both. And frankly, I don’t know which would be the worse answer, given how the story ends. Along with that, in my mild bit of research into the background of this story, James was one of the first people to write ghosts in an unsettling way as opposed to over the top and melodramatic. And that really stands out in this story, as the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel are more inclined to move through the grounds or appear in dark hallways and merely stand there as opposed to rattling chains and wailing. And for me, that’s far more creepy and disturbing. There were moments of imagery in this book that sent chills up my spine.

giphy-2
Was it a mistake to read this book after dark while my husband was out of town? Almost assuredly. (source)

However, the reason that I am giving “The Turn of the Screw” a lower rating than one might expect from my praise is because of the writing style of the time period. This almost always knocks me off my game and distracts me when it comes to ‘classic’ stories, and “The Turn of the Screw” definitely fell into the trap of a lot of flowery language and slogging scenes with not as much action as I would have liked. When comparing it to another classic haunted house story like “The Haunting of Hill House”, I felt like it didn’t have the kind of pacing where the stakes were being repeatedly raised and the dread was building after every incident. I appreciate how this would have been groundbreaking for the time and how much it has done for the ghost stories that came after it. But for me, it was more of a slog to get through than I would have liked.

I think that reading “The Turn of the Screw” was ultimately a good choice, as I see how it works as a foundation for so many stories that I love. But it’s not one that I see myself revisiting as time goes on, as I might with “The Haunting of Hill House” or other classics like “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”.

Rating 6: A classic horror story that paved the way for many themes within a genre, “The Turn of the Screw” has moments of dread, but sometimes is held back by the style it was written in.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Turn of the Screw” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books With Unreliable Narrators”, and “Quick Books”.

Find “The Turn of the Screw” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Steel Crow Saga”

43264755._sy475_Book: “Steel Crow Saga” by Paul Kreuger

Publishing Info: Del Rey Books, September 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: A soldier with a curse
Tala lost her family to the empress’s army and has spent her life avenging them in battle. But the empress’s crimes don’t haunt her half as much as the crimes Tala has committed against the laws of magic… and her own flesh and blood.

A prince with a debt
Jimuro has inherited the ashes of an empire. Now that the revolution has brought down his kingdom, he must depend on Tala to bring him home safe. But it was his army who murdered her family. Now Tala will be his redemption—or his downfall.

A detective with a grudge
Xiulan is an eccentric, pipe-smoking detective who can solve any mystery—but the biggest mystery of all is her true identity. She’s a princess in disguise, and she plans to secure her throne by presenting her father with the ultimate prize: the world’s most wanted prince.

A thief with a broken heart
Lee is a small-time criminal who lives by only one law: Leave them before they leave you. But when Princess Xiulan asks her to be her partner in crime—and offers her a magical animal companion as a reward—she can’t say no, and soon finds she doesn’t want to leave the princess behind.

This band of rogues and royals should all be enemies, but they unite for a common purpose: to defeat an unstoppable killer who defies the laws of magic. In this battle, they will forge unexpected bonds of friendship and love that will change their lives—and begin to change the world.

Review: I feel like I was a bit tricked with this one, and really, I can only applaud the marketing team for managing it. The cover, the use of the word “crow,” and the general description of a story featuring a cast of characters who all must work together, though each comes from a very different background, all brings to mind “Six of Crows,” which I loved. Like I said, I’m not criticizing! The marketing is just about getting the reader to pick up the book, and they do what they must to appeal to as many readers as they can. It’s the author’s job to stick the landing and keep the reader invested. And here, sadly, these surface-level similarities didn’t hold true throughout.

With political and cultural clash, comes constantly reforming chaos. And at its heart comes four individuals, each representing their own stake on the future, as they see it. Tala and Jimuro are natural enemies; she a soldier whose family died at the hands of the family from which Jimuro comes. Thrown together, they must now form a tenuous alliance as they journey towards Jimuro’s home. And Xiulan and Lee each have very different priorities. Lee lives by a code of thievery that puts her own needs and freedom above all, while Xiulan, a princess in disguise, plays her own games. Again, two who should be at odds must find a way to come together to complete Xiulan’s mission of regaining her throne.

There are some good bones to this book. The story is marketed as Pokemon meets “The Last Airbender,” and even without being hugely familiar with either, I can see the comparisons. The shades and their connections with the people definitely rings familiar and some of the action sequences with them were quite fun to read. I also liked the overall world-building which is clearly Asian-inspired and attempts to delve into the challenges of changing borders, colonization, and the fall-out when temporary alliances need to be tested in peace time. There’s also some good diversity and representation in the main characters, all handled adeptly and without ado.

But sadly, those bones weren’t enough for me to fall in love with the book. As I said, I did appreciate the basic outline of the world-building, but for a book so long, I still don’t feel like I had a complete grasp on the varying countries and their points of conflict. The two that Tala and Jimuro represent are easy enough (a general conflict over how shades are perceived), but the other two…I’m having a hard time even remembering if we were ever given real motivations to their conflict? If I was, it wasn’t enough to make it stick for me. And without that conflict fully defined, I had a hard time caring.

And you have to care, because this book is long! I appreciate that the author put a lot of thought and care into describing the setting and events taking place in this book, but there does come a point where I feel like it begins to detract from the overall story. This book is nearly 600 pages, I believe. I think it easily could have been around 300 and read much more easily. I had a poetry teacher who always said to take your finished poem and then dip it in an acid bath; whatever remained as necessary made up your truly finished poem. That could be said here as well. Yes, descriptions are important. But they have to be the right ones. And the fact that I’m not clear on some of the central politics at play, but can describe a market scene perfectly means that that balance hasn’t been struck properly.

This carried over to my appreciation of the characters. Again, Tala and Jimuro’s cultural and historical conflict was much more clear from the beginning and their own personal conflict was also better laid out. For the most part, I enjoyed these two’s story as it played out. But at the same time, while the relationship between the other two was compelling, I feel like there wasn’t enough time given to their story to make me care as much about the two of them. I almost think they all would have been bettered served had each pair had their own book instead of cramming them all into one, super long story. All four also seemed very predictable, not offering much new on top of their basic character foundation: prince, soldier, disguised princess, thief.

I struggled with this book. There was both too much and too little at the wrong times for each. I could see a good idea at the heart of it, but I had a hard time working myself up to caring. There are some fun action sequences and the idea of shades and the connections they formed with people was definitely interesting. But the book was too long and the characters too predictable for me to fully immerse myself.

Rating 6: A few flashes of fun but too weighed down by its own length and unremarkable characters to really be a hit.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Steel Crow Saga” is a newer title so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “Crows and Ravens.”

Find “Steel Crow Saga” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Babysitters Coven”

38856385Book: “The Babysitters Coven” by Kate Williams

Publishing Info: Delacourte Press, September 2019

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

Book Description: Adventures in Babysitting meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer in this funny, action-packed novel about a coven of witchy babysitters who realize their calling to protect the innocent and save the world from an onslaught of evil.

Seventeen-year-old Esme Pearl has a babysitters club. She knows it’s kinda lame, but what else is she supposed to do? Get a job? Gross. Besides, Esme likes babysitting, and she’s good at it.

And lately Esme needs all the cash she can get, because it seems like destruction follows her wherever she goes. Let’s just say she owes some people a new tree.

Enter Cassandra Heaven. She’s Instagram-model hot, dresses like she found her clothes in a dumpster, and has a rebellious streak as gnarly as the cafeteria food. So why is Cassandra willing to do anything, even take on a potty-training two-year-old, to join Esme’s babysitters club?

The answer lies in a mysterious note Cassandra’s mother left her: “Find the babysitters. Love, Mom.”

Turns out, Esme and Cassandra have more in common than they think, and they’re about to discover what being a babysitter really means: a heroic lineage of superpowers, magic rituals, and saving the innocent from seriously terrifying evil. And all before the parents get home.

Review: Thanks to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this book!

Once the weather turns from summer heat and sunshine to chilly breezes and longer nights, I immediately get into a full on Halloween mindset. True, Horrorpalooza 2019 is still a few weeks away, but we’re going to get into the spirit with a new YA book about witches! When I read the description of “The Babysitters Coven” by Kate Williams, I was totally on board. Teen girl babysitters with magical powers being snarky and protecting the world from evil? Now where have I seen this before?

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I love them both but Faith was the goddamn best! (source)

I may have gone in with too high of hopes, because while I did mostly enjoy “The Babysitters Coven”, it fell into familiar traps that I’ve seen in YA paranormal fiction.

But, like always, we start with the positive. It’s hard to deny that “The Babysitters Coven” is an original and cheeky concept. For any other late 80s, early 90s kids like me, the homage to “The Baby-sitters Club” is charming as hell and really taps into a children’s literature nostalgia. As someone who wanted to be a part of the BSC, I was smiling whenever the implicit (and sometimes explicit) references to that series were made (though how dare Esme imply that Mary Anne was the lame person to be? MARY ANNE SPIER IS THE BEST!). On top of that, I did really like our protagonist Esme and her best friend Janis. Their friendship felt like a realistic and fun teen girl relationship, and I enjoyed that they were both kind of geeky and always up for making references to things that I enjoy. It made them all the more relatable when they would talk about the original “Halloween” or “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, amongst other things from fandoms that I like. The backstory to Esme, her surprising supernatural abilities, and the abilities of the new girl Cassandra were well thought out and I liked how they were slowly revealed. I don’t want to give too much away, but what I will say is that there is a mythos here that has a lot of meat to it with more exploration to go.

But a few of these strengths do have flip sides to weaknesses. The first is that while there is a lot of exposition here, and mythology and magical system building, I felt like too much time was spent on the set up and not enough on the actual main conflict. Because of this, the big bad and final showdown felt like it jumped from zero to one hundred, with not enough build up in between. I know that this is the first in a planned series, so perhaps Williams wanted to spend most of this book setting up for future things. But the problem with that is that a balance needs to be struck between set up and conflict, and it definitely felt uneven. There was also the issue I had with the character of Cassandra, who never really grew from mysterious cool girl, even after she officially joined Esme and Janis’s group. I wish that we had more insight into who she was and more complexity, but as of right now I don’t really have a good sense of who she is, unlike Esme and Janis. And finally, “The Babysitters Coven” tends fall far too close to the dreaded ‘aggressively quirky’ tone that I really cannot abide in any kind of story. I’m sure that a lot of this has to do with trying to create a self insertion fantasy for the target reading demographic, which is admittedly not a woman in her mid thirties. And hey, that’s fine! Escapist power fantasies are all well and good and who am I to begrudge a teen girl from getting to enjoy such things? But for me, entertaining writing it does not make all by itself.

“The Babysitters Coven” has the potential to be a really fun new paranormal fantasy series, and its first book has its ups and downs. I think that while I may not move on to the next installation, there will be a lot of geeky, supernatural obsessed readers out there who will find it to be a joy to read!

Rating 6: A cute idea with some admittedly fun moments tends to get bogged down in exposition over plot, and edges towards the aggressively quirky.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Babysitters Coven” is new and not on many specific Goodreads lists as of yet, but I think it would fit in on “Books With Supernatural Females”.

Find “The Babysitters Coven” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Girl the Sea Gave Back”

42867937Book: “The Girl the Sea Gave Back” by Adrienne Young

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, September 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: For as long as she can remember, Tova has lived among the Svell, the people who found her washed ashore as a child and use her for her gift as a Truthtongue. Her own home and clan are long-faded memories, but the sacred symbols and staves inked over every inch of her skin mark her as one who can cast the rune stones and see into the future. She has found a fragile place among those who fear her, but when two clans to the east bury their age-old blood feud and join together as one, her world is dangerously close to collapse.

For the first time in generations, the leaders of the Svell are divided. Should they maintain peace or go to war with the allied clans to protect their newfound power? And when their chieftain looks to Tova to cast the stones, she sets into motion a series of events that will not only change the landscape of the mainland forever but will give her something she believed she could never have again—a home.

Review: Here’s another example of a cover that has a model but is still super cool to look at. Notably, she’s wearing clothes appropriate to her character and it depicts a scene that seems to connect with the title and description pretty well. Always love to see that! But, cover aside, I really decided to check this book out based on my enjoyment of the author’s previous book, “Sky in the Deep.” As I mentioned in the Highlights post, it’s always exciting to find standalone fantasy novels. And when you have an author who chooses to write multiple standalones, but in the same world, it’s like getting your cake and eating it, too.

Tova’s remembered life began alone, cold on the sea. It’s only through fate, it seems, that her small craft washes up on shore and she is taken in by a people who are both mystified and wary of her mysterious origins and the power she possesses. As a young woman, she is drawn into a brewing conflict, both internal and external, as the Svell people debate the merits of war. With two of the major tribes having joined together, the Svell see this as their time to rise. But Tova sees darkness ahead. Will they listen to their own mystic, or is she, and the young warrior Halvard from the opposing tribe, doomed to be caught up in another round of warfare?

Sadly, this book wasn’t as much of a hit for me as the first one. I think there are a few factors, but first I want to talk about the things I did like. I was again pleased to return to this world that Young has created. The Viking-like mythology is still intriguing, as is the way of life and cultures that are described for the various clans. The writing itself is still solid and I think she did a good job balancing out introducing new characters and themes, while also giving readers a few peaks at what is going on with beloved characters and arcs from the first book.

All of that said, however, I just wasn’t able to connect with this story the way I was able to with the first. Part of this might come down to the dueling narrators. Having two narrators means that the author needs to balance two characters’ worth of story, emotional motivation, and overall arc with only half the page time that one alone would have. There are obviously benefits in getting to see various characters’ differing perspectives, but it’s still quite challenging. Here, I think both main characters suffered for the lack of full devotion to either.

Halvard, to some extent, was better served in the fact that I at least was familiar with him from the first book and had a bit more emotional investment right off the bat. Tova, however, the titular “girl the sea gave back” always felt a bit bland. Her backstory is intriguing, and her life growing up as a powerful mystic but one who is still seen as an outsider in the clan that has adopted her is compelling. But for some reason, I struggled to fully invest in her story. In the end, both main characters lack the spark that gave life to the main character from the first book.

The plot was also incredibly predictable. To some extent, the same could be said of “Sky in the Deep,” but I think there was enough of a personal arc of her discovery of her brother in the midst of her enemy’s camp and the slow-burn enemies-to-lovers romance to keep the plot failings afloat. But, as discussed, with flat characters, the plot failings become much more apparent. Must of the story revolves around a discussion of fate and destiny. These themes can be compelling if taken apart and contrasted against free will and choice. But here they are simply wielded as clumsy explanations for why unlikely events occurred, hand-waving away coincidences one way and another.

“Destiny” also killed the romance of this story. For one, there was simply a lot less of one than there was in the first, which I personally found disappointing. But for two, what romance we were given was one meet-cute away from instalove, right down to the almost deadly brawl that somehow ends with a “connection.” With all of that destiny and intertwinedness to go around, the reader is never given a reason to root for these two, as we’ve been told from the start that it is simply meant to be. The characters don’t need to build up feelings for each other, they just know they’re there, even across time and space almost.

Overall, this was a very flat story for me. I struggled to find anything to connect to and by the end reading it felt more like a chore to get through. How disappointing, based on the strength of the first story and the fact that the author clearly has skills. In many ways, it almost feels like this would be the author’s first book, and that one the one she pulls out later in all of its more-polished glory. I’m not writing the author off completely, as I know she has good stories in her. This one just wasn’t one of them.

Rating 6: Fans of the first book should beware that this is in many ways “Sky in the Deep” lite.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Girl the Sea Gave Back” is, weirdly, on this Goodreads list: “Summery vibes.”

Find “The Girl the Sea Gave Back” at your library using WorldCat!