Joint Review: “The Witch and the Tsar”

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Book: “The Witch and the Tsar” by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore

Publishing Info: Ace, September 2022

Where Did We Get This Book: We received eARCs from NetGalley and Edelweiss+.

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

Book Description: As a half-goddess possessing magic, Yaga is used to living on her own, her prior entanglements with mortals having led to heartbreak. She mostly keeps to her hut in the woods, where those in need of healing seek her out, even as they spread rumors about her supposed cruelty and wicked spells. But when her old friend Anastasia—now the wife of the tsar, and suffering from a mysterious illness—arrives in her forest desperate for her protection, Yaga realizes the fate of all of Russia is tied to Anastasia’s. Yaga must step out of the shadows to protect the land she loves.

As she travels to Moscow, Yaga witnesses a sixteenth century Russia on the brink of chaos. Tsar Ivan—soon to become Ivan the Terrible—grows more volatile and tyrannical by the day, and Yaga believes the tsaritsa is being poisoned by an unknown enemy. But what Yaga cannot know is that Ivan is being manipulated by powers far older and more fearsome than anyone can imagine.

Olesya Salnikova Gilmore weaves a rich tapestry of mythology and Russian history, reclaiming and reinventing the infamous Baba Yaga, and bringing to life a vibrant and tumultuous Russia, where old gods and new tyrants vie for power. This fierce and compelling novel draws from the timeless lore to create a heroine for the modern day, fighting to save her country and those she loves from oppression while also finding her true purpose as a goddess, a witch, and a woman

Kate’s Thoughts

This was a little bit of a gamble for me, as I knew that it was fantasy, and I knew that it was going to be pretty heavy on Russian mythology for inspiration. And given that I’m not a huge fantasy person, and my book of Russian myths and fairytales has sat on my shelf unopened for years, I was rolling the dice. BUT, it also follows Yaga, a witch, and I DO LOVE WITCHES. So I took a chance on this one, and the bag was… pretty mixed.

The positives are definitely ample! For one, I liked Yaga as our protagonist. She’s a healer who is half immortal and has done her best to keep people around her safe, including her old friend Anastasia who is the Tsar’s wife, and who is being poisoned. Yaga, unfortunately, has to learn that not everyone has the same noble heart, and most of this book is her trying to survive not only against a spiraling Ivan the Terrible (who is doing unthinkable things in Russia; what a time to be reading this, given the guy in charge of Russia right now), but also other immortals and gods and demi gods. I liked how Gilmore subverted some of the mythologies to reflect lies and propaganda that the Orthodox Russian Church was spewing to undercut the non-Christian theologies of the time. I know that the fact Yaga has been de-aged from crone to young woman has frustrated some readers, which I definitely get, but I kind of like the idea of her reputation of being a cruel crone is actually a lie to make people distrust a woman who is actually a midwife, healer, and powerful woman in a community.

But overall, I think that I didn’t have enough working knowledge of the mythology (and even the history! I don’t know much about Russian history, honestly), and that meant that I couldn’t fully appreciate what Gilmore was trying to do. I also thought that it was a little ambling at times as the story went on. It wasn’t really a slog, but I did sometimes find myself skimming a bit to get through specific scenes.

So overall, “The Witch and the Tsar” was an okay read, but I’m not sure I got everything I could have gotten from it. Maybe I need to go grab that unopened book of Russian folklore off my shelf.

Serena’s Thoughts

Me, I’m the reader frustrated by the aged-down Yaga! But before I get to that, let’s start with my general impression. Unlike Kate, everything about this book is directly up my alley, so it was a bit of a no-brainer that I was going to read it either way. But I was happy she suggested we joint review it, since I think that has left us in an interesting position now. Since…the very fact that this was up my alley might be why I wasn’t this book’s biggest fan? More precisely, I feel like I’ve read this book before and better versions of it.

For example, while I generally appreciate the commentary on wise women and healers and how these women were undercut by the incoming Christian church in its various forms, I’ve also read many, many fantasy novels that have covered this very thing. And in very similar, unfortunately better, ways. So for me, many aspects of this book just struck chords that were too familiar to other, better stories, leaving me in a constant state of comparison. A big one was “The Bear and the Nightingale” and that trilogy, a series that is also Russian history/folklore inspired and tackles these same conversion points between Christianity, old world religion, and the demonization of women who were healers or stood out in any other way.

Beyond that, I had a hard time connecting to Yaga. Yes, part of me was simply disappointed that she was a young woman because I’ve read a million and one novels about young women in fantasy and it’s always refreshing to read about different age groups (people over 30 exist! especially older women! things happen to them and there is a unique power and experience to be mined there!). But beyond that, Yaga, while still young-looking, is in fact meant to be quite old. And yet she routinely seemed to be quite naive in a way that I found hard to reconcile with the amount of lived experience she should have under her belt at this point.

I also wish we had gotten a bit more from the Russian folklore, as Kate mentioned. I’m pretty familiar with a lot of it, simply due to the fact that it’s had a bit of a run recently as a go-to in fantasy fiction. But there were certain elements that I felt were just plunked down into the story without much thought or creativity. Like the house with chicken legs just kind of appears? I’ve read some pretty interesting takes on this entire concept (Orson Scott Card’s “Enchantment” probably has the most creative one I’ve seen at this point), but this book just seemed to skip over some of these opportunities.

All in all, my conclusion is the same as Kate’s. This wasn’t a slog of a read by any means, but by the time I finished it, I realized I spent most of the book thinking about other, similar stories and wishing this was more like those.

Kate’s Rating 6: I liked Yaga as a protagonist and I liked the way Gilmore subverted Russian myth and folklore, but it felt ambling at times, and I think I would have gotten more if I were more familiar with the mythology.

Serena’s Rating 6: If you haven’t read much Russian fantasy folklore, this might appeal to you. But there are better examples out there that left this one feeling uncomfortably derivative at times.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Witch and the Tsar” is included on the Goodreads lists “Mythological Re-Imaginings” and “Wise Women, Witches, Midwives, Healers, and Strong Girls”.

Book Club Review: “The Ten Thousand Doors of January”


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

Book: “The Ten Thousand Doors of January” by Alix E. Harrow

Publishing Info: Redhook, September 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

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

Book Bingo Prompt: A book with a misleading title

Book Description: In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artifacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored, and utterly out of place.

Then she finds a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds, and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page turn reveals impossible truths about the world and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.

Kate’s Thoughts

We’re back to a familiar statement from me during a Book Club post and discussion: I am not really a fantasy reader outside of a few specific exceptions, be it titles (“The Lord of the Rings”; “The Neverending Story”) or sub-genres (dark fantasy). So going into my review of “The Ten Thousand Doors of January”, you need to take all of this with a grain of salt. Maybe a teaspoon or two. I am almost never going to be able to vet a fantasy title super well because as a genre it’s not my bag, baby (a phrase that was tossed around in book club during the discussion).

What I will say about this book that I did like was the way that Harrow incorporated social issues of the time period into the book. We see the struggles of life in Edwardian-era England for not only women, but also women of color within a certain social stature. While January is somewhat shielded from some of this because of her placement with Locke, she is still kept in a gilded cage, and eventually put in an asylum under guise of hysteria when in actuality she is more inconvenient for Locke and his contemporaries when she becomes a perceived threat. And then once she is more outside of Locke’s ‘protection’ (you can’t REALLY call it that), her race is suddenly something she also has to contend with in a more direct and overt fashion. I also liked the way that Harrow addresses aspects of Imperialism and Colonialism through the character of Jane, a woman born in Africa who was being subjected to a missionary school, and eventually finds a door that helps her find freedom. And really, her door, where she encounters a world with a matriarchal cheetah society, was SUPER interesting! But we didn’t really get to see much of that. We didn’t get to see as many doors as I anticipated.

So yeah, I liked the social aspects of this book, as it’s great to see fantasy address these themes. But it’s still fantasy, which just isn’t my genre. So this is very much a ‘your mileage may vary’ situation.

Serena’s Thoughts

Don’t worry fantasy lovers! As the resident fantasy reader, I am happy to step up to vet titles in this genre. And, all told, I found a lot to like in this book. This is definitely one of those fantasy novels that leans heavily on subgenres like historical and literary fiction. While there is definite magic involved in the story and it is surely a portal fantasy, the pacing and overall feel of the book falls more in line with literary fantasy and historical fiction than anything else. As Kate mentioned, the book focuses a lot on the realities of life in this time period for both women and people of color. Even though there are fantastical doorways into different worlds, there is no magic wand to wave away the very real challenges facing many during this time.

The pacing of this book is also on the slower side, spending much more time developing the overall feel of the story and the realities that January is facing. But to balance this slower pace, the story is broken up into two primary stories: one that of January herself, and the second following another young woman born a few decades before January who also found doorways and used them to redirect the pathway laid before her. I really enjoyed the way these two stories came together. I was also surprised by a few twists and turns that were given a long the way. For all the dire circumstances and reality that makes up so much of January’s life, the story includes a hefty dose of hope right when things could begin to feel a bit too bleak.

Overall, I really liked this book. It’s definitely on the slower side and errs towards the lyrical over the action-packed. Like some book club members pointed out, for a book about a thousand doorways between worlds, the story spends most of its time in our old familiar world. But I think that worked for the balance that was being struck between fantasy story and a larger reflection on this period of history and its people.

Kate’s Review 6: It’s fantasy. I liked some of the social themes presented and the small tastes of some of the worlds. But it’s just not my genre.

Serena’s Review 8: A lyrical fantasy novel that makes up for its slower pacing with its lovely character work.

Book Club Questions

  1. What were your thoughts on January as a protagonist of this book? Did you connect with her as a main character?
  2. Did you find it to be a nice change of pace when the book would transition to the Adelaide story arc?
  3. Which side characters did you find the most compelling in this story? Were there any side worlds through the doors you liked reading about?
  4. What were your thoughts on how this book tackled and addressed various social aspects like imperialism, racism, and sexism?
  5. Were there any moments that stood out in particular in this novel?
  6. Who would you recommend this book to?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Ten Thousand Doors of January” is on these Goodreads lists: Portal Fantasy Books and Best Books with a Month in the Title.

Next Book Club Book: “Old Man’s War” by John Scalzi

Serena’s Review: “The Last of the Talons”

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Book: “The Last of the Talons” by Sophie Kim

Publishing Info: Entangled: Teen, September 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from ALA convention!

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

Book Description: After the destruction of her entire Talon gang, eighteen-year-old Shin Lina—the Reaper of Sunpo—is forced to become a living, breathing weapon for the kingdom’s most-feared crime lord. All that keeps her from turning on her ruthless master is the life of her beloved little sister hanging in the balance. But the order to steal a priceless tapestry from a Dokkaebi temple incites not only the wrath of a legendary immortal, but the beginning of an unwinnable game…

Suddenly Lina finds herself in the dreamlike realm of the Dokkaebi, her fate in the hands of its cruel and captivating emperor. But she can win her life—if she kills him first.

Now a terrible game of life and death has begun, and even Lina’s swift, precise blade is no match for the magnetic Haneul Rui. Lina will have to use every weapon in her arsenal if she wants to outplay this cunning king and save her sister…all before the final grain of sand leaks out of the hourglass.

Because one way or another, she’ll take Rui’s heart.

Even if it means giving up her own.

Review: So, I mostly grabbed this book at ALA with very little thought other than “oooh, is that a dragon on the cover??” Cuz you all know I’m always down for another dragon book! If I had read the book description more fully I might have been a bit more wary. Let’s just say, me and YA assassins have a bit of a checkered history. Beyond numerous other problems I regular find with this plotline, I’m beginning to question whether the two concepts, “assassin” and “young adult fiction,” aren’t just oxymorons that can never work well together by the very natures of their differences. “Assassin” would lead you to believe that your leading character is pretty morally compromised and things will get bloody. “Young adult fiction,” on the other hand, has at least a passing commitment to keep stories approachable for younger audiences. So….what’s to be done? Let’s see what this book has to say.

Shin Lina had once lived a blessed life, or what she considered one at least. Perhaps most people wouldn’t think making up ones family of gang members and gaining a reputation as the city’s most deadly assassin would count as “blessed,” but to Lina, it was enough. But now that has all been ripped away, and she has been forced to work for the very enemy who massacred this family, all to protect the life of her younger sister. When a job goes bad, however, Lina finds herself at odds with a powerful magical being. But more could be at stake than just her life. Perhaps even her heart.

Well, this book is not the one to disprove the theory I had in my intro paragraph. In fact, it exemplified many of the other factors that I think add to the uncomfortable pairing of assassin characters leading up YA stories. But before we get to that, let’s talk about the positive. If I zoom way, way out, there are the bones of an interesting story here. Unfortunately, any closer look renders these larger strokes pretty unsatisfactory. But the world-building itself had potential, with a fairly intricate political and magical system. And there were some genuinely funny moments with the dialogue, though, admittedly, these were few and far between for me.

However, again, when you dive even shallowly (let alone a deep dive) into how any of this works it begins to get murky. For one thing, because this is YA, Lina is, of course, a teenager herself. And yet, through a series of flashbacks, we see that she only joined the gang and learned her skills to be an assassin when she was an older kid. And then this story starts out several years after the death of everyone in said gang. Soooo, in a period of like 4 years she somehow became the most skilled assassin ever, even more so than the adults who trained her. It’s these time-related things that just really irk me about YA characters who derive their “specialness” through some skillset that is esteemable purely because of the sheer quantity of time and effort needed to excel at it. Not only does it stretch past my ability to suspend disbelief, but it also waters down what makes the skill impressive to begin with, if a regular farm girl can become the absolute best in two years.

Beyond that, we have yet another assassin who doesn’t really kill anyone? I mean, honestly, what’s the point of having a character like that if all we get is a lot of “telling” that they’re some amazing assassin, but no actual evidence of it (both in the actual skills of killing someone or the mental/emotional state of a character who makes a living dealing out death regularly)?

This book adds to the challenge of this particular qualm by the very nature of the main conflict of the story. For absolutely no apparent reason, Rui sets Lina the task of…killing him? In order to spare her life? I’m not going to even get into the weirdness of that situation to begin with and what it says about Rui that this is what he wanted. But it also creates a plotline that sets up our big bad assassin Lina to fail. Obviously, she can’t succeed at killing Rui or it would defeat the entire point of the story. That then leaves us with a character who has been toted as the best assassin ever having to fail again and again to kill someone through the entire book.

I’ll stop venting about this now. But I think the lackluster writing style and very bland leading characters left me with really nothing else to focus on than my annoyances in these areas. I do think there are YA readers who will like this, especially given the popularity of other YA assassin books. But this wasn’t for me. And if you’re looking for anything new in this particular subgenre, I don’t think this is it.

Rating 6: More of the same, with an assassin whose much more talk than action.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Last of the Talons” can be found on these Goodreads lists: SF/F Assassins! and 2022 Book Releases by Asian Authors.

Kate’s Review: “Mary: An Awakening of Terror”


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Book: “Mary: An Awakening of Terror” by Nat Cassidy

Publishing Info: Tor Nightfire, July 2022

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

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

Book Description: Mary is a quiet, middle-aged woman doing her best to blend into the background. Unremarkable. Invisible. Unknown even to herself.

But lately, things have been changing inside Mary. Along with the hot flashes and body aches, she can’t look in a mirror without passing out, and the voices in her head have been urging her to do unspeakable things.

Fired from her job in New York, she moves back to her hometown, hoping to reconnect with her past and inner self. Instead, visions of terrifying, mutilated specters overwhelm her with increasing regularity and she begins auto-writing strange thoughts and phrases. Mary discovers that these experiences are echoes of an infamous serial killer.

Then the killings begin again.

Mary’s definitely going to find herself

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

I’m a little reluctant to give a concrete number as to the amount of ARCs I got at ALA Annual in June, as the number is staggering and a little out of control. And yet in spite of these numbers I won’t disclose, there were a few books I was hoping I’d pick up but were unable to obtain either because they weren’t there or the timing was off. So I ran to NetGalley and grabbed the titles I wanted that way, which works out just as well (and far more compact in terms of storage, really). One of those books was “Mary: An Awakening of Terror” by Nat Cassidy. I had my eye on it for awhile, as it touts being in similar veins as “Carrie” and “Midsommar”, which catch my eye for varying reasons. And really, look at that cover. Just disturbing as hell right from the jump. By the time I was fully submerged in the story, however, I was a little adrift, feeling like perhaps I had bitten off a little more than I could chew, thematics wise…

First, what I did like about it. And there is a lot to like about this book! Firstly, I liked how Cassidy really wanted to give a unique voice in a horror novel the spotlight. Our main character Mary Mudgett is a middle aged woman who feels invisible, who is experiencing perimenopause, and who is pretty alone in the world. She returns to her hometown after a decades long absence, a bit nervous to return to a place where she was so tormented by her peers and her aunt Nadine. I thought that Cassidy really brought forth the voice of a middle aged woman who feels left behind and forgotten about, and how he tapped into the horrors of societal expectations of aging, misogyny, and isolation and anxiety so authentically. I also thought that a lot of the aspects he explored in this book in terms of plots, from reincarnation to small town secrets to body horror were all very well done, and came together in unique ways that really got his story across. Also, major props to him for addressing his choice to give a middle aged woman a voice when he himself is a younger cishet man, and how he tried his best to be authentic in her voice and experiences. Also, he clearly has a lot of love for “Carrie”, as in his author’s note he explains that Mary is a reimagining of a woman like Carrie who does make it past the night of Prom, and what that would look like.

But here is the thing. Like many fans of horror (and really all kinds of genres), I am someone who has topics and themes that really work for her, and other topics and themes that really don’t. And “Mary: An Awakening of Terror” is incredibly brutal in a lot of ways, and brutality heaped upon me over and over again can wear me down a bit. I was really happy that Cassidy put a thorough content warning before the story began, because I was able to prepare myself a bit before digging in, but even with the content warning I still had moments where I just had to put the book down for a bit. I won’t spoil anything, but there were three vivid moments where I was fairly put off by what I was reading on the page, and one in particular where I almost stopped reading altogether. At the end of the day, this book was a bit too brutal for me. So we’re kind of in the midst of a review that may be more based on preference than actual content. But one thing to keep in mind is that I’m someone who can tolerate a fair amount of horror nonsense in her reading and consuming of other media. It’s rare that I find myself almost abandoning something because of its brutality. So this book may be too brutal for others as well.

Overall, I really liked the voice that Nat Cassidy gave Mary Mudgett, and I liked some of the creative and scary aspects of the novel as well. But at times it wasn’t an experience I was enjoying in the moment because of the content. Your mileage may vary.

Rating 6: Scary and brutal, but perhaps a bit too much so for this reader.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Mary: An Awakening of Terror” is included on the Goodreads list “Anticipated 2022 Horror/Thriller Releases”.

Serena’s Review: “Relic and Ruin”

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Book: “Relic and Ruin” by Wendii McIver

Publishing Info: Wattpad Books, June 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: The Banshee and the Wraith. They have the power to save the world―or destroy it.

In a place unlike any other, two brothers set off an ancient, epic, and never-ending battle. This world is controlled by the Necromancers and Reapers―one side pulls people back up through the earth, and the other cuts them down again. One ancient family, the Laheys, have been tasked again and again with keeping the balance between the worlds. And Nyx Lahey, born a Necromancer, but raised a Reaper, is on the front lines. Lately, though, Nyx is wrestling with her identity as she’s thrown into an adventure filled with prophecies and the kind of danger you can cut down with a giant scythe.

While chasing a creature that’s killing young girls, Nyx runs headlong―and gun drawn―into Erebus Salem. A hunter who has the ability to turn into a raven to escape danger, Erebus also harbors a secret: he’s not alive. He lives in Dewmort, a world in-between, where the souls of the dead reside, and where memory is all but erased. With no memory of who he is, his only connection to the past is a locket which ends up in Nyx’s hands. Determined to get it back, Erebus and his friends set watch on the Laheys, but they aren’t the only ones.

Other beings are lurking in the shadows. They know the truth about Erebus and Nyx. They know that the pair are the Relics, the only two powerful beings in the world capable of taking down the greatest evils known to any kind. Soon, Nyx and Erebus become the hunted, and must try and escape the evil plans of the war lord, Bellum.

Bellum wants the Relics for his own purposes. He needs them to raise his father, the original Necromancer, Neco. With his father by his side, Bellum believes he can rule the world―all of them―and destroy the Reapers once and for all.

Can Nyx and Erebus master their new found powers, and even if they do, can they survive?

Review: So, this was a bit of an impulse request on my part. On one hand, the idea of two groups, Reapers and Necromancers, battling across the centuries is very interesting. On the other hand, the main character’s name is Nyx… Which sounds much too close to the specific type of YA leading lady that I don’t enjoy. Yes, I will stereotype based only on a name! But never say that I am ruled by those stereotypes, since here I am reading and reviewing this book.

Though born a Necromancer, Nyx and her family has a long history of working with the Reapers to contain the undead horrors the Necromancers bring into the world. On what seems like a routine job, Nyx stumbles across the gruesome murder of a young girl and what looks like the beginning of the spree of a madman. At the same time, she runs across Erebus, a young man with more mysteries than she can imagine. But what seems as random chance becomes much more when the two discover they are what is known as Relics, powerful magical beings.

I’m always happy to be proven wrong in my more shallow initial assessments. However, I can’t say that this is one of those times. Indeed, this book mostly lived up to almost every YA stereotype I associate with the type of teen fantasy story that features a main character named “Nyx.” But, while I didn’t enjoy this book, there are some bare bones here that I want to praise, since there will definitely be readers who can enjoy this book.

First off, I still think the concept of the Reapers and Necromancers is an interesting starting platform. The book starts out really well, in fact, with a history of the two brothers whose fight lead to this ages-old war. The plot and writing is also quick and fast-paced so readers who do find themselves getting sucked in will likely breeze through this book quickly. It also is a dark (ish) YA fantasy, which will surely appeal to YA fantasy readers who are tired of dragons and swords.

One of my first problems with the book, however, is that while the initial fantasy concept and world-building is interesting, there’s never enough information given to make it actually understandable to the reader. Unless you are caught up in the fast pace of the story, when you stop to actually think about what’s going on, all you find are more questions. There are such a thing as “in-betweeners” mentioned early in the book. But I could never really figure out what these were or how they they fit in with all the various creatures that we run into along the way. In this way, the fast pace of the story began to make the book feel rushed and unclear more than anything else.

I also couldn’t get on board with our main characters. Nyx comes from a ginormous family, all of who have various different abilities which are listed off for the reader in an exhausting fashion. But with this large cast of characters, it was hard to latch on to any actual arch on Nyx’s part. And then Erebus falls into that increasingly unappealing zone (for me at least) of the love interest who is centuries old but still falls in a love with a teenager. Obviously this is completely subjective, but I find myself way less annoyed by the age difference trope in romances if the centuries-old being is at least falling in love with a full adult. I just can’t buy it, otherwise. Not to say that Erebus doesn’t seem like a teenager himself, but that’s its own problem (or just problem for me, since seeming like a teenager is probably, largely, a win for a YA book!). So, because of this, I struggled to become invested in either of them individually or the romance in general.

Unfortunately, this book wasn’t for me. I enjoyed the first few chapters, but once the story actually settled into what it was going to be about, I found myself getting bored and skimming ahead. I’m sure some YA fantasy readers will enjoy this, but it might be more of a struggle for adult readers of YA fantasy.

Rating 6: Some clumsy world-building and flat main characters made this book a bit of a chore for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Relic and Ruin” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should be on Indie YA Paranormal Romance.

Kate’s Review: “Just Like Home”

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Book: “Just Like Home” by Sarah Gailey

Publishing Info: Tor Books, July 2022

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

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

Book Description: “Come home.” Vera’s mother called and Vera obeyed. In spite of their long estrangement, in spite of the memories — she’s come back to the home of a serial killer. Back to face the love she had for her father and the bodies he buried there.

Coming home is hard enough for Vera, and to make things worse, she and her mother aren’t alone. A parasitic artist has moved into the guest house out back, and is slowly stripping Vera’s childhood for spare parts. He insists that he isn’t the one leaving notes around the house in her father’s handwriting… but who else could it possibly be? There are secrets yet undiscovered in the foundations of the notorious Crowder House. Vera must face them, and find out for herself just how deep the rot goes.

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

I’ve heard the name pop up now and then, but I am pretty certain that until I picked up “Just Like Home”, I hadn’t read anything by Sarah Gailey. I’ve been tempted by a couple of their titles like “The Echo Wife”, but I just haven’t made the leap in spite of the fact that they have some buzz around them. But when I read about this newest book, a horror novel involving a woman who is returning to her childhood home, which also happens to be the site that her father committed numerous murders, I decided that it was time to finally jump in. And, to my slight dismay, as I was reading, I wasn’t really getting into it in the way that the description implied I would.

But I will start with the good, as per usual. I will say that Gailey has a very clear vision as to how they want to portray the very real complexities of loving someone who is, without a doubt, a fucking monster. Vera’s childhood relationship with her father, who turned out to be a serial killer who was torturing men in the family home’s basement, is one that was very fulfilling for her as a child. He clearly loved her very much, always made her feel special, and knew exactly how to prop her up when she was down. We know that Vera’s father is a psychopath, and we see the brutal descriptions of his work, as it were. But we also completely understand how Vera has a hard time reconciling that truth with the other seeming truth of how much he loved her. It’s something that always feels sticky, when loved ones of horrible people who cause damage and pain and violence upon others have a hard time unpacking their experience from that reality, and I thought that that aspect of Vera felt pretty spot on, as well as the ways that she has been warped because of it. And yes, there are plenty of really upsetting and unsettling moments not only because of this stark relationship exploration, but also in terms of the horror elements themselves. It’s a VERY weird and unnerving book, and it goes in directions I wasn’t expecting, and a lot of it reminded me of the movie “Frailty”, which is ANOTHER weird and unnerving story.

But that’s the flip side, in a way: it almost got to be too weird. I can’t even really tell you why, exactly, the rest of this story didn’t connect with me, but it just goes to places that I didn’t enjoy as much as I was hoping I would. We take a VERY sharp turn late in the game in terms of reveals and twists, and it just threw me more than anything else. I have to be careful in how I talk about this, as my biggest issue would be considered a pretty big spoiler, but what I will say is this: I understand the symbolism and metaphor that Gailey was going for here, and I think that it could have been achieved if approached a different way. But as it was, it felt like the metaphor got a bit OVERextended, and got to a place that felt clunky and strange and really threw off the rest of the book for me. This very well may just be me, so I encourage people who are interested to give it a go. But it just didn’t land in the way that I had hoped that it would.

This was a solidly mixed bag for me. I think I would give Sarah Gailey another shot (honestly, bring on “The Echo Wife”), but “Just Like Home” wasn’t the home run I was anticipating. But if you like weirdness, as so many people do, definitely give it a go.

Rating 6: Some good creepiness and some interesting moments about loving someone who is a monster, but the weirdness got a little too weird for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Just Like Home” is included on the Goodreads lists “Queer Horror”, and “2022 Horror Written by Women and Non-Binary Femmes”.

Serena’s Review: “Blood and Moonlight”

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Book: “Blood and Moonlight” by Erin Beaty

Publishing Info: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, June 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: Rising above the city of Collis is the holy Sanctum. And watching over its spires is Catrin, an orphan girl with unique skills—for she alone can spot the building’s flaws in construction before they turn deadly.

But when Catrin witnesses a murderer escaping the scene of his crime, she’s pulled into the web of a dangerous man who will definitely strike again. Assigned to capture the culprit is the mysterious, brilliant, and enigmatic Simon, whose insights into the mind of a killer are frighteningly accurate.

As the grisly crimes continue, Catrin finds herself caught between murderer and detective while hiding her own secret—a supernatural sight granted by the moon, destined to make her an outcast, and the only thing that might save her and those she loves from becoming the next victims…

Review: This was definitely a cover lust request for me. I mean, that’s a lovely cover and will easily drive people to pick it up off the shelves. Reading the description, the story also sounded like an intriguing mix of YA fantasy and a murder mystery. All of the right elements were there but, alas, this book ultimately wasn’t for me. By that I mean, my dislike of it could really have come down to the fact that I wasn’t the target audience for this book. Some YA can read up to adult readers, but others are definitely written for a specific age group. So reviewers like me have to be careful when evaluating outside of the target audience. All that to say, take my rating and review with a grain of salt.

Growing up an orphan, Catrin has struggled to understand her place in the world or to find a family to replace the one lost to her. She does have a gift, however, the ability to see flaws in construction before they become dangerous. Through this gift, she sees a path forward for herself. But that straight track is interrupted when she witnesses a criminal fleeing the scene of a grisly murder. Now, alongside the mysterious Simon, a detective, Catrin finds herself caught up in a spree of crime, trying to catch a killer before he surely strikes again.

So, like I said at the start, this book wasn’t for me. I honestly struggled to read the entire thing and ended up skimming a decent portion of the last half. But before getting into the problems I had, I want to address the good things. I thought the magic system was interesting, with the moon playing a role in how people’s abilities worked. After being exposed to direct moonlight, for example, certain characters abilities were enhanced. This was an interesting concept and something I hadn’t run across before (other than the obvious werewolves, of course!).

Given the strength of the fantasy elements, I kind of wish the author had just stopped there (though that would have resulted in a totally different book, I guess). The mystery itself I felt was incredibly predictable. The moment the villain makes their way on to the page, it was clear they were behind it all. This made it all the more frustrating to see Catrin and the supposedly clever detective, Simon, struggle to put together the very, very obvious pieces of the puzzle. But, here, I may have been reading this mystery through the lens of an adult mystery reader. YA audiences may be totally satisfied with this aspect of the story.

I also struggled with the writing and characterization. The writing was very simplistic, and I struggled to fully immerse myself in the story. And Catrin was everything you’ve ever read a million times from YA fantasy protagonists. If anything, she was even a bit higher on the cringe level. I also never bought the romance; Simon seemed like he could do better, honestly. And I really don’t care for this type of angsty romance where the primary emotion it pulls from me is frustrating, wanting to just bang these two’s heads together (and not in a cute, kissing way.)

As I said, I struggled to even finish this book. After I realized that I had already solved the mystery and all that was left was the developing relationship between Simon and Catrin, I knew this wasn’t going to be for me. However, the simpler style of writing, this type of protagonist, and even the mystery itself may be completely satisfying for the target audience. It just wasn’t for me.

Rating 6: A miss all around with an unlikeable heroine and a mystery that revealed itself far too early in the story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Blood and Moonlight” can be found on this Goodreads list: YA Releases June 2022

Serena’s Review: “Blade of Secrets”

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Book: “Blade of Secrets” by Tricia Levenseller

Publishing Info: Square Fish, June 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Bookish First!

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

Book Description: Eighteen-year-old Ziva prefers metal to people. She spends her days tucked away in her forge, safe from society and the anxiety it causes her, using her magical gift to craft unique weapons imbued with power.

Then Ziva receives a commission from a powerful warlord, and the result is a sword capable of stealing its victims secrets. A sword that can cut far deeper than the length of its blade. A sword with the strength to topple kingdoms. When Ziva learns of the warlord’s intentions to use the weapon to enslave all the world under her rule, she takes her sister and flees.

Joined by a distractingly handsome mercenary and a young scholar with extensive knowledge of the world’s known magics, Ziva and her sister set out on a quest to keep the sword safe until they can find a worthy wielder or a way to destroy it entirely.

Review: I don’t have great luck with the BookishFirst giveaways; I swear, I enter so many of them and rarely win! But I was happy when I was selected to receive this book, as the description sounds right up my alley. I never got around to reading the author’s other popular duology, starting with “Daughter of the Pirate Queen,” so I thought this would be a great opportunity to check out her work and see if it was a good fit.

With people, Ziva finds she can barely manage to get a few words out. But with metal, ah, there Ziva is in her element, creating masterpieces of workmanship, each weapon imbibed with a magical trait. With her sister running the front of her stop, Ziva sees a simple life ahead of her, saving up her money until she and her sister can retire in peace, far from the bustle of the city. But when Ziva creates a weapon that forces the truth from those it makes bleed, she finds herself privy to dangerous knowledge that forces her on the run, hoping to find safe hands for such a powerful weapon.

So, while I liked the general concept of the book, it ultimately didn’t quite work for me. First off, I found the writing incredibly simplistic. This style of writing can work for some stories (and for some YA audiences, alas I no longer fit in that category), but I think it’s a particularly hard style of writing to pair with fantasy. In fantasy books, there’s often some heavy lifting needed in the world-building and the fantastical elements, all things that require skillful, descriptive writing. Here, I couldn’t describe practically anything about the setting, magic, or much at all. Without being able to form a picture in my head of what world I was meant to be inhabiting, it was very challenging to feel connected to the book at all. It was also just boring to read, with a very repetitive “noun verb pronoun” pattern to every sentence.

I also found myself feeling let down on the character front. Ziva had a lot going for her, and heaven knows I always like a sister story, too! But right off the bat I began to struggle with this representation of a character living with social anxiety. Some of her panic attacks felt as if they were described point by point from a medical definition. Beyond that, instead of Ziva feeling like a fully realized character who happens to deal with social anxiety, it instead began to feel like her social anxiety was the entire point of her character. As if her social anxiety was all that made up her entire personality and being. I applaud what the author was trying to do, but I just don’t think it worked. It doesn’t help that I have also recently read another book, “Wind Daughter,” that features a character who struggles with anxiety, and I liked that depiction much better (review to come in July!)

I also didn’t find myself caring much about any of the relationships Ziva had formed. I usually love sisters stories, but this one felt overly familiar and didn’t seem to have much new to offer. The romance was also incredibly predictable. And, again, Ziva often mentioned in her inner dialogue that she struggles to say the right thing at the right moment, and yet, at all the important (or arguably, not even that important), she’s quick to sling out the perfect verbal quip.

So yeah, this was a very disappointing read for me. Really, nothing about it worked for me. Some of this, however, is definitely because I’m not in the right audience for this, as the shorter, more simple writing style is likely to appeal to a lot of actual YA readers. But I also don’t think it was a great example of a character living with social anxiety either. Fans of this author will probably like this, but other readers can probably find better reads with similar themes.

Rating 6: A bit of a disappointment, with lackluster worldbuilding and a rather flat main character.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Blade of Secrets” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be Blacksmith/Mason/Builder Heroes.

Monthly Marillier: “Beautiful”

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

Book: “Beautiful” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Audible Studies, May 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | WorldCat

Book Description: Beautiful is in three parts. Part one follows the pattern of the fairy tale, though the central character is not the white bear prince or the intrepid young woman who travels east of the sun and west of the moon to save him from a curse. Our narrator, whom I named Hulde, only had a bit-part in that original story. The novel-length version takes Hulde way out of her comfort zone as she heads off into the unknown world beyond the glass mountain, to find out what it means to make your own story.

Review: Well, we’ve finally come to the end of my “Monthly Marillier” series! It’s been about a year and a half since I started it, which just speaks to how many books this author has written. Of course, I’ll add to this series whenever she releases new books (right now we seem to be in a bit of a dry spell, as she’s mentioned on her blog that she’s still pitching book ideas to her publisher for her next title). I’ve saved this one for last because it’s probably the most inaccessible of her books, being only available as an audiobook through Audible. Hence, it’s one of the few I hadn’t read before this re-read. Let’s dive in!

We’ve all heard the story before: that of the girl, the polar bear, a dreadful curse and the troll Queen behind it all. This is not that story. Instead, this is Hulde’s tale, that of the troll princess who thought the prince was meant for her. Only to discover his true love was on a mission to rescue him from a curse…and Hulde was that curse in action. With her world tipped on its end, her mother dead, and her future before her, Hulde goes on a quest to discover not only who she is but what role she is meant to play in the most important story of them all: her own.

So, it’s kind of a bummer that I’m ending the series on this note. There are so many of Marillier’s books that are absolute favorites of mine, books I’ve re-read countless times. Sadly, this will not be one of them. But before I get into that, I do want to mention some of the stronger aspects of the story. First off, there’s no denying the cleverness of this idea. I’ve reviewed a number of “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” stories on this blog. But to take that idea and flip it on its head, centering the story around the troll princess who thought the prince was her prince…why, that is clever indeed! Beyond that, there is never any fault to be found in Marillier’s prose. She paints beautiful scenes onto the page, and her stories are always well-paced and complete.

However, I struggled to connect to Hulde herself. It’s always tough with stories like this, stories that are meant to focus on the growth of a character from a starting point that isn’t all that sympathetic. Obviously, you have to leave room for your character to grow and have something to point them towards over the course of the story. The delicate balance, however, is that a reader has to also connect with that character from the start. Here, that balance was just a bit off. Hulde veered a bit too far into the realm of immaturity, displayed too many annoying traits, and generally was not particularly compelling. Of course, as the story is one of self-discovery, she grows into a more likable character. But for me, it was never quite enough to regain my lost interest in the character.

The romance was also not my particular jam. And this is definitely a subjective point. Because I think it was really smart and unique on Marillier’s part to write the romance as she did here. She’s known for her fairly straightforward love matches. So to see a polyamorous connection from her was definitely new territory. And from what I could tell, it seemed to be well done. But, again, subjectively, I do like my romances between only two people. As we’ve discovered in our book club theme this season, preferences for romance are probably one of the most subjective things there are in reading experiences. So, if this is your jam, you’ll probably really like it!

Lastly, I didn’t enjoy the narrator for the audiobook. This is the most disappointing aspect of the entire thing, really. A good or bad narrator can make or break a book. And readers who know they are particular about the narrator for audiobooks can avoid this pitfall by simply reading the physical book. But with this one, we don’t have that option. So if you don’t enjoy the narrator, you’re left with nowhere to go. It was really a shame, because it’s so hard to evaluate how much of my reading experience was dictated by my distraction and dislike for the format in which the story was being presented.

Sadly, this wasn’t my favorite Marillier title. I do think that if you check out a preview of the book and aren’t bothered by the narrator, you may enjoy it more than me simply for that reason. Readers who enjoy polyamorous relationships might also want to check this one out.

Rating 6: A rather unlikable main character and a disconnect between me and the audiobook narrator really set this book off on the wrong foot, and it never recovered from there.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Beautiful” is on this Goodreads list: Polar Fantasy

Book Club Review: “The Roommate”

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

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing book club running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Romance”, in which we each picked a book that is a romance, or has elements that fit romance tropes to a T. For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “The Roommate” by Rosie Danan

Publishing Info: Berkley, September 2020

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

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

Romance Trope: Forced Proximity

Book Description: House Rules: Do your own dishes.
Knock before entering the bathroom.
Never look up your roommate online.

The Wheatons are infamous among the east coast elite for their lack of impulse control, except for their daughter Clara. She’s the consummate socialite: over-achieving, well-mannered, predictable. But every Wheaton has their weakness. When Clara’s childhood crush invites her to move cross-country, the offer is too much to resist. Unfortunately, it’s also too good to be true.

After a bait-and-switch, Clara finds herself sharing a lease with a charming stranger. Josh might be a bit too perceptive—not to mention handsome—for comfort, but there’s a good chance he and Clara could have survived sharing a summer sublet if she hadn’t looked him up on the Internet

Once she learns how Josh has made a name for himself, Clara realizes living with him might make her the Wheaton’s most scandalous story yet. His professional prowess inspires her to take tackling the stigma against female desire into her own hands. They may not agree on much, but Josh and Clara both believe women deserve better sex. What they decide to do about it will change both of their lives, and if they’re lucky, they’ll help everyone else get lucky too.

Kate’s Thoughts

I thought that this book had some good jumping off points for our book club discussion, which is good! But I think that part of that is because it seemed like it wasn’t overall well loved by our members. I fell into that camp as well. But I’ll start with what I did like, and there are two things that stand out for me. Firstly, I liked how this book tried to show that porn actors and actresses, and sex workers in general, are people who are doing a job and who deserve not to be dehumanized or stigmatized because of it. I liked that Josh enjoys his job, views it as a business that he excels at, and didn’t fall into any pitfalls of being shamed for his profession. Along with that, I liked that his acting partner and on again, off again girlfriend Naomi was ALSO a well thought out and interesting character, when she easily could have been used as a contrast to Clara and depicted in negative ways. Overall, I felt like Danan was doing her best to address sex positivity and the importance of remembering sex workers are people and deserve rights and respect, and not to be mistreated or shunned because of their profession. I also liked Naomi a lot as a character. As mentioned above, she isn’t used as a snide or antagonistic villain, and she was probably the most interesting character in the book.

I guess that kind of brings up the things that didn’t work as well. I thought that “The Roommate”, while setting out what it wanted to do, was kinda ho hum in other ways. Clara was fine as a main character, Josh was fine too, but neither of them were super interesting to me. I wasn’t terribly invested in their relationship, and I wasn’t terribly invested in the conflict that they met along the way. The sex scenes were serviceable and were written pretty well, but I didn’t get the kind of fun buildup I like in romance novels (however this is probably more about preference: like I’ve said in the past, I like a slow burn build up and a lot of cute and snarky banter).

I think that “The Roommate” does what it wants to do. I would have liked more oomph and chemistry between the main characters.

Serena’s Thoughts

Once again, I agree with everything Kate has already laid out. I think this book had lofty goals attempting to address sex positivity and destigmatize sex work. However, even here, I feel like the book brushed up alongside some of these issues but then didn’t really get into some of the real challenges. For example, there are a lot of factors that go into sex workers being forced into situations where they’re pushed back their comfort levels. Much of this has to do with power structures and stigmatization. However, here, we pretty much just had a “big bad” who, once dealt with, cleared the way to smooth sailing ahead. Likewise, Josh is conveniently not working when he meets Clara and then transition into a different role by the end of the book. So the author neatly sidesteps the issue of addressing sex workers who still work in the industry but are part of a committed, monogamous relationship.

Also, like Kate said, neither of the characters were particularly enthralling. I didn’t actively dislike either of them, but I never felt invested in their individual arcs or their romance as a couple. The “romance,” such as it was, felt more like falling in lust than falling in love. By the end, yes, they get there. But like Kate said, without the buildup, it’s harder to really feel any satisfaction when the romance is settled by the end of the book.

Kate’s Rating 6: I feel like it sets out to do what it wants to do, and I liked the sex positivity. But overall it was kinda lackluster.

Serena’s Rating 6: Not for me. The romance lacked any real connection and while I liked some of the topics tackled, I think there were some other missed opportunities.

Book Club Questions

  1. Did you think that the forced proximity trope in this story worked well within this context?
  2. Did this book subvert any romance tropes (forced proximity or not) in ways that you liked?
  3. Besides Naomi, were there any side characters that you would have liked to see more of? Any that you’d read another book about?
  4. What did you think of Clara and Josh’s business idea of porn that teaches about giving women pleasure during sex? Do you think there would be a market for it?
  5. What were your thoughts on how this book handled the themes of sex work and sex workers? Do you think it would make people think differently about sex work?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Roommate” is included on the Goodreads lists “Radical Romance”, and “My Favorite Trope”.

Next Book Club Book: “Payback’s a Witch” by Lana Harper

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