Serena’s Review: “My Calamity Jane”

Book: “My Calamity Jane” by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, June 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description:

Welcome ​to 1876 and a rootin’-tootin’ America bursting with gunslingers, outlaws, and garou.

JANE (a genuine hero-eene)

Calamity’s her name, and garou hunting’s her game—when she’s not starring in Wild Bill’s Traveling Show, that is. She reckons that if a girl wants to be a legend, she should just go ahead and be one.

FRANK (*wolf whistle*)
Frank “the Pistol Prince” Butler is the Wild West’s #1 bachelor. He’s also the best sharpshooter on both sides of the Mississippi, but he’s about to meet his match. . . .

ANNIE (get your gun!)
Annie Oakley (yep, that Annie) is lookin’ for a job, not a romance, but she can’t deny there’s something about Frank she likes. Really likes. Still, she’s pretty sure that anything he can do, she can do better.

A HAIRY SITUATION
After a garou hunt goes south and Jane finds a suspicious-like bite on her arm, she turns tail for Deadwood, where there’s been talk of a garou cure. But things ain’t always what they seem—meaning the gang better hightail it after her before they’re a day late and a Jane short.

Previously Reviewed: “My Lady Jane” and “My Plain Jane”

Review: I’ve really been enjoying these strange little tales. The authors take familiar characters or historical figures named “Jane” and then just go to town with wild imaginings of alternatives to their stories. We’ve had shape-shifters, ghosts, supernatural detectives, you name it! So, really, other than knowing that this story is tackling the Wild West and some of the familiar figures we associate with it, I had really no idea what I was getting into. It was a rip-roaring good time, of course, but I did find that I was less enthralled with this story than the two others.

In this version of the story, our famous trio work for a Wild West show that is only half show business. The other side of their profession includes hunting garou, or werewolves. All that sharp-shooting has to be good for something, after all! But on a hunt for the Alpha, things go wrong for our titular character and she ends up with a suspicious bite and on the run herself. Her friends, Annie and Frank, won’t let her go so fast, and soon enough the three find themselves on their own wild adventure!

So, while this book did have some of the classic elements I’ve come to expect from this series and these authors (good characters, romance, wack-a-doodle comedy), I did struggle with it a bit more. To start with the good things, the characters, like always, were all super strong. I liked that we got POV chapters for all three of the main characters, Jane, Annie, and Frank. They each had some interesting arcs and perspectives on the goings-on around them. I think I probably liked Annie the best, though Frank was a close second. Strangely, for all that she is the title character, of the three, Jane seemed to fade the most into the background of the story. I think this was somewhat similar to my feelings about the Jane character in the second book, where she, too, was secondary to the other main character.

The comedy was just ok in this one. For some reason, it all seemed to be trying a bit too hard and came across as more forced and unnatural than it did in the first two books. It might just be a combination of genres. “My Lady Jane” is trying to adapt a tragic bit of history and “My Plain Jane” is re-telling a gothic romance. Each of those stories are working from a more serious foundation and layering comedy and nonsense on top of it. Westerns, however, especially Wild West stories, already have an inherent performative sense to them. So between the over-the-top nature of the original tall tales, the comedy just heaped on more of the same, leaving the entire thing feeling a bit over-worked.

There were also some strange moments of social commentary that seemed to be sporadically dropped in. I have no problem with fantasy books tackling social issues. In fact, I think sometimes the nature of fantasy allows authors to get at thoughts and ideas in a way that really elaborates on the bigger issues without getting too caught up in a modern, political statement. But they sat oddly in this book. A bit too preachy. A bit too on the nose. A bit too out of place.

Part of my struggle may just be that I don’t typically care for westerns. Sure, I know the tall tales and characters that are used in this book, but the genre as a whole doesn’t hold a lot of appeal to me. Overall, it just felt like a bit of a let down when compared to the two books that came before, which I really enjoyed. If you’re a fan of the series so far, and especially if you enjoy westerns, this is probably worth checking out. But for me it was the weakest of the three.

Rating 6: The shine has worn off just a little on this particular formula.

Reader’s Advisory:

“My Calamity Jane” is on these Goodreads lists: 2020 YA Historical Fiction and Jane Titles.

Find “My Calamity Jane” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Awakening”

Book: “The Awakening” by Nora Roberts

Publishing Info: November 24, 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: When Breen Kelly was a girl, her father would tell her stories of magical places. Now she’s an anxious twentysomething mired in student debt and working a job she hates. But one day she stumbles upon a shocking discovery: her mother has been hiding an investment account in her name. It has been funded by her long-lost father—and it’s worth nearly four million dollars.

This newfound fortune would be life-changing for anyone. But little does Breen know that when she uses some of the money to journey to Ireland, it will unlock mysteries she couldn’t have imagined. Here, she will begin to understand why she kept seeing that silver-haired, elusive man, why she imagined his voice in her head saying Come home, Breen Siobhan. It’s time you came home. Why she dreamed of dragons. And where her true destiny lies—through a portal in Galway that takes her to a land of faeries and mermaids, to a man named Keegan, and to the courage in her own heart that will guide her through a powerful, dangerous destiny…

Review: I read a few of Nora Roberts’s more traditional romances back in the day (way, way back in the day, now that I think about it). But I know that she’s written a lot of books in other genres, too, most notably, perhaps, mysteries. I’ve also seen that she’s released more fantasy novels recently, and having missed the “Year One” trilogy when it was coming out, I thought I’d jump on the first book in a new fantasy series she started up this fall. And so, I nabbed an e-ARC of ‘The Awakening.” Sadly, it wasn’t all that I was hoping it would be.

Breen has lived a simple life full of doing what is expected of her and not expecting much in return. But when she discovers that her mother has been keeping a massive secret from her, a massive 4 million dollars worth secret, Breen decides that enough is enough and it’s time to take control of her life. And the first thing she decides to do is to travel to Ireland, the homeland of the father who left home never to return when she was a child. But she discovers much more than a new country, instead finding herself in a completely new land and one that comes with a destiny for her even greater than she had ever imagined.

To start with the pros for this book, there’s simply no denying that Roberts has a very appealing and approachable style of writing. She’s able to deftly paint a picture of all kinds of locations and peoples and immediately create connections between the reader and her story. These strengths were particularly on display in the opening chapter of this book that is set in the fantasy world. I was quickly drawn in and curious to know more about Keegan and the history of his people and land.

Unfortunately, the strengths of this opening chapter made the switch to Breen’s story land with quite a thud. For one thing, Breen simply isn’t the most exciting character. Yes, that is part of her story, her learning to come more into her own. But it’s still a long slog through the thoughts and actions of a character who is bland to the extreme. It got to the point where I was even beginning to be frustrated by the friends around her who were all described as being great people. It’s almost a constant stream of support and encouragement from everyone around her to the point that A.) the friends are almost unbelievable in their goodness and B.) Breen’s complete inability to expect better for herself and have confidence without all of this validation becomes strange.

I also felt that some of these friendships fell into pretty stereotypical patterns. Her friend, Marco, read as the “gay best friend” straight out of the early 2000s. He’s right there telling her to update her wardrobe and reclaim her natural hair color, etc etc. It felt a little shallow and dated, to be honest. And then she starts a blog, which of course immediately takes off and she has a bunch of followers and has found a natural ability in writing. Which…don’t even get me started on that. Obviously, being a writer and blogger myself, this raised some serious eyebrows on my part. I mean, I have an easier time believing in a magical land of dragons and fairies than that someone started a random travel blog and somehow immediately has thousands of followers reading and commenting.

The story got better when she finally makes her way to the new land, but it was a bit too late for me. It took a long, long time for her to even get there, and by the time she does, I was already struggling too much with Breen herself to really redeem the book for me. I did like the romance and fantasy elements when we go there, though. This is the first book in a trilogy, but I’m still unsure whether I’ll keep on with it. Fans of Nora Roberts will probably like this, but it could have been better, in my opinion.

Rating 6: A decent fantasy story, but the main character dragged it down.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Awakening” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it is on Books with parallel world.

Find “The Awakening” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Clown in a Cornfield”

Book: “Clown in a Cornfield” by Adam Cesare

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, August 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Quinn Maybrook just wants to make it until graduation. She might not make it to morning.

Quinn and her father moved to tiny, boring Kettle Springs to find a fresh start. But ever since the Baypen Corn Syrup Factory shut down, Kettle Springs has cracked in half. On one side are the adults, who are desperate to make Kettle Springs great again, and on the other are the kids, who want to have fun, make prank videos, and get out of Kettle Springs as quick as they can.

Kettle Springs is caught in a battle between old and new, tradition and progress. It’s a fight that looks like it will destroy the town. Until Frendo, the Baypen mascot, a creepy clown in a pork-pie hat, goes homicidal and decides that the only way for Kettle Springs to grow back is to cull the rotten crop of kids who live there now.

Review: I am not afraid of clowns. I have friends who are, but I myself don’t really have much beef with them outside of sometimes finding them a little pointless. Even the likes of Pennywise of John Wayne Gacy’s Pogo just don’t really make me tap into my inner coulrophobic. But I do like a book that reads like a slasher story, and reading the description of “Clown in a Cornfield” by Adam Cesare felt like exactly that. Throw in some Millennial resentment towards older generations that don’t quite get the road we’ve had to travel, and I was eager to dive in and see what Cesare was going to do with all of it.

“Clown in a Cornfield” is a bit of a slasher story, a bit of small town secrets story, and some ‘okay, Boomer’ memes all mixed together to create a YA horror tale. On a few levels, this works out pretty well and makes for fun reading. The very concept of a bunch of teens being slaughtered by someone wearing a clown mask is great horror fodder, but “Clown in a Cornfield” takes it a few steps further than that and works through some generational angst that is playing out in the real world. The town of Kettle Springs, the setting of this book, is having a bit of a reckoning when it comes to the older people in town versus the teenagers. The older people want Kettle Springs to stay the same, living off of good family values, hard work, and the corn syrup factory that has given the town jobs and prosperity, until recently, that is. The younger generation, specifically the teens, just want to live their lives and then move on. Cesare takes a pretty realistic conflict and pumps it full of blood and guts, and it works pretty well, with those with traditional values blaming inevitable changes in values for all the ills within the town. It could have been heavy handed, but Cesare keeps his tongue planted in cheek firmly enough that it’s a rather effective satire. I also liked a few of our main characters, namely Quinn, the new girl in town who is trying to fit in. Quinn has enough tragic backstory to give her a little bit of pathos, but also stands on her own two feet well enough that she is likable and endearing.

But that said, some of the executions of the plot points didn’t work as well for me. Besides Quinn and a couple other characters, we don’t really get to know enough about a number of the people we’re following so that it doesn’t feel like the stakes are too high when the clown Frendo (“No Country for Old Men” reference?) comes a knocking with weaponry and murderous intent. I don’t really care too much when a slasher film just has a bunch of stereotypes to act as machete fodder for a masked killer, but I think that on the page you have a little more wiggle room to give us some insight into your characters, even if it’s just a little bit. Along with that, the pacing was a little off at times, feeling a bit rushed in some places but kind of draggy in others. I bought the plot overall, as it really is just a slasher story and I know what I’m getting into there. But I think that had there been a little more focus on fleshing out some other characters and less on making super cool kills happen, it probably would have worked a little better. Especially since the satire was pretty well thought out.

Inevitable progress to traditionalists everywhere. (source)

“Clown in a Cornfield” is a pretty fun read. I think that it would have worked better as a gory limited series, but Cesare left room for a sequel, and it was good enough that I would definitely read it. If you don’t like clowns, maybe skip it? But if you’re like me, this could be a fun read for this time of year.

Rating 6: A sly premise and some fun characters keep this story afloat, though the plot is a little hasty at times and the scares feel like they’d work better on screen than on the page.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Clown in a Cornfield” isn’t included on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it would fit in on “Clown Horror”. Obviously.

Find “Clown in a Cornfield” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Book Club Review: “The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNext”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub 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 “Around the World”, in which we each picked a continent and had to match a book that takes place there and/or is written by an author from that continent or of that continent’s descent.

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 BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNext” by Felicia Rose Chavez (Ed.), José Olivarez (Ed.), and Willie Perdomo (Ed.)

Publishing Info: Haymarket Books, April 2020

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Continent: North America

Book Description: In the dynamic tradition of the BreakBeat Poets anthology, The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNEXT celebrates the embodied narratives of Latinidad. Poets speak from an array of nationalities, genders, sexualities, races, and writing styles, staking a claim to our cultural and civic space. Like Hip-Hop, we honor what was, what is, and what’s next.

Kate’s Thoughts

So in the song “The Great Imposter”, there is the (much condensed down and cherry picked) line ‘Poetry, so sweet…..’. And reader, I do not feel this way towards poetry. There are a few flickers of poetry that I’ve enjoyed over the years. I love me some Poe, and Dickinson, and the poem “The Second Coming” by Yeats, as well as the occasional book in verse (Jason Reynolds in particular is a favorite of mine). But as a rule it’s really not my cup of tea. So when book club decided to do poetry with “The BreakBeat Poets Vol.4: LatiNext”, I was hesitant. I also, however, like to be game for whatever my dear friends may pick so I got it and dove in. I’m happy to report that I did not hate it, not even a little bit. This may sound like a back handed compliment, but I assure you, it’s not.

There were actually a number of poems from this collection that I greatly enjoyed. If you look at the commonalities between the various poems and poets that I cited above, if you give me something dark, I will probably be more into it, so the poems that really struck a chord with me in this book were those that addressed hard topics, like death, sadness, and despair. I wholeheartedly admit that the optics of that are not very good within the context of this collection, but at least I can say that that’s generally what’s going to get me on board with poetry. All that said, I really liked the mission of this collection, highlighting Latinx voices within the American and Latinidad experiences. These range from the political to the tongue in cheek to the joyful to the sorrowful, and I think that it does a great job of introducing new ideas of what poetry is and what it can be for different people.

But, at the end of the day, it’s still poetry. Serena will expand on this a bit more, but I do think that it went on a bit long. This may be because the way that it was sectioned, as the darker things were all at the front of the collection as opposed to spaced out. I didn’t mind the structure, as I like things being themed and categorized, but for someone like me who has ideas as to what kind of poetry she does and doesn’t like, it made me skim more and more the further along we got. I can’t really say if this is a failing in the poets, as they probably weren’t going to resonate with me because it’s poetry, but I do think that it suffered from some bloat. I totally get why bloat would happen here, wanting to give voice and representation to so many different possibilities. But it’s still a bit bloated.

All in all, there were some things here that I really liked. I don’t think that I will look into more of the collections that The BreakBeat Poets have done, but if you do like the genre, check it out. It may resonate more with you than it did with me.

Serena’s Thoughts

Back in college, oh so long ago, it was a close call when choosing majors between English Literature or English Writing (yes, there are multiple options for important topics like English!). The main case for the English Writing route was my love for the poetry classes and professors. I ended up going the Literature route, but was one of those “loves school a bit too much” dummies who still signed up to take the Capstone course for both routes. You know, why not take the highest level course for a education route you’re not even majoring in?? Anyways, long story short, I took that class because I loved reading and writing poetry that much. All of this to say, I’m a bit of a poetry snob, and it’s not really something I’m proud of, but there it is.

With that background, I often find reading poetry for fun rather challenging. I really, really enjoy great poetry, but I’m also extremely picky about what I think constitutes great poetry. For me, it’s the culmination of topics, language choice, and some simple beauty that is hard to describe but comes across like a great painting in that you know it but have a hard time saying why it’s great. After reading this book, I’d say there were a good handful of poems that really worked for me with these criteria. But there were also a good number that didn’t.

The challenge of this collection is both its strength and what I think ultimately got in the way of its being truly great. It’s so important to highlight diverse poetry and poets, and there’s a wealth of history, stories, and experiences that the Latinx community brings to the table. Some of my favorite poems spoke to some of the expected topics like immigration challenges as well as some of the smaller experiences that we might not immediately think of, like how the continued mispronunciation of one’s name can impact one’s life.

The other side of this coin, however, is that there is JUST SO MUCH to cover. Latinx covers a huge swath of cultures and countries, some speaking to their experiences in their native lands, others speaking to their experiences as Americans with Latinx heritage. There’s a lot of ground to cover, and it’s pretty clear that the editors were overwhelmed by trying to cover all their bases. It’s an impossible task to start out with, and one that I think ultimately bogged down this collection. There were a number of poems that just didn’t work for me. They weren’t bad, per se, but I also felt that they weren’t as powerful as some of the others. And in a collection that begins to feel bloated at around the 50% marker, weaker poems do more damage in hiding the truly good ones than any value they add on their own.

That said, I still really like the general approach of these poetry collections and am curious to look into the ones that came before this.

Kate’s Rating 6: A unique and at times quite powerful collection of voices not seen as much in poetry. But it’s still poetry, nonetheless, and therefore not really my jam.

Serena’s Rating 6: Some really great poems highlighting lesser known experiences and topics were at times hidden in a collection that was a bit over-sized.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of the section structure of this collection?
  2. Did you have a favorite poem? What about it stood out to you?
  3. What topics did you feel were well addressed in this collection, and what topics did you want to have more focus?
  4. How did this poetry collection compare to other collections you have read in the past?
  5. What do you think the next BreakBeats Poetry Collection will be?

Reader’s Advisory

“The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNext” is included on the Goodreads lists “2020 Poetry Books By Authors of Color”, and “Stephen’s Multicultural and Anti-Racist Reading List”.

Find “The BreakBeat Poets Vol.4: LatiNext” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “Sorcerer to the Crown” by Zen Cho

Serena’s Review: “The Silvered Serpents”

45044785Book: “The Silvered Serpents”  by Roshani Chokshi

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, September 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Séverin and his team members might have successfully thwarted the Fallen House, but victory came at a terrible cost — one that still haunts all of them. Desperate to make amends, Séverin pursues a dangerous lead to find a long lost artifact rumored to grant its possessor the power of God.

Their hunt lures them far from Paris, and into the icy heart of Russia where crystalline ice animals stalk forgotten mansions, broken goddesses carry deadly secrets, and a string of unsolved murders makes the crew question whether an ancient myth is a myth after all.

As hidden secrets come to the light and the ghosts of the past catch up to them, the crew will discover new dimensions of themselves. But what they find out may lead them down paths they never imagined.

A tale of love and betrayal as the crew risks their lives for one last job.

Previously Reviewed: “The Gilded Wolves”

Review: I wasn’t blown away by “The Gilded Wolves,” the first in this YA fantasy trilogy. But as I liked it more than Chokshi’s other books I’ve read and the cast of characters was compelling, I decided to keep going with the series. Well, I have, and…I don’t think I liked this one any better? Maybe worse? And yet I still will probably read the third? I’m not sure what this says about me as a reader or about the trilogy itself. Me, probably a completionist. The trilogy, something about it must be intriguing enough to keep me invested.

Things have kind of fallen apart for our crew after the dramatic events at the end of “The Gilded Wolves.” Each on their own, each has been trying to make their own way in the world, feeling cut-off from the rest. But when a lead on “The Divine Lyrics,” the magical book at the heart of Severin’s (and Laila’s) quest, finally comes to light, Severin brings them back together for one last adventure. Into the heart of the north and through mysteries new and astounding, the crew must once again bring each of their unique skill sets to hand in order to pull of this last job. But, of course, nothing goes as planned and a darker price is waiting than any of them could have imagined.

So, a lot of the problems I had with the first book (and with this author in general) were still present here, unfortunately. There’s something about her style of writing that I struggle with. On one hand, there’s the turns of phrase that seem to be written more because they sound beautiful and poetic rather than the fact they convey any actual image. The titles, for example, of both of these books doesn’t seem to really connect directly to much in the story. But they sure sound pretty! Most of the time it didn’t bother me too much, but there were definitely other times when I would re-read a sentence and be like “Sure…sounds nice…but…what?” And that confusion carries over to my second struggle with the writing.

While the author does a good job with characterization for the most part and clearly has a bunch of unique fantasy ideas. She’s not lacking in imagination on either front. But when it comes to the actual description of locations, objects, and how they interact with each other…it’s just not good. There were entire locations (where the book spent a significant amount of time) that I couldn’t describe to you. There was an entire action scene that was a blur of movement, and by the end, again, I couldn’t tell you what exactly had happened. The writing looks pretty on the front of things, but it too often failed at its most basic requirement: conveying ideas clearly.

I also struggled with the plot itself. The mystery was both at times not clear at all (Severin and his cohort would jump through leaps of logic that were either impossible to follow or just totally unbelievable that anyone would connect those dots). And at other times so bizarrely obvious that I couldn’t be less impressed when AHA! the reveal finally came and Severin and his crew were just oh, so clever for putting it together.

And, sadly, on top of all of this, my favorite part of the first book, the characters, was a let-down here as well. They’re all still interesting enough, but man, this was a glum book. Severin was practically unrecognizable, and his decisions were, again, hard to buy at times. As for the rest, they all seemed to become more and more caught up with unnecessary secret keeping that served no other purpose than to stir up more drama. It was just all kind of sad and tiring.

And yet…I’m probably going to finish out the story. For one thing, this book mostly felt like a place hold and necessary vehicle for the author to get from point A to point B. So while this middle portion of the trip was a let down, I can still be hopeful that it was all to the purpose of getting us somewhere more interesting. I’m not really holding out much hope for the writing to clear up and suddenly become my cup of tea, but I do have hopes that the characters themselves will go interesting places and resolve their own story lines in compelling ways. Fans of the first book are sure to like this one. But if you were on the fence there, you’ll probably have similar feelings here. I leave it to you whether it’s worth going through it based on only the hope of a well-executed landing.

Rating 6: Fairly glum and mired in its own “middle-ness” in the trilogy.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Silvered Serpents” is on these Goodreads lists: “Asian MG/YA 2020” and “2020 YA Sequels.”

Find “The Silvered Serpents” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Don’t Look For Me”

49127515Book: “Don’t Look For Me” by Wendy Walker

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, September 2020

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

Book Description: In Wendy Walker’s thrilling novel Don’t Look for Me, the greatest risk isn’t running away. It’s running out of time. One night, Molly Clarke walked away from her life. She doesn’t want to be found. Or at least, that’s the story. The car abandoned miles from home. The note found at a nearby hotel. The shattered family that couldn’t be put back together. They called it a “walk away.” It happens all the time. Women disappear, desperate to leave their lives behind and start over.

But is that what really happened to Molly Clarke?

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

The last Wendy Walker book I read was “The Night Before”, which took me on a fun and convoluted ride. Given how much I enjoyed that book, I was very interested in reading her newest book, “Don’t Look For Me”, a thriller about a wife and mother who may have walked away from her life…. or perhaps not. The summary was a bit vague, which only raised my interests more. I was thinking that we were going to get a story filled with questions about Molly Clarke’s whereabouts. And it wasn’t quite that. I’m going to give a bit more info in my review than the summary does, which is kind of going to be spoilery in itself because of that. So if you don’t want to know….. turn back now?

“Don’t Look For Me” has two narratives at play. The first is of Nicole, Molly’s daughter who, after a new lead has come in regarding her mother’s disappearance, returns to the town Molly was last seen in. Nicole has guilt over her last interactions with her mother, and is fighting her own demons because of a tragic incident in the family past (more on that in a bit). The second narrative is that of Molly herself, whose car ran out of gas on the way home while passing through the small town, and who accepted a ride from a man and his daughter…. and then ended up being held captive in their home. The timelines converge pretty early, and you see Nicole trying to solve the mystery of her mom’s supposed ‘walk away’, while Molly is trying to escape her captors by using her wits and her need to survive. I enjoyed how Walker lined these two timelines up, and how you would see the actions of one affect or bleed into the other. Through these two perspectives we see how Molly might have been the type to walk away, as her family life has been a wreck ever since the death of her youngest child, in which she blames herself. And Nicole blames her too. This aspect of the story was very strong, and I thought that as an examination of a family swallowed up by grief, blame, and anger it was well done and very sad. Walker also toys a bit with perspectives and perceptions between the two women, and how they regard people they are interacting with. I won’t say much more than that, but I will say that Walker uses a device that really only works on paper, and she did it well.

But thriller and mystery wise, “Don’t Look For Me” felt pretty run of the mill. Molly checked almost ever box of plucky intrepid survivor, while Nicole has a lot of the vices and bad habits that you see of protagonists with tortured souls. The clues are all in place, and while it wasn’t obvious as to who had taken Molly and why, once we got the big reveal it felt a bit underwhelming. I’m not sure if it was because I didn’t really feel like I cared enough for the characters, or if it was the set up, but I didn’t have much investment as to what happened to either Molly or Nicole. On top of that, there was another one of those surprise twists that comes in near the end, which felt unbelievable and a bit unearned to me. I wish that more moments had been put in place that would have felt like everything coming together, as opposed to kind of nutty things just being flung at the reader in hopes that they would stick.

While “Don’t Look For Me” did keep me reading, and while it was a quick read, I ultimately wanted a bit more from it.

Rating 6: A middle of the road thriller with a paint by numbers plot, “Don’t Look For Me” had some interesting perspective manipulations and examinations of a family in turmoil, but was overall average.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Don’t Look For Me” is included on the Goodreads lists “Psychological Chillers by Women”, and “‘The Girl on the Train’ Read A Likes”.

Find “Don’t Look For Me” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Hollow Ones”

52594581Book: “The Hollow Ones” by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

Publishing Info: Grand Central Publishing, August 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from the publisher.

Book Description: A horrific crime that defies ordinary explanation. A rookie FBI agent in dangerous, uncharted territory. An extraordinary hero for the ages. Odessa Hardwicke’s life is derailed when she’s forced to turn her gun on her partner, Walt Leppo, a decorated FBI agent who turns suddenly, inexplicably violent while apprehending a rampaging murderer. The shooting, justified by self-defense, shakes the young FBI agent to her core. Devastated, Odessa is placed on desk leave pending a full investigation.

But what most troubles Odessa isn’t the tragedy itself-it’s the shadowy presence she thought she saw fleeing the deceased agent’s body after his death. Questioning her future with the FBI and her sanity, Hardwicke accepts a low-level assignment to clear out the belongings of a retired agent in the New York office. What she finds there will put her on the trail of a mysterious figure named John Blackwood, a man of enormous means who claims to have been alive for centuries, and who is either an unhinged lunatic, or humanity’s best and only defense against unspeakable evil. 

Review: Thank you to Grand Central Publishing for sending me an eARC of this book!

I have loved Guillermo del Toro ever since I saw “Pan’s Labyrinth” back in college. I don’t think that there is one del Toro movie that I haven’t at the very least been entertained by. I try to see all of his movies, and I went to his traveling show of his personal collection of props and artwork when it came to Minneapolis. I also liked his foray into writing, having enjoyed his novel adaptation of “The Shape of Water”, and his vampire dystopia “The Strain” Trilogy that he wrote with Chuck Hogan. So when I had the opportunity to read his and Hogan’s newest collaboration, “The Hollow Ones”, I leapt at the chance. It was a fun surprise too, as I had no idea that they had a new book coming out. I really gotta get more on top of my del Toro stanning I guess.

We move from vampire lore and into demons and possession with “The Hollow Ones”, where del Toro and Hogan give us a mythology and magical system with some influences from a few different sources. You have references to occultist John Dee, references to Voodoo and Hoodoo, and inspirations from Judeo-Christian ideas of possession and Western occultism. Our protagonist Odessa is trying to reconcile the strange and horrible things that she has seen or has been hearing about as mass murders and spree killings start breaking out around New York and New Jersey, namely having to turn her gun on her FBI partner after he turned uncharacteristically violent during a confrontation with a mass murderer. Odessa serves as the audiences’ stand in as she learns about the dark magic at hand, and after she is connected to the mysterious John Blackwood (in my ARC his name was John Silence, but that has changed for the final product). Blackwood has been chasing insidious beings called Hollow Ones for centuries, his immortality a curse tied in with these creatures that jump from host to host and cause as much violence as possible while inside. We not only explore Blackwood and Odessa’s teaming up in the present, but also Blackwood’s partnership with Soloman, a Black FBI agent who had a similar case in the 1960s in the Deep South, and who is now the man to connect Odessa to Blackwood after a Hollow One has started up again. I liked seeing the juxtaposition of two agents having to contend with being Others within their field (Soloman’s arc in particular was a fascinating comment on the Jim Crow South and how being a Black agent put a target on his back), and having to hunt down a disturbing evil with a strange and awkward immortal. It’s just kind of a fun concept, and del Toro and Hogan make the system believable and interesting enough that it’s ripe with potential for scares and shocks. And let me tell you, scare and shock it does, as the Hollow One we are following is INCREDIBLY violent, so much so that I feel a need to put a content warning for a particular scene involving this creature and a baby. Yeah, that wasn’t an easy moment to read for me right now. But it does show that del Toro and Hogan aren’t fucking around with this thing, and also shows just what Odessa and Blackwood are up against, and what Soloman and Blackwood were up against previously.

All that said, “The Hollow Ones” never really moved from ripe potential into a full blown pay off. While it does follow a clear path and story, and while the foundation is there for something really great, I felt that it totally captivated me. I liked Odessa a lot, but Blackwood wasn’t terribly interesting to me even though he should, as a cursed immortal, should be INTERESTING. And on top of all that, it’s very difficult these days to ignore or overlook stories where authors take ideas and concepts from other cultures and don’t do the due diligence to do so appropriately. While I enjoyed the themes and plot aspects of the 1960s storyline, using Voodoo, Hoodoo, and folklore from slave narratives felt very uncomfortable, especially since it was being used in a way that appeared to be ‘demonic’, or at least Othering. I love you, del Toro, but that stuff may not be for you to play with in the stories you tell. Not unless you are VERY careful and respectful with how you do it. And I’m not saying that I think that this was intentionally racist, but it does go to show that some of those past tropes in horror (occultism, the mysterious ‘voodoo’ spells, etc) really do have problematic origins and that you can’t really hold it up through a lens of nostalgia.

This is the start of a series I have heard, and I will probably pick up the next book. As I said, lots of potential in the world building and the characters themselves. But “The Hollow Ones” wasn’t the big bang I was hoping for.

Rating 6: A solid horror thriller with some interesting ideas, “The Hollow Ones” has potential, but doesn’t quite flesh itself out as much as I had hoped, and delved in some culturally appropriative storytelling elements.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Hollow Ones” is included on the Goodreads list “Horror to Look Forward To in 2020”.

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

Serena’s Review: “There Will Come a Darkness”

41823536._sx318_Book: “There Will Come a Darkness” by Katy Rose Pool

Publishing Info: Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, September 2019

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

Book Description: For generations, the Seven Prophets guided humanity. Using their visions of the future, they ended wars and united nations―until the day, one hundred years ago, when the Prophets disappeared.

All they left behind was one final, secret prophecy, foretelling an Age of Darkness and the birth of a new Prophet who could be the world’s salvation . . . or the cause of its destruction. As chaos takes hold, five souls are set on a collision course:

A prince exiled from his kingdom.
A ruthless killer known as the Pale Hand.
A once-faithful leader torn between his duty and his heart.
A reckless gambler with the power to find anything or anyone.
And a dying girl on the verge of giving up.

One of them―or all of them―could break the world. Will they be savior or destroyer? 

Review: June has been the month of “better late than never” as far as my reading goes. This is at least the second book that I’ve read this month that was hugely popular last fall and yet…I didn’t get to it until just now. But there’s just so much good fantasy out there, and, I’ll admit, I’m always a bit hesitant about these books that seems to flare up as “the next big thing” in YA fantasy. My track record with these super popular new fantasy series hasn’t been good. But I liked “The Merciful Crow” more than I was expecting, so I thought I’d give another big title a chance. Sadly, this wasn’t as much of a hit for me, though I’ll likely still keep reading the series.

Five young people are living very different lives in very different spheres. Some from wealth, some from poverty, some who are running, and some who know that it is up to them to find what no one else can. But their world is on the brink of change, with powerful forces moving against those with magical abilities and a prophesy that has loomed over the heads of the people for generations. Each with their own role to plays, these disparate lives begin to cross and the pieces begin to fall in place. But who is the savior and who is the source of destruction?

I already gave away that this book wasn’t a hit for me, but I will start with a few positives before getting into my critiques. As the description gives away, this is an ensemble cast, but I was so pleased to find that it wasn’t another YA fantasy ensemble ala “Six of Crows.” For one thing, it’s centered around a prophesy and not heists, and more importantly, besides one exception, all of our main characters start out not knowing anything about the others. And this holds true though out most of of the story. Some characters weave in and out of other’s stories, but by the end, only a few of them have even ended up together with others still scattered to the wind.

But other than the unique approach to its ensemble cast, this book was barely even a book. Instead, it read much more like an extended prologue before the last few chapters sort of got into things. With such a large cast of characters and the fact that they all have unique histories and no nothing about each other (losing the opportunity to cross-tell their stories through various POVs that you often see in other books with large casts), the book has to devote almost two thirds of the story to introducing its main characters. The chapters were also short, so just when I felt like I was settling into one character’s life, struggles, and thoughts, I was suddenly bounced into a completely different character’s story. Between all of these switches, it was hard to become truly invested in any of them. And, like I said, it left very little room for the story to actually develop.

Frankly, very little actually happens in this book. We do get some action towards the end, but even that was a bit of a letdown. Some of the “reveals” I could see from a mile off and fell flat when they came. There was a big bad character who was talked about through much of the story, but when he finally appeared on page, he, too, felt like a let down and not nearly the threat he was meant to represent. The prophesy itself seemed interesting, but we barely scratched the surface of that here. Like I said, it read more like an extended prologue and introduction than a book itself.

Beyond that, I struggled to actually like any of the main characters. Several of them continued to make poor decisions that didn’t seem to fall in line with the roles they were in. Even as things fell apart around them and they began to see the negative consequences of their choices, they just continued to do so. It ended up being incredibly frustrating. One of the main characters, also, has an incredibly predictable story arc and was simply pretty dull all around. There were maybe two characters who I could kind of become invested in. But even I even struggled with them at times. A lot of the character choices and plot points just made several characters very unsympathetic. Even by the end of the book, it felt like many of them had learned nothing at all. This also played into the feeling that the book was an extended introduction. We don’t really see much true character growth on the page, and it ended with them all still feeling rather half-baked.

Overall, I was pretty disappointed by this book. But, like I said in the beginning, I’ll likely give the second one a go just because of the fact that this one read so much more like a prologue than a story itself. I want to see if the action will actually pick up in the next one! If you really like ensemble stories and want one that isn’t focused on heists, this may be worth checking out. But don’t go in with your expectations too high.

Rating 6: Not fully realized on its own, the plot was lacking and the characters shallow, leaving a lot of work for the sequel to improve upon.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“There Will Come a Darkness” is on these Goodreads lists: “Prophecies” and, amusingly enough, “The books that I bought during the pandemic to make me feel better….”

Find “There Will Come a Darkness” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Dragonslayer”

40045979Book: “Dragonslayer” by Duncan M. Hamilton

Publishing Info: Tor Books, July 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley!

Book Description: Once a member of the King’s personal guard, Guillot dal Villevaurais spends most days drinking and mourning his wife and child. He’s astonished–and wary–when the Prince Bishop orders him to find and destroy a dragon. He and the Prince Bishop have never exactly been friends and Gill left the capitol in disgrace five years ago. So why him? And, more importantly, how is there a dragon to fight when the beasts were hunted to extinction centuries ago by the ancient Chevaliers of the Silver Circle?

On the way to the capitol city, Gill rescues Solène, a young barmaid, who is about to be burned as a witch. He believes her innocent…but she soon proves that she has plenty of raw, untrained power, a problem in this land, where magic is forbidden. Yet the Prince Bishop believes magic will be the key to both destroying the dragon and replacing the young, untried King he pretends to serve with a more pliable figurehead. Between Gill’s rusty swordsmanship and Solène’s unstable magic, what could go wrong?

Review: While, like Kate, I prefer my dragon stories to have the dragons on the good guys’ side, I’ll take what I can get as far as they go. And the title was obvious enough! I also really like this particular cover art illustrator who does a lot of work for books published by Tor, so whenever I see one of his works, I’m often even more interested. But, while this book did deliver on what it promised, it sadly didn’t do much else.

Gill has it fairly well settled that his heroic days are in the past. Content to spend his days drinking and mourning the loss of his family, he’s shocked when he’s call upon by the Prince Bishop to kill a dragon. For one, aren’t dragons gone? And for two, why on earth would the Prince Bishop choose him of all people? But every good hero needs a companion, and Gill finds his in an unexpected place: a witch burning. While Solene has very little control over her powers, it is possible that her abilities could be necessary to dispose of the dragon. And so this odd couple sets out on what could either be a grand adventure or a grand disaster.

This is one of those strange books to review. I know it, and the other two books in the series, were very positively reviewed, and I understand why. The writing is solid. The characterization is interesting and fleshed out. And the adventure is just what is says it is: two oddballs on a dragon-slaying quest. There’s nothing technically wrong with any of these things, and I think I can say with some confidence, judging on all the positive reviews, there is definitely an audience out there who wants this type of straight-forward, non-challenging fantasy adventure. I can even be one of them sometimes, as I know I’ve definitely come across books that haven’t pushed the limit much but still scratched a particular entertainment itch. For me, though, I just wanted…more.

In many ways, we’ve seen Gill and Solene many, many times before. Especially Gill. He’s the drunken, ex-hero who lost his family and lost his vaulted position in society until he gets an unexpected call-to-arms. I get that personal loss is a deep well of emotional motivation and exploration, but man, the drunk dude who loses his wife and kid, sinks into drinking, but then once the adventure starts never gives them a second though? Seen that guy a few too many times. If you’re going to kill off the family and make the loss still poignant enough that your main character is essentially drinking himself to death over it still, I want to see the story address his actual emotional arc for getting through that. Not just have an adventure happen and have it seem like all he really needed was a distraction to put those pesky deaths out of his mind.

Solene, too, was fine enough. But again, we’ve seen the magic user with no control of her powers in a land that hates magic a million times before. The fact that others may want to use her powers for their own ends is no shocker and a theme that has been run to death. Like Gill, she’s a likable character on her own, it’s just that there wasn’t much there to make her stick out from the massive crowd of characters just like her who came before.

I think one of the best and most unique things about this book were the chapters from the antagonist’s perspective, the dragon’s perspective. This was probably one of the few major twists and interesting takes the story had to offer, and I thought the author pulled it off very well. The dragon had a very interesting voice, and hearing that side of the equation is definitely not something I had seen before in this type of book.

Overall, there’s nothing really wrong with this book. I’ve just read this type of swords and staffs fantasy adventure a million times before. The main characters didn’t have enough to make them stand out, and while the adventure was fun enough, it never seemed to dive any deeper than the surface level on any given theme. In many ways, it’s a beach read fantasy story. And that’s not an insult! Sometimes we all just need a solid, expected, non-challenging story to get us through the day. I think I had just hoped for more from this one.

Rating 6: A bit of a let down and not adding much that is new to the genre.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Dragonslayer” isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “Fantastical, Bingeable Backlist.”

Find “Dragonslayer” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Tigers, Not Daughters”

52776262._sx318_sy475_Book: “Tigers, Not Daughters” by Samantha Mabry

Publishing Info: Algonquin Young Readers, March 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: The Torres sisters dream of escape. Escape from their needy and despotic widowed father, and from their San Antonio neighborhood, full of old San Antonio families and all the traditions and expectations that go along with them. In the summer after her senior year of high school, Ana, the oldest sister, falls to her death from her bedroom window. A year later, her three younger sisters, Jessica, Iridian, and Rosa, are still consumed by grief and haunted by their sister’s memory. Their dream of leaving Southtown now seems out of reach. But then strange things start happening around the house: mysterious laughter, mysterious shadows, mysterious writing on the walls. The sisters begin to wonder if Ana really is haunting them, trying to send them a message—and what exactly she’s trying to say.
 
In a stunning follow-up to her National Book Award–longlisted novel All the Wind in the World, Samantha Mabry weaves an aching, magical novel that is one part family drama, one part ghost story, and one part love story.

Review: Give me a story with a good old fashioned haunting and I’ll probably be on board. Make that haunting a little deeper in meaning and I’ll be even happier. Sure, a random ghost is fine, but the ghosts of your past can be far more scary, given that’s the kind of haunting most people deal with in their day to day lives. I had this theme in mind when I bought “Tigers, Not Daughters” by Samantha Mabry, a story about sisters, loss, and unfinished business in both the spiritual sense and the literal sense.

“Tigers, Not Daughters” examines the life of the Torres sisters, girls who live in a house with their negligent and manipulative father, and who are grieving the loss of this oldest sister Ana, who died after falling out of a window. Jessica is filled with rage and making reckless decisions, while being caught up in an abusive romantic relationship. Iridian has pulled herself into her favorite book and into her own writing. And Rosa is trying to keep herself, and her sisters, together, while looking for a mysterious hyena that may or may not be roaming the neighborhood. All three perspectives of these sisters give us insight into how they’ve been coping with their loss, and how they are trying to move forward in spite of their own feelings of guilt and grief. We also occasionally get the perspectives of outsiders, usually from a chorus of neighbor boys who have been watching the Torres sisters for a long time. I felt that the way that Mabry interspersed all of these perspectives gave us an encompassing understanding of each sister and their emotional and mental states. The different ways each of them grieves are all very different, but they all felt realistic and well explored. And the ghostly presence of Ana adds a lot to their perspectives, seeing their personal interactions with her spirit and how that reflects how they left things before her death was clearly well thought out. I greatly enjoyed the haunting, an the unsettling descriptions of it.

What didn’t work as well for me was how rapid fire some of these perspective shifts could happen, as that tended to make the pacing feel a little rushed and stilted. We would be in Iridian’s perspective, then we’d jump to Jessica’s, then it would be Jessica’s again, then maybe the neighbor boy chorus. I also felt like the perspective that we were really lacking, and that we really could have used, was that of Ana. I definitely understand that by leaving her side of things out really emphasizes her absence, and how each sister feels like they were left not knowing Ana as much as they would have liked in the wake of her death, but the problem I had with that is that it made her feel more like an idea and just there to be a symbol, as opposed to a fully fleshed out person. And while I don’t think that Rafe, their father, needs to have much time spent on him, craven creep that he is, I feel like we could have known more about him. Was he this way before the girls’s mother died? Is his behavior a result of trauma, or mental illness, or sociopathy, or what? Again, we don’t need to focus in on him TOO much, but I think we could have known more.

So while it’s true that “Tigers, Not Daughters” didn’t quite explore as much as it could have for higher emotional impact, I did enjoy the straight forward haunting aspects of it. But something that also intrigues without much answer is that this is listed as the first in a series on Goodreads. Where could the Torres Sisters go from here? I’m kind of interested to find out where that ends up.

Rating 6: A ghost story about trauma, grief, and familial dysfunction, but it felt a little harried as it jumped from perspective to perspective without much time to process.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Tigers, Not Daughters” isn’t on many Goodreads lists yet (?!), but I think that it would fit in on “Latina Leads in YA and Middle Grade Fiction”, and “Latinx MG/YA Speculative Fiction”.

Find “Tigers, Not Daughters” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!