Kate’s Review: “We’ll Never Tell”

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Book: “We’ll Never Tell” by Wendy Heard

Publishing Info: Little, Brown/Ottaviano, May 2023

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

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

Book Description: An ambitious and juicy whodunit doused in Hollywood lore, perfect for readers of sexy summer thrillers like The Twin by Natasha Preston and The Agathas by Kathleen Glasgow and Liz Lawson.

No one at Hollywood High knows who’s behind We’ll Never Tell—a viral YouTube channel where the anonymous creators trespass behind the scenes of LA’s most intriguing locales. The team includes CASEY, quiet researcher and trivia champ; JACOB, voice narrator and video editor, who is secretly dating EDDIE, aspiring filmmaker; and ZOE, coder and breaking-and-entering extraordinaire.

Now senior year is winding down, and with their lives heading in different directions, the YouTubers vow to go out with a bang. Their last episode will be filmed at the infamous Valentini “murder house,” which has been left abandoned, bloodstained, and untouched since a shocking murder/suicide in 1972. When the teens break in, they capture epic footage. But someone trips an alarm, and it’s a mad dash to get out before the police arrive—at which point they realize only three of them escaped instead of four. Jacob is still inside, slain and bleeding out. Is his attack connected to the historic murder, or is one of their crew responsible?

A week of suspicions and cover-ups unfolds as Casey and her remaining friends try to stay alive long enough to solve murder mysteries past and present. If they do, their friendship may not survive. If they don’t, the house will claim more victims.

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

I had been waiting for a bit (it wasn’t really that long, but anticipation can make things feel long) for a new Wendy Heard book. I had enjoyed “She’s Too Pretty To Burn” so much for it’s weirdness, it’s sapphic love story, and the satire of art as ethos and the ramifications of that. When I read that she had a new YA thriller coming out called “We’ll Never Tell” I was excited, and when I read that the premise involved an abandoned notorious crime scene and four teens caught up in something far more dangerous than they realized, I was practically vibrating with glee. And while there are a lot of great ideas with this book, and while it was a quick read that kept me going, the anticipation leading up to it kind of slammed the breaks with what we got.

But first the good. Wendy Heard is an author I have really enjoyed in the past, and I think that part of it is that she really knows how to bring seedy and shiny aspects of Los Angeles to life. There is so much potential in this story, and I loved seeing four teens with a YouTube channel focus in on what is clearly an homage to the Los Feliz Murder Mansion, a piece of Los Angeles true crime lore as the basis for a book. I also liked that we could get a few different ways to tell the story. These include protagonist Casey, some flashbacks from Jacob leading up to the night he is attacked, and some epistolary pieces of newspaper articles involving the Valentini murder, the fallout, and some other things that involve the family and the victims. I am a huge sucker for books that use newspaper articles or other found footage or information devices. And mystery wise, I did like the twists and turns of the story, as well as the mystery of who attacked Jacob in the house. Heard does a pretty okay job of laying out clues and bringing in various potential motives and means. It’s ultimately a pretty straight forward thriller, and while I didn’t totally guess what was going on, I wasn’t totally blown away by various solutions as the puzzle pieces all started falling into place.

However, I think that one of the things that didn’t quite connect for me was our protagonist, Casey. To me it felt like there were so many things about her that weren’t quite fully explored or elaborated upon. We have her as the cynical, sullen girl with the tragic past, given that her mother was murdered and it went unsolved, and she has been living with her grandmother and they have been barely holding on financially. She has a chip on her shoulder about some of her friends (mostly Zoe; Zoe is wealthy and, while well meaning, is sometimes clueless about her financial situation versus Casey’s), she really hates ‘true crime’, and she doesn’t always feel like she totally fits in with her peer group. It tended to creep a bit towards ‘not like other girls’, as there were a lot of first person perspective reminders about how no one else GETS it. I wasn’t super invested in her as a character, nor was I interested in the potential relationship she has with Dallas, a descendent of the Valentini family whose mother is owner of the Murder House property. I also didn’t quite understand what the purpose of her tragic background was, as it’s there to make her tragic but doesn’t really apply to the plot as a whole. It felt a lot like backstory was trying to do a lot of character development heavy lifting, and that just doesn’t quite work in this book.

I had higher hopes for “We’ll Never Tell”. The set up was pretty great, but the execution didn’t really reinvent any wheels. Certainly not something I regret reading, but I wanted more.

Rating 6: Lots of potential and a great set up, but ultimately it’s pretty run of the mill with a bland main character.

Reader’s Advisory:

“We’ll Never Tell” is included on the Goodreads list “Most Anticipated May 2023 Young Adult Releases”.

Serena’s Review: “Beauty Reborn”

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Book: “Beauty Reborn” by Elizabeth Lowham

Publishing Info: Shadow Mountain Publishing, May 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher!

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

Book Description: Beauty’s life is the stuff of fairy tales. The youngest in her family, Beauty isn’t trying to catch Stephan’s eye. He is the lord baron’s heir, well above her family’s modest station, but when he kisses her hand at a party, Beauty is swept away by his charm, his wit, and his passionate declarations of love.

Hearts can be untamable creatures, especially when touched by the fires of first love, and Beauty doesn’t see the truth of Stephan’s intentions until it is too late. Until he stops asking for Beauty’s love—and simply takes it from her one night despite her refusal.

Beauty locks away the secret of what happened to her, and when her father emerges from the enchanted forest with a stolen rose in his hand and the tale of a vicious beast on his breath, Beauty seizes the chance to run as far from Stephan as possible.

She has some experience with beasts, after all. Certainly the one in the forest couldn’t be any worse than the one she’s already encountered.

Breaking the Beast’s curse might be the key to discovering her own path to healing—and finding the courage to allow herself to feel reborn.

Review: First of all, thank you so much to Shadow Mountain Publishing for sending me an ARC of this book! This was definitely one those cover lust situations when it came to my initial interest. I’m on the record as not necessarily loving covers with models or people, but I think this one is dramatic and lovely in all the best ways. It instantly conveys the general tone of the book and immediately draws the eye of the type of reader who I think will likely be interested in this one. When I read on to discover this was a “Beauty and the Beast” retelling, requesting it became a no-brainer!

Beauty’s first experiences with “love” left her traumatized and untrusting. So when her family’s destitution forces them to move from the city to a smaller house in the country, Beauty is relieved to escape the man of her nightmares. And when her father returns from the forest one night raving about a monster, Beauty sees an opportunity to make some use from the tatters that is her current life. But when she arrives at the magical castle and encounters this beastly being, Beauty begins to understand that we are more than the marks that life has left upon us. And that perhaps love can still be in her future.

While this book wasn’t a hit for me, I always want to start with the strengths. One thing that stood out right away was the general readability of the style of writing. The story was very approachable and I think the style of storytelling will appeal to a lot of readers. The use of flashbacks also keeps the pacing zipping along, allowing to Beauty to arrive at the castle and meet the Beast quite quickly. It’s a short book, as well, so this is definitely the kind of fast-moving read that will appeal to fairytale fantasy lovers who want something they can finish over a weekend.

I also liked the general premise of the book, that in many ways Beauty chose to go to the castle as a way of dealing with her own trauma. In theory, she was given a fairly solid arch of her own that she could develop while also falling in love with the Beast and undoing his curse. Unfortunately, this book really struggled to portray either the Beast or Beauty as nuanced, fully realized characters. Beauty’s narration and story felt oddly flat, never giving me anything unique or interesting to really latch on to. Many other authors have played on the starkness of the name “Beauty” to highlight how their version of the heroine is so much more than just a pretty face. Alas, here, this Beauty read just as one-note has her name would suggest.

Beast was even worse, sadly, in that we’re really given next to nothing to go on. He doesn’t have any POV, but there are plenty of other stories that have created interesting and fully realized love interests without getting into the head of the hero. But while he was sweet and kind enough, he was also supremely dull. Again, the term “one note” comes to mind. With both of these characters reading so lackluster on their own, it was almost inevitable that the romance between them would also be a bit of a let down.

Finally, there is really no world building to be found in this book. Randomly it’s mentioned that there are fairies in this world, and that, while rare, they are perfectly understood to just be around. But that’s it. I had a hard time really picturing many of the locations we visit, and ultimately just felt rather unmoored and struggling to fully commit to the story. Ultimately, I think fantasy fans who are very devoted to fairytale retellings miiiiiight want to check this one out, but I do think there are many better versions of “Beauty and the Beast” out there. It’s really too bad though, because there is always room for another excellent version! This just wasn’t it.

Rating 6: Unfortunately, the one-note characters and lackluster world-building left me underwhelmed with this retelling of “Beauty and the Beast.”

Reader’s Advisory:

“Beauty Reborn” is on this Goodreads list: YA Releases May 2023

Serena’s Review: “Wings Once Cursed and Bound”

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Book: “Wings Once Cursed and Bound” by Piper J. Drake

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Casablanca, April 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher!

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

Book Description:

My wings unbound, I am the Thai bird princess
The kinnaree
And no matter the cost,
I will be free.

Bennet Andrews represents a secret organization of supernatural beings dedicated to locating and acquiring mythical objects, tucking them safely away where they cannot harm the human race. When he meets Peeraphan Rahttana, it’s too late—she has already stepped into The Red Shoes, trapped by their curse to dance to her death.

But Bennet isn’t the only supernatural looking for deadly artifacts. And when the shoes don’t seem to harm Peeraphan, he realizes that he’ll have to save her from the likes of creatures she never knew existed. Bennett sweeps Peeraphan into a world of myth and power far beyond anything she ever imagined. There, she finds that magic exists in places she never dreamed—including deep within herself.

Review: First of all, thank you so much to the publisher, Sourcebooks Casablanca, for sending me an ARC of this book! I can say that the cover is just as fantastic in person as it seems from the small image above. Very unique and vibrant, just the sort of cover that would make me pause when browsing the aisles of the bookstore. Unfortunately, however, I didn’t enjoy the actual book itself nearly as much.

When a fellow dancer hands Peeraphan a box with beautiful red dancing shoes, she can’t resist their magnetic appeal. Now, however, she finds that these are not in fact ordinary shoes, but slippers that have been cursed to compel their wearer to dance themselves to death. Luckily for Peeraphan, her own magical heritage has given her some level of protection from the shoes themselves. But there are those who are hunting artifacts like these, and they don’t seem to care that the shoes are currently attached to a living woman. Another artifact hunter, a vampire named Bennet, has also been tracking the shoes, but after meeting Peeraphan, he realizes that much more is at stake than a simple recovering mission.

I initially requested this book because of the very intriguing premise of the Thai legend of the kinnaree. Urban fantasy has long been entrapped by the classic monsters like vampires, werewolves, ghosts, etc. So I was incredibly excited to see a story focused on a lesser known legend. I also know next to nothing about Thai folklore or the legend of the kinnaree. Unfortunately, I still don’t. I’m not exactly sure what happened here really. I feel like I was sold on this very specific premise, but then I started reading the book and it turned out to be…not that. Our main character, who also goes by Punch (dislike), knows next to nothing about her own abilities. And then as the book goes on, very little is added on to that. Instead, we were once again bogged down with vampires and the typical “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” ilk.

I also never felt like Punch was given much characterization. The shoes show up with in the first few pages, far too quickly for any good character work to have been established prior. And from there, the action quickly sweeps her along, but I’m never given any reason why I should care or be particularly invested in her story. Instead, I was mostly just frustrated from the start! She senses something strange about the shoes right off the bat, and then, of course, just puts them on anyways. It wasn’t a strong start for the character, and the story never seemed to recover from there.

I also didn’t really care for Bennet or the romance as a whole. Again, his character and story felt incredibly familiar, with very little new to say about vampires or any of the other beings we encounter. The love story also felt rushed towards the end, and I couldn’t tell exactly who the audience was for this book. It didn’t feel as if it could commit fully one way or another, reading at certain points as very YA and then at others trying to take on a more gritty, adult tone.

Overall, the entire thing really didn’t work for me. Part of the problem was that I had fairly high expectations going in. I was really excited by the idea of a new urban fantasy story that was pulling from lesser known legends, and then when the book failed to deliver on that, it was hard to latch on to anything else. I think there will be readers who enjoy it, however, especially those who really enjoy urban fantasies as a whole. It just wasn’t for me, sadly.

Rating 6: While it’s an acceptable urban fantasy on the whole, I feel like the primary premise, that of the legendary Thai kinnaree, was a complete let-down.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Wings Once Cursed and Bound” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on Fairytale Retellings in Contemporary Romance.

Serena’s Review: “Flowerheart”

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Book: “Flowerheart” by Catherine Bakewell

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, March 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: Clara’s magic has always been wild. But it’s never been dangerous. Then a simple touch causes poisonous flowers to bloom in her father’s chest.

The only way to heal him is to cast an extremely difficult spell that requires perfect control. And the only person willing to help is her former best friend, Xavier, who’s grown from a sweet, shy child into a mysterious and distant young man.

Xavier names a terrible price in return, knowing Clara will give anything to save her father. As she struggles to reconcile the new Xavier with the boy she once loved, she discovers their bargain is only one of the heavy secrets he’s hiding. And as she hunts for the truth, she instead finds the root of a terrible darkness that’s taken hold in the queendom—a darkness only Clara’s magic is powerful enough to stop.

Review: This is definitely one of those books that I first looked at because of the cover. It immediately stood out when I was scrolling through Edelweiss+ planning out my spring reading schedule. Tons of books with daggers and swords on the covers, lots of duo characters drawn in that cartoonish style that is so popular right now (not that I dislike this style per se, just there’s a lot of it). This cover’s unique art immediately stood out and had me clicking through to the description. So well done there!

Clara has always struggled to control her magic, so much so that the local leaders have presented her with a terrible ultimatum to prevent her from injuring others. But before she can go through with it, the worst happens and an innocent touch causes her magic to sprout poisonous plants in her father’s chest, dooming him to a painful and slow death. When an old friend offers to help her tame her magic in an attempt to save her father’s life, she doesn’t even hesitate in the face of the steep price he requests. But when it becomes clear that Xavier is caught up in much darker forces than she had previously known, Clara begins to wonder with just whom did she strike her perilous bargain?

One thing that I found interesting when I was looking into this book was that it was marketed as a “cottage core” fantasy novel. What does that even mean? As far as I’m aware “cottage core” is a style of interior decoration. I’m not sure how that translates to a genre of book? Digging deeper, I discovered that there seems to be a recent trend of labeling some books “cozy fantasy,” which I imagine is just a spin-off from the more popular “cozy mystery” subcategory. Based on the latter, I’d guess that a cozy fantasy novel would be a story that avoids darker themes or graphic descriptions. Like cozy mysteries, they would focus on lighter topics and have happy endings, essentially. All of this to say, while I could see how cozy fantasy would apply to this story, I still have no clue about “cottage core.” And honestly, I’m not a fan of that description; interior decoration styles and genres of books are just not the same thing. Sorry, not sorry.

Anyways, that rant aside, I can definitely see how this book could fall into the “cozy” category. Overall, it does stay on the lighter side of things and the plot wraps up with a nice bow at the end. But this book also highlights why a lot of cozy mysteries don’t work for me either. Look, I don’t need tragedy around every corner and tons of graphic violence, but if you paint in only bright colors, without any shades of grey, the entire thing starts to just lose focus and interest. Clara is fine. Xavier is fine. This world and magic are fine. But I didn’t care about any of them.

I also found the magic system and world to be barely fleshed out at all. Towards the second third of the book, we begin to learn about a magical illness that is going around that leaves its victims comatose. This was the first thing to trigger my interest, but even that quickly sank into the quagmire of dullness that I found this read. Nothing was objectively bad, but it all was just so flat feeling that even small points of interest quickly faded away.

There was also an attempt by the author to deal with mental illness, particularly depression and anxiety. And while I applaud the effort, I don’t think it quite hit the mark. At points, it felt incredibly over-simplified and the metaphors heavy-handed. And then Clara has this weird relationship to her own magic where she speaks to it as a living, thinking being using this strange internal dialogue, which I wasn’t a fan of. It turns out that this particular choice plays a larger role later in the story, but that was still too late to save my reading experience through which I had been perpetually annoyed by this.

Overall, this book wasn’t for me. I do think that readers looking for something in the cozy category may enjoy this one more, but I’ve started coming to the conclusion that “cozy” any genre is just not my cup of tea.

Rating 6: Perhaps other readers looking for just a quick, cozy read will enjoy this, but I found everything from the world-building to characterization to be a bit too watered down to enjoy.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Flowerheart” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Books that inspired or are similar to Studio Ghibli / Hayao Miyazaki films and CozySFF

Kate’s Review: “The Spite House”

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Book: “The Spite House” by Johnny Compton

Publishing Info: Tor Nightfire, February 2023

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

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

Book Description: Eric Ross is on the run from a mysterious past with his two daughters in tow. Having left his wife, his house, his whole life behind in Maryland, he’s desperate for money–it’s not easy to find safe work when you can’t provide references, you can’t stay in one place for long, and you’re paranoid that your past is creeping back up on you.

When he comes across the strange ad for the Masson House in Degener, Texas, Eric thinks they may have finally caught a lucky break. The Masson property, notorious for being one of the most haunted places in Texas, needs a caretaker of sorts. The owner is looking for proof of paranormal activity. All they need to do is stay in the house and keep a detailed record of everything that happens there. Provided the house’s horrors don’t drive them all mad, like the caretakers before them.

The job calls to Eric, not just because there’s a huge payout if they can make it through, but because he wants to explore the secrets of the spite house. If it is indeed haunted, maybe it’ll help him understand the uncanny power that clings to his family, driving them from town to town, making them afraid to stop running. A terrifying Gothic thriller about grief and death and the depths of a father’s love, Johnny Compton’s The Spite House is a stunning debut by a horror master in the making.

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

I love seeing what other horror reviewers and horror minded people are all abuzz about. It’s a nice way to get the fingers on the pulse, and while I’ve had success and failings when it comes to following these trends, I really do like to try and cast a wide net for titles on various social media and online platforms. This is how I came upon Johnny Compton’s “The Spite House”, a debut horror novel about a strange and haunted house that a family moves into. The owner has secrets, but so does the family, consisting of Eric and his daughters Dess and Stacy. All of this combined with the hype made me pretty excited for this book. But I can solidly say that this one was pretty mixed for me.

But I will start with what worked first! Compton really knows how to amp up the suspense factor in this book, in two different ways. The first way is the obvious suspense, which is about the haunted Spite House. I loved some of the really freaky ghost moments in this book, whether it was described imagery inside and outside of the house (spectres through windows, hell yes), and the way that our characters, be it Eric or Dess or whomever, would be in a darkened area in the house and would have a moment that would just make my blood run cold. I love a well done haunted house story, and man oh man does this book have some really well done haunted house moments. The other less obvious suspenseful angle was the mystery as to why Eric, Dess, and Stacy are on the run and trying to be incognito. All the reader knows is that they are driving cross country, trying to stay under the radar, and worried that they are going to be spotted or noticed. Compton takes his time to carefully reveal what is going on here. And let me tell you, when we DID find out what it was? My mind was blown. Part of me was like ‘is this a little too out of left field?’ But the louder part of me was like ‘no, shut up, you love this’. And I did.

But this does kind of segue into the aspects that didn’t work as well for me. The first issue is the pacing of this book. I kind of mentioned above that the reveal of why Eric and his kids are running just blew my mind. And it did. Like, I really liked it. BUT, by the time we got to it, we were a good three fourths into the book, with a lot of teasing and drawing out leading up to it. I appreciate holding cards to the vest, but sometimes curiosity can turn to frustration and impatience. And then things kind of got into a whirlwind right before the end, followed by a bit of a drawn out post-climax. Along with that, there are a lot of perspectives in this book. Some of them we get to see multiple times, which makes sense, we absolutely need to get into Eric’s head, and Dess and Stacy’s heads. But there were also the perspectives of some side characters that we only spent the minimal amount of time with, and it didn’t feel necessary, really. If anything it contributed to the lagging pace.

The above said, overall I thought that “The Spite House” had some really strong bits. I definitely want to see what else Johnny Compton comes out with, because the horror moments are unnerving as all get out.

Rating 6: Eerie and unnerving, “The Spite House” is a tense haunted house story. The pacing could have picked up a bit and the number of perspectives get a bit overdone, but the pay off is mostly worth it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Spite House” is included on the Goodreads list “2023 Gothic”.

Serena’s Review: “A Broken Blade”

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Book: “A Broken Blade” by Melissa Blair

Publishing Info: Union Square Co., August 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

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

Book Description: Keera is a killer. As the King’s Blade, she is the most talented spy in the kingdom. And the king’s favored assassin. When a mysterious figure moves against the Crown, Keera is called upon to hunt down the so-called Shadow. She tracks her target into the magical lands of the Fae, but Faeland is not what it seems . . . and neither is the Shadow. Keera is shocked by what she learns, and can’t help but wonder who her enemy truly is: the King that destroyed her people or the Shadow that threatens the peace?
As she searches for answers, Keera is haunted by a promise she made long ago, one that will test her in every way. To keep her word, Keera must not only save herself, but an entire kingdom.

Review: I have a confession: I’m kind of a BookTok snob. On one hand, this is simply laziness and I’ve never spent the time to really dive into this medium. But on the other hand, from what I’ve seen, it seems like the kind of platform where a very small number of books dominate the recommendations. Obviously, this is great for those books, but this focus on a small number of books means that while some get tons of exposure, less well known works slip through the cracks. And, of course, we all know my track record with these highly promoted books…for some reason I just can’t get on the same page as many fans!

Keera’s world is, if not a happy place, at least a well order one, one in which she clearly knows the role she plays, dark as it is. She is an assassin and spy, so skilled that she is the King’s favorite. Of course, this has lead her down dark paths that she struggles to live with. But, such is her world. However, when she is sent hunt down a strange person known as the Shadow, she must venture outside of her typical boundaries and into Faeland. There, she discovers truths that shake her to her very core, forcing her to reimagine the world she thought she was living within.

If you look at Goodreads, this book is rated pretty highly: firmly in the four star range. And, honestly, I can see why. This book reads as the sort of thing that was built to sell. Pick a favorite fantasy trope, and there’s a good chance it’s in this book. Want to play book bingo? This book’s the one for you. Paint by numbers plotting and characters? Check, check, check! It’s not that anything is outrageously bad, it’s just all so very, very familiar that I found myself almost immediately struggling to want to continue reading. Individually, I get why many of these elements are appealing (I mean, on their own I like most of these tropes too), but doesn’t there come a point where readers can feel the pandering a bit too clearly? This book felt like that to me. It was built to sell, and I could still see the marketing department’s fingerprints all over it.

But, like I said, there is nothing actively bad about it. The writing doesn’t qualify as bad, but it is definitely on the more wooden side, too often falling back on telling its readers how to think and feel than showing them or leading them to certain conclusions in more subtle ways. The characters, too, had elements that could have made them interesting, like Keera’s struggle with alcoholism. But this telling sort of writing let these character aspects fall flat. Beyond that, Keera fell a bit too close to the “not like other girls” line, and her character arc never really felt like it challenged her at all.

Even themes that could have had some weight seemed to deflate when actually explored. The story flirts with an interesting discussion of colonialism before quickly subsiding back into the straight-forward plotting that makes up the majority of the story. I don’t know how many synonyms for “flat” I can use at this point, because the worldbuilding was also lackluster. I often had more questions than answers, and the bits of descriptions we do come by all feel fairly generic.

As you can see, I don’t have much positive to say about this book. I can’t point to any one thing that was actively bad, but it was definitely one of those books that felt like a chore to read from start to very-predictable finish. Fans of these tropes may like it (and must, given the Goodreads rating!), but honestly, they all felt tired out to me, and there are better examples all over the place of any one of them.

Rating 6: Per the usual, the hype let me down and all I found here was more of the very, very familiar same.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Broken Blade” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should be on Assassins.

Serena’s Review: “The Luminaries”

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Book: “The Luminaries” by Susan Dennard

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, November 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: ALA, Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: Hemlock Falls isn’t like other towns. You won’t find it on a map, your phone won’t work here, and the forest outside town might just kill you.

Winnie Wednesday wants nothing more than to join the Luminaries, the ancient order that protects Winnie’s town—and the rest of humanity—from the monsters and nightmares that rise in the forest of Hemlock Falls every night.

Ever since her father was exposed as a witch and a traitor, Winnie and her family have been shunned. But on her sixteenth birthday, she can take the deadly Luminary hunter trials and prove herself true and loyal—and restore her family’s good name. Or die trying.

But in order to survive, Winnie enlists the help of the one person who can help her train: Jay Friday, resident bad boy and Winnie’s ex-best friend. While Jay might be the most promising new hunter in Hemlock Falls, he also seems to know more about the nightmares of the forest than he should. Together, he and Winnie will discover a danger lurking in the forest no one in Hemlock Falls is prepared for.

Not all monsters can be slain, and not all nightmares are confined to the dark.

Review: I’ve been a bit hit and miss with Susan Dennard’s work in the past. I was first introduced to her several years ago at a panel at ALA, and I really liked what she had to say about writing young adult fantasy fiction. But I’ve never quite connected to her actual work. But it had been a few years since I’ve given her a shot, and I thought this new book sounded interesting. Plus, it had the kind of dark fantasy, spooky cover that I’ve been into lately.

When Winnie’s father was exposed as a spy and a traitor, her life went off the rails. Now, she sees only one way to restore hers and her family’s reputation: she must enter the Luminary trials and reclaim her place as a hunter of monsters. But the trials themselves are deadly, even without the fraught internal politics of the hunter families. And this year, something even darker is lurking in the woods. An unknown evil that no one has faced before.

So, I’ll just get it out of the way right away: this book wasn’t a hit for me. But there were also several factors involved that skewed my opinion, so I’m definitely not saying that it was a bad book in and of itself. For one thing, when I picked this book up, I somehow missed the reference to phones in the book summary and was completely taken aback to discover it was a contemporary/urban fantasy story. So maybe it was just a mood thing or my general preference for non-contemporary fantasy stories, but right of the bat I did struggle to immerse myself in this mash up of a world with an evil forest but also kids riding around on 4-wheelers.

Secondly, the book is written in third person present tense. This has to be one of my least favorite styles of writing. It ends up with the story reading in this bizarre tone where you have sentences like “Winnie tells Mom that she’s heading to school.” That’s…just weird sounding, not least because of the strangeness of the “Mom” thing. If you’re going to do third person, then do third person! Only a first person narrator would refer to the mother as “Mom” in the general telling of the story. So, yes, as you can see, I had a hard time getting past that.

But, of course, that wasn’t really the book’s fault, and readers who enjoy contemporary/urban young adult fantasy and don’t mind this style of writing will likely not struggle in the same way I did. I will say, the summary does an effective job here. You really know about all you need to know about the book from what you see above, and the story neatly checks off plot points as it goes along. I didn’t find much in the way of shocks or real twists to the story. I thought most of the reveals were fairly telegraphed early in the book.

If I did get caught up with questions, they had more to do with some of the mechanics of the world-building. For example, it is emphasized that maintaining the population of hunters who can fight these monsters is paramount, so everyone understands they are expected to marry and have kids early. But then, on the other hand, you have teenagers participating in these deadly trials. Which…just logically makes no sense. Teenagers aren’t fully grown physically, and they also, naturally, have less experience under their belts. If there are concerns about keeping up a dwindling population, it seems counter-intuitive to choose this age for a deadly trial system, an age that sets your own kids up for a higher mortality rate.

Anyways…yes, this book wasn’t for me. But I know there are a lot of fans of this author out there, so I’m also not saying this book won’t appeal to a lot of general YA fantasy fans. The story is action-packed, and I did like the commitment to the body horror of these monsters. There’s also the rather typical YA romance at its heart, which may also appeal to many readers. If you’re a fan of YA urban fantasy and like stories focused on trials and competitions, this might be for you! If so, don’t forget to enter our giveaway to win an ARC copy!

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Rating 6: Perhaps if it hadn’t been written in third person present tense, I would have liked it more. But I just found myself getting caught up on too many things to enjoy this one.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Luminaries” can be found on these Goodreads lists: SFF books with a forest setting

Serena’s Review: “Son of the Salt Chaser”

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Book: “Son of the Salt Chaser” by A.S. Thornton

Publishing Info: CamCat Books, November 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: After her desert-transforming wish, Emel follows Saalim to Madinat Almulihi to reclaim all she has lost. But the seaside city is not what she expected. When she is tasked with assisting the palace healer, she is faced daily with the reminder that Saalim—focused only on seeking the revenge of those who killed his family—does not remember her at all.

Cursing the magic that destroyed her love and brought her to an unwelcoming city, Emel regrets her decision to leave her settlement. That is, until she meets Kas. Though inscrutable, he is the first person to help her forget her past, and the pull of finding happiness with him tempts her from the life she wished for with Saalim.

But darkness waits in the desert, and not all people in Madinat Almulihi are what they seem. When Emel understands she is entangled in the fate of the city—and of Saalim—she is faced with the realization that magic may be the most powerful card in her hand. It might be the only way to save all that she loves, but if she plays her hand wrong, it could destroy everything.

Previously Reviewed: “Daughter of the Salt King”

Review: This was a highly anticipated read for me this fall. “Daughter of the Salt King” was a great surprise last year, blowing past all of my expectations of it. It also ended on a fairly massive cliffhanger, with one of our main character’s left with no memories of recent events and the other adjusting to a completely new world of choice and freedom. So it’s no surprise that I dove right into this book as soon as I could!

Emel always knew that playing with magic was quite literally tempting fate, leaving her wish to the interpretation of a mercurial god. But even knowing this, she never anticipated ending up where she is now: leaving the only home she’s know to follow the love of her life, a man who doesn’t even know her anymore. And once she reaches his city, she realizes that with freedom comes many scary choices and responsibilities. How can she make a life for her and her sister in this strange land and amount these strange people? For his part, while Saalim can’t deny the strange pull he feels towards Emel, he also has other challenges facing him and his city. A powerful threat is looming, can Emel and Saalim find their way back to each to other in time to face it together?

I hate writing this sort of review most of all. It’s always disappointing to finish a book and realize that I can’t give it a good review. But it’s all the worse when the book is the second part in a duology that I had been loving up to that point. Given how much I enjoyed the first book, I had extremely high hopes for this book. And man, did those hopes crash and burn.

To start with a few positives: the writing itself is still quite strong. The same general tone and feel of the story remained consistent with the first book, and when I first started this book, I was greatly enjoying this general feel in the same way I did before. It also starts out in an interesting way, picking up immediately after the events of the first book, following Emel and Saalim as they make their way across the desert to Saalim’s home city. Here, the story felt familiar and enjoyably, with action, the beginnings of a mystery, and Saalim and Emel awkwardly stumbling around each other, with Emel trying to get Saalim to remember who she is. But then we reach the city, and it’s like the story slams head first into a wall.

I really can’t emphasize enough how abrupt of a negative shift this book takes within the first quarter of the story. All of a sudden, the pace of the story dies. Emel and Saalim are separated. And nothing happens for long spells of time, with only the barest crumbs given to keep readers invested. It immediately began to feel as if the author had no clue what to do with this second book. The story felt floundering, with no real stakes and random subplots being thrown around here and there. Emel and Saalim are also reduced to shadows of their former selves. I honestly had a hard time recognizing these characters as the ones I enjoyed so much before.

The nature of their relationship was always going to prove difficult (this is exactly why I’m always extra nervous of “amnesia” storylines), but it’s handled extremely poorly here. Emel’s behavior never makes much sense. Saalim keeps seeking her out and giving obvious hints that he is struggling to understand his connection to her. But instead of trying to draw this feeling out, encouraging Saalim to remember, Emel is standoffish and cold. It makes zero sense for her character to behave this way. Even when we’re in her head, we get no explanation for her strange decision making here. It may seem like a small thing, but these are the sorts of strange character arcs and decisions that had me struggling to enjoy this book much at all.

Towards the final 10% or so of the book, the story finally comes together. But this was way too little and way too late to save my reading experience. I was incredibly disappointed by this book. And, looking back, I have no idea why this wasn’t left as a simple stand-alone story. The first book, with a few minor changes towards the end, could have been neatly wrapped up into one perfectly enjoyable package. Such a shame that that’s not what happened, and now we have a duology that, as a whole, I’d struggle to recommend to other readers.

Rating 6: Incredibly disappointing almost to the point of being unrecognizable from the lovely book that came before it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Son of the Salt Chaser” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should be on Desert Fantasy.

Kate’s Review: “Blackwater”

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Book: “Blackwater” by Jeannette Arroyo & Ren Graham

Publishing Info: Henry Holt & Co. (BYR), July 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

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

Book Description: Tony Price is a popular high school track star and occasional delinquent aching for his dad’s attention and approval. Eli Hirsch is a quiet boy with a chronic autoimmune disorder that has ravaged his health and social life. What happens when these two become unlikely friends (and a whole lot more . . .) in the spooky town of Blackwater, Maine? Werewolf curses, unsavory interactions with the quarterback of the football team, a ghostly fisherman haunting the harbor, and tons of high school drama.

Co-illustrated by Jeannette Arroyo and Ren Graham, who alternate drawing chapters in their own unique and dynamic styles, Blackwater combines the spookiness of Anya’s Ghost with the irreverent humor of Nimona.

Review: I’m admittedly a bit of a slacker lately when it comes to graphic novels, and I am making a promise to myself that in 2023 I am going to try and do a better job of reading more graphics. But when I saw “Blackwater” by Jeannette Arroyo and Ren Graham on my Goodreads feed, it caught my eye, and I made sure to get my hands on it for 2022. It has a lot of great things going for it: a horror graphic novel! With POC and queer and trans characters! With a spooky cover right off the bat!

So first, the werewolf stuff. Werewolves aren’t a subgenre I dislike by any means, I just don’t find myself reading or consuming much around this kind of monster (that said, read “Such Sharp Teeth!” by Rachel Harrison!). But I do know when a werewolf story has hamfisted metaphors as opposed to well done ones, and “Blackwater” has a mix of both. For one, this isn’t REALLY werewolves in a traditional sense as it’s more about emotional state than moon phases. Once Tony, one of our protagonists, gets bit, he’s turning into a wolf whenever his feelings get the better of him, usually rage. Which is, frankly, a bit obvious and a little bit of a cheat to say it’s werewolves when it’s not REALLY at the heart of the matter werewolves, mythos wise. But on the flip side, there is a good exploration of grief and loss in this book that does also tie into wolf transformation, but also as it applies to other characters and the hardships they are facing. One protagonist Tony is grieving a broken relationship with his father or a changing friendship with a childhood friend, just as other protagonist Eli is grieving a strained relationship with his mother because of how she responds to his chronic illness. Both of them feel lonely in their own ways, and that fits into the overall metaphor well too. There is also a side story involving Eli’s ability to see ghosts and a ghostly fisherman who has some unfinished business on Earth that I found to be the most effective storyline, but I don’t want to go into why I found it as such as it will be pretty spoiler heavy if I did. But let’s just say that I did find myself crying a bit with this whole plot line.

But here is the aspect that didn’t work for me and I wish it had: the romance between Tony and Eli. I get what the authors were trying to do, having them slowly start to fall for each other after each having preconceived notions about the other, and having them both grow as people in a coming of age tale where their romance is just the icing on the cake. But the issue I had with this was 1) I didn’t feel like I got to know either of them well enough to get super invested, and 2) there is a moment that REALLY derailed it for me, and I need to talk about it a bit so I’m going to do a

So early on in the book, Tony is still pretty chummy with (though admittedly outgrowing) his childhood best friend Biff. Biff is a complete jerk, and he bullies Eli for being weird and solitary and different, and Tony, though he doesn’t approve, feels like he can’t push back against his friend. He doesn’t participate, but he doesn’t stop it either. He also offhandedly mentions to Eli that he has asthma and has to use an inhaler before his track meets. Eli, angry that Tony didn’t stand up for him, takes his inhaler out of his bag and throws it into the woods. Then Tony has an asthma attack during the track meet, to the point an ambulance has to be called. He ends up just fine, but still, that’s pretty serious. And when it does come out that Eli did this, there is anger on Tony’s part, but he is pretty much told that ‘hey, Eli made a mistake, but you should forgive him’ and that is that, and I just…. That didn’t sit well with me. I don’t have asthma so I’m not going to speak for those who do, but I do have memories of my younger sister having to be up at 3am with a nebulizer multiple times a week because of her asthma making it hard for her to breathe, so for this kind of thing to be dismissed as a slip up versus something that is potentially VERY dangerous was hard to swallow. I don’t need Eli to be a villain over it, because yes, people do make mistakes when they are in pain and it can be nuanced! But it made it hard for me to be rooting for them as a couple when Eli did this and then kept it a secret for so long. Add in a vague lack of fleshed out chemistry and it just didn’t justify the romantic reconciliation. If there was more time to give me a relationship chemistry based reason for them to overcome this I could have been more forgiving, probably. I’ve done it before! But I just didn’t see the chemistry or character development for that.

And I do want to mention the artwork, mostly because the two authors, Arroyo and Graham, alternate taking on the illustrations as the story is told. I liked the round robin-esque aspect of this and the way that two creators come together to tell a story through their own aesthetics. It doesn’t really add anything to the story at hand, but it’s a fun idea and I think they executed it well. I also liked their styles overall. They hit the right tone, with scary elements when needed but sweet designs as well.

(source: blackwatercomic.tumblr.com)

So when it comes to werewolf themes and romance I thought that “Blackwater” was a bit lackluster, but the deeper themes of grief and loss were well conceived and constructed. Ultimately I’d say it was ‘okay’.

Rating 6: It’s an okay werewolf tale with some decent themes about grief that work, but the romance was so so when I had hoped I’d be more invested. Plus there’s a moment that I thought was pretty unforgivable that’s glossed over.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Blackwater” is included on the Goodreads lists “Trans YA Fiction”, and “BIPOC Boy MC in YA Fantasy/SciFi/Mystery”.

Book Club Review: “In a Midnight Wood”

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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 “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: “In a Midnight Wood” by Ellen Hart

Publishing Info: Minotaur Books, September 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

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

Book Bingo Prompt: A cozy mystery.

Book Description: Beloved heroine Jane Lawless finds that some secrets don’t stay buried forever in Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster Ellen Hart’s In a Midnight Wood, the 27th mystery in this cultishly popular series.

Minnesota private investigator Jane Lawless is headed to the small town of Castle Lake for a little getaway. She and Cordelia plan to visit an old friend, participate in an arts festival, and look into a cold case that has recently come on Jane’s radar–thanks to a podcast Jane is now involved in which looks into Minnesota cold cases.

In Castle Lake, a high school senior named Sam went missing in 1999. Everyone thought he ran away, though the town rumor mill has always claimed the father killed him. In present day, within a week of his 20th high school reunion, Sam’s remains are found. People who knew Sam, and those around him, will be in town for the much anticipated reunion. It’s up to Jane to sort friend from foe, before it’s too late.

Kate’s Thoughts

Outside of the “Tita Rosie Kitchen Mysteries”, I don’t really do many ‘cozy mysteries’ when it comes to the litany of mystery sub genres. I’ve dabbled here and there, but it’s not really my thing. But Book Club is always making me challenge myself, and when it was a cozy mystery prompt, I went in with an open mind. Oddly enough, even though I’ve worked for multiple public library systems in Minnesota, I had never heard of local author Ellen Hart or her character Jane Lawless, so “In a Midnight Wood” was completely new to me as a title and series. I had no idea what to expect in terms of specifics, but had some preconceived notions based on the sub genre, and I was, mostly correct.

“In a Midnight Wood” has a lot of really charming elements to it. The most obvious are our main character Jane and her ride or die best friend Cordelia. I really enjoyed their friendship and they way they interacted with each other, and I liked that we were getting a story about two aging lesbian best friends who have each other’s backs, but also call each other out on their nonsense. While I was jumping into a series 20+ books in, I still felt like I got to know Jane and Cordelia and who they were as people in spite of the fact I have missed OODLES of backstory. I also, being a Minnesotan, really liked the Minnesota setting in the fictional town of Castle Lake. It just felt like an outstate Minnesota town, with the insular community, the main street area with beloved local businesses, and the descriptions of chain of lakes food specialties, from burger joints to mentions of some favorite local beers (Grain Belt forever!)

On the flip side, the mystery and plot itself was fairly generic and run of the mill. I had a pretty good idea of what was going on, and the beats of twists and red herrings and reveals were fairly easy to spot. It also felt a little out of time in some ways, as the mystery at hand involves people who graduated in 1999, but as adults sound less like elder millennials and a bit older than that. And finally, and this is purely reflective of the choice we as a book club made and not on the book itself, jumping into a long running series twenty plus books in may have been a bit of a mistake. Not one that derailed the experience or anything! But there were definitely references to past characters long gone that seemed meaningful, but were meaningless to me as a reader with no context.

Overall, “In a Midnight Wood” was an entertaining choice for Book Club. I don’t think I’m going to tackle the series as a whole, but it made for a good discussion.

Kate’s Rating 6: I liked Jane and her friend Cordelia, and I loved the Minnesota references and location, but the mystery itself was pretty run of the mill. And jumping into a series 20+ books in was probably a mistake.

Book Club Questions

  1. Have you read any cozy mysteries before this book? If so, how does this one fit the genre and what did you think of it within said genre? If not, do you think you’d read others?
  2. What did you think of the setting that Hart created? Did the town and the people there engage your interest?
  3. This series started in the late 1980s and has been going on ever since. If you haven’t read this series, how do you imagine it has changed as time has gone on, and if you have, what have you noticed about the changes in the characters and their journeys?
  4. Do you think you will continue on in this series, be it going back to the beginning, or picking and choosing plots that sound interesting to you?
  5. Jane has her own true crime podcast. Do you listen to any podcasts, true crime or otherwise?
  6. There are a lot of awesome bits about food in this book. Did any of the foods stand out to you as something you’d want to eat?

Reader’s Advisory

“In a Midnight Wood” isn’t included on any Goodreads lists that I could find, but it would probably fit in on “Small Towns With Secrets”.

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