Serena’s Review: “The Grimrose Girls”

Book: “The Grimrose Girls” by Laura Pohl

Publishing Info: Sourebooks Fire, October 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Four troubled friends, One murdered girl… and a dark fate that may leave them all doomed.

After the mysterious death of their best friend, Ella, Yuki, and Rory are the talk of their elite school, Grimrose Académie. The police ruled it a suicide, but the trio are determined to find out what really happened.

When Nani Eszes arrives as their newest roommate, it sets into motion a series of events they couldn’t have imagined. As the girls retrace their friend’s last steps, they uncover dark secrets about themselves and their destinies, discovering they’re all cursed to repeat the brutal and gruesome endings to their stories until they can break the cycle.

This contemporary take on classic fairytales reimagines heroines as friends attending the same school. While investigating the murder of their best friend, they uncover connections to their ancient fairytale curses and attempt to forge their own fate before it’s too late.

Review: This book had a few things going for it that bumped it up my “to be requested” list fairly quickly. First, boarding school books. Blame “Harry Potter” if you will or some weird American obsession with the British (often) boarding schools in general. I also love, love, love this cover! It quickly conveys many aspects of the books without the reader even needing to read the summary. Fairytale like artwork, girl squad, diversity (at least from what we can see of different body shapes being featured.) Plus, it has a hint of creepiness that points to the murder mystery at the heart of the story. So, with all of that together, I dove right in with high hopes.

As close as friends and roommates can be, Ella, Yuki, and Rory are determined that the police have it wrong: their roommate didn’t kill herself and something more nefarious is at work. When they get a new roommate, things are kicked into another gear altogether. Now, they realize it’s not simply a matter of solving a potential murder, but they must unravel the world of fairtyales and magic that they are all caught up within. Turns out, each is destined to re-live a classic tale and fall prey to the dark curses that seem to always exist at the heart of such tales.

I’ll put it right out there, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I wanted to. But it’s also one of those books that I do think will appeal to a bunch of different readers, so I fully expect opinions to vary quite a bit on this one. I will immediately give it props for tons of representation. But I will also side-eye that a bit with the fact that it did seem like the author was trying to cover literally every single base. And yes, I’m all for increasing diversity in books in every way. But I don’t think every book should be trying to cover every single angle itself. It not only is impossible, but it does a disservice to each individual character represented, as jamming a book too packed ultimately reduces page time for any one character, thus reducing that character to a few (often well-known and, if not harmful in anyway, still fairly stereotypical) key traits. Nothing raised my eyebrows at all, but while I give props to the author for the attempt, the sheer number of characters as a whole did significantly reduce my enjoyment of this book.

And this is part of the reason I think it will be a book with divided tastes. I’ve come to realize that I generally struggle with books that have more than two POVs. There are a few exceptions, like “Six of Crows,” but really, not many. Here I had the same problems I’ve always had. The story is so busy jumping from character to character that I never have the time to form any type of emotional investment in any one character. As a reader who enjoys books mostly due to characterization, this is a big problem for me. This many POVs also significantly hinders the pacing of a book. You have to spend so much time in the onset setting up each individual character, that the reader must get through a good number of pages before anything resembling a plot begins to unfold. Here, for example, we only had one chapter from each character really describing or even experience their grief over their lost friend. Because there are so many characters to get through, I could never feel the strength of that connection as just as quickly the story needed to move on with each of them.

I did enjoy the various fairytales and the ways they were threaded into the story. There were enough clues here and there that were fun to spot (they weren’t well-hidden or anything, but I enjoyed it all the same). The main mystery, however, again suffered from this over-abundance of plot and characters. There were so many things to get through that there were times when I felt like the death of their friend was almost forgotten. I’ll also say that by the end I didn’t feel as if I was given enough answers to any of the questions presented. All of the character kind of just took all of the magical elements in stride without batting an eyelash. And the revelations that did come were few and far between.

I’m starting to question my own selection process here. I think I need to start taking a second thought before diving into these large cast POV books. I’ll also say that my history with boarding school books is rather spotted, so maybe that too shouldn’t be as much of an “auto request.” Lastly, I don’t know what it is, but the publisher Sourcebooks Fire must have a great book description writer because they are always putting out books that I get super hyped about but then don’t end up enjoying that much. Which is too bad.

Rating 6: Too many things packed into one book reduced my enjoyment of all of them individually and as a whole.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Grimrose Girls” is on these Goodreads lists: 2021 Queer SFF and Boarding School Mysteries.

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

Serena’s Review: “The Vanishing Stair”

Book: “The Vanishing Stair” by Maureen Johnson

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, January 2012

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: Just as Stevie feels she’s on the cusp of putting it together, her parents pull her out of Ellingham academy.

For her own safety they say. She must move past this obsession with crime. Now that Stevie’s away from the school of topiaries and secret tunnels, and her strange and endearing friends, she begins to feel disconnected from the rest of the world. At least she won’t have to see David anymore. David, who she kissed. David, who lied to her about his identity—son of despised politician Edward King. Then King himself arrives at her house to offer a deal: He will bring Stevie back to Ellingham immediately. In return, she must play nice with David. King is in the midst of a campaign and can’t afford his son stirring up trouble. If Stevie’s at school, David will stay put.

The tantalizing riddles behind the Ellingham murders are still waiting to be unraveled, and Stevie knows she’s so close. But the path to the truth has more twists and turns than she can imagine—and moving forward involves hurting someone she cares for.

Previously Reviewed: “Truly, Devious”

Review: While I do enjoy mystery novels, they’re typically of the historical mystery variant. That or adult forensic crime stories, ala the “Temperance Brennan” series and such. That being the case, “Truly, Devious,” a YA mystery was a new thing for me. I listened to it as an audiobook and ended up really enjoying it, even if I was able to predict a few of the twists and turns. And then…it ended on a cliffhanger. It took me a bit, but now I’m finally back to see what mysteries will be revealed here! Spoiler alert: not enough.

Things have not gone to plan. After Stevie pinned so many hopes on attempting to solve the mysteries at the heart of Ellingham academy, her parents pull her away. But all is not lost when David’s father, the reviled Edward King, arrives with a proposition: Stevie returns to Ellingham in order to placate his troublesome son. Stevie’s parents, big supporters and donators to King’s causes, are willing enough to agree to this and thus Stevie returns. But all is not right at Ellingham and the prices keep going up on the bars for entrance into the academy’s dark past.

I’m going to get this out of the way, I had a lot of problems with this book. I can essentially put them in two categories, however: problems I had with this book in general and problems that might be simply due to me being a 30-something woman reading a YA mystery novel. That being the case, take much of this with a grain of salt, especially if you’re a young adult who loves this type of book and series.

Because, yes, there are still some really solid things about it. Stevie herself is an interesting leading lady. The author excels especially at the portrayal of Stevie’s anxiety and how it affects her day-t0-day life. I thought this topic was handled in such an important, normalizing way, addressing the real challenges posed to those who live with anxiety like this. Most importantly, while Stevie lives with anxiety, it doesn’t define her and the book never treats it as some sort of shameful flaw. It’s all very well-done, and I think sends a powerful message to readers who also live with anxiety.

I also like the underlying mystery at the heart of the story. But this is also where I get into one of my biggest problems with this book, and one that I think I would have regardless of my age reading it. The Ellingham murder/disappearance story is so captivating that it starts to wash-out the events happening in the current setting of the story. What’s more, we again get very, very few answers and end on yet another cliffhanger. I don’t think there is anything in this book, or in this bigger mystery itself, that justified this being a trilogy rather than a duology. By doing this, every aspect of the book feels stretched thing and watered down. It’s the epitome of “second book syndrome.”

On top of that, by choosing to end on yet another cliffhanger, the author has lost all goodwill from me. One is bad enough, but a second just makes me start to feel like I’m being inexpertly manipulated. Had there been more substantial reveals or revelations offered up in the story as a whole, perhaps I would be more forgiving of this choice. As it is, it feels like a weak attempt to forcibly capture an audience and maneuver them into sticking around using a “sunk cost” approach: you’ve already read two entire books without really getting anywhere, gotta read the last!

I personally also struggled with the characters in this book. In the first story, we meet Stevie and the other odd characters who make up the student body at the school. By splitting that story between these necessary introductions, plus the small mystery at the heart of that book and the ongoing Ellingham mysteries, we never got much more than the broadest strokes of these other characters there. So I had expected to see more depth add to them in this second book. But no, they all still felt pretty one-dimensional. That said, again, I’m not the target audience for this book, so others may find more value in these characters than I did.

Ultimately, I was pretty disappointed by this book. I had really hoped for more and finished the last page firmly believing that this entire book was necessary to the story. Of course, I haven’t read the third one, but I have to imagine that things could have been neatly covered in a duology rather than a trilogy. I’m especially frustrated with the cliffhanger and lack of answers to the cold case of Ellingham. I’m not sure I’ll continue on, honestly. We’ll see how my mood takes me in the future!

Rating 6: A solid “second book” in the worst ways, but I’m also not the target audience for this, so take my rating with that in mind.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Vanishing Stair” is also on these Goodreads lists: 2019 YA Mystery/Thrillers and YA Murder Mysteries.

Find “The Vanishing Stair” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “A Trial of Sorcerers”

Book: “A Trial of Sorcerers” by Elise Kova

Publishing Info: Silver Wing Press, March 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Eighteen-year-old Waterrunner Eira Landan lives her life in the shadows — the shadow of her older brother, of her magic’s whispers, and of the person she accidentally killed. She’s the most unwanted apprentice in the Tower of Sorcerers until the day she decides to step out and compete for a spot in the Tournament of Five Kingdoms.

Pitted against the best sorcerers in the Empire, Eira fights to be one of four champions. Excelling in the trials has its rewards. She’s invited to the royal court with the “Prince of the Tower,” discovers her rare talent for forbidden magic, and at midnight, Eira meets with a handsome elfin ambassador.

But, Eira soon learns, no reward is without risk. As she comes into the spotlight, so too do the skeletons of a past she hadn’t even realized was haunting her.

Eira went into the trials ready for a fight. Ready to win. She wasn’t ready for what it would cost her. No one expected the candidates might not make it out with their lives.

Review: The cover art thing and really strike both ways. I just got down being blown away by “Daughter of the Salt King,” a book I had delayed reading due to the lackluster cover art. And here, on the hand, is a book that I requested from the library purely because I spotted the cover on Goodreads and was drawn in. But, while the book wasn’t offensive or bad in any true way, the cover still ended up being the best part of it for me.

No one knows much about Eira, and she prefers it that way. With dark secrets in her closet and a powerful brother’s shadow to hide within, Eira’s main goal has been to remain out of sight and mind by her fellow apprentices. That is until she joins the Tournament and her true skills begin to be seen at last. Soon enough, Eira’s quiet life explodes outwards, exposing secrets she didn’t know she had and opening doors she isn’t sure she wants to walk through. With new players on the board and a competition turning deadly, Eira’s way forward requires she step out of her comfortable shadows.

Alas, this book was not for me. I read a lot of YA, especially YA fantasy, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to realize that there is a certain type of YA fantasy that is just too young for me. This makes it hard to review these books on the blog, as I usually can see the appeal of the book for the target age range. But as I’m still the one reviewing the book and it didn’t work for me…it gets a lower rating than it perhaps deserves on its own.

In this particular case, however, I also think that there are better examples of this type of book even for the target age. It’s very “paint by numbers” for every trope there is in the book. What’s worse, it felt like many of these tropes were past their prime. For example, Eira must inevitably attend a ball. She is also, predictably, unprepared for this event, so the help love interest provides a “perfect” dress for her. I mean, we’re talking “Throne of Glass” circa almost ten years ago level tropey-ness here. Not to mention that I’ve always found it fairly creepy that the love interest just “happens” to know the heroine’s exact measurements. I could get into all of the mildly icky ways, but….nah.

Eira is also your fairly standard “I’m not special, except for the fact that I’m super duper special” heroine. She has a “dark past” and, while previous to this story starting was completely unknown, comes blasting onto the stage to blow everyone away with her skills. I will say, as a fairly standard heroine, she wasn’t annoying or obnoxious. Yes, I rolled my eyes a few times. But no, they didn’t roll out of my head, which has been the case with other books like this in the past.

The world-building and plotting was ok enough. I hadn’t read any of the author’s previous books, which I believe are set in the same world. But that being the case, I still felt like I was able to easily step into this story without feeling like I was missing much. It was very approachable, probably it’s biggest stand-out feature for interested readers.

So, yes, this book wasn’t my cup of tea, but I realize that I am also probably not the audience the author was trying to reach. I think that the romance was fairly lacking, which maybe would be a detractor for teen readers, but, as I said, the story was quick and easy to fall-into. Teenage YA fantasy readers might enjoy this, but adult YA fantasy readers might want to steer clear.

Rating 6: Paint-by-numbers fantasy tropes all over the place and oddly out of date ones at that.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Trial of Sorcerers” is on these Goodreads lists: Beautiful Covers KU Paranormal, Dystopia, Sci-Fi and Epic High Fantasy/Romance/Mythology in 2021.

Find “A Trial of Sorcerers” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Book Club Review: “Black Sun”

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 “Award Winners”, in which we each picked a book that has won an award of some kind.

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: “Black Sun” by Rebecca Roanhorse

Publishing Info: Saga Press, October 2020

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Award: Alex Award

Book Description: A god will return
When the earth and sky converge
Under the black sun

In the holy city of Tova, the winter solstice is usually a time for celebration and renewal, but this year it coincides with a solar eclipse, a rare celestial event proscribed by the Sun Priest as an unbalancing of the world.

Meanwhile, a ship launches from a distant city bound for Tova and set to arrive on the solstice. The captain of the ship, Xiala, is a disgraced Teek whose song can calm the waters around her as easily as it can warp a man’s mind. Her ship carries one passenger. Described as harmless, the passenger, Serapio, is a young man, blind, scarred, and cloaked in destiny. As Xiala well knows, when a man is described as harmless, he usually ends up being a villain.

Kate’s Thoughts

I’d heard of “Black Sun” through various book circles, online hype, and awards talk. I knew that it was really well liked by fantasy fans, and when it was picked as a book club book I had two very clear feelings about it. The first was ‘oh good, it’s great seeing BIPOC authors writing fantasy novels and this one has a lot of good hype around it!’ The second was ‘oh no, epic fantasy’. But I went in with an open mind because I have been surprised by fantasy now and then, in terms of how well I connect to it!

I can definitely recognize that “Black Sun” has some great epic fantasy elements to it, and hell, there were things that I liked about it as well! For one, I really liked Serapio and Xiala. For Serapio it’s because of his brooding and haunting backstory and the fact he seems to be walking the line between potential hero and villain. For Xiala, I liked her tenacity, I liked her motivation of being a disgraced sea captain, and I liked that she was tough but also very layered. I also really liked the two of them together, and how their potential romance built and formed against a backdrop of seafaring and potential disaster with the impending eclipse and Serapio’s potential destiny. And the themes and elements taken from Pre-Columbian folklore and mythology all seemed well researched and well implemented, which made me curious to look into some of the folklore beyond my own limited knowledge.

But as well all know, at the end of the day, I am not really an epic fantasy reading kind of gal. While there are some exceptions to that general rule, as a genre it doesn’t connect with me as much. So even though I could absolutely see the talent that Roanhorse has in writing this book and can appreciate the final product for how ambitious and well crafted it is, “Black Sun” wasn’t really my thing. And that is purely based on the genre preferences I have and not on the work itself. You should absolutely take my thoughts with a grain of salt, as Serena is the one who is going to have the most helpful and relevant things to say.

“Black Sun” may not work for you if you’re like me and you don’t care for epic fantasy. But it’s easy to see why it’s so lauded by those who do like the genre.

Serena’s Thoughts

I said this at bookclub itself, and I’ll repeat it here: this is why Kate and I are great blog partners! We both love books, but (with some definite exceptions and cross-overs) we tend to enjoy very different genres and types of reads. This gives us a lot of breadth of coverage on the blog and, hopefully, provides options and insights to readers of a lot of different sorts. This book is a perfect example. Epic fantasy is hardly ever Kate’s thing, and this was a bit of a miss for her. But for me? Loved the heck out of it! Hit every checkbox for things I like! Excellent all around! So, you see? Two very different sides of the same “loves books” coin.

For me, there was much to love about this book. I read the audiobook, so I missed out on the awesome maps that were provided in the print copy, but the world-building was so detailed and imaginative that I had no trouble picturing this sprawling world. From cities perched on pillars linked with bridges, to perilous seas and distant lands, it felt like a fully realized world full of different cultures, histories and religions. This information came out slowly and organically, something of a staple of epic fantasy, so readers must trust that these bits of the world and history will come together as the story continues. Which it does, brilliantly!

I also really enjoyed the way the story was laid out. It’s definitely the kind of read that takes its time setting up all of the various characters and their arcs and motivations. But the author wisely helps jumpstart this process by giving us a few glimpses of where some characters will end up by the book’s end before jumping back to about a month before these events. This type of teaser keeps readers on their feet, wondering how a character will get from point A to point B. I think it worked really well and did help with the slower pacing at the front end of the story.

I also really liked our three (kind of four?) main characters. I definitely had favorites, but I enjoyed all of their stories individually as well. It’s that delicious sort of torture where you have multiple characters you love and you see them beginning to be set up on opposing sides of a coming conflict. Like Kate, Serapio and Xiala were my favorites, with the spunky and sea-bitten Xiala taking the crown as my most enjoyed character. However, I also liked the political intrigue (another staple of much epic fantasy) that came with Naranpa’s story.

I loved the heck out of this book. The audiobook was also an excellent read, and I highly recommend that to fans of audiobooks. There are different narrators for all four main characters, and each one does an excellent job. I will definitely be checking out the second book the minute it comes out!

Kate’s Rating 6: This is very clearly well written and thought out epic fantasy. But as we all know, epic fantasy and I don’t really mix well.

Serena’s Rating 10: I loved this! Strong world-building, excellent mythology, and relatable characters make for the perfect fantasy read.

Book Club Questions

  1. Did you like the maps and the character list that were provided for the reader? Did these things make it easier to keep everything straight while you read?
  2. Do you think that the world building that Roanhorse did in regards to the Pre-Columbian inspirations was well done?
  3. What did you think of the gender representation in this novel?
  4. What did you think of the major city and town settings of Tova vs Cuecolla?
  5. Whose perspectives were your favorites? If there was a side story you could explore, whose would you choose?
  6. What are your thoughts on the magical elements and systems in this book?

Reader’s Advisory

“Black Sun” is included on the Goodreads lists “Non-Caucasian Protagonists in Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Paranormal Romance”, and “2020 Locus Recommended Reading List”.

Find “Black Sun” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “Furia” by Yamile Saied Méndez

Kate’s Review: “Nice Girls”

Book: “Nice Girls” by Catherine Dang

Publishing Info: William Morrow, September 2021

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

Book Description: A pulse-pounding and deviously dark debut, written with the psychological acuity and emotional punch of Luckiest Girl Alive and All the Missing Girls, that explores the hungry, angry, dark side of girlhood and dares to ask what is most dangerous to a woman: showing the world what it wants to see, or who she really is?

What did you do?

Growing up in Liberty Lake, Minnesota, Mary was chubby, awkward, and smart. Earning a scholarship to an Ivy League school was her ticket out; she was going to do great things and never look back. Three years later, “Ivy League Mary” is back—a thinner, cynical, and restless failure. Kicked out of Cornell at the beginning of senior year, she won’t tell anyone why. Working at the local grocery store, she sees familiar faces from high school and tries to make sense of the past and her life.

When beautiful, magnetic Olivia Willand, a rising social media star, goes missing, Mary—like the rest of Liberty Lake—becomes obsessed. Best friends in childhood, Mary and Olivia haven’t spoken in years. Everyone admired Olivia, but Mary knows better than anyone that behind the Instagram persona hid a willful, manipulative girl with sharp edges. As the world worries for perfect, lovely Olivia, Mary can’t help but hate her. She also believes that her disappearance is tied to another missing person—a nineteen-year-old girl named DeMaria Jackson whose disappearance has gone under the radar.  

Who was the true Olivia Willand, and where did she go? What happened to DeMaria? As Mary delves deeper into the lives of the two missing girls, old wounds bleed fresh and painful secrets threaten to destroy everything. Maybe no one is really a nice girl, after all.

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

Though I know that my home state does have a fair amount of problems in some ways, ultimately I love being a Minnesota girl. I am always tickled when I’m reading a book that takes place here, and if that book falls into my preferred genres then it will almost assuredly get some priority on my reading list. Enter “Nice Girls” by Catherine Dang, a suburban (maybe exurban?) thriller written by a local woman. I can honestly say that I was drawn in because of 1) setting, 2) general plot, and 3) the title lettering on the cover of the book. I’m not usually one who takes cover into account (I know Serena loves a good cover!), but the hot pink glowy neon of the book title made me go ‘now THIS is a design!’ Okay, I’m done gushing about the cover. Let’s get into the nitty gritty of “Nice Girls”, a thriller that oozes potential but never quite reaches it.

But I’m going to start with what did work for me, as is tradition. Dang captures the place and setting of Liberty Lake, Minnesota (a made up city/exurb), a community that’s a bit out state and small town-esque with a commanding lake and an insulated population. As I read it I was thinking about the lake town I found myself driving out to to get my COVID shots back when that shit was in demand (p.s., PLEASE get vaccinated if you can, folks). Liberty Lake feels fleshed out in terms of the community itself and how the people view each other, with the expected underbelly of not spoken of racism, misogyny, and stifling community repression. Our main character, Mary, wanted to get out of Liberty Lake, and exceeded the town’s expectations when she was accepted to Cornell. But the usual theme of pride mingling with resentment is there, as when she returns to town after being expelled there is a certain sense of ‘though you were better than us, but look at you now’ that she has to face. Though a fair amount of that may also be her own resentments about being unable to escape a community that she never quite fit into. Along with that, Dang compares and contrasts our two missing women through the lens of the missing white woman syndrome, a theme that is always important to note when it comes to whose stories get picked up and paid attention to when they are potential victims of violent crimes. The victim we hear of first is Olivia, a town darling who is white, blonde, and a social media influencer whose lifelong popularity makes her disappearance front page news. Search parties are going out day after day, the headlines are dominated by her disappearance, and everyone is praying for her safe return. But before Olivia disappeared, DeMaria disappeared, with far less fanfare, even as her body parts are found in the lake. DeMaria is a lower income, Black, single mother, and no one seems to be interested in what happened to her. It’s a comment on systemic and ingrained racism that we’ve started to see more of in fictional stories, but I still welcome the topic because it’s still a huge problem.

But here is where things don’t work as well in “Nice Girls”. Mary as a character is something we have seen before in a thriller like this: she’s damaged, she returns home with a dark secret, and she starts to spiral more and more when she gets embroiled in the local secrets. This kind of thing can work if the main character is compelling in other ways, but Mary is fairly two dimensional who is defined by her dourness, and her deep seated insecurities make her a very unlikable person and hard to root for. She doesn’t really have any growth during this book, and she makes huge missteps that feel convenient to the plot while feeling a bit haphazard even for her slightly unhinged personality. And Mary isn’t the only unlikable character, as there are very few people in this book that I actually liked and wanted to know more about, and those who I did like were relegated to the sidelines for the most part. These kinds of things could be easier to overlook if the mystery itself was addictive, but overall it was pretty standard, with a reveal that felt shaky in the laid out groundwork that held it up. There were a few moments that were genuinely surprising, but the pay off was rushed.

I have no doubt in my mind that I will be picking up the next book by Catherine Dang, as her ability to write and create a setting filled with rich descriptions was definitely there. “Nice Girls” is probably worth the read for casual thriller fans, but if you’ve been steeped in the genre for awhile it may not have the pay off you want.

Rating 6: I saw a lot of potential here and there were some good themes, but the characters were two dimensional and the mystery itself was fairly average.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Nice Girls” is included on the Goodreads list “Mystery and Thriller 2021”.

Find “Nice Girls” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Where Dreams Descend”

Book: “Where Dreams Descend” by Janella Angeles

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, August 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley!

Book Description: In a city covered in ice and ruin, a group of magicians face off in a daring game of magical feats to find the next headliner of the Conquering Circus, only to find themselves under the threat of an unseen danger striking behind the scenes.

As each act becomes more and more risky and the number of missing magicians piles up, three are forced to reckon with their secrets before the darkness comes for them next.

The Star: Kallia, a powerful showgirl out to prove she’s the best no matter the cost

The Master: Jack, the enigmatic keeper of the club, and more than one lie told

The Magician: Demarco, the brooding judge with a dark past he can no longer hide

Review: The book description immediately drew me in on this one, sounding very similar to “The Night Circus,” one of my favorite stand-alone books. But then it continued and started sounding too much like yet another “Six of Crows” knock-off. I swear, the minute any summary starts listing characters as “The ‘thief/assassin/master/etc.'” I now immediately become suspicious. It could have went either way, so in I dove!

Kallia has always been ambitious, dreaming of more than just her small act in a local club. So when a competition is announced to find the next headliner for the Conquering Circus, she jumps at the opportunity. Fleeing alone through the woods, she briefly escapes Jack, the owner of the club. But safety is not to be found in this new city as her fellow competitors begin to fall prey to disappearances and mysterious accidents. But Kallia knows of no way but forward, and with the judge of the competition brooding in the shadows, Kallia begins to find she has more than one reason for sticking it out.

To get it out of the way, this wasn’t all I had hoped it would be. However, the problems I had with it weren’t due to any comparisons to “Six of Crows.” Instead, it was one of those odd reads where just enough things didn’t come together in a smooth way and left me with a disjointed and disconnected reading exerpience.

The first problem I had was with the writing itself. There was a lot of telling in this book and a lack of showing. Kallia’s abilities are highlighted on and off, but we’re essentially told she’s that much better than everyone else….just because she is. For a story that is comprised of many dark fantasy elements, scenes that just burst, sparkle, and pop from the page (she’s trying out for something called the “Conquering Circus” for Pete’s sake!), the actual prose often fell flat, and I found myself having to work hard to keep myself grounded in the story.

The pacing was also incredibly slow feeling. Again, this was a strange experience as, on paper, things were definitely happening. We have Kallia’s initial flight through the woods to get to this new city. Then her experiences in the competition itself. As well as the strange happenings when she’s home alone. Even typing it out, it sounds like it should read like an action-packed thrill ride. But instead, it felt slow and plodding. Again, I think there was just something lacking in the writing to really give the plot the “oomf” it needed to get started.

The characters were probably the best part of the book, but they didn’t stand out as especially unique. I found myself getting annoyed by Kallia’s innate “specialness” and the generous helping of arrogance that came along with this. I was marginally more interested in the two male character, the mysterious judge who is the primary romantic interest as well as Aaros, a young man who quickly becomes her best friend in this new city.

Sadly, this book wasn’t for me. There was the bones of a good story here, but I just couldn’t get into it. This is definitely one of those where one should take my rating with a grain of salt as there’s a decent chance that many of these things didn’t work for me just because I wasn’t in the right mood for this type of book. If you like fantasy and dark circuses, this still might be worth checking out. But if you were on the fence already, maybe give it a pass.

Rating 6: Just not for me with writing that couldn’t manage to draw me into the story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Where Dreams Descend” is on these Goodreads lists: 2020 YA/MG Books With POC Leads and Glittering Glamorous Fantasies.

Find “Where Dreams Descend” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Half Sick of Shadows”

Book: “Half Sick of Shadows” by Laura Sebastian

Publishing Info: Ace, July 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Everyone knows the legend. Of Arthur, destined to be a king. Of the beautiful Guinevere, who will betray him with his most loyal knight, Lancelot. Of the bitter sorceress, Morgana, who will turn against them all. But Elaine alone carries the burden of knowing what is to come–for Elaine of Shalott is cursed to see the future.

On the mystical isle of Avalon, Elaine runs free and learns of the ancient prophecies surrounding her and her friends–countless possibilities, almost all of them tragic.

When their future comes to claim them, Elaine, Guinevere, Lancelot, and Morgana accompany Arthur to take his throne in stifling Camelot, where magic is outlawed, the rules of society chain them, and enemies are everywhere. Yet the most dangerous threats may come from within their own circle.

As visions are fulfilled and an inevitable fate closes in, Elaine must decide how far she will go to change fate–and what she is willing to sacrifice along the way.

Review: I’ve had a fairly sketchy experience of “King Arthur” re-tellings. But my most recent example, Kiersten White’s “Camelot Rising” series, has been excellent all around, so I was primed to jump in for another go at the topic! “Half Sick of Shadows” was also billed as a feminist reimaging of the tale while also incorporating the story from “The Lady of Shallot.” Color me intrigued.

Growing up surrounded by magic and her friends, Elaine’s life should be full of joy and wonder. However, she knows what is to come, and it’s almost all tragic. Gifted (or cursed) with the ability to see the future, Elaine’s view of the present is always tinged to be seen through the lens of what is to come. Slowly, slowly the pieces begin to fall in place as their roles begin to solidify, and the friends find themselves thrust into the world of Camelot, a place where their magic is outlawed and their fates await them. But is the future set? Or can Elaine’s choices make all the difference?

So, let’s just get it out of the way. I didn’t really like this book. I’m going to start this review off with a backhanded compliment. If anything, this book was too creative. Frankly, the less familiar readers are with the original Arthurian tale and, to a certain extent, the original ballad of “The Lady of Shallot,” the more enjoyable this book would probably be. There’s a fine line when re-imagining a classic tale such as this between reinterpreting well-known aspects of the original and bounding away completely into left field and leaving readers who are familiar with the original bewildered and frustrated. This one was definitely the latter.

Most of the characters were so completely re-worked that other than their name they would be unrecognizable from their origins. Arthur, for example, was such a nothing character, so naïve and silly, that it was almost impossible to imagine him becoming the legendary king. The relationships between the characters were also completely re-worked. Mordred, for example, is not Arthur’s son, which has a pretty big impact on the greater story, as fans of the original know. The classic love triangle is also re-worked. To some extent, that can be refreshing (again, the “Camelot Rising” went a completely different direction with this, too, to great effect), but my bigger problem came with the fact that as these large, familiar parts of the story fell, there was less and less tying any of it to the original Arthurian epic. Even small things, like the fact that Merlin seemed to either not really care about the events going on around or him or actively root against Arthur as king, just felt off to the point of distraction.

I also didn’t care for Elaine herself. She was continuously self-guessing and doubting her choices. Much of her eternal dialogue I found to be annoying. Until the very end, she seemed to struggle to take any initiative herself, often running to others for help. I also struggled with the way she presented her story, jumping back and forth in time through her visions. Her romance was also so tinted by the doubts and concerns over the future that it was barely enjoyable.

I also struggled with the original set-up of the story. Why are all of these characters at Avalon, growing up with all of this magic? There were explanations for a few of them, but it almost felt like some wacky school story with a bunch of teenagers running around having adventures in magic-land. There were also some re-imaginings of characters having magical connections that were a bit strange. Some of them I could get behind, but others, less so.

Lastly, I’m not sure why this book is being heralded so strongly as a feminist story. That word can mean a lot of different things to people, but at its most basic sense, book-wise, I would think it means strong female characters in a story that, in the past, largely side-lined its women characters. So, sure, Elaine being the focus changes that. But she’s not a particularly great example of a strong, female character. And don’t get me started on the changes to Guinevere. Way too much magical wand-waving over her character, as if giving her fantasy aspects somehow makes her “strong.” If the only way you can think to make your female characters strong is to give them magical abilities, I’m going to side-eye you really hard.

So, yeah, this book wasn’t my cup of tea. There were too many changes from the original tale to not be constantly distracting and distressing. I also didn’t enjoy the main character or many of the side characters either. Perhaps those less familiar with the original story might enjoy it, but I think there are better examples of re-tellings out there.

Rating 6: The story strays too far away from its origins and drowns beneath a plethora of added fantasy elements.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Half Sick of Shadows” is, questionably, on this Goodreads list: Feminist Interest 2021.

Find “Half Sick of Shadows” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Bubble”

Book: “Bubble” by Jordan Morris, Sarah Morgan, & Tony Cliff (Ill.)

Publishing Info: First Second, July 2021

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

Book Description: Based on the smash-hit audio serial, Bubble is a hilarious high-energy graphic novel with a satirical take on the “gig economy.”

Built and maintained by corporate benevolence, the city of Fairhaven is a literal bubble of safety and order (and amazing coffee) in the midst of the Brush, a harsh alien wilderness ruled by monstrous Imps and rogue bands of humans. Humans like Morgan, who’s Brush-born and Bubble-raised and fully capable of fending off an Imp attack during her morning jog. She’s got a great routine going—she has a chill day job, she recreationally kills the occasional Imp, then she takes that Imp home for her roommate and BFF, Annie, to transform into drugs as a side hustle. But cracks appear in her tidy life when one of those Imps nearly murders a delivery guy in her apartment, accidentally transforming him into a Brush-powered mutant in the process. And when Morgan’s company launches Huntr, a gig economy app for Imp extermination, she finds herself press-ganged into kicking her stabby side job up to the next level as she battles a parade of monsters and monstrously Brush-turned citizens, from a living hipster beard to a book club hive mind. 

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

In terms of podcasts, while I’ve dabbled outside the non-fiction realm, I really haven’t listened to many fiction series. I did “Welcome to Nightvale” for awhile, I listened to “The Black Tapes” (probably my favorite of the fiction ones I’ve listened to), and I tried out “Limetown”. But overall, it’s gotta be true crime, movies, or books for the topics I wanna listen to. So I had never heard of the podcast “Bubble” when I saw that it had been adapted into a graphic novel by Jordan Morris and Sarah Morgan, the creator and a writer for the show itself. While I wasn’t certain about what to expect, the premise was promising and intriguing: a dystopian world, a stunted society that seems perfect, and a dangerous wilderness of creatures that could kill you? That all sounds great. Throw in some humor and it sounds even better. So I gave it a go, because I hoped it would stand on its own two feet, outside of a podcast shadow. And I don’t think that it quite did.

That isn’t to say that this is “Welcome to Nightvale” levels of inability to stand on its own. Here is what I liked about “Bubble”: the premise really is a good one. I liked the idea of Fairhaven, a typical city that runs on capitalism and the gig economy, and the people who live there and work within that economy. Satire about the drawbacks and pitfalls of a late stage capitalist society is kind of ripe for the picking, but “Bubble” does it well. Our main character, Morgan, is a woman living in Fairhaven now, but was raised in the surrounding wild area called The Brush, which is inhabited by creatures called Imps that are dangerous and prone to attack humans. Morgan knows how to deal with them, and when an Imp gets into Fairhaven she will kill it and bring it to her roommate Annie who will make it into drugs. Morgan’s company, however, starts up a social media gig app (think Task Rabbit) that will give people the ability to go kill Imps for profit. Throw in a hapless Postmates delivery guy named Mitch who is attacked by an Imp and given powers, and you have some fun main characters who are just trying to get by in a gig economy whose stakes are pretty damn high. I liked Morgan and Annie, and Mitch feels very Chris Pratt in “Parks and Rec”, so he’s pretty charming. And really, the entire idea is fun, especially when they all have to go into the Brush on a mission, involving a mysterious stone and the Brush living father Morgan left behind. SO much potential, right?

The problem I had was that “Bubble” never quite explored the potential enough for me. This is a story that really should have some pretty wide and complex world building to it, both inside Fairhaven and outside in The Brush. And we see bits and pieces of both when our main characters are interacting within. But we don’t really have the time to explore backgrounds, histories, or dynamics, as the plot is constantly moving forward. It’s entertaining, it’s quite funny at times, and the characters have lots of fun things to say to each other. But I never really felt like I got a true feel for the setting they are in. And the only character that I feel really got a lot of depth was Morgan, while everyone else, outside of a few hints and tidbits here and there, really kept in static place as the tale went on. There just wasn’t much room to breathe, and I don’t know if that is because that’s how the podcast goes, or if it’s more a limitation when translating the podcast story to a graphic novel. I suppose that I could go listen to the podcast to find out, but the story we have at hand isn’t really compelling enough for me to go and do so.

That said, I really liked the art! Tony Cliff has some vibrant color schemes that feel sleek and futuristic, and I enjoyed the character designs as well. The Imps in particular are pretty cool.

(source: First Second)

“Bubble” has its moments and some great ideas. I just think that it could have gone further.

Rating 6: A lot of entertaining moments, witty banter, and cool imagery. But it feels very rushed and not well expanded upon, world building wise, and some of the characters fall flat.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Bubble” isn’t on many Goodreads lists yet, but I think it would fit in on “Podcast Books”, and “Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic Graphic Novels”.

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

Serena’s Review: “Red Wolf”

Book: “Red Wolf” by Rachel Vincent

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, July 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: For as long as sixteen-year-old Adele can remember the village of Oakvale has been surrounding by the dark woods—a forest filled with terrible monsters that light cannot penetrate. Like every person who grows up in Oakvale she has been told to steer clear of the woods unless absolutely necessary.

But unlike her neighbors in Oakvale, Adele has a very good reason for going into the woods. Adele is one of a long line of guardians, women who are able to change into wolves and who are tasked with the job of protecting their village while never letting any of the villagers know of their existence.

But when following her calling means abandoning the person she loves, the future she imagined for herself, and her values she must decide how far she is willing to go to keep her neighbors safe.

Review: And here we are, the third “Red Riding Hood” book that came out this summer! It’s actually really impressive how all three of authors pulled from the same inspiration (at least somewhat) but ultimately created such different stories and worlds. Unfortunately for “Red Wolf,” it was third to come out and third for me to read, so it had some big shoes to fill after the first two were such hits. However, I don’t think I would have enjoyed this lackluster outing much more had it come first.

Red has grown up in her small village, a little community of safety surrounded by a dark wood full of monsters. For most, this forest represents a natural boundary to their world, one they won’t ever need to venture within. For Red and her family, it is something very different. Within those dark depths, she, like women before her, protect that small village, prowling the woods in the form of a wolf. Soon enough, however, Red’s life is thrown upside down when the path she had seen before her begins to twist and turn into choices she had never imagined making. Will she be strong enough to protect those she loves?

First off, props to another gorgeous cover that definitely played its part in getting me to request an ARC for this book. All three of the “Red Riding Hood” books this summer had neat covers and each was distinct from the others, so that’s pretty neat. Unfortunately, most of my compliments end there.

This book wasn’t terrible, or anything, but it did seem to have an endless list of mild frustrations and then a wackadoodle ending that made the entire experience feel a bit like death by a thousand cuts. It starts out well enough, with an atmospheric village and woods and a young girl who must venture out to her granny’s every month. And then, of course, she discovers she’s so much more than she thought and the book should be off to the races.

Unfortunately, it felt a lot like an engine that kept rolling over and couldn’t quite get going. Adele’s character is set up as a fairly typical teenager, a bit stubborn, but empathetic enough to be challenged by the choices presented her throughout the story regarding the nameless many vs the the known few. But there also wasn’t anything about her that was particularly gripping or made me feel truly invested in her. I also felt like the story go a good head of steam going with some of these moral quandaries and then, somehow, never fully resolved them. The ending, especially, felt strange and disjointed from the greater conversation being presented in the book. It felt rushed and left me with a lot of mixed feelings about Adele herself.

It was also not a great sign to see Adele happily paired up at the beginning of the book. You know it’s never going to last in a YA fantasy when the main character is already happily in love when the story starts. And, alas, my predictions came true and the dreaded love triangle emerged. It could have been more annoying, I guess, but that’s hardly a compliment for the choice to have one in the first place. The other side of the triangle also felt very rushed, with Adele herself mentioning that she couldn’t believe how quickly she’d fallen for so-and-so. If the main character can barely believe it, I definitely can’t.

The writing was also a bit challenging. I can’t point to any particular quirks or style choices, only that it didn’t capture me, and I was very aware that I was actively reading as I turned the pages. I couldn’t sink into the story, for whatever reason. There were some legitimately creepy and interesting fantasy aspects in this world, but the story itself felt like the framework was too flimsy to fully hold the ideas themselves.

Overall, I was pretty disappointed in this book. It did a lot of things just OK, and then didn’t have any big wow moments to pull it up from just middling. And, of course, love triangles are almost always a detractor in my enjoyment of story. Readers looking for a more middle-grade, young YA might enjoy this, but I’d recommend “For the Wolf” and “The Wolf and the Woodsman” as your “Red Riding Hood” books of the summer before this one.

Rating 6: A big ole “OK.” Love triangles and a lackluster heroine didn’t help this story get off the ground.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Red Wolf” is on these Goodreads lists: YA Fantasy Standalone Books and Red Riding Hood Across Genres.

Find “Red Wolf” at the library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Sheets”

Book: “Sheets” by Brenna Thummler

Publishing Info: Oni Press, August 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The Library!

Book Description: Marjorie Glatt feels like a ghost. A practical thirteen year old in charge of the family laundry business, her daily routine features unforgiving customers, unbearable P.E. classes, and the fastidious Mr. Saubertuck who is committed to destroying everything she’s worked for.

Wendell is a ghost. A boy who lost his life much too young, his daily routine features ineffective death therapy, a sheet-dependent identity, and a dangerous need to seek purpose in the forbidden human world.

When their worlds collide, Marjorie is confronted by unexplainable disasters as Wendell transforms Glatt’s Laundry into his midnight playground, appearing as a mere sheet during the day. While Wendell attempts to create a new afterlife for himself, he unknowingly sabotages the life that Marjorie is struggling to maintain.

Review: Who says that ghost stories need to be scary? I know that when I cover them on this blog, they usually are. But there are also kind and friendly spirits, not just ones that want to make peoples lives miserable. “Sheets” by Brenna Thummler is one such tale, a ghost story for kids, but instead of focusing on scares and bumps in the night, it takes on friendship, loss, and moving on from tragedy. All themes that can fit within a ghost story pretty well. I had high hopes for this story, as ghosts are definitely my jam. “Sheets”, however, didn’t really give me what I wanted from it.

But let’s talk about what I did like first. The themes I mentioned above are all very well done in the narrative. We have two main characters, both of whom are dealing with these themes in different ways. For Marjorie, a thirteen year old girl running the family laundromat, she is still mourning the loss of her mother and adjusting to her new life. Her father has been so depressed that he doesn’t leave his room, and Marjorie is left to care for her brother, the family business, and to take care of herself. On the other side of the coin is Wendell, a ghost who lives in a world of other ghosts (who all wear sheets) who died when he was very young. He doesn’t really feel like he fits in in his new afterlife, and decides to hitch a ghost bus (loved this idea!) back to the living world. Where he finds himself in Marjorie’s laundromat, and their worlds collide. Both characters are dealing with loss and sadness, and I thought that Brennan did a really good job of exploring grief in ways that kids could understand without being condescending or grim. I especially liked her take on what the Ghost world is like, with lots of different designs for a bunch of stereotypical sheet wearing ghosts and some really humorous moments.

My biggest qualms with this story, however, really dock the points that I would have given it. Namely, the complete lack of any empathetic, responsible, and caring adults in Marjorie’s life, bordering on complete criminal negligence. I understand that this is a book written with a kid protagonist, and as such needs to give the protagonist more agency and independence than a regular kid would have in the real world. But I really struggled with it in “Sheets”. Marjorie is a thirteen year old girl who is running the family business herself, as after her mother died her father has been completely overtaken by depression and barely leaves his room. And if that had been the extent of it, I might have been able to swallow it down. Depression can absolutely be completely hobbling, and it’s not unrealistic for him to fail his children and to have Marjorie feel like she needs to pick up the pieces. My BIGGEST problem is that the customers she does have aren’t asking ANY questions as to why this child is running this place! Hell, they even get mad at her when Wendell messes things up, more inconvenienced about their laundry than they are concerned about a child, a CHILD, having to run the business in which they are patronizing! We get a couple adults who do question her life and how she’s doing here and there, but it’s never pursued. Perhaps it is strange for me to be questioning this in a story about literal ghosts, but I couldn’t get past it. It seems really farfetched, and spoiler alert, it isn’t really resolved! We get a deus ex machina at the end and Marjorie is STILL running the darn laundromat instead of, you know, living her life as a child. I’m just not sure about what this tells kids about Marjorie’s circumstances. Because oh man, her Dad really needs to get his act together.

And this could possibly be because of the fact the story itself feels a bit half baked. Marjorie interacts with Wendell here and there, they never really have super in depth moments, but we just kind of have to believe that the way it all wraps up is because of their friendship, which I never felt like was really explored. There is a connection that Marjorie and Wendell share even before he became a ghost, but it feels convenient and twee, and not used enough that it really felt important. Had their connection been stronger, both before and after his death, it would have been a more enjoyable relationship. As it was, it was hard to invest in the two of them as friends.

I did like the artwork though! It’s quite unique, and the designs of the ghosts are pretty darn cute. And as someone who appreciates a nice color scheme, I really liked the palette in this one.

“Sheets” didn’t give me the feel good ghost story I was anticipating, but I absolutely can see myself recommending it to kids who are looking for something ghostly, though maybe not too scary.

Rating 6: A really good examination of different kinds of grief, but ultimately felt half baked and unrealistic (even taking into account we’re dealing with ghosts!).

Reader’s Advisory:

“Sheets” is included on the Goodreads lists “Spooky Graphic Novels for Kids”, and “Friendly Ghosts”.

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