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!

Enter to win!

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”.

Serena’s Review: “The Vermilion Emporium”

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Book: “The Vermilion Emporium” by Jamie Pacton

Publishing Info: Peachtree Teen, November 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: It was a day for finding things . . .

On the morning Twain, a lonely boy with a knack for danger, discovers a strand of starlight on the cliffs outside Severon, a mysterious curiosity shop appears in town. Meanwhile, Quinta, the ordinary daughter of an extraordinary circus performer, chases rumors of the shop, The Vermilion Emporium, desperate for a way to live up to her mother’s magical legacy.

When Quinta meets Twain outside the Emporium, two things happen: One, Quinta starts to fall for this starlight boy, who uses his charm to hide his scars. Two, they enter the store and discover a book that teaches them how to weave starlight into lace.

Soon, their lace catches the eye of the Casorina, the ruler of Severon. She commissions Quinta and Twain to make her a starlight dress and will reward them handsomely enough to make their dreams come true. However, they can’t sew a dress without more material, and the secret to starlight’s origins has been lost for centuries. As Quinta and Twain search the Emporium for answers, though, they discover the secret might not have been lost—but destroyed. And likely, for good reason.

Review: This book had early marketing that compared it to a mix of “The Radium Girls” and “Howl’s Moving Castle.” And that’s definitely one of those situations where the weirdness of that mixture just adds to the appeal. I mean, what does that even mean? But the book description itself also sounded intriguing and the cover seemed to speak to a sort of historical/fantasy hybrid of sorts. So what did it turn out to be?

Quinta and Twain each feel as if they have hit dead ends. Quinta’s mother often spoke of a future for daughter full of greatness, but looking around her now, Quinta only sees the mundane. For his part, Twain’s hopes of buying him and his brother a new life via passage on a ship out of the city died alongside his brother when he perished in a tragic accident. But when Quinta and Twain find themselves thrown together, privy to a long-lost magical substance, each sees their future opening up before them once again. However, some secrets may have been forgotten for a reason, and Quinta and Twain may be in over their heads.

This was another frustrating read for me, largely because after the first few chapters I was feeling pretty good about the book as a whole. First off, and for me most importantly, the writing seemed solid and engaging, painting a vivid new world full of interesting new magic and sympathetic characters. Twain, especially, with this tragic story of the loss of his brother was a particularly interesting narrator. His story also starts off quickly, jumping the reader right into the action and setting out a path for him to follow early on.

Things began to go down hill when I met the female main character. Quinta seemed interesting enough at first, but quite quickly it began to feel like her entire motivation and drive centered around the prediction her mother made that she would be great. She also seemed overly fixated on the fact that she only let people down and that she was a “one night girl.” Seriously, that last phrase was repeated so many times that I almost got out a note pad and started counting. I get the general type of character that these two things are supposed to be painting, but the repetitive way that Quinta talked about and described herself quickly began to feel unnatural.

And then, the romance. Oh, the romance. Why, instalove, why?? Again, the first few pages of Quinta and Twain’s interactions had me interested. There was some good banter and chemistry, and I was hopeful that that would turn into a solid foundation for an eventual relationship. NOPE! For such a “one night kind of girl” Quinta sure did jump in quickly! Seriously, they were holding hands within pages of meeting, and Quinta was immediately discussing how she didn’t buy into “love at first sight” but man, she was starting to have questions now. It was so rushed and uncomfortable.

After that, I really struggled to connect with anything else in this story. There were never any major conflicts the two characters had to face and very little character growth of any kind was involved. And if I had to hear the phrases “one night girl” or “meant for great things” a single more time…Alas, it was not for me. Perhaps fantasy readers who are not as put off by instalove and looking for lighter fare may enjoy this, but ultimately it felt like a wasted opportunity for a good story.

Rating 6: A promising start broke down fairly quickly and left me struggling to get through this one.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Vermilion Emporium” can be found on this Goodreads list: YA Novels of 2022

Kate’s Review: “American Vampire (Vol. 4)”

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Book: “American Vampire (Vol.4)” by Scott Snyder, Rafael Albuquerque (Ill.), & Jordi Bernet (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Vertigo, September 2012

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

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

Book Description: American Vampire flashes back to two very distinct points in American history. The first tale comes from the early 1800’s with the “The Beast in the Cave” featuring art by the legendary Jordi Bernet (Torpedo, Jonah Hex). Learn about the original American Vampire, Skinner Sweet, and his involvement in the brutal Indian Wars, and an ancient evil hidden in the heart of the Old West. Plus, more about the man Skinner used to call his best friend – James Book!

The second tale comes straight from 1950s America, where American Vampire is terrorizing the suburbs with hot rods, teenyboppers and fangs! “Death Race” focuses on ferocious new vampire hunter Travis Kidd – but what is his connection to Skinner Sweet? As the story comes to a violent end, a sworn enemy’s identity is finally revealed, and lots of blood is spilled!

Writer Scott Snyder (Batman, Swamp Thing) and artist Rafael Albuquerque bring together even more threads to the complex tapestry that is the world of American Vampire.

Review: Admittedly as I was going about my read through of “American Vampire”, I picked up “Volume 4” and had an ‘I have no memory of this place’ moment. I had vivid recollections of the previous volume, just as I have recollections of what comes next. But this one didn’t stand out in my mind. So I was eager to dive in and remind myself what this volume had to offer. But as I was reading, I realized that there was probably reason I didn’t remember much. “American Vampire (Vol. 4)” is, unfortunately, the weakest part of the story yet.

But as always, let’s start with what I did like, and that was mostly the story “The Nocturnes”. We follow Calvin, one of the Vassals that was sent on the basically doomed Taipan mission during WWII, who we thought was dead, but actually was turned into a vampire when he was accidentally exposed to some of Pearl’s blood. The good news is he’s still working for the Vassals, and this standalone tale is following him and what he’s been up to. Mostly it’s taxonomy for the organization, categorizing different and new vampire subspecies, and in this story it isn’t a mission that has his interest, but a familial one: once he became a vampire he cut all ties to the living world outside of work, and he just wants to see his brother perform in his singing group. Unfortunately it’s in a sundown town, and also unfortunately, there are vampires afoot. I like Calvin as a character, and I liked seeing this exploration of what you have to give up as a Vassal, as those we have met up until now have been pretty solitary anyway. I also liked the way that it explores Jim Crow racism and sundown towns, and Calvin’s Othering because of his skin as well as his undead status. It’s a perspective we haven’t seen yet in the story and I enjoyed it.

BUT, that said, the other arcs in this collection haven’t aged super well from when they were first published. For one, guess who has once again been relegated to the sidelines: Pearl. She is barely in this book. Felicia Book isn’t in it at all. And we are STILL dwelling on Skinner Sweet, and while I KNEW that he wasn’t actually dead, it’s still frustrating that we didn’t get any kind of breather from him as a character who gets a huge friggin’ spotlight. This story takes us back to when he wasn’t yet a vampire, and we find out that he was actually good friends with James Book of all people, and they fought together during the Indian Wars, and oh boy. OH BOY. For one, the very complex and tragic subject matter at hand just doesn’t really sit well with me these days, given how the U.S. Government has consistently participated in a genocide against Indigenous peoples, and having that as a plot point in this story feels pretty grotesque. For another, we get into what is a well meaning story about the actual first American Vampire, an Indigenous woman named Mimiteh who was attacked by colonizer vampires and staked by the Vassals of the Morning Star as a precaution. After rising from the dead she is worshipped and feared by the Apache peoples that the U.S. Government is trying to overwhelm, and it just feels appropriative. It sure doesn’t help that Mimiteh is stark naked in nearly every encounter we see of her, which makes it feel all the more dehumanizing. And here’s a tip, making James Book, one of the pretty clear cut ‘good guys’ of this series, a participant in colonial driven genocide is probably not a good idea if you want him to remain clean nosed (creepy relationship with Felcia’s mother aside). The other story is about a vampire hunter for the Vassals named Travis Kidd, whose family was killed by a vampire and now he’s trying to take all vampires out. I did like some things about this story, namely that Travis kind of has a Charles Starkweather feel to him, in that when we first meet him he is killing his teenage girlfriend’s family, but they are vampires so it’s not the horrific spree that Starkweather had. It’s a wry reference to be sure. But, SURPRISE SURPRISE, do you know who it is that he ultimately wants his revenge against? You guessed it. SKINNER FREAKING SWEET. So we get very little Pearl in this collection, NO Felicia Book, and we get TWO HUGE STORIES WITH SWEET. SERIOUSLY?!

My feelings towards Skinner Sweet, and I MAY BE THE ONLY ONE?! (source)

Okay, so it was a bit of a stumble, but “American Vampire (Vol. 4)” does set up the next arc with a solid cliffhanger. I feel like Pearl and Felicia get more to do next time around, so onwards I go with higher hopes.

Rating 6: It just hasn’t aged super well. Also, while I knew we weren’t done with Skinner Sweet, I REALLY wish we were done with Skinner Sweet. That said, a story following Calvin is pretty good, and I liked some true crime connection and homages.

Reader’s Advisory:

“American Vampire (Vol. 4)” is included on the Goodreads list “Best Horror Comics/Graphic Novels”.

Previously Reviewed:

Kate’s Review: “The Vicious Circle”

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Book: “The Vicious Circle” by Katherine St. John

Publishing Info: William Morrow & Company, September 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from the publisher at ALAAC22.

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

Book Description: A perfect paradise? Or a perfect nightmare?

On a river deep in the Mexican jungle stands the colossal villa Xanadu, a wellness center that’s home to The Mandala, an ardent spiritual group devoted to self-help guru Paul Bentzen and his enigmatic wife Kali. But when, mysteriously, Paul suddenly dies, his entire estate–including Xanadu–is left to his estranged niece Sveta, a former model living in New York City.

Shocked and confused, Sveta travels to Mexico to pay her respects. At first, Xanadu seems like a secluded paradise with its tumbling gardens, beautiful people, transcendent vibe, and mesmerizing de-facto leader Kali. But soon the mystical façade wears thin, revealing a group of brainwashed members drunk on false promises of an impossible utopia and a disturbing, dangerous belief system–and leader–guiding them.

As the sinister forces surrounding Sveta become apparent, she realizes, too late, she can’t escape. Frantic and terrified, she discovers her only hope for survival is to put her confidence in the very person she trusts the least.

Review: Thank you to William Morrow & Company for giving me an ARC of this novel!

On that first night of the ALA Annual Conference, there is always a bit of a free for all in the exhibit hall as publishers unleash ARCs of books unto the librarian masses. In the recent times I have gone I always tell myself, ‘be discerning! Don’t grab for the sake of grabbing! You know what books you want, prioritize those!’. And, as one can imagine, that never works, and I end up with many books because panic tells me so. But hey, I’ve found some fun books this way, and that is why I don’t kick myself too hard when I do it. That is how I got “The Vicious Circle” by Katherine St. John: I passed the table, saw the cover, read the back and said to myself ‘IT’S A CULT THRILLER!’ and shoved it in my tote bag. I finally sat down to read it a couple months after the fact, and it was…. a decidedly mixed bag.

In terms of a cult thriller, “The Vicious Circle” is pretty successful if only because it knows what notes to hit and doesn’t stray from it. The details The Mandala pick and choose from a lot of other true life cults; you get a little People’s Temple/Jonestown, you get a little Rajneeshpuram, you get a little NXIVM, with sprinkles of Scientology and Children of God for good measure. It’s a true smorgasbord of cult ideologies, and it was kind of fun for me to be able to be like ‘oh I get that reference’. There is also an effective ‘frog in the pot of boiling water’ pacing as our protagonist Sveta arrives at a compound called Xanadu in the Mexican jungle after getting word that she has inherited a vast fortune from her late uncle Paul. Who just so happened to be an incredibly successful wellness author and icon, influential enough to have a compound called Xanadu in the Mexican jungle. Sveta thinks that it’s going to be easy to settle the estate and everything else with Kali, her uncle Paul’s wife, and then begins to realize that maybe things aren’t what they seem. I always enjoy the ‘oh shit’ moments in a cult thriller, and St. John definitely has many of them coming at a quick pace. It makes for a fun and easy thriller that is, in a way, comforting to a reader who likes these kinds of stories. And I fully realize that ‘comforting’ is a strange word choice given the fact we are talking about a potentially dangerous cult. But it kept me turning the pages to see how it all shook out for Sveta as she goes head to head with the Mandala and its devotees.

I think that some of the more negative aspects are pretty easy traps to fall into in a book like this, mostly because you need them for the story to work if you don’t want to do a lot of difficult literary heavy lifting. The biggest for me is that Sveta feels VERY naive and susceptible to being duped when I’m not quite certain that she would be. I’m not talking about falling for the cult angle, as that isn’t really the issue. It’s more the fact that she has found herself in a very precarious position: isolated in the jungle, newly named as a beneficiary of millions upon millions of dollars, and with a woman who has EVERY reason to want that money, but feels like she can trust said woman. I found it very frustrating that she took everything that Kali said at face value. You met her once for dinner and it was a nice meal. Fine. But your uncle CLEARLY kept her out of his will for a reason, especially since it sounds like his death wasn’t sudden. I understand why the story needs her to be this way, but I kind of needed more reasons for her to be this way. It made Sveta’s motivations feel more there to drive the plot as opposed to trying to make the two work in a cohesive and believable way.

All in all “The Vicious Circle” is entertaining enough and has enough suspense to keep me engaged and interested. It doesn’t really stand out too much from other run of the mill cult thrillers, but as someone who loves a cult thriller that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Rating 6: Pretty standard cult thriller reading. Doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s entertaining enough.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Vicious Circle” isn’t included on many specific Goodreads lists yet, but it would fit in on “Cults and Communes in Fiction”.

Joint Review: “Rules of Engagement”

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Book: “Rules of Engagement” by Selena Montgomery

Publishing Info: Berkley Books, September 2022

Where Did We Get this Book: ALA!

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

Book Description: Dr. Raleigh Foster, an operative for a top-secret intelligence organization, knows that her undercover work has its risks. So she doesn’t hesitate when asked to infiltrate Scimitar, the terrorist group that has stolen lethal environmental technology. But when she’s assigned a partner–brooding, sexy Adam Grayson–to pose as her lover, Raleigh discovers that the most dangerous risk of all…is falling in love.

Adam blames himself for the botched mission that got his best friend killed by Scimitar, and he believes that Raleigh may have contributed to the man’s death. But the closer he works with his alluring partner, the more his suspicions turn to trust–and intense desire. Now, as he and Raleigh untangle a twisted web of secrets and lies, the tension mounts between them…until their masquerade as a couple proves too tempting to resist.

Serena’s Thoughts:

Kate and I nabbed ARCs of this book during a preview panel at ALA. While I don’t typically read this sort of romance novel (I tend to stick within my genres, even with romance and am much more likely to pick up a fantasy or historical romance before a contemporary story), the plot synopsis of this one did stand out to me. Who can not be interested in undercover agents falling in love?

And there were things to enjoy as far as this premise goes. I liked the action scenes and the build up of tension during some of the undercover moments. The story was also written in an approachable, fast-paced manner and I was able to blow through it pretty quickly. I think readers of this sort of romance will likely very much enjoy it.

However, it is also very much of its time (originally published in 2001), and there were far too many times when I became frustrated with the interplay between the main characters, as well as their portrayals as individual characters. The hero, Adam, was probably the biggest issue I had with this book. He was very hot and cold, but not in a sexy way. More like a strangely aggressive obtuse inability to understand that Raleigh was also an under cover agent who would make the decision to keep her own secrets. I was also not a fan of some of the terms that were repeatedly thrown around to describe Raleigh, terms like “childlike,” “vulnerable,” and “fragile.” Ummm…she’s clearly a supremely competent under cover agent, given her success rate and her age. I don’t think “fragile” is the term I’d use to describe this type of person. But, again, much of this just feels more of a different time anything else.

Overall, this book is a bit dated, but I think it will likely still appeal to contemporary romance fans. Especially for romance readers who enjoy political intrigue and under cover operations.

Kate’s Thoughts:

As some one who has been very impressed by and a huge fan of Stacey Abrams, not only for her political maneuvering but also her unabashed geekiness (her perspective on the Buffy/Angel/Spike love triangle is PERFECTION), I was pretty eager to try out her first romance novel when it was presented to us at ALA. And by first I mean this was, as Serena said, a reissue of her debut from 20+ years ago. Even though romance is pretty hit or miss with me, I was more than willing to give this one a go.

And I have to echo a lot of what Serena said. Even though I’m not someone who really enjoys spy stories in general, I liked the espionage shenanigans in “Rules of Engagement”. It felt part Black Ops, part “James Bond”, and I enjoyed seeing Raleigh slip into characters while also balancing her real life, be it dealing with her attraction to Adam, or with her fun best friend Alex. I also mostly liked Raleigh, as her complexity felt real and believable while also fitting into the role of a super spy (who still manages to be SUPER young, but hey, that’s fine!).

But, also like Serena, the biggest downside for this book was the dynamic between Raleigh and Adam. I just didn’t like how he treated her, infantilizing her one moment, raging against her and nearly despising her another moment, then going full on protective star crossed lover ANOTHER moment. Whiplash! Whiplash I say! I agree that it probably worked better twenty years ago, but as a reader today I didn’t find it terribly sexy. And I say this as a person who generally likes enemies to lovers tropes!

It’s fun seeing Stacey Abrams alter ego’s first story in action! I may see if I can find some of her later romances to see how they compare, as “Rules of Engagement” had some pluses, but minuses as well.

Kate’s Rating 6: I liked the espionage stuff and I liked Raleigh for the most part, but the dynamic between her and Adam was not my cup of tea.

Serena’s Rating 6: Not for me, as I disliked the hero and had a negative reaction to some of the descriptions of the heroine as well. But this is also a very subjective opinion and fans of the genre will likely enjoy it!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Rules of Engagement” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should be on Spy Romances.

Serena’s Review: “Night of the Raven, Dawn of the Dove”

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Book: “Night of the Raven, Dawn of the Dove” by Rati Mehrotra

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, October 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: Katyani’s role in the kingdom of Chandela has always been clear: becoming an advisor and protector of the crown prince, Ayan, when he ascends to the throne. Bound to the Queen of Chandela through a forbidden soul bond that saved her when she was a child, Katyani has grown up in the royal family and become the best guardswoman the Garuda has ever seen. But when a series of assassination attempts threatens the royals, Katyani is shipped off to the gurukul of the famous Acharya Mahavir as an escort to Ayan and his cousin, Bhairav, to protect them as they hone the skills needed to be the next leaders of the kingdom. Nothing could annoy Katyani more than being stuck in a monastic school in the middle of a forest, except her run-ins with Daksh, the Acharya’s son, who can’t stop going on about the rules and whose gaze makes her feel like he can see into her soul.

But when Katyani and the princes are hurriedly summoned back to Chandela before their training is complete, tragedy strikes and Katyani is torn from the only life she has ever known. Alone and betrayed in a land infested by monsters, Katyani must find answers from her past to save all she loves and forge her own destiny. Bonds can be broken, but debts must be repaid.

Review: I feel like I’ve read a number of India-inspired fantasy novels over the last few years or so. Most of them have been very good, and it’s always refreshing to see new fantasy world built on the foundation of other cultures, histories, and religions from around the world. This one was particularly interesting when I stumbled across it because it was toted as being inspired by Medieval India, a period that I know even less about that the more recent history of the nation and region. Other than this general point of interest, however, I had very little to go on.

Ever since a forbidden magical intervention was performed to save her life as a child, binding her to the queen of the realm, Katyani has always seen her future as bright and clear. She was worked tirelessly to become the best guardswoman she could be and is in line to become the personal guard of the crown prince. But as persistent assassination attempt goes unthwarted, Katyani’s stable future begins to become shaky. Not only has she been unsuccessful in thwarting this threat, but she is now being sent away from the queen and castle to guard the prince and his cousin as they train in a remote school. And while there, she begins to question more and more in not only her future, but her past.

In a lot of ways, this book felt like it was right on the verge of being a story I’d love. The world-building is interesting, the magic had its moments, and there were some excellent fantasy monsters and creatures. But all of this fell just a little short of being particularly interesting. The world-building had some good moments, but I also never felt fully grounded, often unable to picture anything particularly unique about this world. This left me filling in the blanks. And, unfortunately, when a reader is left to fill in blanks, they’ll do with elements they’re most familiar with, thus completely undermining the goal of being exposed to a world/culture that is completely new.

The magic system was also barely a system, with many things working “just because.” I don’t always need elaborate systems ala Brandon Sanderon, but I do need to feel as if there are some rules around how magic is used and what is and isn’t possible. Without this, magic begins to feel like it could just be a silver bullet for any problem that should ever arise, thus dramatic lowering any and all stakes. But, I will say, the monsters and creatures were definitely the saving grace for fantasy elements. They were all new and interesting, doing most of the work of making this world feel like a unique place and touching on the cultural and mythical Indian elements that I was looking to learn more about.

I also couldn’t connect to the characters at all. The main character was supremely bland, suffering from the all-too-familiar case of a teenage character who is somehow the best everyone’s ever seen at a highly skills based occupation. This is a personal annoyance for me, of course, so others may not be bothered by it. But even personal preferences aside, Katyani didn’t have a lot going for her. She wasn’t annoying or prone to ridiculous dramatics, but she also didn’t have any real character traits that made me care about her personally. Beyond that, all of the characters had as similar sort of blandness which made them even less interesting as they began to blend together.

Lastly, I found a lot of the story highly predictable. From the very first few chapters, it was easy to guess what a few of the “reveals” would be. When you can see all of the twists coming, it’s very hard to feel investing in sticking it out while the characters themselves discover these truths. Ultimately, this book just wasn’t for me. Given that I didn’t particularly enjoy the other duology by this author that I’ve read, I think this is maybe just a sign that I should stick to other writers in the future. Fans of her work, however, might enjoy this, as I do think it was similar to that first duology (in that my annoyances have been the same between them, so if you weren’t bothered by it then, you may be good to go here too!)

Rating 6: Everything felt like it was lacking that certain spark that needs to come together to make a great read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Night of the Raven, Dawn of the Dove” isn’t currently on any Goodreads list, but it should be on Indian Inspired Fantasy Novels.

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