Kate’s Review: “Don’t Look For Me”

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

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

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

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

But is that what really happened to Molly Clarke?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

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

Kate’s Review: “The Hollow Ones”

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

Publishing Info: Grand Central Publishing, August 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory: 

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

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

Serena’s Review: “Dragonslayer”

40045979Book: “Dragonslayer” by Duncan M. Hamilton

Publishing Info: Tor Books, July 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory: 

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

Find “Dragonslayer” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Tigers, Not Daughters”

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

Publishing Info: Algonquin Young Readers, March 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

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

Serena’s Review: “The Glass Magician”

45046558Book: “The Glass Magician” by Caroline Stevermer

Publishing Info: Tor Books, April 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: What if you could turn into the animal of your heart anytime you want?

With such power, you’d enter the cream of New York society, guaranteed a rich life among the Vanderbilts and Astors, movers and shakers who all have the magical talent and own the nation on the cusp of a new century.
You could. If you were a Trader.

Pity you’re not.

Thalia is a Solitaire, one of the masses who don’t have the animalistic magic. But that is not to say that she doesn’t have talent of another kind—she is a rising stage magician who uses her very human skills to dazzle audiences with amazing feats of prestidigitation. Until one night when a trick goes horribly awry…and Thalia makes a discovery that changes her entire world. And sets her on a path that could bring her riches.

Or kill her.

Review: I was intrigued by the original sounding premise of this book. Set in New York, turn-of-the-century time period, and some type of new class system that is based around one’s magical ability to turn into an animal. All sounds like cool concepts and all put together, I really had no idea what to expect from this book. Unfortunately, it didn’t really turn out to be much of anything at all, so no expectations was about right.

After inheriting her father’s magic business, Thalia has been making her living as a stage magician. Not blessed with actual magical abilities that would vault her into the upper class of New York society, she is still managing to make a name for herself by performing wondrous and dangerous tricks in her act. One night, however, a trick goes wrong and Thalia discovers there is more within her than she had ever known. Now with abilities she doesn’t know how to control and a murder added to the mix, Thalia’s life is beginning to change. Will it be for the better or for the worse?

For the pros for this book, I will say that I still liked the uniqueness of the time period during which it was set and the choice to have it take place in New York City. It’s always a breath of fresh air to find a fantasy novel that isn’t set in some generic “medieval times” setting. And even more so to find one that is set in a city that exists today. However, I do think the author left a lot on the table with regards to what all could have been done with these two elements. The other positive worth noting was the writing itself. It didn’t stand out to me in any particular way, but it was of the sort that is strong enough to get the job done without distracting the reader. And, considering that I didn’t love much about this book, I think it’s a real strength of the writing that it was strong enough that I didn’t ever really feel like just putting the book down for good.

Unfortunately, as I mentioned with the time period and the setting, it felt like the author came up with some cool, individual ideas, but didn’t spend any time really building up the world or system around them. Like, people have this magic to turn into animals and society has been built in such a way that possessing this ability puts you into an elite class. But the why or how of this is never really explained. The history of how this system came to be in place is lacking. And there is really not magic system of any kind to explain the rules, limitations, or even, to some extent, the benefits of having these abilities. The entire world that has been created depends on these magical factors, and yet we get next to nothing about what they really are. It felt like the author simply didn’t want to bother with the details of these things, instead wanting to just jump into her heroine’s own story.

But there, too, I had problems. Thalia is an interesting enough character on her own, but the book simply didn’t have enough story for her. The entire book feels made up of either Thalia struggling to learn to control her new abilities or making small bits of progress solving a murder mystery. I was pretty surprised, actually, when the murder mystery aspect of it became apparent since there wasn’t any hint of that in the general description. But I’m all for historical murder mysteries, so this should have been a benefit to the story. Instead, again, it felt like only the most basic aspects of this part of the story were really explored. Things all come way too easily to Thalia, with people often behaving against their own best interest or out of character to help her on her way.

To make up page time for the lack of world-building, magic system, or complications in the murder mystery, we instead spend an incredible amount of time just in Thalia’s mind exploring her feelings. I don’t have a problem with books that center largely around the introspective thoughts of a main character, but there just has to be more to the story itself to support this. I also didn’t love the romance we were given. It felt forced and lacked chemistry.

I also have to spend a moment on that cover. Yikes. It’s the kind of thing that immediately attracts the eye (indeed, I clicked on it in NetGalley just because of the swan motif), but the more you look at it, the worse it gets. It’s all kinds of creepy with the teeth and eyes, and I’m not sure it really represents well the book we have. Instead, if I had noticed these details when choosing the book off the shelf, I think I would have most likely put it back just due to how unnerving I find it all.

Overall, I wasn’t impressed with this book. It felt like the author had some really neat ideas at the very core of it, but didn’t spend enough time to fully develop anything. The writing was strong enough, but there wasn’t enough story to go around.

Rating 6: Lack luster and thin, this book didn’t hold up to the promises of its premise.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Glass Magician” is a newer title and isn’t on any relevant lists. Bizarrely (and inaccurately) it is on “Historical Fiction 2020.”

Find “The Glass Magician” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Ranger of Marzanna”

51113661._sx318_sy475_Book: “The Ranger of Marzanna” by Jon Skovron

Publishing Info: Orbit, April 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher

Book Description: When their father is murdered by imperial soldiers, two siblings set out on opposite paths—one will destroy the Empire forever and the other will save it—in this thrilling new Russian inspired epic fantasy from Jon Skovron.

Sonya is training to be a Ranger of Marzanna, an ancient sect of warriors who have protected the land for generations. But the old ways are dying, and the rangers have all been forced into hiding or killed off by the invading Empire.

When her father is murdered by imperial soldiers, she decides to finally take action. Using her skills as a ranger she will travel across the bitter cold tundra and gain the allegiance of the only other force strong enough to take down the invaders.

But nothing about her quest will be easy. Because not everyone is on her side. Her brother, Sebastian, is the most powerful sorcerer the world has ever seen. And he’s fighting for the empire.

Review: Between the beautiful cover art and the intriguing book description, this was a no brainer for me to request. I always love stories about warrior women, and the fact that it was based on Russian folklore is just the cream on top. I was definitely getting some “The Bear and the Nightingale” vibes off this, which couldn’t have been more of an inducement since I’m still in mourning that that trilogy ended…like more than a year ago now. Get over it! Sadly, however, this book wasn’t quite that. There were some strengths to it, but not quite what I was looking for, in the end.

Sonya is in training to be a Ranger, a member of an elite fighting force. In pursuit of this goal, she travels around the countryside attempting to help her people against the doings of the invading imperial soldiers. While away, however, her family is attacked and her father killed. Her brother, however, a powerful sorcerer-in-training, survives and begins to make a new life for himself, one that sides with the very people who murdered their father. Now these two siblings find themselves on very different paths, paths that will eventually intersect to devastating effect.

So, to start with a few things I liked. I did like the Russian/Ukranian influences on the culture, location, and folklore of the story. The elemental magic system was also interesting enough. It’s not a super new concept, but I felt like the author put enough new twists into how it all works to keep it from feeling flat. I particularly liked the cult-like religion that followed Marzanna and the sacrifices that were required of those who committed themselves to her path (as we see through Sonya’s story.) But, sadly, I had a really hard time connecting to either of the two main characters, and I felt like the pacing and writing of the story weren’t helping matters out.

First, Sonya. I did end up liking her half of the story better than her brother’s, but again this was mostly due to the intriguing concept of having to give up parts of oneself to become a full follower of Marzanna. However, even in this part of the story, I didn’t feel like the author truly explored this concept completely. In many ways, it mostly just made Sonya less likable. She starts out incredibly bad-ass and so some of her struggles then appear out of character. But at the same time, growth for the character comes out of these moments, but never felt like it was really being applied completely. It’s hard to get at exactly what my problem was. I think maybe it was just that the actual character herself felt too flimsy to hold up the more grand adventure she was supposed to be having. And by the time we got to some of the darker portions of her tale, the part where readers have to begin questioning her actions and motives, it’s too late to really feel invested enough in it all.

As for Sebastian, I didn’t like him from the start, and it didn’t get any better as we went along. In the very first chapter we meet him, his father his killed and he and his mother are shipped back to the capitol city. His entire inner thought process of these events was summed up with an actual line saying that he didn’t really get along with his father that much so that must be why he’s not really grieving. From there, it just got worse as he literally teams up with the very people who killed his father and pretty much goes “meh” about the idea that his powers are now going to be used against his own people. There simply wasn’t enough (or any!) real conflict shown between Sebastian and his father to justify to bewildering turn for his character. Sebastian is either a sociopath who can’t care about others or an outright villain. Neither are likable. It’s especially confusing as he’s presented in a way that makes it clear that the author expects you to sympathize with him and read him as an equal protagonist. I just didn’t get it, and what I did get, I didn’t like.

I also felt like the writing and pacing of story were just a bit off. The characters spoke in a very YA manner, but this didn’t mesh well with the super violent descriptions that came with the action scenes. What’s more, the author had an unfortunate habit of info-dumping in his dialogue making it read as unnatural and stiff. Overall, I was pretty disappointed by this book. I know that the author has a fairly popular series already published, so I’m not sure if this was an aberration or whether this story just didn’t mesh with me specifically. If you are a fan of his other work and want to give this one a shot, don’t forget to enter the giveaway for an ARC copy of this book!

Rating 6: The two unlikable protagonists were too much for me to get past.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Ranger of Marzanna” is a newer title, so it isn’t on any Goodreads lists. But it should be on “Warrior Women.”

Find “The Ragner of Marzanna” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “A Murderous Relation”

35530507Book: “A Murderous Relation” by Deanna Raybourn

Publishing Info: Berkley, March 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Veronica Speedwell and her natural historian colleague Stoker are asked by Lady Wellingtonia Beauclerk to help with a potential scandal so explosive it threatens to rock the monarchy. Prince Albert Victor is a regular visitor to the most exclusive private club in London, known as the Club de l’Etoile, and the proprietess, Madame Aurore, has received an expensive gift that can be traced back to the prince. Lady Wellie would like Veronica and Stoker to retrieve the jewel from the club before scandal can break.

Worse yet, London is gripped by hysteria in the autumn of 1888, terrorized by what would become the most notorious and elusive serial killer in history, Jack the Ripper–and Lady Wellie suspects the prince may be responsible.

Veronica and Stoker reluctantly agree to go undercover at Madame Aurore’s high class brothel, where another body soon turns up. Many secrets are swirling around Veronica and the royal family–and it’s up to Veronica and Stoker to find the truth, before it’s too late for all of them. 

Previously Reviewed: “A Curious Beginning,” “A Perilous Undertaking,”“A Treacherous Curse” and “A Dangerous Collaboration” 

Review: I was even more excited than usual to pick up the latest “Veronica Speedwell” mystery when it came out. Finally, at the end of the last book, it seemed like Veronica and Stoker were finally confirming their romantic interest in one another. But, in a cruel twist of authorial spite, readers were left right at the brink of these two actually acting on their feelings. So here, in the next book, how would this newly forming relationship affect their working relationship and would we finally see them actually together? Well, yes, but not necessarily in the way I would have preferred.

Immediately upon their return to London, Veronica and Stoker once again find themselves caught up in mystery and scandal. This time, rather than solve a mystery, they are tasked with protecting Veronica’s “family,” the monarchy that has not acknowledged her. To do this, they must go under cover into an elaborate private club in hopes of retrieving a rare jewel that can be used to implicate Prince Albert Victor. But things are never as simple as they seem, and soon enough Veronica and Stoker find themselves mixed up with familiar foes and wandering streets that are plagued by a horrific serial killer.

So, this was a bit of a frustrating read for me. It seems that recently the books in this series have been see-sawing a bit as far as my enjoyment goes. The third book I found to be a bit lagging, but I loved the fourth book. Sadly, here, we see a return to some of the dragging bits. Ultimately, I struggled with two aspects of this: first, like in the third book, it felt like the author was not willing to deal with the burgeoning romance she had started and instead created roadblocks and delays that didn’t feel natural to the story; and second, there was a distinct feeling of familiarity and lack of new material to this particular story.

When I said “immediately” in my book description about how quickly the mystery started, I meant immediately. So much so that the entire question of the burgeoning romance between Stoker and Veronica is effectively sidelined right off the bat. From there, the book is quick to establish how tired they both are, how the beginning of a case is not the right time, etc, etc. And then the rest of the book happens with the entire mystery taking place in one full swoop spanning a hectic day and a half or so. Right there, we have a problem. Regardless of how silly and obvious some of the “tiredness” and “not the right time” conversations felt, the mystery itself did not gain anything for having to frantically move fast enough from one element to another in order to prevent addressing the romantic elephant in the room. Emotional moments didn’t ring as true or feel as earned. The build-up, crescendo, and conclusion to the mystery itself felt rushed, making it hard to feel invested in what was happening. It all felt forced and I think hurt the story more than it accomplished…whatever it was trying to accomplish.

My second problem had to do with the actual elements involved in the story. Almost all of it were retreads of themes, characters, and dilemmas that were found in previous books. We’ve already covered much of the emotional groundwork to be had with regards to Veronica and her feelings towards a royal family who doesn’t want to acknowledge her unless she can do them some favor. There has already been an entire book about a salacious secret society, so the escapades at the private club feel all too familiar. Even the villain, for the most part, is a return to a motivation and individual we’ve seen before. And for all of that, the Jack the Ripper portions that are teased in the book description are barely worth mentioning.

The primary strength of the series has always been Veronica and Stoker themselves. But even they, when given tired material that offers no room for new personal growth, can only do so much. Veronica’s voice is still strong and compelling, but that’s probably the best that can be said. Stoker felt largely absent from the story, even when he was right there on the page. And the small bits of emotional groundwork covered between the two of them felt like, again, retreads of conflicts that had already been resolved. There is a payoff for these two at the end, but I found it to be too little too late.

Overall, I was pretty disappointed by this book. It felt like the author had ran out of ideas as far as the mystery went. And then was too scared to confront the changing romance she had started in the last book, so she threw in a bunch unnecessary and ridiculous roadblocks in order to write one more book between these two prior to any romantic commitment. I honestly don’t understand the concern here. I’ve often compared this series to the “Amelia Peabody” books. And in that series there was only one book before our main characters not only paired up, but got married! And then only one more book or so before they had a kid along with them! And that series never lost anything for resolving the “will they/won’t they” aspect early, let alone 5 books in like this one. Frankly, I feel like this shying away from resolving “will they/won’t they” relationships in general, across all media formats, needs to die a quick and final death.

I believe the author has a contract with a publisher to write at least two more books, so of course I’ll be reading them. And, at least given the events of the end of this book, this whole relationship thing should be settled. Hopefully she’ll come out with some more unique themes and elements, too. But if I catch even a whiff of forced drama to the romance of this story again, I’m pretty sure I’m out.

Rating 6: A disappointing follow-up after one of my favorites in the series so far. The author seemed to run out of ideas and resorted to pulling old tricks out of her hat. And then became a deer in the headlights with the romance she had written herself into at the end of the last book.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“A Murderous Relation” is a newer title so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “Historical Mystery 2020.”

Find “A Murderous Relation” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Under the Moon: A Catwoman Tale”

38452822._sx318_Book: “Under the Moon: A Catwoman Tale” by Lauren Myracle and Isaac Goodhart (Ill.)

Publishing Info: DC Ink, May 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Selina Kyle is fiercer than she knows. For 15 years, she’s put up with her mother’s string of bad boyfriends, but when Dernell, her mom’s current beau, proves crueler than the others, Selina reevaluates her place in her home. There’s no way Selina and Dernell can live under the same roof, and since Dernell won’t leave, Selina must.

From New York Times bestselling author Lauren Myracle (ttyl) and artist Isaac Goodhart comes a story about learning how to survive the world when you’ve been forced to abandon your home and finding allies in the most unexpected moments.

Review: If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it many a time: I love Catwoman. I have always loved Catwoman. And because of my deep and unabiding love for Catwoman, I am VERY picky about how Catwoman is portrayed. Some portrayals I’ve loved, other’s I’ve despised, but at the end of the day while it’s a gamble, I am always up for giving any version a chance. So when I discovered “Catwoman: Under the Moon” by Lauren Myracle, I absolutely had to take the bet and roll the dice.

giphy-1
It will probably never live up to this, but a good effort can do a lot. (source)

I always find it a little risky to try and give Selina Kyle/Catwoman an origin story, for a couple of reasons. The first is that Selina is such a mysterious character at her heart that learning too much can sometimes take away some of the allure. While I like getting into her head and seeing vulnerability, I think that part of the appeal of her is that she has secrets to hide, and don’t you wish you knew them. The other is that some origins have become so iconic over the years (“Batman Returns” really nailed it), I’m always going to be comparing new origins to well done old ones. I think that, for the most part, Myracle is able to fight back both of these pitfalls, as her backstory for Selina is filled with pathos and empathy while still feeling very believable in a lot of ways (I’ll get to the problems I had with it in a bit). And I also think that it feels different enough from other origins I’ve read and unique enough that I wasn’t constantly being like ‘well that’s not how I see it’. Selina’s story in this balances a good line between too unbelievable tragic, and not dark enough. And given some of the darker themes that Myracle brings in, like domestic abuse, animal cruelty, mental illness, and homelessness, she also has a large list of resources in the back of the book so that any readers that may see themselves in Selina’s story may have a place to turn to. I really liked that. 

But then there were the issues I had with it. The first was that, for whatever reason, Bruce Wayne had to be brought in as a childhood friend of Selina. Look, I love Selina and Bruce, no question, they are definitely a top ship for me in the DC universe. But I had really hoped that Selina could have just stood on her own two feet without him being around. It also just didn’t make sense that he had to tell her that his parents had been murdered and what was why they grew apart, and she seemed to not know that. I mean, I feel like the murders of two of the most powerful people in Gotham would have been news that most people would have heard of. And given that Selina was in a middle school setting with Bruce, that teenage gossip mill would have CERTAINLY clued her in, right?! On top of that, there were a good number of plot ideas and strings that were introduced in this book, but I didn’t feel like many of them were fully explored. The biggest one for me was when Selina started running with other homeless kids, and met a girl named Briar Rose who doesn’t speak and has a tragic backstory. There was a lot of potential in the friendship between Selina and Briar Rose (or Rosie as Selina starts calling her!), especially since Myracle left Selina’s younger sister out of this backstory. But we didn’t really get to see their friendship grow, as there was a time jump with small flashbacks to show that they were now thick as thieves so that the plot could progress as such. I never really care for that kind of storytelling.

“Under the Moon” was an alright backstory for one of my favorite DC ladies, but it had the promise to be so much more. That said, if Myracle continued this story, I’d probably pick it up!

Rating 6: A pretty okay origin story for Selina Kyle/Catwoman, but there were a few too many ideas that didn’t get explored enough.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Under the Moon: A Catwoman Tale” is included on the Goodreads lists “Ladies of DC”, and “DC Comics by Women”.

Find “Under the Moon: A Catwoman Tale” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Poison Ivy: Cycle of Life and Death”

29429567._sy475_Book: “Poison Ivy: Cycle of Life and Death” by Amy Chu, Clay Mann (Ill.), & Seth Mann (Ill.)

Publishing Info: DC Comics, September 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Poison Ivy blossoms into her first solo adventure! There are animals. There are vegetables. And there is somewhere in between. That’s where Dr. Pamela Isley, a.k.a. Poison Ivy, finds herself. Instead of battling the Dark Knight, she is now a researcher at the Gotham Botanical Gardens, studying the possibility of creating plant-human hybrids. But when her fellow scientists start turning up dead, she’s both the natural leading suspect and the only person (or plant) who can crack the case. To solve the mystery, Poison Ivy must team up or throw down with her oldest friends and closest frenemies, from Harley Quinn to Catwoman to the Swamp Thing. Can she keep things under control, or will she be responsible for a deadly new harvest? Sprouting from the brains of the up-and-coming creative team of writer Amy Chu and artist Clay Mann, it s a mean, green murder mystery starring one of Batman’s greatest rogues!

Review: I will admit that my love for Poison Ivy was late blooming (HAHAHA) in all my years of Batman worship. I don’t know if it was because “Batman and Robin” (though Uma Thurman is a goddess and I now appreciate her characterization in spite of everything), or my disinterest in plants in general, but it took far too long for me to love Dr. Pamela Isley. It didn’t happen until I was looking for a cosplay outfit that wouldn’t require a wig, and I dove heart and soul into making a Poison Ivy costume. And it turned out AWESOME, if I do say so myself.

poisonivy
And to hide my prematurely white hair I dyed my roots green, because ROOTS!

So now that my love for Ivy is here to stay and all encompassing, I was totally tickled when I saw “Poison Ivy: Cycle of Life and Death” during a weeding project at work. I wanted to give this book a stay of execution and wanted to see what author Amy Chu had done with my girl.

There were two, maybe three, really strong aspects to this book. The first is that we get to see Pamela back in her research role, and we get to see how awesome she is at it. While we are used to seeing her as an eco-terrorist or just a general baddie that Batman has to take on, it’s sometimes easy to forget that she is a brilliant scientist, and seeing her passionate and stupendous at her work was heartening as hell. Chu shows that Pamela is in her element, and even throws in some really satisfying moments of fighting back against sexism and misogyny in STEM. True, it’s with violence, but it’s a power fantasy so that’s just fine. The second aspect I enjoyed (a mild spoiler alert here) was the exploration of Poison Ivy as not only a scientific creator, but as a mother as well. She creates human plant hybrids that she raises as her daughters, and I thought that showing motherhood and nurturing sides of Poison Ivy while still letting her maintain her strength and power. Too often these more feminine themes are thrown aside as if they aren’t strengths in superhero stories, so to see it here was great. And the third aspect was seeing some other DC lady favorites like Harley Quinn and Selina Kyle show up and help Ivy when needed, as well as a cameo from another DC character that I’m going to keep under wraps.

Those aspects aside, “Poison Ivy: Cycle of Life and Death” didn’t have the oomph that I wanted from it. While I liked Ivy as a mother figure, her relationship with her three ‘daughters’ Rose, Hazel, and Thorn didn’t get enough deep dive attention. The affection was there, sure, but we didn’t really get to see it build and transform, as a time jump to speed up the plot deprived us of the actual character and relationship development. Another quibble I had was that the relationship between Ivy and Harley Quinn wasn’t nearly sapphic enough. There was something of a hint towards them perhaps being an item if you knew to look for it, but there was a bit more attention towards Ivy’s scientist colleague Darshan and the sexual tension there. To Chu’s credit, while Darshan is a nice addition to the story, his relationship with Ivy doesn’t really go anywhere. But the fact that even the hint of her being with a guy got more attention than the long standing undertones of the Ivy/Harley relationship made me even more frustrated.

And finally, I didn’t really care for the artwork. The reason for this is that while this story really is great in that it puts Ivy at the front and gives her agency and a lot of cool things to do, the character design was definitely still through the male gaze.

tumblr_o8b3y5wt6i1r7hjkqo1_500
What is going on with these proportions?! (source)
pivybnner
And what is the point of this may I ask? (source)

It just doesn’t fit with the tone of the story.

I’m glad that Poison Ivy got her own story where she could show off her strengths, and there were certainly good things about “Poison Ivy: Cycle of Life and Death”. I just wish that we had gotten more. But if you like Poison Ivy, you will find things to like here.

Rating 6: A perfectly fine adventure starring one of my favorite anti-heroines, but I really wanted more from it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Poison Ivy: Cycle of Life and Death” is included on the Goodreads lists “Biologically Interesting Sci-Fi”, and “Ladies of DC”.

Find “Poison Ivy: Cycle of Life and Death” at your library using WorldCat!