Serena’s Review: “Reverie”

46299614Book: “Reverie” by Ryan La Sala

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Fire, December 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: All Kane Montgomery knows for certain is that the police found him half-dead in the river. He can’t remember how he got there, what happened after, and why his life seems so different now. And it’s not just Kane who’s different, the world feels off, reality itself seems different.

As Kane pieces together clues, three almost-strangers claim to be his friends and the only people who can truly tell him what’s going on. But as he and the others are dragged into unimaginable worlds that materialize out of nowhere—the gym warps into a subterranean temple, a historical home nearby blooms into a Victorian romance rife with scandal and sorcery—Kane realizes that nothing in his life is an accident. And when a sinister force threatens to alter reality for good, they will have to do everything they can to stop it before it unravels everything they know.

Review: Another gorgeous cover, another intriguing book description! To be honest, I really had very little to go on when requesting this book. Part of it may have spoken to my withdrawals from “The Starless Sea” with some of the similar-sounding descriptions of mystical worlds each with their own story. December always seems to be a bit thin in the pickings, too, so anything that sparks interest is usually a go around now. Alas, even no expectations were too many for this book.

Kane knows very little about himself or his life. Found half dead on the side of a river, he only feels a sense of…difference. About him?About the world? About the mystery behind what happened to him? So when three others show up claiming to be his friends, he jumps at the opportunity to learn more. But he quickly realizes that this mystery is much greater than a near-drowning. Now, worlds are opening in the middle of the ordinary places in the world, each with their own stories and histories. How does his own experience connect with these mysteries? And is that even the biggest problem Kane faces now?

Ah, too bad. Another story that falls into the too simple and too common box of “missed potential.” These types of books are almost the hardest to review because there is nothing overtly wrong or offensive about the book, and, more often than not, they still have good qualities that hold them together. But by the final page, I’m left with an overwhelming sense of indifference and a fixation on the hours spent reading this book instead of some other book.

Amnesia stories, to start with, are very hard to pull off. The main character of the story is a necessary blank, having no point of reference of history, prior relationships, ongoing emotional struggles to draw upon. This leaves their observations and reactions feeling hollow. It’s hard to feel connected to a character who isn’t connected himself. This is the problem with Kane in a big way. Through the entire book, I just never really cared about him. He was instead mostly just a blank slate around which to build this story and magical world.

The world-building and writing was both a hit and a miss for me as well. On one hand, several of the descriptions of events and places were beautiful and new. But on the other hand, they weren’t the type of descriptions that read easily. I’m not sure how to put my finger on this. But I found myself having to re-read several lines to really put together how a particular metaphor was being used or what was being described. Perhaps having just read “Starless Sea” made this particular misstep hit home a bit harder than it would have at other times. That book, too, used very unique language to describe strange and new imagery. But there, somehow, the words flowed in a way that wasn’t distracting and didn’t throw me out of the story quite as badly as a similar style did here.

I also struggled to fully understand the rules of the world. How exactly do reveries work? What are their boundaries? There was definitely an interesting idea to be found here, but between the blank that was Kane and the distracting writing, I was already too out of this story to be able to turn my brain off and just go with the flow.

All of that being said, I did like Kane’s love interest, and in many ways, he had a lot more character building given to him than Kane himself did. And, while the writing style did kick me out of the flow of things every once in a while, there were also some legitimately lovely pieces of word play. But, in the end, my main takeaway was that this book didn’t accomplish all that it set out to. It was too bad. Others, however, might still enjoy this story. If you’re looking for a unique, LGBT fantasy, this does do well on all of those counts. Just not really my cup of tea, I guess.

Rating 6: Nothing terrible, but amnesia strikes again at taking down its main character and the unique word play hurts the flow of the story more often than it helps.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Reverie” is on these Goodreads lists: “2020 Queer Sci-Fi Fantasy” and “Oooh Shiny! December 2019.”

Find “Reverie” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Twisted Ones”

42527596._sy475_Book: “The Twisted Ones” by T. Kingfisher

Publishing Info: Gallery/Saga Press, October 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: When a young woman clears out her deceased grandmother’s home in rural North Carolina, she finds long-hidden secrets about a strange colony of beings in the woods.

When Mouse’s dad asks her to clean out her dead grandmother’s house, she says yes. After all, how bad could it be?

Answer: pretty bad. Grandma was a hoarder, and her house is stuffed with useless rubbish. That would be horrific enough, but there’s more—Mouse stumbles across her step-grandfather’s journal, which at first seems to be filled with nonsensical rants…until Mouse encounters some of the terrifying things he described for herself.

Alone in the woods with her dog, Mouse finds herself face to face with a series of impossible terrors—because sometimes the things that go bump in the night are real, and they’re looking for you. And if she doesn’t face them head on, she might not survive to tell the tale.

From Hugo Award–winning author Ursula Vernon, writing as T. Kingfisher. 

Review: Of all the horror genres, folk horror tends to be one of the few that I have a hard time sinking my teeth into. While I love the movie “The Wicker Man” (and “The Blair Witch Project”, if you can classify it as such? I feel like maybe you could?), I still haven’t seen “Midsommer” and don’t feel a huge draw to do so. I’ve read a few folk horror novels, and none of them really stood out to me as particularly engrossing or engaging. But I am always wanting to give the subgenre a chance. Because of this, I wanted to read “The Twisted Ones” by T. Kingfisher. After all, while it was described as ‘folk horror’ by some reviewers, the idea of monsters in the woods slowly creeping up was too good of a premise to pass by.

rtuq
Have I been burned by this premise before? Yes. Yet I keep the faith that I won’t be frustrated every time I pick up such a book. (source)

“The Twisted Ones” starts out with a lot of promise. A woman named Mouse (our first person narrator) has gone to her grandmother’s house (along with her dog Bongo) to clean it out after she has died. Mouse and her grandmother didn’t get along, as her grandmother was a TERRIBLE human being, but Mouse was close to her stepgrandfather, Cotgrave, and as she’s cleaning memories of her time with him bubble up. At night she has to contend with her grief and guilt regarding Cotgrave, her anger at her grandmother, and strange noises she hears outside that Bongo just won’t leave alone. As one might guess, the noises aren’t just harmless nature sounds, and soon Mouse finds herself being drawn into stories of ‘twisted ones’, and stumbling into landscapes that shouldn’t be there. Throughout all of this, I was definitely enjoying this story and the slow burn that Kingfisher was putting forth. I liked how through Mouse’s narration we are tuned in with her own initial skepticism (and delightful snark), though we have a dread in our gut that the noises and the weird blurs of animals running around in the dark aren’t just run of the mill North Carolina fauna. As it slowly becomes clear that Mouse and Bongo are dealing with something sinister and threatening, the tension is so tightly wound that the reader will potentially look out their own dark window at night and worry about what they will see. The building tension is grand, as are the supporting characters that Mouse meets while she is in the cabin in the woods. From Foxy the eccentric woman down the road to Tomas the helpful handyman, Mouse and the cast of characters feel real and sympathetic, to the point where you care about them and what happens to them.

All that said, once we get to the heart of the horror and find out what these creatures are any why they are here, the fear and scares immediately departed for this reader. I think that when it comes to ‘monsters in the woods stories’, I am only interested until the monster is revealed. The terror and dread is the unknown, the strange noises in the woods, the blurs in the moonlight. When we get to portals and interactions with the actual beings face to face, and the other revelations as to what they may or may not with Mouse, my interest was completely lost. But I think that has more to do with a lot of my own folk horror tastes, which are firmly placed more towards ambiguity and the unknown. I am far more taken in by an unseen Blair Witch who may or may not be stalking a group of filmmakers in the woods, than I am by a reveal of ‘monsters in the woods aren’t real but used to control the town’ two thirds of the way through the narrative. You have me when it’s ambiguous in folk horror. The moment you explain it, my interest wanes.

This is very much an instance of my own personal tastes getting in the way of the story, and that shouldn’t dissuade ride or die folk horror fans from checking it out. “The Twisted Ones” has some tense moments and scary themes regardless of how I felt about the last third of the book. So don’t take my word for it. Give it a go if this sounds like a book that will keep you up at night and out of the woods.

Rating 6: This had some tense moments and a fun and snarky narrator, but the big reveal was a bit of a let down. That said, it could be just me, and not the book itself.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Twisted Ones” is included on the Goodreads lists “A Walk in the Woods”, and “Best Supernatural Books, No Romance, No Series”.

Find “The Twisted Ones” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Dead Girls Club”

45701350Book: “The Dead Girls Club” by Damien Angelica Waters

Publishing Info: Crooked Lane Books, December 2019

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

Book Description: A supernatural thriller in the vein of A Head Full of Ghosts about two young girls, a scary story that becomes far too real, and the tragic–and terrifying–consequences that follow one of them into adulthood.

Red Lady, Red Lady, show us your face…

In 1991, Heather Cole and her friends were members of the Dead Girls Club. Obsessed with the macabre, the girls exchanged stories about serial killers and imaginary monsters, like the Red Lady, the spirit of a vengeful witch killed centuries before. Heather knew the stories were just that, until her best friend Becca began insisting the Red Lady was real–and she could prove it.

That belief got Becca killed.

It’s been nearly thirty years, but Heather has never told anyone what really happened that night–that Becca was right and the Red Lady was real. She’s done her best to put that fateful summer, Becca, and the Red Lady, behind her. Until a familiar necklace arrives in the mail, a necklace Heather hasn’t seen since the night Becca died.

The night Heather killed her.

Now, someone else knows what she did…and they’re determined to make Heather pay.

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

I’ve spoken before about how my childhood was distinctly lacking in spooky urban legends about my community and neighborhood. I don’t know if that’s just larger city living or if I was surrounded by people who didn’t have time for such nonsense, but I do feel a little sad that we had a serious lack in fun, innocent creepy stories (and instead contended with actual creepy stories, like the flasher who’d jump out at joggers on the path by our house). I think that because of this I am especially drawn to stories with scary local folklore themes, and that was the main draw of “The Dead Girls Club” by Damien Angelica Walters. Well, that and the description of a group of teen girls who liked to talk serial killers for funsies. I wish I had that kind of friendship as a teenager. I went into “The Dead Girls Club” with high hopes and expectations that it would meld teenage girl angst with the supernatural, and for awhile I thought it had succeeded. Until it didn’t.

But before we talk about my frustrations, I want to emphasize that “The Dead Girls Club” was a pretty fun ride for the majority of the story. It hops between timelines, that of the present day, and that of the early 1990s. Our focus is mostly on Heather, a woman whose childhood best friend, Becca, was killed one fateful summer, after telling tales of a supposed witch called The Red Lady. Becca, Heather, and their friends were part of a secret club that liked the creepy things in life, but Becca’s obsession with the Red Lady urban legend starts to take over all of their lives. Especially when it seems that this made up story may have some truth to it. In the present we see Heather have to confront this summer when she starts getting secret messages from an anonymous someone (or perhaps something) that hints to knowing the truth about what actually happened to Becca, and what role Heather played in it. We see her try to discern who is stalking her, and see how her lingering fear of The Red Lady starts to take it’s toll on her life and psyche. This is interspersed with flashbacks to when Becca first started telling the stories, and we get to see the slow burn and build up of a deteriorating friendship and what exactly happened between the two girls, which left Becca dead.

I thought that the biggest strengths in this book laid in two factors: the first was the mythology and ambiguity of The Red Lady. Walters gives us enough evidence on both sides of the coin to make the argument that The Red Lady is real, or that The Red Lady is a combination of a lonely child’s imagination run amok and the hysteria shared between friends that are looking to freak themselves out. I do think that the narrative falls on one solution eventually, but I did like that a lot of left up to interpretation for a majority of the story. The other strength was in how Walters portrayed the complicated nature that some teenage friendships can have, specifically between two girls. I know this complexity and complication pretty well from my own experience, and seeing how Becca and Heather both start to grow apart and yet still cling desperately to each other was well written and completely believable. Hell, the Red Lady story itself was a fun and scary one, with smatterings of feminist revenge and all the best ghost stories that come with it. Walters also peels back the motivations for both Heather AND Becca, and once you get to the cores of both of them the spectre of tragedy is just as heavy as the spectre of the Red Lady. They are both sympathetic and frustrating characters, and I think that is the only way they could be written.

But the reason this gets bumped down a few ratings is because, unfortunately, Walters decided to throw in one big and out of left field twist that, for me, derailed the entire story. I won’t spoil it, as I think this is still worth the read, but by the time one of the big reveals came to be I rolled my eyes and muttered a frustrated but not terribly surprised ‘seriously?’ Again, I am not a hater of well done twists. If you can set it up effectively enough that in the moment you have a ‘but of COURSE’ epiphany based on small clues that came before it, I’m going to sing it’s praises forever. But in this case it just felt like a twist for the sake of a twist, and not one that was earned. You gotta earn those twists, people. That’s the only way to stick that landing.

“The Dead Girls Club” is a creepy and unsettling story that didn’t live up to its potential. It’s still worth taking a look, and I am definitely putting Damien Angelica Walters on my radar. But it could have been stronger.

Rating 6: A creepy thriller with a fantastic urban legend at its heart, but it gets derailed by a frustrating twist ending.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Dead Girls Club” is new and not included on many relevant Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Mysteries Featuring Urban Myths/Folklore”.

Find “The Dead Girls Club” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “A Madness of Sunshine”

43419669._sx318_Book: “A Madness of Sunshine” by Nalini Singh

Publishing Info: Berkley, December 2019

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

Book Description: New York Times bestselling author Nalini Singh welcomes you to a remote town on the edge of the world where even the blinding brightness of the sun can’t mask the darkness that lies deep within a killer…

On the rugged West Coast of New Zealand, Golden Cove is more than just a town where people live. The adults are more than neighbors; the children, more than schoolmates.
 
That is until one fateful summer—and several vanished bodies—shatters the trust holding Golden Cove together. All that’s left are whispers behind closed doors, broken friendships, and a silent agreement not to look back. But they can’t run from the past forever.
 
Eight years later, a beautiful young woman disappears without a trace, and the residents of Golden Cove wonder if their home shelters something far more dangerous than an unforgiving landscape.
 
It’s not long before the dark past collides with the haunting present and deadly secrets come to light.

Review: Thanks to NetGalley and Berkley Books for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

Back at my previous library job, I spent a lot of my time shelving books in all sections of the library. This branch had a very high circulating romance section, and therefore I shelved a lot of Nalini Singh. This was my only exposure to her before Berkley Books sent me the link to an eARC of “A Madness of Sunshine”. I am not really one for romance novels in general, but the description caught my attention for two reasons. The first is that the plot is described like a gritty thriller. Missing women, a town with secrets, a potential serial killer, all of these things entice me. The other is the location: it takes place in New Zealand, my favorite place in the entire world! Could I relive the best vacation of my life through the pages of this book? I was willing to try!

giphy-1
Two of my favorite Kiwis, who did not make an appearance in this book. (source)

“A Madness of Sunshine” is framed as a mystery/thriller, with the main thread of the story being about the disappearance of Miriama, a young and effervescent woman who goes missing and whose absence is noticed by many people within the small town of Golden Cove. It also happens to harken back to similar cases of young women who had gone missing a number of years previously. But the focus is more upon the two people who have their own reasons for wanting to find her. The first is Anahera, a woman who was born and raised in Golden Cove, and then left after a traumatic experience and she met a man who whisked her off to London. She’s back home, now a new widow (and reeling from the shock of his infidelity), and has a personal friendly connection to Miriama and her family. The other is Will, a detective who is trying to move on after he bungled an investigation in such a way that it left collateral damage. As the two of them try to put together the clues towards where Miriama could be, they start to get closer to each other. Which, given that Singh is a prolific and well received romance author, makes sense. I enjoyed both Anahera and Will, and while I didn’t really feel like they grew as much as I would have liked them to within the narrative I liked the heat gradually sparked between them. I did like learning about both of their backgrounds as well, and their various tragic backstory details made me really root for them to find happiness when all was said and done.

However, this is a thriller at it’s core, and when it came to that aspect of this book “A Madness of Sunshine” could have been a bit stronger. I would have liked to have more exploration of the missing women from years earlier, as it felt like they just got mentioned and brought up every once in awhile. I also felt like Miriama was more of an ideal than a character that we were supposed to care about, and because of that I didn’t really care one way or the other if she was found safe and sound at the end of the day. In terms of what happened to her, and what happened to the missing women prior, the solutions to those mysteries were standard and kind of bland. They made sense, but by the time we got to them I was less rocked by the revelations, and more ‘oh, okay’ when all was said and done. Not exactly the kind of reaction I like to have when it comes to the solution of a tantalizing thriller or mystery!

But the biggest positive of this book for me was the New Zealand locale. Singh effortlessly brings the town of Golden Cove to life, and the references to various aspects of New Zealand culture, geography, and history really anchored the setting for me. It makes me think about picking up more Nalini Singh novels, with the expectation of romance and heat, and see what they do for me. After all, it was the romance aspects that were the strongest parts of this book.

I think that if you are a thriller fan who isn’t used to a mix of other genres, “A Madness of Sunshine” may not satisfy your reading itch. But if you are going in with the expectation of a little bit of romance and angst, it might be a pretty good fit!

Rating 6: While it was a bit more heavy on the romantic and hidden past elements than the thriller ones, “A Madness of Sunshine” was an entertaining read, and takes place in my favorite place on Earth.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Madness of Sunshine” isn’t on many relevant Goodreads book lists yet, but I think it would fit in on “Popular Missing Persons Books”, and “New Zealand”.

Find “A Madness of Sunshine” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Winterwood”

40148425._sy475_Book: “Winterwood” by Shea Ernshaw

Publishing Info: Simon Pulse, November 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Be careful of the dark, dark wood . . .

Especially the woods surrounding the town of Fir Haven. Some say these woods are magical. Haunted, even.

Rumored to be a witch, only Nora Walker knows the truth. She and the Walker women before her have always shared a special connection with the woods. And it’s this special connection that leads Nora to Oliver Huntsman—the same boy who disappeared from the Camp for Wayward Boys weeks ago—and in the middle of the worst snowstorm in years. He should be dead, but here he is alive, and left in the woods with no memory of the time he’d been missing.

But Nora can feel an uneasy shift in the woods at Oliver’s presence. And it’s not too long after that Nora realizes she has no choice but to unearth the truth behind how the boy she has come to care so deeply about survived his time in the forest, and what led him there in the first place. What Nora doesn’t know, though, is that Oliver has secrets of his own—secrets he’ll do anything to keep buried, because as it turns out, he wasn’t the only one to have gone missing on that fateful night all those weeks ago.

Review: Yet another sophomore book from an author whom I missed out on the first go around. Not quite sure why I never got around to “The Wicked Deep,” but when I saw this one pop up, once again I decided to be late to the party and see what all the fuss was about. Unfortunately, while this strategy has worked with other books (shout out again to “Song of the Crimson Flower”!), here it just proved that I probably made the right choice with the first book and these are just not for me.

Nora is out in the woods after one of the worst winter storms in years. Everything is closed down, but she is not like others: she is a Walker woman and does not fear the woods. Instead, she shares a close bond with this strange, mysterious place where others dare not to walk. This connection leads to her a lost boy, missing for weeks and presumed dead. But he has survived the forest…somehow. As they grow closer to each other, Nora begins to suspect that Oliver has secrets of his own. Perhaps he, too, shares a connection with the forest? But what is it and does it pose a threat?

There were several reasons this book didn’t work for me, and most of them have to do with either the YA fantasy genre reading as a bit tired recently, or it’s just me. But the first thing that stood out to me as a warning sign that this book and I might not get along was the writing itself. I had heard that this, like the author’s first book, was noted for its atmospheric writing. I think I may have a different understanding of that word than the way it is often used. I have used it myself, don’t get me wrong. Probably recently, because if I didn’t say it in my review of “The Starless Sea,” then that’s an example of the type of book that I would describe that way. But when I use that word it has to do with how an author draws a scene. It doesn’t have to be restrained to the physical characteristics of setting, but to a scene as a whole: the action of it, the location, the indescribable “feel” of a situation. An atmospheric style of writing adds depth and is beautiful to read on its own, often with a poetic choice of words.

But I feel that when it is used to describe books like this one, most reviewers are getting at something different. I think it’s still consistently used for these books, but in a different way than what I described above. Most notably, I think the “atmosphere” is often applied to the characters themselves. Perhaps there is still some sense of poetry to the words chosen, but beautiful words devoid of rational meaning don’t result in much, in my opinion. This then ends up with books that use random, disconnected phrases to describe characters. In this book, only two pages in, the main character is describing herself as “more darkness than girl.” Ok. Sounds nice enough, I guess. But what does that actually mean? I have no idea, and given that we’re only two pages into the book, I don’t even have any context where I could try to parse out an actual meaning from that. Instead, it reads as if the author is simply throwing around  pretty phrases and not bothering to ground them in anything, or, frankly, make them worth while to the story at all. This is only one example, but it continues throughout the book.

This is the type of “atmosphere” that I find all too often in YA fantasy, and it’s always a red flag for me. It may not always be true (I’m sure there are exceptions if I really thought about it), but usually it’s a good predictor that the author seems to be having more fun writing pretty strings of words than constructing an actual story. Paired with this habit often comes bland characters, convenient plots, and stories that sound good on paper but prove to be underwhelming. Unfortunately, that all proved to be true here as well.

I didn’t care about our main characters. Neither of them were bad, but I also didn’t feel particularly attached to them. How can I be attached to someone who introduces herself to me as “more darkness than girl?” I don’t know what that means, and honestly I’m too lazy to find out. It’s the books job to make me care, and that doesn’t do it. I did like the general overview of the story, and the witchy elements and spooky woods were promising. But they were paired with a convenient and predictable plot. I was able to guess many of the twists (including the big one) right away which cut the legs out of it right from the start.

I feel like I’ve come down hard on this book, and I don’t want to make it seem that this one is any worse than most of the run-of-the-mill YA fantasy stories out there like this. I guess I was just in a mood to talk about this particular frustration, and this book had the bad luck of being the most recent one to show up on my reading list featuring this specific peeve. Fans of the author’s first book and her writing style will likely be pleased with this. But those who recognize the traits I’m talking about may find themselves underwhelmed by this story.

Rating 6: Hits a nerve for one of my pet peeves, but is otherwise a fairly standard, if uninspiring, story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Winterwood” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists. But it should be on “Magical Trees.”

Find “Winterwood” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet”

22733729Book: “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers

Publishing Info: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, July 2014

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

Book Description: Rosemary Harper doesn’t expect much when she joins the crew of the aging Wayfarer. While the patched-up ship has seen better days, it offers her a bed, a chance to explore the far-off corners of the galaxy, and most importantly, some distance from her past. An introspective young woman who learned early to keep to herself, she’s never met anyone remotely like the ship’s diverse crew, including Sissix, the exotic reptilian pilot, chatty engineers Kizzy and Jenks who keep the ship running, and Ashby, their noble captain.

Life aboard the Wayfarer is chaotic and crazy—exactly what Rosemary wants. It’s also about to get extremely dangerous when the crew is offered the job of a lifetime. Tunneling wormholes through space to a distant planet is definitely lucrative and will keep them comfortable for years. But risking her life wasn’t part of the plan. In the far reaches of deep space, the tiny Wayfarer crew will confront a host of unexpected mishaps and thrilling adventures that force them to depend on each other. To survive, Rosemary’s got to learn how to rely on this assortment of oddballs—an experience that teaches her about love and trust, and that having a family isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the universe.

Review:  One of my librarian friends recommended this book a few years ago, so I had dutifully added it to my TBR list. And there it sat. But recently I was finding myself in the mood of a sci fi read, realizing I hadn’t read and reviewed a book in that genre for quite a while, and while browsing, there it was! I was able to nab an audiobook copy from the library, and I was off!

Rosemary is running from her past. And what better place to forget where she came from than a ship that travels to the outer reaches of space itself. Staffed by an odd assortment of crew made up of a diverse species and peoples, Rosemary soon learns that life on this ship is not like ordinary space travel. There is more danger to be sure, but she also finds that through these adventures and close calls, the bonds that form between this oddball family can be stronger than anything she’s known before.

I’ll admit to having a hard time with this book, but it’s for a reason that is pretty new to me. For all that every book is different and each reading experience offers something new, I can definitely point to some typical things that throw me out of a story: nonsense characters, love triangles, predictable plots trying to be pretentious. But this was a new one for me. This book was just too…nice. Obviously, with a complaint like that, there are also a lot of pros to talk about, too, so let me cover those first before trying to explain myself.

First things first, the story largely depends on its cast of characters that make up the crew. I appreciated the diversity that the author brought to this group. Not only did she create original alien species who are all physically unique from humans, but they each had distinct cultures with differing approaches to communication, relationships, food, and many other aspects of life. One of the more interesting aspects of the book was exploring the ins and outs of each of these distinct characters and learning more about how their species differs from humanity. Several of them were simply entertaining, with quippy dialogue and fun interactions. However, these fun characters did ultimately end up washing out Rosemary herself. She quickly felt more like the readers point of entrance into the story and very little else.

The problems with the “niceness” start here, too. In some ways, this book reminds me of what “Star Trek” set out to do: to show an idealized future where most of humanity’s internal conflict has been set to rest and exploration and understanding are the sole mission. Here, while humanity as a whole does not have its act together, the crew largely does. It’s a weird thing to complain about, but there simply wasn’t enough conflict. I don’t need tons of drama or in-fighting or anything, but the story seemed to lack tension.

The crew fly in and out of a variety of adventures, and while some aspects of these were thrilling enough on their own, the crew’s seemingly perfect “woke” attitude about it all became almost tiring. It was hard to continue to read them all as fully realized characters when there were very few, if any, flaws in sight. This leaves the characters with very few emotional arcs of their own. The quippy-ness, while fun at the beginning, quickly began to feel cutesy and disingenuous.

This book has been compared to “Firefly” and I would add “Star Trek” to that mix. But what both of those shows got right was that these tight knit families of crew members were pulled together in spite of their ongoing flaws, not because they simply didn’t have any. Like I said, it’s a weird complaint. In the end, I guess I was just looking for a bit more of a serious sci-fi read and this one was too light for my own taste. Readers who want a fun, beach-read-style sci-fi story might enjoy this more.

Rating 6: While fun enough at times, there simply wasn’t enough real conflict or tension to really sink my teeth into the book.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” is on these Goodreads lists: “Optimistic Space Scifi” and “Alien Diplomacy and Interspecies Friendship.”

Find “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Sisters of Shadow and Light”

9781250208408_8e486Book: “Sisters of Shadow and Light” by Sara B. Larson

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, November 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: “The night my sister was born, the stars died and were reborn in her eyes…”.

Zuhra and Inara have grown up in the Citadel of the Paladins, an abandoned fortress where legendary, magical warriors once lived before disappearing from the world―including their Paladin father the night Inara was born.

On that same night, a massive, magical hedge grew and imprisoned them within the citadel. Inara inherited their father’s Paladin power; her eyes glow blue and she is able to make plants grow at unbelievable rates, but she has been trapped in her own mind because of a “roar” that drowns everything else out―leaving Zuhra virtually alone with their emotionally broken human mother.

For fifteen years they have lived, trapped in the citadel, with little contact from the outside world…until the day a stranger passes through the hedge, and everything changes.

Review: I highlighted this book as one I was looking forward to reading this month. I had requested it based on the fact that it seemed to be a YA fantasy that centered around a relationship between sisters, a pretty basic plot that I typically enjoy. Unfortunately, while it does deliver on the elements that drew me to it originally, there wasn’t enough else to keep me invested, and a few too many YA tropes that induced eyerolls.

Zuhra and Inara have grown up in the wreckage of what was once a great power in the world. Locked in a fortress and surrounded by a sentient hedge that keeps out all others, the two sisters have grown up isolated from the world with only their fragile mother as a connection to not only their origins but also the world outside the walls. Inara is isolated even further by a power that manifests itself in ways that produce great effects but also cut her off from the world outside her own mind. But the world has continued to move outside their small home, and one day it breaks in, bringing new faces and new challenges.

While this book wasn’t for me, I do, as always, want to start with the things I did appreciate. I requested this book based on my love for sister stories, and luckily for me, that was the aspect of the story that was the strongest throughout. There was a clear, consistent bond between the two from start to finish, without any delving into melodrama or cattiness. We start out the story with only Zuhra’s POV, so there was a lot of time spent setting up how she view the relationship between herself and her sister, who is very cutoff from those around her. This was all well and good. But this aspect of the story was greatly strengthened when, about a third of the way in, we’re given Inara’s perspective as well. Having both POVs really fleshed out the nuances of their relationship, and while I did struggle with much of the rest of the book, I did still enjoy this portion of the story throughout.

Alas, much of the rest of it wasn’t as much of a hit. For me, part of the problem was how similar this read felt to “Strange the Dreamer.” The set up of siblings, some with magical abilities, growing up isolated from the world in the husk of a place that used to belong to god-like beings, one of whom was the father of said siblings? It’s pretty identical. And “Strange the Dreamer” was a superb book, so it’s rare that a direct comparison like this is going to go well for another book. Had I read this one without that one in mind, perhaps some things would have been better received. But that’s also the world of books: readers will always approach stories in the context of what they’ve read before. This can be a good or bad thing; unfortunately, here it was a bad thing. While the elements were similar, they were noticably weaker than Laini Taylor’s similar set-up.

While I liked the sister relationship between our two main characters, I still never really connected to either of them as wholly realized characters on their own. Zuhra, in particularly, was hard to identify with, especially in the beginning when we are left with only her perspective. Both sisters fell into the unfortunate trap of immediately going googly-eyed over the first boys they see, which felt not only silly, but also undermined some of the strengths we had been told they possess, having grown up needing to be so self-reliant.

The world and plot suffered from a writing style that erred more towards telling rather than showing. The middle of the book especially dragged, which I find is often a problem with this style of writing. When you have a new world to introduced, it’s easier for a “tell vs show” style to go unnoticed amid all of the new things being thrown at the reader. And the end typically has enough action when building to the climax of the story to also get away with it. But the middle is where it always shows up, and it was just as true here as in other books with a similar writing issue.

There were some good ideas in this book, and I did enjoy the sister relationship. I was able to predict a few of the twists, but one or two did actually catch me by surprise. However, all of that was not enough to pull the book through. The characters fell into a few too many YA “boy crazy” tropes, the world and plot were a bit on the limp side, and the style of writing was particularly captivating. Not to say that this book should be written off anyone’s list full-stop. But I do think there are betters versions of it out there.

Rating 6: An OK read, but one that felt flat and dim in comparison to its contemporaries.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Sisters of Shadow and Light” can be found on this Goodreads list: “We Fire the Darkness And Flame At Night.”

Find “Sisters of Shadow and Light” at your library using WorldCat!