Serena’s Review: “A Dance with Fate”

36253130._sy475_Book: “A Dance with Fate” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Ace Books, September 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: The young warrior and bard Liobhan has lost her brother to the Otherworld. Even more determined to gain a place as an elite fighter, she returns to Swan Island to continue her training. But Liobhan is devastated when her comrade Dau is injured and loses his sight in their final display bout. Blamed by Dau’s family for the accident, she agrees to go to Dau’s home as a bond servant for the span of one year.

There, she soon learns that Oakhill is a place of dark secrets. The vicious Crow Folk still threaten both worlds. And Dau, battling the demon of despair, is not an easy man to help.

When Liobhan and Dau start to expose the rot at the center of Oakhill, they place themselves in deadly danger. For their enemy wields great power and will stop at nothing to get his way. It will take all the skills of a Swan Island warrior and a touch of the uncanny to give them a hope of survival. . . .

Previously Reviewed: “The Harp of Kings”

Review: As always, I’m excited whenever I see a new Juliet Marillier book coming out. The first book in this trilogy (?), “The Harp of Kings” definitely set the stage for this second book, leaving a few threads dangling and a mysterious enemy in the form of the Crow People. While it wasn’t my favorite of Marillier’s work, I thought it was a good start to a new series and introduced a compelling set of new characters. This second one was…odd. I still enjoyed it, but not as much as I had hoped, even though, on the surface, it seemed to have most of what I look for in these types of books.

Liobhan and Dau are on the cusp of achieving that which they both have worked so hard and so long to accomplish: to become full members of the Swan Island crew. But, in an unfortunate accident while the two spar, Dau suffers a debilitating injury that costs him his sight, perhaps forever. With his family now demanding justice, Liobhan finds herself alongside Dau back where neither wish to be and a place that caused only harm and suffering to Dau during his childhood. There, they must both confront the evils at the heart of Dau’s family, and maybe some mysteries, too.

My description of the book, following the example of the published one, fails to mention that Brocc, too, is a part of this story. After his decision to marry a half-Fae queen and join her in her realm at the end of the last book, I wasn’t sure what we would see from him here on out. But low and behold, he ends up with a decent number of chapters and his own arc in this story. It’s also made clear by the end of this book that there will be more to hear from him in the third. Not sure why the publisher failed to include the fact that he is still a main character, but I suspect it’s because they realize that most readers are probably here for Liobhan and Dau. I know I was.

Brocc’s not a bad character, but it’s hard to be as compelling as two leads that each have quite a number of chapters devoted to their POVs making them both more compelling together and apart. Brocc’s own story here was…strange. It’s clear that he is still struggling to find his own role in the Fae world. And, due to the fact that he grew up in the human world, it’s also clear that he has very different views and ideas about the threat the Crow People pose to the Fae. He ends up with his own mini quest, which I found compelling enough. But I really struggled with the romance between Brocc and his wife. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to like her or not? By the end, I really didn’t like her at all, but was still unsure whether the author had been meaning for a few late reveals to materially change the negative impression that had been built up. For me, the reveal was definitely not enough to change my mind and, by its nature, kind of made me more mad to think that we might have been supposed to forgive her decisions and treatment of Brocc due to it. I don’t want to spoil it, but if you read this book, you’ll see what I mean. Maybe other readers will have a different impression. But all of this together left me really struggling to enjoy Brocc’s section of the story.

As for Dau and Liobhan, I enjoyed their story more. I think partly they are simply more compelling characters on their own, but they also had more to do in this book in particular. That said, they still didn’t seem to have enough to do. The mystery at the heart of their story is pretty obvious from the get-to, so it’s more a journey of reaching the obvious endpoint than in unraveling any real clues. Dau’s recovery and his attempts to come to grips with his new situation are interesting enough, but, again, there wasn’t any real tension here as it seemed like the conclusion of his arc was also well-telegraphed. And, again, the romance left something wanting.

This is a particularly frustrating thing to find in a Marillier book, as I’ve always thought that one of her best strengths is her ability to write compelling, swoon-worthy romances. But here, it just felt off. There really was no obvious progression of Dau and Liobhan’s feelings. Instead, we were simply told that they each began to have feelings for the other. It was incredibly disappointing  and said, especially knowing what the author is capable of. There could have been a really great romance here, but for some reason, it just felt deflated and underdeveloped from the start. There’s another book coming and some challenges still ahead of these two, so I’ll hold out hope that this ship can be righted.

I still love Marillier’s writing style and the overall tone of her take on fantasy stories. There are some good pieces in these books, but for some reason they just don’t seem to be coming together the same way several of her other stories have in the past. Obviously, I’ll still be here for the next one, but I’m a bit more nervous about it than I remember ever being in the past for one of this author’s books.

Rating 7: A surprisingly lackluster romance on two counts left this book feeling a bit limp at times.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Dance with Fate” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on “Strong Fighter Heroines.”

Find “A Dance with Fate” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Princess Will Save You”

43603825._sy475_Book: “The Princess Will Save You” by Sarah Henning

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, July 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley!

Book Description: When her warrior father, King Sendoa, mysteriously dies, Princess Amarande of Ardenia is given what would hardly be considered a choice: Marry a stranger at sixteen or lose control of her family’s crown.

But Amarande was raised to be a warrior—not a sacrifice.

In an attempt to force her choice, a neighboring kingdom kidnaps her true love, stable boy Luca. With her kingdom on the brink of civil war and no one to trust, she’ll need all her skill to save him, her future, and her kingdom.

Review: I’ll be honest, I first requested this book based purely on how much I love this cover. Even now, looking at it above, I’m swayed to feel more positive about this book just by the lovely depiction of its main characters on the cover. But, when I dug deeper, I realized that it is also being promoted as a gender-swapped retelling of “The Princess Bride,” so, of course, I was even more excited to check it out! While I did enjoy it overall, it sadly didn’t quite live up to the promise of the gorgeous cover or the intrigue of the unique concept.

After the sudden and unexpected death of her father, the king, Princess Amarande quickly discovers how few options she has. Seemingly, no one else is concerned about potential assassination, and instead, her entire council is moving full steam ahead to marry her off to the most politically advantageous match they can find, regardless of Amarande’s own wishes. When her best friend, Luca, is kidnapped by one such potential match in an attempt to force her hand, Amarande takes matters into her own hands. Her quest is simple: save her true love, save her kingdom.

This is a tough one for me to rate and review. On one hand, it was enjoyable enough, and I was able to blaze through it in only a few days. The writing was solid. The characters were interesting. And the world-building did enough to paint a picture that I felt grouned. And yet…it was lacking something.

For one thing, I don’t think it did this book any favors to have it marketed as a gender-swapped “Princess Bride.” Sure, I can see how it follows similar plot points and winks and nods at some of the key phrases used in that book. But, on one hand, if I had not had that put in my head and thus wasn’t looking for these elements specifically, I’m not sure I would have made these connections. And, conversely, when I was looking and did spot them, they often detracted more from the story than they added. For one thing, the first half of the story doesn’t feel like a re-telling at all, whereas the last half really goes all in. It’s an uncomfortable balance.

Beyond that, I think I was also set up to expect more of a humorous fantasy story. Obviously, “The Prinicess Bride” is comedy through and through. Here, not so much. Not only is it clearly not going for the same parody tone that its inspiration had, it also just seemed to lack much humor at all? I think this, truly, is where my main contention point came for the story. It checks all the marks for a good fantasy adventure, but there is something decidedly dry in the tone and its telling. It didn’t have to be back-to-back laughs, but as I was reading through, I realized more and more that there simply were no laughs whatsoever. So, while the characters, romance, and adventure were compelling enough, they also felt strangely two dimensional and flat. It was too bad.

It looks like a sequel is planned, so I’ll most likely check it out. There were some interesting developments towards the end of the story. And perhaps the second will be served better by being more thoroughly detached from the “Princess Bride” read-alike label. Just add some humor to the story, and it could be great!

Rating 7: Sadly a bit flat in its telling, but a fast enough fantasy adventure.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Princess Will Save You” is on these Goodreads lists: “Damsels in Shining Armor & Dudes in Distress” and “Royalty.”

Find “The Princess Will Save You” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Sandman (Vol.3): Dream Country”

25100Book: “The Sandman (Vol.3): Dream Country” by Neil Gaiman, Kelley Jones (Ill.), Charles Vell (Ill.), Colleen Doran (Ill.), and Malcolm Jones (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Vertigo, 1991

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: The third volume of the Sandman collection is a series of four short comic book stories. In each of these otherwise unrelated stories, Morpheus serves only as a minor character. Here we meet the mother of Morpheus’s son, find out what cats dream about, and discover the true origin behind Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream. The latter won a World Fantasy Award for best short story, the first time a comic book was given that honor. collecting The Sandman #17–20.

Review: One of the things that I need to get used to when going back and re-reading “Sandman” is that Gaiman sometimes like to meander and experiment with stories in their tone and mythologies. So while “Sandman” does have an overarching plot line, on occasion you will find tales that don’t fit in. Sometimes I really love this, as in both of our previous collections I’ve highlighted these standalone stories. So theoretically I should have been totally game with “The Sandman (Vol.3): Dream Country”, as it has four stand alone tales that don’t really focus on Dream and his journey. I’m all for experimentation, just like on my first read through, “Dream Country” didn’t live up to the books before.

Our first standalone story, “Calliope”, is one of the ones that most fascinates me, but also has some really problematic elements to it. In concerns the Muse Calliope, Morpheus’s former lover and mother of their late son Orpheus, who has been imprisoned by an author so that her influence will make him write amazing works. While in captivity Calliope is isolated and raped repeatedly, and she calls upon Morpheus for help in escaping. I greatly enjoy the concept of a person using the means of a Muse for ill will, and I liked the harkening back to the Greek Mythology that Morpheus has some part in, but I really had a hard time with the way that Calliope is abused by one man, and is basically damsel in distressed until another man saves her. The concept was my favorite of the four, but the execution was very upsetting and felt a bit tone deaf by today’s standards.

The second is “A Dream of a Thousand Cats”, a fun and kind of sad story about house cats and how they went from ruling the wild to being subjugated by human kind. Given my love for cats, the idea of cats wanting to rise up and free themselves from their human ‘captors’ is very fun, if only because it has been said that if house cats were much larger they would absolutely try to kill their owners. Morpheus is here (in the form of a cat, no less!), but it really could have been anyone waylaying this information to our feline protagonists. This probably could have worked as a short story out of the “Sandman” universe, and I wonder if Gaiman had the idea for this kind of story outside of this narrative, as it felt a bit forced into the box of the Sandman world.

The third story is “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, a World Fantasy Award winning tale (the first comic to win this award even!) in which Morpheus brings people of the faerie realm to come watch Shakespeare’s traveling troupe put on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Basically Morpheus and Shakespeare cut a deal and this is the first of two plays that Shakespeare has written for him. We get a lighthearted version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, and get to see their ‘real world’ counter parts react to the way that they are portrayed within the play. Cute to be sure. I think that were I a bigger fan of the play itself I’d have enjoyed this more, but “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” isn’t a fave of mine, Shakespeare wise.

It’s the fourth story that I really, really liked, and kind of saved this whole collection for me. “Facade” is the saddest tale within this collection, and it doesn’t even have Morpheus in it! Instead we get to see my girl Death shine, though she, too, plays a smaller role in lieu of a new original character. Raine is a woman who, when on an archaeological dig in Egypt, was cursed with immortality. Though she is going to live possibly forever, her body is slowly deteriorating, rendering her isolated and scared and desperate to die. She puts on fake faces to go into public, but it’s by no means a long term solution, and after a particularly bad day Death hears her begging, and decides to talk to her. Looking at the consequences of what immortality would actually be is always sobering, and Raine is such a sad character that you ache for as the story goes on. And while it was kind of surprising to see that Morpheus wasn’t in this one, I think that Death was really the character to use given her empathetic nature (unlike Dream, who is prickly at best), and it was really nice seeing her getting a little more spotlight. She is such an intriguing character on her own, after all. I also really liked the artwork for this one. It’s a lovely design for Death.

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“The Sandman (Vol.3): Dream Country” is a fine detour from the main storyline, but I’m eager to get back to see what Morpheus is up to. I definitely encourage you to read these if you are taking on the series, but if you have to go to Volume 4 before this one, that’s probably going to be fine.

Rating 7: These standalone stories are enjoyable for the most part, but they don’t really progress the plot, and feel a bit dated in some of their themes.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Sandman (Vol.3): Dream Country” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books About Faery”, and “Mythic Fiction Comics”.

Find “The Sandman (Vol.3): Dream Country” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed: 

 

Kate’s Review: “Hell in the Heartland”

52218496Book: “Hell in the Heartland: Murder, Meth, and the Case of Two Missing Girls” by Jax Miller

Publishing Info: Berkley, July 2020

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

Book Description: The stranger-than-fiction cold case from rural Oklahoma that has stumped authorities for two decades, concerning the disappearance of two teenage girls and the much larger mystery of murder, police cover-up, and an unimaginable truth…

On December 30, 1999, in rural Oklahoma, sixteen-year-old Ashley Freeman and her best friend, Lauria Bible, were having a sleepover. The next morning, the Freeman family trailer was in flames and both girls were missing.

While rumors of drug debts, revenge, and police collusion abounded in the years that followed, the case remained unsolved and the girls were never found.

In 2015, crime writer Jax Miller–who had been haunted by the case–decided to travel to Oklahoma to find out what really happened on that winter night in 1999, and why the story was still simmering more than fifteen years later. What she found was more than she could have ever bargained for: jaw-dropping levels of police negligence and corruption, entire communities ravaged by methamphetamine addiction, and a series of interconnected murders with an ominously familiar pattern.

These forgotten towns were wild, lawless, and home to some very dark secrets.

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

For someone who enjoys a good true crime podcast and likes to spend time on the Reddit sub “Unresolved Mysteries”, I am always taken in by the story of a cold case, murder, or strange mystery that I have never heard of before. So when I was browsing NetGalley’s list of upcoming true crime books, “Hell in the Heartland: Murder, Meth, and the Cse of Two Missing Girls” by Jax Miller caught my attention. The case has all the components of an “Unsolved Mysteries” episode. You have two missing teenagers in rural Oklahoma, Ashley Freeman and Lauria Bible. Lauria was sleeping over at Ashley’s trailer home, but early the next morning it was found burning. First responders and police found the body of Ashley’s mother, and later her father’s body was also found. But there was no sign of Ashley or Lauria, and they haven’t been seen ever since. I thought that it would be a tantalizing and strange story, and it certainly is. But Miller takes it even further, and decides to paint a broader picture than just a tale about two missing teens. We also get a study of police negligence, small town criminality, and the way that a community like this has fallen on hard times, and how that has broad repercussions.

“Hell in the Heartland” is for the most part a true crime mystery, and the case is a head scratcher to be sure. There are two prevailing theories about what may have happened to Ashley and Lauria, and it seems to be split along family lines as to whom those theories appeal to. Miller gives due diligence to both theories, and while I think that probability falls far more on the side of one, I liked that in this book we got pretty strong arguments for both. The first, subscribed to by Ashley’s surviving family members, is that the local enforcement officials were trying to cover up some wrong doing. After all, Ashley’s brother Shane had been shot and killed by an officer not too long before Ashley disappeared and her parents were murdered. The officer claimed that he had drawn a gun, but the Freemans never believed it. The circumstances were suspicious, and the way that the police bungled a few things about the investigation into the Freeman murders and missing girls was absolutely reckless at best, and damning at worst. I have no problem believing that a department feeling sore about unwanted attention because of a grieving family wanting justice would mishandle a case regarding said family, so it’s not really a stretch to think that maybe the police could be capable of something so terrible. The other theory is that local meth kingpins were the ones that committed this crime, as their proximity and potential involvement with the Freeman family would give motive, means, and opportunity. As the book goes on this seems to be a more likely scenario, especially given recent arrests and evidence that ties them to the girls. But all that said, Miller still wants to present all of the evidence and to give a very clear picture of both possibilities, as at the end of the day we still don’t know where Ashley and Lauria are, even if we think we know what happened to them. While there may be an official ‘end’ in terms of how our legal system is seeing it, Miller makes it very clear to the reader that there is no closure and there is no real justice, because Ashley and Lauria never came home in one way or another. And for Lauria’s parents especially, that isn’t justice.

But beyond the case itself, “Hell in the Heartland” paints a very grim and sad picture about the rural community that Ashley and Lauria were living in when they disappeared. From Ashley’s brother Shane dying at the hands of a police officer with no repercussions, to Ashely’s grandparents very clear mental health issues that aren’t being addressed, to poverty in general and how the meth trade takes root within it, we see that Ashley and Lauria’s kidnapping, and the murder of the Freemans, wasn’t within a vacuum. Hell, the fact that one of the big drug lords was a known violent lunatic, with assault, domestic violence, and other horrible things being is M.O., and no one could do anything but stay out of his way, says volumes. Violence and secrets are more common than we may think in small towns like this, and to me that was one of the harder things to swallow about this story.

“Hell in the Heartland” is a story that you may not know about even if you’re a true crime aficionado, but after reading this book you’ll want to know more. Jax Miller has really shined a light on a case that hasn’t really left Oklahoma, and hopefully it will have a wide enough reach that one day Ashley and Lauria will be brought home.

Rating 7: A sad and strange cold case that has no official end, “Hell in the Heartland” takes a look at the story of two missing girls, and some very sad facts and dangers about the community they lived in.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Hell in the Heartland” is new and not included on any Goodreads lists yet, but it would fit in on “Poverty in the USA”, and “Corruption in High Places”.

Find “Hell in the Heartland” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “The Lost Sun”

27230933Book: “The Lost Sun” by Tessa Gratton

Publishing Info: Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, October 2015

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from library!

Book Description: Fans of Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” and Holly Black’s “The Curse Workers” will embrace this richly drawn, Norse-mythology-infused alternate world: the United States of Asgard. Seventeen-year-old Soren Bearskin is trying to escape the past. His father, a famed warrior, lost himself to the battle-frenzy and killed thirteen innocent people. Soren cannot deny that berserking is in his blood–the fevers, insomnia, and occasional feelings of uncontrollable rage haunt him. So he tries to remain calm and detached from everyone at Sanctus Sigurd’s Academy. But that’s hard to do when a popular, beautiful girl like Astrid Glyn tells Soren she dreams of him. That’s not all Astrid dreams of–the daughter of a renowned prophetess, Astrid is coming into her own inherited abilities.

When Baldur, son of Odin and one of the most popular gods in the country, goes missing, Astrid sees where he is and convinces Soren to join her on a road trip that will take them to find not only a lost god, but also who they are beyond the legacy of their parents and everything they’ve been told they have to be.

Review: This is another one of those mystery books that has been hanging out on my audiobook “to read” list at the library. I have no memory of where I heard of it originally or why I requested it specifically. I mean, looking at the description, it definitely seemed interesting, but there are also a million and one fantasy books out there, so why this one? Maybe I was going through a Thor/Loki moment when I stumbled on it and put it on here? Either way, it was available the other day when I was looking for my next book, so I checked it out! It was definitely an interesting read, but also not quite all I had hoped for.

Soren’s days have been largely devoted to training, both physically in the skills of a warrior, and mentally in the self-control needed to keep the beserking rage he inherited from his father in check. Often this means missing out on social activities with friends and keeping to himself. But when Astrid, the daughter of a famed seer, joins the school, she seeks him and begins to pry into his solitary existence. After a beloved god goes missing, Soren now finds himself on a roadtrip mission with Astrid in the hopes of finding this lost deity and returning him to where he belongs. But that’s only the beginning of a journey that will take them far and uncover much about themselves, their pasts, and their future.

What stood out the most in this book was the creative world-building. What we have here is an alternate version of the United States in which the Norse gods are very real and have a very real influence on every aspect of society: government structure, education, career paths, you name it. I really enjoyed how creative the author was with such a bizarre idea, and how seamless was the end result, considering how strange it is, overall.

This is Soren’s story, so much of the history and current state of the world is told through his point of view. Soren is a good narrator, in this respect, as all of these needed details to flesh out this type of world were delivered in a believable, non-exposition manner, something that is definitely a challenge for a book written in first person. Soren’s own history, that of having a father who gave in to the beserker madness and killed innocent people, is never far from his mind, and from the very beginning we see the limited future Soren sees for himself. He is constantly battling an inner war, and his fear of himself and his abilities stains almost every choice he makes.

The  main problem for me arrived in the form of the other main character, Astrid. Right from the start she struck me as very “manic pixie dream girl” in her behaviors and descriptions. I think the character had potential, but it was really hard to get behind her part of the story when that impression was so strong right off the bat. As the story started moving more, it was easier to be distracted from it. But it was still the sort of thing that popped up throughout and left me having a hard time feeling really too compelled or interested in her part of the story. And then, since so much of Soren’s story becomes tied up with hers, I also lost some interest in him.

Overall, I thought this was a really creative, fun book. My problem most centered around some of the characterization choices that made it hard for me to feel truly invested in the story’s main characters. But if you’re into Norse mythology and want to read a new take on the subject, this might be one worth checking out!

Rating 7: A fun, unique fantasy story set in a re-imagined United States, though the characters left something to be desired.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Lost Sun” is on these Goodreads lists: “Best Alternate History Novels and Stories” and “Books with Lost or Found in the Title.”

Find “The Lost Sun” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Gilded Wolves”

39863498Book: “The Gilded Wolves” by Roshani Chokshi

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, January 2019

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

Book Description: It’s 1889. The city is on the cusp of industry and power, and the Exposition Universelle has breathed new life into the streets and dredged up ancient secrets. Here, no one keeps tabs on dark truths better than treasure-hunter and wealthy hotelier Séverin Montagnet-Alarie. When the elite, ever-powerful Order of Babel coerces him to help them on a mission, Séverin is offered a treasure that he never imagined: his true inheritance.

To hunt down the ancient artifact the Order seeks, Séverin calls upon a band of unlikely experts: An engineer with a debt to pay. A historian banished from his home. A dancer with a sinister past. And a brother in arms if not blood.

Together, they will join Séverin as he explores the dark, glittering heart of Paris. What they find might change the course of history–but only if they can stay alive.

Review: I was a bit hesitant to pick this book for a few reasons. First, as readers of this blog know, the last year or so has been made up of a lot of middling reviews from me for books that I feel are WAY too similar to “Six of Crows” to be called much more than blatant cash grabs on the part of authors and publishers who want in on the lingering popularity of that duology. And secondly, I’ve tried to read Roshani Chokshi’s books in the past because she’s a fairly beloved YA author and…haven’t loved her work. But, I thought I’d give it one more go. And, in an improvement on my opinions on her other books, this one was…ok.

Severin had been on the cusp of entering into an inheritance that would establish him into one of the most exclusive and privileged circles in the nation, if not the world. But, in the eleventh hour, he is rejected and outcast. Ever since, Severin has worked to gather up a crew of other outcasts in an attempt to regain his birthright. Each with their own speckled past and hopes for the future, this ragtag group will now find themselves caught up in conspiracies grander than they could ever had expected. But with the potential riches, comes the equally dangerous perils.

So, to start with the pros of this book. One of my major complaints about Chokshi’s work in the past was my distaste for her overly flowery writing. It was of the type too often found in YA where it seems like the authors are just playing word spaghetti and hoping to string together sentences that sound pretty. Who cares if they don’t make any actual sense or the metaphors are pure nonsense if looked at for more than half a second? But luckily, here, there was less of it, especially of the flowery type. I still think the writing left something to be desired, however. No one can fault the author for her dialogue writing, as that was witty and fast. But the actual description of how the magic system worked or some of the actions scenes were confusing, and even after re-reading, I didn’t have a solid image in my mind for what exactly she was trying to describe.

I also enjoyed most of the characters, though this two is both a positive of the book and a negative. The author does a great job of peopling her story with a diverse cast of characters. They come from different cultures, religions, orientations, you name it. However, when you’re actually reading the chapters, many of their voices sound very similar, which seems to detract from the actual celebration of differences that she seems to be setting out to accomplish. Given the author’s note at the back and the author’s own story, I don’t believe she was just trying to check boxes, but I do think that, again, her writing itself let her down where these characters were concerned. And, of course, I can’t end a section on characters and not acknowledge the giant elephant/”Six of Crows” shadow in the room: several of these characters were disturbing similar to characters in that book. The story itself was very different, but the characters….the two “main” characters and their romances were especially disconcertingly similar to that of Kaz and Ines.

I was intrigued by the world-building and the history of the magic in this world and how it worked. There were a lot of creative ideas thrown around, and some of them were definitely unique and whimsical, fitting in perfectly with the author’s style and the story she was laying out with its tone and characters. There were times, however, where I felt like there was always some magical “out” or McGuffin that the team could use to solve almost every problem. It didn’t really seem like you had to be all that clever or skilled to pull of the things they were doing, and more just needed to have the right magical tools that did the job for them. And at the same time, the existence of all these magical get-arounds seemed to undermine the dangers or protections that the crew was setting out to get around. What good are all of these magical wards if they are so easily bypassed by some other magical tool or what not? I wish the story had been a bit more clever in these areas.

So, as you can see, I had a fairly middling experience with this book. It was a fast read, and the adventure and snappy dialogue kept things moving to the point that I never felt the need to put the book down (as I have with other books by this author in the past). But on deeper reflection, once I’d finished the book, a lot of the elements involved seemed to be wanting in some way. The story definitely ends with a set-up for the next, and I’m intrigued enough to continue. I’m hopeful that as this book seemed an improvement on some of the author’s works of the past, that things will continue in that direction and the second book will feel a bit more solid. If you’re not totally burned out on “Six of Crows” read-alikes, this one might be worth checking out. If you’re a fan of this author, than definitely.

Rating 7: Most of the pros had corresponding cons, but I’m in it enough to want to continue on to the next, which is a bigger compliment than I’ve paid the author’s books in the past.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Gilded Wolves” is on these Goodreads lists: “Speculative Fiction Heist/Caper Stories” and “YA Fantasy by WOC.”

Find “The Gilded Wolves” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “He Started It”

51373979Book: “He Started It” by Samantha Downing

Publishing Info: Berkley, July 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I was sent an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley.

Book Description: Beth, Portia, and Eddie Morgan haven’t all been together in years. And for very good reasons—we’ll get to those later. But when their wealthy grandfather dies and leaves a cryptic final message in his wake, the siblings and their respective partners must come together for a cross-country road trip to fulfill his final wish and—more importantly—secure their inheritance.

But time with your family can be tough. It is for everyone.

It’s even harder when you’re all keeping secrets and trying to forget a memory—a missing person, an act of revenge, the man in the black truck who won’t stop following your car—and especially when at least one of you is a killer and there’s a body in the trunk. Just to name a few reasons.

But money is a powerful motivator. It is for everyone.

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

Even though it got a lot of hype when it came out, I never actually read “My Lovely Wife” by Samantha Downing. I’m not sure why it never made it to my hold list, but for whatever reason it just hasn’t been on my book stack. But given all the buzz it has, when Berkley sent me a link to Downing’s newest book, “He Started It”, I was pleasantly surprised and delighted. And the description alone was enough to get my hyped: feuding siblings, a missing person, family secrets, and a mysterious potential stalker? That just screams something that I would want to read about! As someone who used to go on family road trips all the time throughout her childhood, sometimes to the point where everyone in the car wanted to murder each other, that was the icing on the cake!

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One of my shining moments was convincing my sister she had kidney problems because she had to stop and pee so often. Memories. (source)

“He Started It” is from the perspective of Beth, one of three dysfunctional siblings who are on a road trip in hopes of collecting an inheritance from their recently deceased grandfather. When we first meet these siblings, all we know are that 1) they aren’t really close to each other, and 2) this road trip is a re-creation of a trip they took with said grandfather when they were kids, and if they want to get their money, they have to do it. As we get to know Beth, siblings Eddie and Portia, and Beth and Eddie’s spouses Felix and Krista, we find we are following a group of very unlikable people who have a lot of secrets. And while the characters themselves are all pretty reprehensible, the road trip they take is incredibly fun, mostly because the secrets start coming out and you just have to know more. As Downing slowly shows us what happened on the childhood road trip, and slowly starts to reveal facts and details that are more and more salacious as time goes on, you find yourself completely hooked into what happened to these siblings and what motivates them in the present day. As mentioned, we are mostly getting into Beth’s head, so it’s hard to know how reliable she is and what kind of picture we’re getting, but all that is just part of the salacious fun as more well crafted twists come out of the woodwork. And almost all of the big reveals and shocks feel well earned too. And while none of the characters were enjoyable, I still wanted to know what happened to them because I wanted to know if they would all get what was coming to them. Suffice to say, I devoured this book in a very short time, and really had to force myself to put it down when I had other things to do.

In spite of how freakin’ addicted I was to this book, I will say that the ending threw a wrench into my overall experience of it. I’m not going to spoil anything for you guys, because up until that point I had a really fun time and I still think it’s worth the read. But what I will say is that it felt abrupt, it felt unresolved, and it felt a bit like a shocker just for the sake of being shocking. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, per se, but it did mean that this book never really moved from ‘mindless fun thriller’ to ‘you gotta read this book, thriller fans of all ages!’ That’s not a bad thing when you want to bring a stack of books to your backyard escape. But it may not stand out too much from other stories in that stack.

“He Started It” was fun in the moment, and as someone who is trying to live more for the moment, I was thankful for it as I was reading it.

Rating 7: Though the ending kind of throws the whole thing off, “He Started It” is a fun and kind of salacious thriller that will take your attention and refuse to return it until you’ve finished.

Reader’s Advisory:

“He Started It” is included on the Goodreads lists “Psychological Suspense for 2020 (U.S. Publications Jan-July 2020)”, and “Books Featured on First Chapter Fun”.

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

Serena’s Review: “A Natural History of Dragons”

12974372Book: “A Natural History of Dragons”by Marie Brennan

Publishing Info: Tor Books, February 2013

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

Book Description: Tor Books, February 2013

Book Description: All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.

Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.

Review: When I read “Turning Darkness into Light” a year or so ago, I didn’t realize that it was connected to Marie Brennan’s “Lady Trent” series. It was still an enjoyable read, however, and it inspired me to go back and put the original series on my list. Of course, that now makes reading this series, set quite a bit before “Turning Darkness,” into a very different reading experience than it would have been had I been approaching without any prior knowledge. But, overall, I really enjoyed this read!

Before she was the well-known adventurous, Lady Trent, Lady Isabella was just a young woman with an unladylike interest: dragons. But ever determined, she set out to make a life for herself where she could pursue this unlikely passion as far a a lady of her time could hope for. Instead, she got more than she ever wished for. Finding a marriage of true affection with a liberal minded man who eventually even concedes to allowing her to travel on expeditions alongside her. Never did he suspect that she, herself, would be the one to begin making the most extraordinary discoveries of their time!

This book was both what I expected and very different than I expected. On one hand, it’s kind of your staple historical fantasy story featuring an intrepid lady going and doing what no lady has done before. Lady Trent’s voice was very familiar, if a bit less bland than the likes of Amelia Peabody and Veronica Speedwell. But her story was unique enough to stand alone. For one thing, I appreciate the way the story is grounded in the realities of the “time” for a lady such as herself.

Her marriage is not made from wild romance, but from the practical choice of two individuals with unique interests to team up with another who can appreciate their eccentricities. It was a nice change of pace to read about this type of relationship and how their feelings towards each other change and grow over the years as they are put to different, unexpected tests. Her husband doesn’t simply jump onboard with her wanting to travel the world, but very realistically expresses concern that he will be judged for not protecting his wife as a proper husband should. Of course, he quickly sees reason and realizes that her wants and needs are more important than this judgement, but I appreciated that the challenge of living so far outside the norm was addressed.

The story was a bit slower to get started than I may have liked, but once Lady Isabella actually begins her explorations, I really enjoyed it. Even then, the dragons were much more often an idea or passing fear than ever being very present. This, of course, was part of the mystery of them, but it did leave the pacing of the story itself a bit stilted. Here, mostly, is where it was strange that I had read the companion book before this actual series. Many secrets and truths had been taken as common knowledge in that book, but here Lady Trent had yet to make any of these discoveries. It did add a strange, new layer of intrigue for me, personally, as I spent a lot of time trying to guess how all of these smaller clues would lead to the bigger reveals I knew were coming at some point. Even knowing some of the outcomes, I still wasn’t able to put much together beforehand.

I really liked the narrator for this audiobook, and I highly recommend reading the book that way if you like audiobooks at all. The slower pace and, at points, removed feeling one has from the characters themselves did knock this back a few points in my rating. But I plan on continuing the series and hopefully those aspects will pick up in the next one.

Rating 7: A fun historical fantasy story, if a bit plodding at times.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Natural History of Dragons” is on these Goodreads lists: “Fantasy of Manners” and “Dragons/Serpents.”

Find “A Natural History of Dragons” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “These Women”

52218559Book: “These Women” by Ivy Pochoda

Publishing Info: Harperluxe, May 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: In West Adams, a rapidly changing part of South Los Angeles, they’re referred to as “these women.” These women on the corner … These women in the club … These women who won’t stop asking questions … These women who got what they deserved … 

In her masterful new novel, Ivy Pochoda creates a kaleidoscope of loss, power, and hope featuring five very different women whose lives are steeped in danger and anguish. They’re connected by one man and his deadly obsession, though not all of them know that yet. There’s Dorian, still adrift after her daughter’s murder remains unsolved; Julianna, a young dancer nicknamed Jujubee, who lives hard and fast, resisting anyone trying to slow her down; Essie, a brilliant vice cop who sees a crime pattern emerging where no one else does; Marella, a daring performance artist whose work has long pushed boundaries but now puts her in peril; and Anneke, a quiet woman who has turned a willfully blind eye to those around her for far too long. The careful existence they have built for themselves starts to crumble when two murders rock their neighborhood.

Written with beauty and grit, tension and grace, These Women is a glorious display of storytelling, a once-in-a-generation novel.

Review: I know that through my true crime reviews, and maybe even a thriller review or two, that I’ve mentioned the concept of ‘lesser dead’ on this blog. For those who may not have seen that, it’s basically the idea that law enforcement doesn’t prioritize certain victim groups when trying to solve cases. Groups included in this concept are POC, addicts, and sex workers. When I read a book review of “These Women” by Ivy Pochoda, the fact that it was emphasizing a literary thriller take on this concept, I knew that I really needed to read it. But as I read “These Women”, it became apparent that the narrative wasn’t only going to focus on forgotten sex workers who are the victims of a serial killer, but also on other women who are connected, if not directly affected.

We have multiple perspectives in “These Women” who represent a swath of women living different lives in South Central, Los Angeles. You have Feelia, a sex worker who narrowly survived being murdered. Dorian, whose daughter Lecia was a victim of the same murderer. Julianna, a sex worker who Lecia used to babysit for. Essie, a detective for the LAPD whose colleagues don’t take her insistence on paying attention to a potential serial killer seriously. Marcella, a neighbor to Julianna who finds a cell phone that sparks her creativity, no matter what that may mean for another person’s privacy. And Anneke, a judgmental woman who has certain opinions about other women in her community. On the surface a lot of these characters seem different from each other, but once you get really into the grit and meat of this book you realize that, while there are some differences and some privilege differences, all of these women are struggling in their own ways, usually because of societal expectations thrust upon them. I felt that Pochoda gave pretty good attention to most of them, though there were some that were more compelling than others. The pain was very real in a few of them, the rage in others, as well as perspectives that were more about privilege and superiority. They all worked well, and really brought on guttural responses at the various injustices that are feeling especially pertinent in this moment.

While this is definitely more a character study, or an examination of some aspects of the culture we live in, there is a mystery at hand, and that is who is killing these sex workers, and why. The mystery did take a back seat to the other aspects of the book, but for the most part I thought that it was well laid out and plotted so that I was taken by surprise by the reveal when it happened. I also found myself really enjoying how all the pieces eventually came together, both in terms of the mystery and in terms of how all of these characters are connected to one another. It also is a good way of showing that there is common ground between all of these women in a way, and how a society that looks down upon the gender as a whole makes victims of them all in different ways, and sometimes in ways that can be damaging to each other. All of that said, I did feel that the story ended a little abruptly, and I think that that is in part due to the structure of it as a whole, with no moment to tie all of the perspectives together. It doesn’t really matter at the end of the day because this is less about conclusions and more about concepts, but for me it just felt like it was cut off when there could have been a little more room to sink into an end.

Overall, “These Women” is dark, emotional, and gritty. Also very sad. But I think that it tackles a good number of themes and realities that many thrillers sometimes leave by the wayside. Ivy Pochoda has a very clear message, and while it’s hard to immerse oneself in, it’s necessary to do so.

Rating 7: A very powerful message about how society views the victimology of certain groups, “These Women” is a compelling literary thriller, even if it ends a bit abruptly.

Reader’s Advisory:

“These Women” is included on the Goodreads list “Can’t Wait Crime, Mystery, & Thrillers, 2020”.

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

Bookclub Review: “Picnic At Hanging Rock”

34785405._sy475_We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Around the World”, in which we each picked a continent and had to match a book that takes place there and/or is written by an author from that continent.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Picnic at Hanging Rock” by Joan Lindsay

Publishing Info: Penguin, 1967

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Continent: Oceania

Book Description: It was a cloudless summer day in the year 1900. Everyone at Appleyard College for Young Ladies agreed it was just right for a picnic at Hanging Rock. After lunch, a group of three girls climbed into the blaze of the afternoon sun, pressing on through the scrub into the shadows of the secluded volcanic outcropping. Farther, higher, until at last they disappeared. They never returned. . . .

Mysterious and subtly erotic, Picnic at Hanging Rock inspired the iconic 1975 film of the same name by Peter Weir. A beguiling landmark of Australian literature, it stands with Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides as a masterpiece of intrigue.

Kate’s Thoughts

Back when I first got my Netflix account where discs were the main platform, I went through a few months where I would request obscure-ish films that maybe I’d heard of, or maybe I stumbled upon. One of those films was “Picnic At Hanging Rock”, an Australian cult classic. When book club decided that our theme this time around was Continents, I was the only person who wanted to call dibs on a continent. That continent/region was Oceania. I eventually settled on “Picnic at Hanging Rock”, knowing full well it would probably be a controversial read as I’m one of the few people who like a good high strangeness thriller in the group. But did that stop me?

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I’m sure they understood where I was coming from. (source)

Reading “Picnic at Hanging Rock” was a weird and dreamy experience, as author Joan Lindsay has created a story filled with frustrating ambiguity and an ethereal tone. Three star pupils and a chaperone disappear during a picnic in the Australian countryside at a rock formation called Hanging Rock, and while people go searching, mysteries and darkness seem to follow those involved. On its surface the book is a pretty compelling mystery with few answers, though perhaps that’s the point of it. But what struck me more as I was reading it, and this may not even be intentional, is how many themes involving sex, class, colonialism, and nature were just below the surface. In many ways, “Picnic at Hanging Rock” is very of its setting and of its time. The fact that it takes place in an upper class, white boarding school in the middle of the Australian wilderness just screams so many things. Privileged people thinking that nature is their playground, it’s very colonialist and it’s VERY Victorian, so when these women disappear, and most don’t reappear, the shock and disbelief feels very realistic. I’m sure that for these characters, wilderness picnics back in England were very safe, as the terrain and flora and fauna are well known and predictable. But when you apply that complacency to a totally different continent, a continent that is notoriously tricky and dangerous to those who are unfamiliar (or who take it for granted), disaster surely can follow.

On top of that I was deeply intrigued by the various relationships between the characters, and what was said or not said. You have the friendships between the adolescent girls, in particular Sara and Miranda, and how intense they can be (as Sara is deeply dependent on Miranda, so when Miranda goes missing Sara spirals). You have the relationships between the adults and the children, in particular Mrs. Appleyard who seems to loathe all the girls, lest they be wealthy and their families be benefactors. You have the upper class English boy Michael, who is infatuated with Miranda and who has a very macho (homoerotic?) friendship with the lowerclass Australian valet Albert. This was the relationship that was of most interest to me, as Michael doesn’t know shit about the world because of his privilege, and it’s Albert who is almost constantly bailing him out or bringing him back to reality.

And what of the ending? I like ambiguity myself, so I was a-okay with the fact that there are no real answers. At one point Joan Lindsay had a definitive end attached to the story, but was told to leave it out upon publishing. You can find the end if you want definitive answers, but honestly, not knowing, to me, is far more unsettling.

There were a few things that didn’t quite work for me in this book. It’s not a very long book, but it still felt a little extended beyond its means. There was a side plot involving another woman who worked at the school who ends up wanting to leave, and while I understand the point of it, in terms of adding to the tension and the mystery, it felt a little off the beaten path. And while it isn’t surprising, given the time period in which this was written and the setting itself, there was very little mention of the Indigenous Aborigines outside of an ‘abo tracker’ who is sent in to look for the missing girls. A real life tidbit that makes this all the more unsettling is that Hanging Rock is an actual place, its original name Ngannelong (possibly. There may have been a translation issue). It was originally a very important site to the local Aboriginal groups, and now it has basically been overrun by the popularity of this book and film, erasing the importance to the Indigenous people who were there first.

All this said, I mostly enjoyed “Picnic at Hanging Rock”, if only because I found so much hidden beneath the surface. Don’t read this if you want solid answers. But do if you want to be mystified.

Kate’s Rating 7: A dreamy and odd mystery filled with high strangeness and a lot of commentary (be it intentional or not), “Picnic at Hanging Rock”, while a little babbly and in some ways problematic, is still mysterious all these years later.

Book Club Questions

  1. This takes place at the end of the Victorian Era, during which the idea of Nature was very intriguing to Western cultures. What do you think this story was trying to say about human’s relationship to nature?
  2. The Appleyard College for  Young Ladies is an Upper Class attended boarding school in the Australian countryside. Why do you think having it take place at a wealthy boarding school was the choice Lindsay made?
  3. This book was chosen as a representation of Oceania, specifically Australia. Do you think that there was anything about this book that could be uniquely Australian?
  4. What were your thoughts on the relationships between the characters (between the students, between the students in relation to authority figures, friendships, potential romantic relationships – do you think that there were sapphic/romantic/homoerotic elements to this story?)?
  5. What do you think happened to the people who disappeared at Hanging Rock? Doe it matter? Was the ambiguity frustrating for you?
  6. There had at one time been an ending that had a solid answer and conclusion as to what happened to the missing women, but has since been left off of the book as it wasn’t part of the original story as published. Would you want to know what happened? Or do you prefer the open ended end?

Reader’s Advisory

“Picnic at Hanging Rock” is included on the Goodreads lists “Female Authored Weird Fiction”, and “Best Books Set in Australia”.

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

Next Book Club Book: “A Thousand Beginnings and Endings” by Ellen Oh and Elise Chapman (eds.).