Serena’s Review: “Cast in Firelight”

Book: “Cast in Firelight” by Dana Swift

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, January 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Adraa is the royal heir of Belwar, a talented witch on the cusp of taking her royal ceremony test, and a girl who just wants to prove her worth to her people

Jatin is the royal heir to Naupure, a competitive wizard who’s mastered all nine colors of magic, and a boy anxious to return home for the first time since he was a child.

Together, their arranged marriage will unite two of Wickery’s most powerful kingdoms. But after years of rivalry from afar, Adraa and Jatin only agree on one thing: their reunion will be anything but sweet.

Only, destiny has other plans and with the criminal underbelly of Belwar suddenly making a move for control, their paths cross…and neither realizes who the other is, adopting separate secret identities instead.

Between dodging deathly spells and keeping their true selves hidden, the pair must learn to put their trust in the other if either is to uncover the real threat. Now Wickery’s fate is in the hands of rivals..? Fiancées..? Partners..? Whatever they are, it’s complicated and bound for greatness or destruction.

Review: Before we get into the actual review, we interrupt my regular, meandering, usually skip-able intro paragraph to dive into another segment of “Nonsense in YA Covers!”, a semi-regular bit where I shake my head at the cover art of YA books. Today’s example isn’t so much anything overtly wrong with this book’s cover, but with the inexplicable resemblance it has to another. See if you can spot the similarities!

They are both by the obviously very gifted Charlie Bowater. I’m not coming after her, but I can’t decided whether it’s laziness or brilliance that these titles look so similar! Did she hoodwink the publishers into essentially buying the same image slightly re-tooled six months later? The male characters, especially, look almost identical. And then you have the character position, the colors, the entire thing really. One of my librarian friends, Alicia, found it so amusing that she routinely placed them side-by-side on the “New Arrivals” shelf at her library just to troll patrons. But enough of that, on to the review!

Though they were betrothed as children after a particularly…eventful…first meeting, Adraa and Jatin’s entire relationship since has been made up of a few letters and a secret competition of magical abilities. However, now that they are each about to come into their own roles as the upcoming leaders of their countries, they suddenly find themselves thrust into each other’s company. But neither know it, having each taken on alternate identities for different reasons when they first re-unite. Thrown into adventure and intrigue, the two begin to each learn that this strange new person isn’t so bad. If only they weren’t already engaged to someone else…

This book is another one of those tough books that seems to fall into the category of aggressively fine. It was a quick, snappy read, and I was entertained enough while reading it, easily caught up in the fast-moving plot. But when I think back on the book, characters, and world as a hole, there simply isn’t a lot there. The magic system is barely described and while the resulting abilities serve the action-packed plot well, there’s no intricacies to be found or, indeed, many details of any kind. If you asked me to tell you anything about it, all I’d have is something about tattoos and that the number of magical abilities you master has a direct connection to your status in society. Which…I’ve seen before.

As for the world-building, I appreciated that there was a map included in the story, but I almost felt like the map did more of the heavy lifting than anything in the book. This very much read like one of those overly simplistic YA novels that treat their worlds like big green screens that their character simply run across. Like the cover, almost, the mental images that came to mind were almost cartoonish in their simplicity.

The writing was probably the strongest part. Like I said, the pacing was excellent, keeping the plot and character moving at a steady clip. Some portions of it were also incredibly funny. However, here, too, I had some troubles. Mostly with the dialogue which was bizarrely modern. This is clearly a second-world fantasy story, so there are no rules about how characters should speak. But at times the dialogue was so very much of this world and time that it simply didn’t seem to fit here. I often found myself pulled back out of the story once the characters started speaking overly much. There was also an over-reliance on “quippiness” as a stand-in for real character development and connection.

As a debut, it was a fun ride, but it also showed the areas in which the author still has room for improvement. If you’re looking for a fast, light read and don’t mind kind of random-feeling modern dialogue, this could be a fun book for you! But those looking for a more serious or layered story will be disappointed.

Rating 7: Fast-paced and fun, but too light in any real depth, both in its world and characters.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Cast in Firelight” isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on 2021 YA with Male POV.

Find “Cast in Firelight” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “For Your Own Good”

Book: “For Your Own Good” by Samantha Downing

Publishing Info: Berkley, July 2021

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

Book Description: Teddy Crutcher has won Teacher of the Year at the esteemed Belmont Academy, home to the best and brightest. He says his wife couldn’t be more proud—though no one has seen her in a while.

Teddy really can’t be bothered with the death of a school parent that’s looking more and more like murder or the student digging a little too deep into Teddy’s personal life. His main focus is on pushing these kids to their full academic potential.

All he wants is for his colleagues—and the endlessly meddlesome parents—to stay out of his way. It’s really too bad that sometimes excellence can come at such a high cost.

USA Today bestselling author Samantha Downing is back with her latest sneaky thriller set at a prestigious private school—complete with interfering parents, overeager students, and one teacher who just wants to teach them all a lesson…

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

I don’t know about you, readers, but I definitely had a high school teacher who probably had no business teaching students. He was the type that would stand at the cafeteria door, hands behind his back in full blocking stance, and then would inspect kids to make sure they weren’t taking food out of the lunch room. He once fully kicked me out of class for the day because I realized that I left my homework in my locker. Another run in involved him taking down signs for a student band for Battle of the Bands, and when I asked him why he said that it was a vulgar picture. It was a picture of a kid with a bag on his head, and his hand maybe sort of in the vicinity of his crotch, but just kinda resting on his thigh. I told him I didn’t see it, and I got screamed at for being deliberately obtuse (though frankly, HE was the one projecting masturbation connotations onto that of a minor, but hey, what do I know?). As I was reading “For Your Own Good”, I kept thinking back to good ol’ Mr. E, sociopathic bully that he was. But even Mr. E never went so far as to commit murder. At least, not that I know of. Given that soapy thrillers that take place at elite public schools usually involve students behaving badly, this was a fun change of pace!

“For Your Own Good” is a soapy and murderous new thriller from Samantha Downing, and like her other works it hits all the right notes without straying too far from well worn territory. We have a few different third person perspectives we are following, the most significant being that of Teddy Crutcher, Teacher of the Year and psychopath, who tells himself he only wants his students to be the best they can be as he wreaks havoc in their lives. He hides behind a mask of tough but fair mentor, though he targets those that he thinks are undeserving or smug. And given that he’s a teacher at a wealthy prep school, well, he feels that way a lot. He’s a fun character in his villainy, and it’s entertaining following him around and watching him plot and scheme. Other perspectives include that of Zach, one of his students that he has been especially cruel to (in subtle, unprovable ways), as well as other teachers and past victims. Teddy is definitely the person that we get to know the best, and while Zach is a close second, the rest have their parts to play and don’t really go outside their intended tropes and foil moments. And that being said, while Teddy is fun to read, he too isn’t very complicated in his psychopathy. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you, as sometimes you just want to read an over the top sudsfest with murder and asshole characters without having to think about it. In that way, “For Your Own Good” succeeds.

The plot itself is also a bit predictable, at least in how you see things playing out for various characters. Sure, there were some surprising moments and reveals here and there, and I enjoyed the ride of getting from start to finish. But it’s kind of things that we’ve seen before. And since our characters are pretty run of the mill, there isn’t as much tension because we aren’t as invested in them, and therein aren’t as invested in how things shake out for them. It is, however, a very readable book, and I definitely had a hard time putting it down because of that. And this is why I don’t really want to knock books that don’t think outside the box, because sometimes familiarity is a really good thing for the reading experience. Downing definitely as written a book here that I kind of knew what to expect as I read through, and I found it to be a fun experience because of that. And again, how fun was it to see the teachers being the assholes this time around?

“For Your Own Good” isn’t reinventing the wheel, but it’s super entertaining and addictive. It’s the kind of book you should take to the pool or beach in these waning summer months.

Rating 7: Entertaining, if a bit predictable at times, “For Your Own Good” is a breezy page turner that kept my interest until the end.

Reader’s Advisory:

“For Your Own Good” is included on the Goodreads lists “Dark Academia”, and “Mystery and Thriller 2021”.

Find “For Your Own Good” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “The Queen Will Betray You”

Book: “The Queen Will Betray You” by Sarah Henning

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, July 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley!

Book Description: To stay together forever, Princess Amarande and her stableboy love, Luca, must part: Amarande to reclaim her kingdom from usurpers, and Luca to raise a rebellion and find his destiny. Arrayed against them are all the players in the game of thrones for control over the continent of The Sand and Sky. Facing unspeakable betrayals, enemies hidden in the shadows, and insurmountable odds, their only hope is the power of true love…

Previously Reviewed: “The Princess Will Save You”

Review: I read the first book in this duology last summer purely because it was hyped as being a gender-swapped retelling of “The Princess Bride.” While that premise may technically have applied, I found it to be more distracting than helpful in my read of the story. Too often, I found myself trying to match up characters from the book to characters from the original or to line up plot points in a similar way, rarely to much success. But the story was charming enough, and I enjoyed the straight forward romance at its heart. I was excited to check out this second entry in the story, however, as I’ve been hopeful that now that the author has moved past the original “Princess Bride” retelling, the story might come more fully into its own.

Each with a powerful destiny before them, Amarande and Luca must part after spending so long trying desperately to be reunited. But the kingdoms are restless and political power plays for them to separate to reclaim their birth rights. Unaware of what awaits them, they must untangle the various different factions, each with their own long-game and plans for Amarande and Luca. With so many unknowns, all they truly know anymore is their deep love for one another and their will to be together again.

As I said, I was excited to see where this book went after it firmly left behind its “retelling” status in the first book. Luca’s storyline, for example, now doesn’t remotely resemble any portion of Buttercup’s arc in the original story. With a kingdom and history of his own, I was particularly interested in where his storyline would go. While he still played a distinctly second fiddle to Amarande, I was overall pleased with what we had from Luca here. It was nice to see him in a more proactive light and freed from being simply “the love interest.” His increased characterization also helped make the love story more compelling, giving us both sides to root for.

However, the love story itself takes a marked step back into the shadows in this book. It was a fairly prevalent part of the first, but here the story veers much more into political machinations. I was a bit disappointed by that, as the love story was probably what I liked most about the first book. And while I expected a portion of the story to focus on Amarande’s and Luca’s individual stories, I also wished their storylines had converged earlier in the story. As it is, we don’t get to see over much interaction between these two characters at all.

The story was also a bit slower than the first. I’m not sure if this was perhaps just the mood I was in while reading or what, but it felt like it was harder to become invested in the plot and towards the middle the story seemed to drag a bit. I still really liked Amarande, though, which helped carry the book when things seemed to slow down. I also liked that we got more world-building and exploration in to the various choices that Amanrade and Luca’s parents made before they were born (some of the bigger reveals in the first book came on this front, so I was glad to see that given attention here).

Overall, it was a perfectly adequate story. I didn’t love the duology as a whole, but I also enjoyed my experience while reading them. I’m not sure the “Princess Bride” comparisons ever helped the story, frankly, and I do think the duology might have been better served with no connection to that beloved work. But if you’re looking for a sweet, fun YA fantasy, this duology delivers. Especially for readers look for a mostly drama-free romance, something that is definitely hard to find!

Rating 7: A solid second entry, though not ground-breaking in any way.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Queen Will Betray You” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists. But it is on Epic High Fantasy/Romance/Mythology in 2021.

Find “The Queen Will Betray You” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Whispers of Shadow and Flame”

Book: “Whispers of Shadow and Flame” by L. Penelope

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Griffin, October 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: The Mantle that separates the kingdoms of Elsira and Lagrimar is about to fall. And life will drastically change for both kingdoms.

Born with a deadly magic she cannot control, Kyara is forced to become an assassin. Known as the Poison Flame in the kingdom of Lagrimar, she is notorious and lethal, but secretly seeks freedom from both her untamed power and the blood spell that commands her. She is tasked with capturing the legendary rebel called the Shadowfox, but everything changes when she learns her target’s true identity.

Darvyn ol-Tahlyro may be the most powerful Earthsinger in generations, but guilt over those he couldn’t save tortures him daily. He isn’t sure he can trust the mysterious young woman who claims to need his help, but when he discovers Kyara can unlock the secrets of his past, he can’t stay away.

Kyara and Darvyn grapple with betrayal, old promises, and older prophecies—all while trying to stop a war. And when a new threat emerges, they must beat the odds to save both kingdoms.

Previously Reviewed: “Song of Blood and Stone”

Review: It’s been quite a while since I reviewed the first book in this series. I remember really enjoying it, but I’ll be honest, I had to go back and read my review to really catch up on the world and characters before requesting this one. However, given how positively I’d reviewed that book, I felt fairly confident in this second one, even if, sadly, it was following a separate set of characters than the ones I had grown to love. And while I did find this a quick read, it didn’t really hit home in the same way as that first entry.

Due to the powerful magic within her, Kyara’s life has not been her own. Instead of choosing her own path, she’s been forced to become an assassin, a notorious one at that, known as the Poison Flame. But when her most recent target turns out to be more than he seems, Kyara sees an opportunity to begin reclaiming her own power. For his part, Darvyn is also uniquely powerful, but has begun to sink under the weight of guilt and regret over those he wasn’t able to save. Together, Kyara and Darvyn will uncover truths and mysteries that have long been kept in the shadow. But to make their way forward, they will have to learn to trust each other.

While this book didn’t hit the same sweet spot as the first one, there were still several things to like about it. For one, I still really enjoy the world-building. The last book really delved into the way this world’s history and the magical barrier that has divided it in two has affected the various groups of people living on either side. We explored how history is told by the winner and how the responsibility for the welfare of people expands beyond borders and one’s own patriotism to one’s own homeland. But by the end of that book, that barrier was coming down. That left a lot of interesting new pathways open for this book to explore, and the worldbuilding and continued fleshing out of the various cultures and peoples of this world didn’t disappoint.

I also still really enjoy Penelope’s writing style. It’s quick, clear, and engaging. There are a number of magical elements and, of course, an entirely fictional world. It takes a strong writer to really ground those sorts of unknowns into an understandable and approachable block of text. Even while some parts of this story didn’t work for me, I still blazed through it in a few short days.

Surprising no one, perhaps, where this book stumbled for me was with the characters. Of course, I knew going in that we’d have a new batch of characters, but I was disappointed to not even see our original two in passing. Beyond that, the way the book is summarized leads readers to believe that the book will unfold in a similar way to the first, alternating between two lead characters’ POV. Sadly, no. There were way more characters than that! Somewhere between four and six, I’d say. Not only do I generally not prefer books with large ensemble casts of POV characters (it takes a really master-level hand at writing to make that many characters feel distinct and worthy of a reader’s interest and investment), but it also reduced the page time for the two characters who were still mean to be read as “main” characters. In the first book, there was plenty of time to become attached and invested in our leads. Here, I found myself really struggling to care overly much about either Kyara or Darvyn.

And while the author’s writing is up to the task of creating vast, complicated worlds and systems, it faltered with characterization. The overall tone of writing didn’t change from character to character, leaving Kyara and Darvyn, very different characters not only because of gender but also life experiences, reading almost identically to one another. There was also another character’s POV chapter that was writing in a completely different tense than the reset of the book, a HUGE pet peeve of mine. It always feels overly tricky and rarely is there any payoff for this choice (a notable exception and an excellent example of intentional use of this writing method would be N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy).

So, while I’m still intrigued by the world and the larger-scope conflict that has been brewing, I struggled to enjoy this book as much as I did the first. I’ll likely continue to the third, however, as I’m curious to see how the bigger mysteries will resolve.

Rating 7: Weak characterization let down a book with strong world-building and magical intrigue.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Whispers of Shadow and Flame” is on these these Goodreads lists: Black Women Heroines in Urban Fantasy, Paranormal Romance, and Science Fiction and Best Diverse Speculative Fiction.

Find “Whispers of Shadow and Flame” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Darkness and Grace”

Book: “Darkness and Grace” by Kathryn Schleich

Publishing Info: Self-Published, March 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from Book Publicity Services

Book Description: Even the strongest of families aren’t immune to malice, betrayal, and deceit. Supportive, loving, and affluent, the Pierson family is delighted to celebrate the marriage of sensitive middle son Paul Pierson and his wife, Pamela. Everyone rejoices that Paul has finally recovered from the tragic loss of his beloved first wife and looks forward to Paul and Pamela’s new life together. But just as family members are celebrating his happiness, they start noticing that his beautiful bride may not be what she seems.

As the strain between siblings and spouses worsens, the Piersons discover that neither their money nor their considerable influence can keep the family safe from one woman’s malicious intent. When the true nature of this family member is revealed, each of the Piersons is confronted with the quandary of human conduct and moral responsibility.

Darkness and Grace is a compelling story of the classic struggle between good and evil, as well as the violent undercurrent running beneath the illusory serenity of a close-knit Midwestern family. 

Review: Thank you to Book Publicity Services for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

It wasn’t until very recently that I saw the Scorsese film “Casino”, which is admittedly strange as it is my husband’s favorite Scorsese feature. I’m sure that he loves it for the Vegas aspect as well as the interesting mob entanglements, but I think that for me the strongest feature is Sharon Stone, who plays Ginger, the narcissistic and potentially psychopathic wife of Robert DeNiro’s Sam. Stone puts in a powerhouse performance of a charming and vivacious woman who slowly turns into a nightmare as she is overtaken by drugs, alcoholism, and her sociopathic tendencies, which makes DeNiro’s life a bit of a nightmare. But Stone also brings a sad bit of vulnerability to Ginger, and even though you absolutely want her to have to face responsibility for her actions, you do feel a little sorry for her. As I was reading “Darkness and Grace” by Kathryn Schleich, I felt like I was reading about Ginger, only taking place in Minnesota, and without any of the vulnerability and empathy.

Our first person protagonist, Kay Pierson-Scott, is telling the story of how her family got entangled with Pamela, her brother Paul’s wife who turns out to be a psychopathic manipulator who runs an emotional mac truck through their happy family. Pamela is relentless, Paul is beaten down, and Kay and her family are running out of patience and the wherewithal to deal with it. As a family drama with a lot of suds to go around, it is entertaining as hell, making my blood pressure rise as Pamela’s manipulations and machinations run amok and Kay becomes more and more harried and the Pierson clan is targeted more and more. I liked Kay as a protagonist, who is a devoted and somewhat doting oldest sister who wants to protect her brother and the rest of her family as best she can. It’s all from her POV, so there are definitely some blind spots as to the other characters, deliberate or not, but she was enjoyable enough that I was okay with focusing on her. Pamela is the other big character in this book, and she is pretty much a cartoony villain in a lot of ways, though that said I know people who have dealt with people like her in their lives. So I’m not about to say that she’s unrealistic. You definitely spend the entire book waiting for her to get what is coming to her, and holding your breath in suspense as to whether or not she will do something REALLY terrible along the way (oh how I was SCARED for her daughter, Kaitlin!). All of this makes the plot easy to consume, and the side of me that lives for this kind of over the top drama was definitely entertained.

One of the hurdles “Darkness and Grace” faces is that the writing style is very simple, almost conversational, as though Kay is telling this story to a person over cocktails or brunch. I do think that this CAN work if done well, but it felt kind of stunted and a bit informal in this case, and therefore distracting. But it’s important to note that this was the first novel from Schleich, and that this is a re-release. Given that the other book of hers I read “Salvation Station”, didn’t have these issues, it’s really just a sign that this is a debut, or at least very early, work for an author who has time to grow and evolve.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t shout out to the numerous, NUMEROUS Minnesota references peppered throughout this book. I know that Schleich is local, and that aspects of this story are loosely based on something her family had to deal with in the 1990s, so it’s not too surprising to see all the MN moments. For me, a Minnesotan born and raised, it was fun to be like “I know what neighborhood that is!” or “I’ve been to that place!”. It may be laid on pretty thick for other readers, but trust me, us Minnesotans LOVE to have our state acknowledged in media, so this was a-okay by me.

“Darkness and Grace” is an entertaining and soapy thriller that kept me interested. It doesn’t reinvent any wheels, but it gets the job done, and sometimes that just what you want in a suspense novel.

Rating 7: The story is engaging and easy to invest in, even if the writing style felt a little rudimentary to me at times. But the Minnesota references were top notch!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Darkness and Grace” isn’t on any Goodreads lists as of yet, but I think it would fit in on “Family Drama Books”.

Find “Darkness and Grace” at Amazon.com.

Serena’s Review: “The Other Side of the Sky”

Book: “The Other Side of the Sky” by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, September 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley!

Book Description: Prince North’s home is in the sky, in a gleaming city held aloft by intricate engines, powered by technology. Nimh is the living goddess of her people on the Surface, responsible for providing answers, direction—hope.

North’s and Nimh’s lives are entwined—though their hearts can never be. Linked by a terrifying prophecy and caught between duty and fate, they must choose between saving their people or succumbing to the bond that is forbidden between them. 

Review: While the latest book in the “Lady Janies” series fell flat for me, overall, I’ve enjoyed collaborations between these two authors. Plus, the cover on this book looks amazing! There’s a cat. Yes, that is all it takes to get me to pick up your book; be on notice, publishers. Unfortunately, while the book had some things going for it, it ended up falling in the “less enjoyable” camp for me of books I’ve read by these authors.

Long ago the world split in two. The wealthy and privileged fled the ground to make cities in the sky. This is North’s world, one made up of technological advancements like racing gliders to travel through the clouds and powerful engines to run rail systems between the floating systems. On the ground, those who were left behind have forgotten these advancements. Instead, their religion speaks of the Gods who rose above and they look to the Goddess who always walks among them to show them the way. And in this generation, that role has fallen upon Nimh. When North falls from above in a glider accident, these two worlds collide. Each world has forgotten the other, but together, will Nimh and North be able to merge these two once again?

There are a few things that always stand out in books written by this author collaboration. Firstly, the characters are always interesting and well-rounded. Here, too, Nimh and North were both compelling characters. Perhaps Nimh more than North due to the more strife in her past and the particular challenges of her present. North, as a comparison, felt younger and, for being the one from the more scientifically advanced portion of the world, much less knowledgeable about the challenges of life. However, this made for an interesting clash of worlds when the two meet up together, with his knowledge of science and progress up against her ground-level understanding of human nature and struggle.

However, I also started to fall a bit out of the book when these two met up. The questions began to pile up, and that’s never a good sign for my enjoyment of a book. I wasn’t quite sure how the exact world-building worked. On one hand, it felt like a fairly straight forward “technology being confused for magic” storyline, with North diligently disproving many of the aspects of Nimh’s religion that pointed towards magic as present in her world. But on the other hand, there were more than enough instances where it seemed that the authors were also indicating that there was, in fact, magic involved as well as technolgy.

I also struggled with the messages regarding religion. I wasn’t sure exactly what the authors were getting at here, but it began to feel like a point I didn’t fully understand was still being bashed over my head. Again, North was persistent in attacking and disproving many of Nimh’s beliefs. Part of this makes sense as, yes, he does have a more full understanding of the technological side of the world. But much of religion is based on faith in spite of more obvious explanations. So were the authors debunking religion as a whole? I also began to feel bad for Nimh under this ongoing demonstration. But also, there, I started to become frustrated with her own persistence in the face of some of the more clear examples presented by North that disproved her beliefs. It all was too confusing and any greater point felt muddled and difficult to identify.

The story was still well-paced and a fast read. These authors have worked together many times in the past and their writing style feels well-balanced at this point, playing to each of their different strengths. However, it did begin to feel a bit too childishly YA at times, and I wish the entire thing had been a bit more elevated with a stronger message at its heart. Fans of these authors should probably check it out, since they’re still doing what they do best. But for me it was a bit too little.

Rating 7: Confusing themes and over-arching messages brought down a story with solid characters and an interesting concept.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Other Side of the Sky” is on these Goodreads lists: Castles/Cities/Islands in the Sky and Young Adult Novels 2020.

Find “The Other Side of the Sky” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “While Justice Sleeps”

Book: “While Justice Sleeps” by Stacey Abrams

Publishing Info: Doubleday, May 2021

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

Book Description: Avery Keene, a brilliant young law clerk for the legendary Justice Howard Wynn, is doing her best to hold her life together–excelling in an arduous job with the court while also dealing with a troubled family. When the shocking news breaks that Justice Wynn–the cantankerous swing vote on many current high-profile cases–has slipped into a coma, Avery’s life turns upside down. She is immediately notified that Justice Wynn has left instructions for her to serve as his legal guardian and power of attorney. Plunged into an explosive role she never anticipated, Avery finds that Justice Wynn had been secretly researching one of the most controversial cases before the court–a proposed merger between an American biotech company and an Indian genetics firm, which promises to unleash breathtaking results in the medical field. She also discovers that Wynn suspected a dangerously related conspiracy that infiltrates the highest power corridors of Washington.

As political wrangling ensues in Washington to potentially replace the ailing judge whose life and survival Avery controls, she begins to unravel a carefully constructed, chesslike sequence of clues left behind by Wynn. She comes to see that Wynn had a much more personal stake in the controversial case and realizes his complex puzzle will lead her directly into harm’s way in order to find the truth. While Justice Sleeps is a cunningly crafted, sophisticated novel, layered with myriad twists and a vibrant cast of characters. Drawing on her astute inside knowledge of the court and political landscape, Stacey Abrams shows herself to be not only a force for good in politics and voter fairness but also a major new talent in suspense fiction.

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

Back in November of 2020, when it was clear that Georgia was going to go into a run off for their senate seats in January of 2021, my parents were expressing hesitance that Georgia could possibly go blue. While I didn’t want to get my hopes up, of course, I just kept saying ‘don’t underestimate Stacey Abrams’. I then got to tell them that not only is Abrams a political dynamo, but that she is also a published author of romance novels (as well as a fan fiction writer too, because she is also a great big nerd, which is great). Shortly thereafter, I saw that Abrams had a new book coming out, but this time it was going to be a thriller. I was VERY interested in seeing what that was going to be like, and assumed that at the very least it would be well written and entertaining, as well as a fun read given how well versed in the ups and downs of the political world she is.

Abrams takes it even further than I anticipated, and what I found was a very complex and intricate legal and political thriller. Given that I don’t usually gravitate towards thrillers that involve politics (sometimes I’ll go the legal route, if it’s soapy enough), “When Justice Sleeps” was a fairly new experience for me. I’m glad that it was Abrams’s vision and story that took me down this road, because I think that had it been in anyone else’s hands I may have given up. But the biggest strength for this story for me was our protagonist, Avery Keene. For one, it’s always nice to see a woman protagonist in stories that perhaps have gravitated more towards male characters in the past. For another, Avery is a biracial woman whose merits and talents are sharp just as her personality and personal life have relatable highs and lows. Watching her have to not only deal with her boss and mentor be suddenly thrown into a coma, but also have to deal with the scrutiny of being a young, biracial woman thrown into the spotlight because of being named his power of attorney, was riveting in and of itself. She is very easy to root for, and works well as an entry point for the reader to take on some really complex issues in the legal world, the political world, and the medical world.

In terms of the plot and the mystery that Avery has to take on, it’s a doozy. We have a lot of different components, from corporate mergers to the reaches of the Supreme Court to genetics testing to the White House to chess metaphors. As mentioned above, I wasn’t expecting it to be as complicated as it is, and keeping all of the moving parts in order was, at times a little hard for me to do. But Abrams always veers us back on track, bringing in reveals at the right times and finely connecting all of the puzzle pieces, no matter how far flung they are from each other. For someone like me, who doesn’t usually take on this kind of carefully and masterfully woven conspiracy thriller, it was a lot, and it led to brain overload on more than one occasion. But for someone who loves these kinds of wide reaching and well oiled conspiracy thrillers that dabble in lots of themes (like my Dad, for instance)? This will probably hit all the right notes for that kind of reader. I am considering looking into some of her romance work, because my guess is that it is also super well done, which just solidifies the point that Stacey Abrams is an amazing human being who can really do just about anything.

I definitely recommend giving “While Justice Sleeps” a go if you like political and legal thrillers. If you’re like me and are not as versed, you will still find things to like, even if you have a hard time keeping up. Now which of her romance novels should I try on for size?

Rating 7: A complex and intricately crafted thriller that has a deep conspiracy theme, “While Justice Sleeps” was a little too serpentine for me, but almost assuredly will be a hit for political and legal thriller fans.

Reader’s Advisory:

“While Justice Sleeps” is included on the Goodreads lists “Mysteries/Thrillers by BIPOC Authors”, and “Reading Women Challenge 2021 #17: Women in Politics”.

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

Kate’s Review: “Arsenic and Adobo”

Book: “Arsenic and Adobo” by Mia P. Manansala

Publishing Info: Berkley Books, May 2021

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

Book Description: The first book in a new culinary cozy series full of sharp humor and delectable dishes—one that might just be killer….

When Lila Macapagal moves back home to recover from a horrible breakup, her life seems to be following all the typical rom-com tropes. She’s tasked with saving her Tita Rosie’s failing restaurant, and she has to deal with a group of matchmaking aunties who shower her with love and judgment. But when a notoriously nasty food critic (who happens to be her ex-boyfriend) drops dead moments after a confrontation with Lila, her life quickly swerves from a Nora Ephron romp to an Agatha Christie case.

With the cops treating her like she’s the one and only suspect, and the shady landlord looking to finally kick the Macapagal family out and resell the storefront, Lila’s left with no choice but to conduct her own investigation. Armed with the nosy auntie network, her barista best bud, and her trusted Dachshund, Longanisa, Lila takes on this tasty, twisted case and soon finds her own neck on the chopping block…

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

I’ve said in the past few months that I’m trying to expand my literary experiences this year in terms of genres. First that meant that I was going to read more romance. And then after our Book Club read “The Widows of Malabar Hill” I thought that perhaps I would give more cozy mysteries a try. Admittedly my preconceived notions of cozy mysteries usually involve crafting or baking themes, and also usually star white women. Whether these were accurate notions or not, they were the notions I had before Book Club opened my eyes. And then I stumbled upon “Arsenic and Adobo” by Mia P. Manansala on NetGalley, and I decided that it was time to finally dive in. And what better way to do it, but with a story that takes place in a Filipino restaurant in small town America?

The premise is pretty simple: our protagonist Lila has returned to her small town after a bad break up that made her flee Chicago. She rejoins her Tita Rosie, as well as her grandmother and her meddling but well meaning aunties, and is helping at Rosie’s restaurant. Things get sticky when Lila’s old boyfriend Derek dies after eating the food at the restaurant, and also after arguing with Lila. So Lila has to clear her name, as well as help save the restaurant from going under. Simple stuff, but Manansala writes with such joy and verve that it’s just a fun story to read in spite of some of the more simplistic aspects. Lila is a fun character to follow, as she is a good balance of a bit self absorbed and frazzled, but also clearly cares about her family and her friends. She’s the perfect amateur detective for a story like this, getting into trouble but charming her way (or sometimes bumbling her way) through her investigation. I also liked the other supporting characters, from her loving Tita Rosie to her busy body aunties. My favorite, however, was definitely her high school best friend Adeena, who is both spunky and yet sensitive, and provides a good foil to Lila both in positive and negative ways. Really, the entire cast is fun, it’s diverse, and we are getting ideas as to what parts they are going to play as the series goes on.

As for the mystery itself, it’s entertaining and perfectly alright. The stakes are high, given that Lila’s freedom and her aunt’s business are both threatened, but it never feels like things aren’t going to work out, one way or another. I know that’s one of the things that appeals about cozy mysteries, but as someone who reads some pretty dark shit I’m not as used to it, and it was a bit refreshing. There are a wide array of suspects and some red herrings, but when all is said and done it was pretty predictable as to what was going on and who was guilty if you knew what to look for. I guessed the culprit long before I was supposed to, but since the journey with the quirky characters was enjoyable I wasn’t too frustrated by that. And it was well done enough that I will probably be seeking out the next book in the series.

Also, RECIPES! I’m sure that there are many cozy mystery series that have recipes and crafting instructions and such if those are the themes, but that didn’t make it any less delightful when I saw that we get some really delicious and simple recipes in the back of this book! I am fully intending to try my hand at a few of them. If the COVID-19 Pandemic has taught me anything it’s that I can distract myself with a recipe and experimenting with new ones is fun as hell!

I can now make bagels, challah, and a mean green bean casserole, and can’t wait to add some Filipino recipes to my three ring binder. (source)

“Arsenic and Adobo” is super fun, and I’m glad that this is the cozy mystery series I decided to take a chance on. Whatever Lila is up to next, I will surely be on board. I can’t recommend stretching your genre comforts, guys. I’ve been having a ball.

Rating 7: A fun mystery with enjoyable characters, “Arsenic and Adobo” was a little predictable, but a good time. Also, recipes!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Arsenic and Adobo” is new and not on many relevant Goodreads list, but I think it would fit in on “Filipino Authors”, and “Culinary Cozy Mysteries”.

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

Kate’s Review: “Distant Early Warning”

Book: “Distant Early Warning” by Elizabeth Hirst

Publishing Info: Renaissance, April 2021 (originally published 2014)

Book Description: Canada is in crisis. Global warming has taken hold, and amid the flooding and the super storms, another horror has risen, more devastating than the rest. The dead begin rising from the ground at night, screaming out strange gibberish songs that terrify and entrance anyone who hears them. With people dying and fleeing all around, the north quickly becomes a wild west, without the west.

Felicia “Denny” Dennigan lives far from the crisis, with a good job at the university and a roof over her head, but her life is far from perfect. A perpetual loner, she relies on sporadic visits from her Dad as her only lifeline to friends or family. So, when Dad doesn’t return one fall day, and his dog, Geoff, shows up without him, Denny is concerned for his safety. The last postcard he sent her was from Sudbury, on the edge of the chaos up North…

Denny’s worst fears are confirmed when she sees Dad on TV, dead, and screaming. Desperate to end his suffering, Denny gives up her job, buys supplies, and heads out with Geoff to discover the truth behind her father’s death, but truth always comes with a cost. What Denny discovers in the wilds of Northern Ontario will shatter all of her assumptions about her life, and what lies beyond.

Review: Thank you to Renaissance for sending me an ARC of this book!

It’s been a bit since I delved into a zombie tale, and I don’t know if it’s because I’m zombied out, or if I just haven’t been seeing as many lately. Whatever the case may be, I haven’t been hanging with the undead as of late. But when I was approached by Renaissance to read and review “Distant Early Warning” by Elizabeth Hirst, I was immediately interested, for a couple of reasons. 1) It sounded like a new take on a zombie tale, which I’m always down for, and 2) it’s a story set in the wilds of Canada! As a Minnesotan, I feel a deep kinship with our neighbors to the North, so I absolutely am game for any tale that takes place there. If you got a horror story on top of it, that sounds like a party!

And let me tell you, once international travel is safe again, I intend to go visit! (source)

Overall, I enjoyed about “Distant Early Warning”. I really liked Denny as our main character. For one, I thought that she was wry and funny, and I liked her scrappy spirit and her determination to figure out what happened to her father. She has a lot of relatable moments, and I liked that she is described in ways that feel not really of the norm from what you’d expect from a zombie story heroine. I loved her connection to Geoff, her father’s dog, and I liked seeing her slowly come into her own as she goes on her journey into the wild. And yes, I’m that sucker who liked the slow building relationship between her and Wayne, a man she meets under suspicious circumstances, but someone who she comes to rely upon for companionship (as he too relies upon her). Denny was easy to invest in, and was easy to root for. And the complicated relationship she had with her father is a journey that slowly unfolds and has a lot of pathos to it.

In terms of the zombie story themes, I thought that the Screamers and some of the ways that they functioned were pretty cool and original. They could range from the general menace to more of a boss fight in a video game, but what made it even more intriguing was that (without giving much away) Denny has the skills to counteract them in ways that hasn’t been seen in stories like this before. There are also clear moments of ‘the humans are the real monsters’ within the narrative, and we get the realization that 1) climate change that is man made has really screwed up everything else on top of the whole Screamers thing, and 2) it’s hard to know who you can trust when you stumble upon humans in these lawless areas. The climate change aspect felt pretty unique to me, even if the humans as the real threat has been done many times over in zombie tales. But I also liked the fact that there just kind of had a bit of hopefulness tinging the story as we go forward, from Denny finding strength that she didn’t know she had, to her being able to actually open up to people in face of hardship and loss.

In some ways “Distant Early Warning” keeps to well treaded paths of a zombie tale, but in other ways it has uniqueness to it that I enjoyed. It’s entertaining, has a great heroine, and a cute dog. What more could you want?

Rating 7: An at times unique take on a zombie tale with some mild eco-horror thrown in, “Distant Early Warning” is entertaining as well as hopeful in the face of the unknown.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Distant Early Warning” isn’t on any Goodreads lists as of yet, but I think it would fit in on “Eco Horror Books”, and “Horror Novels Set in Canada”.

Find “Distant Early Warning” on the publisher’s website!

ALSO, before I end this post, I want to share some links to organizations and groups that are collecting donations for Daunte Wright’s family members during this awful time, as well as the community of Brooklyn Center. Daunte Wright should be alive. Black Lives Matter.

Brooklyn Center Mutual Aid

Donations to Chyna, Daunte’s girlfriend and mother of his son, through a local health organization

A GoFundMe Campaign set up by Duante’s family

Emergency Housing Resources for families who live in the apartment buildings across from the police station (as tear gas and flashbangs have been going off right outside their home)

Serena’s Review: “The Brass Queen”

Book: “The Brass Queen” by Elizabeth Chatsworth

Publishing Info: CamCat Books, January 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: In 1897, a fiery British aristocrat and an inept US spy search for a stolen invisibility serum that could spark a global war.

Miss Constance Haltwhistle is the last in a line of blue-blooded rogue inventors. Selling exotic firearms under her alias, the ‘Brass Queen,’ has kept her baronial estate’s coffers full. But when US spy, Trusdale, saves her from assassins, she’s pulled into a search for a scientist with an invisibility serum. As royal foes create an invisible army to start a global war, Constance and Trusdale must learn to trust each other. If they don’t, the world they know will literally disappear before their eyes.

Review: I haven’t reviewed a lot of them, but that’s because I don’t really see them around that much, but I do really enjoy a good steampunk fantasy when I can find it. It’s a neat, little quirky subgenre in fantasy fiction that is kind of bizarre in the specific elements that are seemingly expected from the genre: must involve steam-powered machine, often set in the Victorian period or some historical-feeling setting, has a decent overlap with Manners period pieces, etc. Those are all things I typically enjoy, so combine them well, and you’ve probably got a winner for me! Ah, but combining them well….

Constance must marry. Her family home is in danger, and with an absent father and no other recourse before her, the marriage market is her only way forward. Of course, she must find a husband who can either ignore or not see the other identity that Constance keeps under tight wraps: her position as the “Brass Queen,” a well-respected, underground weapons dealer. All is going exactly not to plan when her debut ball is interrupted by thieves. She quickly finds herself caught up in an elaborate plot that extends past Britain’s own borders. Not only that, she’s paired up a ridiculous U.S. spy whom she’s not sure she can even trust. What could go wrong next?

Like I said, I generally enjoy steampunk fantasy stories, and this one in particular had some interesting things going for it, like our heroine’s secret life as the Brass Queen. I also liked the way the author explored the idea of this imagined version of England with its machines and mechanized creations. The very first scene sees Constance opening a ball in a room overseen by towering animatronic suits that can be piloted by riders within. Constance’s own alternate identity gives the reader a direct line into the ins and outs of how this type of weaponization has and could be used. There was a lot of creativity here and elements to pique one’s interest.

But other than these aspects of the world-building, I struggled with this story. Constance, for one thing, was a walking, talking contradiction whom I could never quite understand or believe in as a living, breathing person. On one hand, she’s this weapons dealer who works with great power players all of the time. And yet in the very first scene, we’re supposed to believe that she’s been bumbling around the ball room this entire time and is about to fall to pieces over a simple speech? Someone who runs an underground weapons dealership would surely have a firm hand on proper decorum and behavior and much experience talking to strangers, likely to even more important people and with greater stakes at play. This contradiction continued throughout the book. I just had a hard time buying a lot of Constance’s actions when set against the idea that she was supposed to be this powerful, underground operator (as many characters remind us).

I also felt like the romance was a bit off the entire time. I’m not sure if this was because I was constantly distracted by Constance, or what exactly the problem was. I think part of it was Trusdale had a very “American cowboy in Britain” thing going on that I also had a hard time taking seriously. The book was clearly trying to incorporate a good amount of humor, and some the bantering between these two was actually quite good. But the balance was just slightly off and some of the humorous moments early on made it hard for me to take either of these characters too seriously or care overly much about their romance as a whole.

I also struggled with the writing in general. I had a hard time picturing some of the elements of the story, never a good thing for a fantasy book. And the story sometimes had jarring jumps between one scene and another. The formatting on my Kindle e-galley didn’t help with this. Hopefully the finalized version will have better page breaks to distinguish these scenes a bit better.

Overall, I had a fairly middling response to this book. There was nothing that I really disliked, but I also didn’t care about the story that much. The writing wasn’t quite strong enough to support some of the more fantastical elements, and the characters weren’t complicated enough to add any weight to the action. If you really enjoy steampunk fantasy stories, this might be worth checking out, but it wasn’t quite all I had hoped it would be.

Rating 7: Fun enough at times, but not all I had hoped it could be.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Brass Queen” is on these Goodreads lists: Gaslamp Fantasy and 2021 Swoony Awards.

Find “The Brass Queen” at your library using WorldCat!