Serena’s Review: “And Break the Pretty Kings”

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Book: “And Break the Pretty Kings” by Lena Jeong

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, June 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher!

Where Can You Get this Book: | Amazon | IndieBound

Book Description: A crown princess. A monster the gods fear. A destiny no one can outrun. Inspired by Korean history and myths, the first book in the Sacred Bone series is a rich and evocative high-stakes fantasy that is perfect for fans of Gallant and Six Crimson Cranes . Mirae was meant to save her queendom, but the ceremony before her coronation ends in terror and death, unlocking a strange new power within her and foretelling the return of a monster even the gods fear. Amid the chaos, Mirae’s beloved older brother is taken—threatening the peninsula’s already tenuous truce. Desperate to save her brother and defeat this ancient enemy before the queendom is beset by war, Mirae sets out on a journey with an unlikely group of companions while her unpredictable magic gives her terrifying visions of a future she must stop at any cost.  

Review: Another awesome, dramatic cover! I love bright colors and the overall theme; I feel like I knew exactly the sort of book I was picking up with once glance at this cover. I was also drawn in by the intriguing description and the mention that it was inspired by the historical time period of the three kingdoms of Korea, a time and place I know very little about. I’ve loved how many fantasy novels recently have pulled in Asian folklore and mythology, greatly diversifying a SFF landscape that has re-told a small selection of fables ad nauseum.

Just a note before we start, I’m going to rework my review style so that it matches what Kate has been doing more closely. Obviously, we each have our own distinct tones, but I’ve been writing my own summary of the book here in the second paragraph, and I’m now going to forego doing this. The summary is always included, and I did this more out of habit from my old review style before I was working in a blog format that already includes a summary. More and more often I find that I am spending too much time trying to find ways to re-word information that can be found directly above. So, like Kate, I’m now just going to dive straight into the reviews themselves!

So, this book was a strange read for me. It was definitely a case where I felt like there was potential around every corner. But then it never quite reached the highs I was hoping for. One thing that is unquestionable, however, is that this is a fast-moving romp of a story. The story gets off to a fairly quick start and never really lets up. But, on the other hand, due to the fast pace of the plotting, I never felt like we really settled into any of these character, either our main character or the side cast. Mirae had a potentially interesting arc where she is forced to confront that her unwillingness to compromise can be both a strength, but also a weakness. But I don’t think the story every really settled enough for her to really express any of this growth. Instead, the reader is left to just bounce along and understand that inner reflection is happening.

There was also no romance in this story. I personally prefer to have a romantic plotline in my story (though I have to say, I’ve now read three other books back to back where the romance ended in some form of tragedy, and I’m SUPER over this tendency to need to make these stories bittersweet or grimdark to somehow justify them as “serious fantasy.” Ok, rant over.), but there have been plenty of stories I’ve really enjoyed without a hint of romance to be found. Just recently, I rated “Witch King” a 10 and there’s zero romance in that book. But here it was confusing because fairly early on the author seems to be setting up a romantic plotline. And then…it just goes nowhere. It kind of felt like a bait and switch and left me more frustrated than had there been nothing even hinted at.

I also really liked the idea of the time-switching, but I don’t feel like it was really used to the extent that it was hyped. The world-building also felt a bit all over the place, and the motivations, both for why these countries were at war, and why individual characters choose to do certain things, were lacking. I am curious to see if there is a second book planned and whether that would clarify some of this. Particularly, the strange non-love/love interest. Like, is this something that is going to be followed up on later? Overall, this was a bit hit and miss for me as a read. Like I said, I think there is a lot of potential here, and I do think that some fantasy readers will enjoy it. But it’s not as tightly knit or carefully constructed as I would prefer.

Rating 7: Lots of potential that did feel a bit squandered by a lack of attention to character and world-building.

Reader’s Advisory:

“And Break the Pretty Kings” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should be on Asian Mythology, Legends, and Folklore .

Kate’s Review: “A Botanist’s Guide to Flowers and Fatality”

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Book: “A Botanist’s Guide to Flowers and Fatality” by Kate Khavari

Publishing Info: Crooked Lane Books, June 2023

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

Where You Can Get This Book: | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: 1920s London isn’t the ideal place for a brilliant woman with lofty ambitions. But research assistant Saffron Everleigh is determined to beat the odds in a male-dominated field at the University College of London. Saffron embarks on her first research study alongside the insufferably charming Dr. Michael Lee, traveling the countryside with him in response to reports of poisonings. But when Detective Inspector Green is given a case with a set of unusual clues, he asks for Saffron’s assistance.

The victims, all women, received bouquets filled with poisonous flowers. Digging deeper, Saffron discovers that the bouquets may be more than just unpleasant flowers— there may be a hidden message within them, revealed through the use of the old Victorian practice of floriography. A dire message, indeed, as each woman who received the flowers has turned up dead.

Alongside Dr. Lee and her best friend, Elizabeth, Saffron trails a group of suspects through a dark jazz club, a lavish country estate, and a glittering theatre, delving deeper into a part of society she thought she’d left behind forever.

Will Saffron be able to catch the killer before they send their next bouquet, or will she find herself with fatal flowers of her own in Kate Khavari’s second intoxicating installment.

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

It’s about a year since I reviewed the first Saffron Everleigh mystery, “A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons”, and I can tell you that I am still not really a plant person. It took me forever to get my act together this Spring when it comes to clearing my landscaping of refuse, so my bleeding heart wasn’t as, uh, hardy as I had hoped it would be, and the weeds have already taken over. But real life green thumb problems aside, I’m still very much into plant nerd Saffron and her love for various kinds of flora, and therefore I knew that I wanted to read her second adventure, “A Botanist’s Guide to Flowers and Fatality”! So back to post WWI England we go, with high hopes of deadly plants and Interwar sensibilities!

I am still really enjoying the time period and societal placement of this book. Post WWI London remains a setting that is rich with possibilities, and this time Khavari has implemented a device that I have a personal connection to: floriography! For those who are unfamiliar, floriography, or language of the flowers, is the Victorian social practice of using flowers to communicate feelings and intentions. When I worked at a Victorian Historic House in St. Paul, one of the tours I gave was all about sexuality and romance during this time period, and I talked about floriography in courtships. In “A Botanist’s Guide to Flowers and Fatality”, Saffron is brought into a murder investigation by Detective Inspector Green when bouquets of poisonous flowers are found at all the victims homes. It’s such a great way to make Saffron needed as not only a civilian, but also as a woman, and it’s such a great hook as a puzzle piece to the murder mystery. We also see the way that Saffron has to navigate her role as an amateur detective in this setting, facing a lot of issues not limited to misogyny and expected gender roles, and how she has to utilize her new academic partner, Michael Lee, in her works both at the university (where they are investigating plant poisoning reports throughout the countryside for research) and in the criminal investigation, because him being a man (a very smart and capable man, but no more so than Saffron herself) can open doors a bit easier than she alone can. I really liked Lee as a character, his sarcasm and wit egging Saffron on and leading to some fun moments of banter and sexual tension (we’ll be talking more on that in a bit), and I did like that while being a new member to the story he felt like he fit in almost immediately. His role both at the University parts of the book as well as the criminal parts rounded her out really well and complemented her without constraining her.

The mystery was also pretty well done. I loved seeing Saffron and Lee have to go into unseemly JAZZ CLUBS and have to wrangle with the idle rich and their COCAINE HABITS, and I loved the deadly bouquets and the undercover hijinks they have to get into to get to the truth. Given that this is solidly a cozy mystery series (ha, of the two of us it’s probably surprising that I’m the one covering the two cozy mystery series on the blog), it never goes into very suspenseful territory, as you generally know that Saffron is going to figure it all out and probably come out unscathed, and it’s never TOO gruesome. But that doesn’t mean that Khavari’s mystery is dull by any means, and I thought that there were well done red herrings and well executed ‘ah ha!’ moments.

I will say that there was one aspect that didn’t quite work for me that kind of brought down the rest of the book in some ways: we find ourselves in a bit of a love triangle with Saffron. Our first suitor is Alexander, her partner in detection from the first book, who has gone on the Amazon expedition mentioned in that novel. Saffron has been exchanging letters with him while he’s on the trip. The other, of course, is the aforementioned Lee, her new partner in detection who is pretty much the opposite of Alexander in all ways. Where Alexander is brooding, Lee is extroverted and vivacious. Where Alexander is earnest, Lee is sardonic and a bit of a bad boy. It’s a trope we have seen many times in a love triangle, and I was kind of bummed to see Saffron thrust into this when she is so much more interesting on her own and doesn’t need romantic conflict (some of which, on Alexander’s side, felt very out of character and made him pretty unlikable, at least to me) to buoy up her story.

So, aggravating love triangle aside, I did enjoy “A Botanist’s Guide to Flowers and Fatality”. It continues to represent the time and place in an enjoyable way, and Saffron Everleigh is still a fun and engaging heroine!

Rating 7: A fun new adventure for tenacious detective Saffron Burrows, with interesting new characters and deadly flowers abound.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Botanist’s Guide to Flowers and Fatality” is included on the Goodreads lists “Historical Mystery 2023”, and “Cozy Mysteries 2023 New Releases”.

Previously Reviewed:

Serena’s Review: “The Grimoire of Grave Fates”

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Book: “The Grimoire of Grave Fates” by Hanna Alkaf and Margaret Owen

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, June 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher!

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

Book Description: Professor of Magical History Septimius Dropwort has just been murdered, and now everyone at the Galileo Academy for the Extraordinary is a suspect.

A prestigious school for young magicians, the Galileo Academy has recently undergone a comprehensive overhaul, reinventing itself as a roaming academy in which students of all cultures and identities are celebrated. In this new Galileo, every pupil is welcome–but there are some who aren’t so happy with the recent changes. That includes everyone’s least favorite professor, Septimius Dropwort, a stodgy old man known for his harsh rules and harsher punishments. But when the professor’s body is discovered on school grounds with a mysterious note clenched in his lifeless hand, the Academy’s students must solve the murder themselves, because everyone’s a suspect.

Told from more than a dozen alternating and diverse perspectives, The Grimoire of Grave Fates follows Galileo’s best and brightest young magicians as they race to discover the truth behind Dropwort’s mysterious death. Each one of them is confident that only they have the skills needed to unravel the web of secrets hidden within Galileo’s halls. But they’re about to discover that even for straight-A students, magic doesn’t always play by the rules. . . .

Review: I was definitely intrigued when I heard about this upcoming fantasy anthology. Not only was it a collaboration between a huge number of famous authors, but the idea of a murder mystery taking place in a school of magic as the foundation upon which the anthology is built upon is compelling as heck. Add an eye-popping cover, and you’ve got me! This is definitely a change of pace from the types of fantasy stories that I typically read, so I was very excited and curious to see what it had to offer.

I’m going to skip over my usual summary paragraph here, as I think the description given by the publisher is more than enough, and it’s hard to add more with anthologies that are, by their nature, built upon many layers of different characters, themes, and stories. So let’s get right to the review! First of all, I’d like to state how impressive of a project I think this book is. Collaborations are always tricky, but I have to imagine the more authors you include, the harder it is to ensure that the finished product feels complete and even. This is all the more difficult when you’re writing a murder mystery, a specific genre that requires careful plotting, close regulation of what information is made known and when, and a neat balance of pace to keep the reader engaged while not also losing them as the book builds to its final conclusion. But I think, overall, this aspect of the book came together very well, and none of the individual stories stood out as ill-fitting with the larger story as a whole.

That said, I didn’t wholly love this read. On one hand, this is purely a subjective opinion as I’m not a huge fan of anthology stories, in general. I have a long record here on the blog of my struggles with a book rising at the exact rate at which an author adds POV characters. The more you have, the more I’m going to have a difficult time connecting to the story. Obviously, that is unavoidable here. I did like several of the individual chapters, but this then lead me to become increasingly frustrated as, again and again, I lost these characters just when I was beginning to become invested in them. And even in multi-POV stories, there’s always the anticipation of returning to a beloved character, which isn’t the case here. I also liked the level of diversity that is included, but there were also moments where it began to feel a bit like “diversity Bingo” and less like a natural and organic collection of individuals.

I did like the magical elements we had in the story as well. There were a few particular characters who had very unique ways of practicing their magic that I was especially interested in. But, again, I was always left wanting just a bit more. And, while every chapter did move the murder mystery along, bit by bit, the overall experience did begin to feel a bit tedious. However, as I said, I struggle with this approach to story-telling in general, so this could definitely be more of “me” problem than an actual problem with the book itself. On top of that, the writing style did err towards the younger side of YA; again something that is really subjective to the preferences of the reader. If you’re a fan of anthologies or love any of the authors involved in this project, this is likely a book you’ll enjoy. If you tend to enjoy adult fantasy more, this might not work quite as well.

Rating 7: A cool concept and an impressive feat of collaboration, but the large cast of characters and the slow pace of the larger mystery itself left me struggling to fully connect to the book.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Grimoire of Grave Fates” can be found on this Goodreads lists: YA Releases June 2023

Serena’s Review: “The Thorns Remain”

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Book: “The Thorns Remain” by J.J.A. Harwood

Publishing Info: Magpie, May 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher!

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

Book Description: A dance with the fae will change everything

1919. In a highland village forgotten by the world, harvest season is over and the young who remain after war and flu have ravaged the village will soon head south to make something of themselves.

Moira Jean and her friends head to the forest for a last night of laughter before parting ways. Moira Jean is being left behind. She had plans to leave once – but her lover died in France and with him, her future. The friends light a fire, sing and dance. But with every twirl about the flames, strange new dancers thread between them, music streaming from the trees.

The fae are here.

Suddenly Moira Jean finds herself all alone, her friends spirited away. The iron medal of her lost love, pinned to her dress, protected her from magic.

For the Fae feel forgotten too. Lead by the darkly handsome Lord of the Fae, they are out to make themselves known once more. Moira Jean must enter into a bargain with the Lord to save her friends – and fast, for the longer one spends with the Fae, the less like themselves they are upon return. If Moira Jean cannot save her friends before Beltine, they will be lost forever…

Completely bewitching, threaded with Highland charm and sparkling with dark romance, this is a fairytale that will carry you away.

Review: Here’s another example of cover lust! But I was also drawn in by the fact that I’ve been on a bit of a good run with Fae/Faerie books in the last few months. I gave high ratings to both “The Fairy Bargains of Prospect Hill”  and “Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries”. I was also particularly intrigued by the description of this one and its inclusion of dancing with the Fae. It’s a pretty well-established piece of fairy lore (I’ve always loved the “Seven Dancing Sisters” fairytale especially!) and it can swing either romantic or highly dangerous. With hints at powerfully dark Fae and bargains, I have to guess this one might swing towards the latter. Either way, count me in!

Moira Jean and her friends have always know there was future was to depart their small village and make lives for themselves out in the greater world. As young women, this departure and future would largely be tied to their marriages. But when Moira Jean’s beloved dies in the war, her world is rocked and her future torn to shreds. When her friends go out into the forest to dance and celebrate one last time before they leave home, Moira Jean joins them. There, they are joined in their dancing by the wild and dangerous Fae and one by one, Moira Jean’s friends are stolen away. Now it up to her to rescue them, entering into dangerous bargains with Lord of the Fae who is as mysterious as he is beguiling.

So this book both was and wasn’t what I was expecting. It’s always interesting to see the balance that different authors take with their Fae, some leaning towards the more human and romantic versions, while others delve deeper into the cruelty and danger the Fae represent. This book neatly presents both options, and I think this was probably the biggest strength of the book. There is a romantic plotline, but we are never allowed to forget that the Lord of the Fae is distinctly not human. Furthermore, many aspects of the relationship that Moira Jean develops with him is comprised of supremely unhealthy dynamics, and much of the story is Moira Jean confronting these realities. This is also tied into Moira Jean’s overall arch, one that sees her struggling to define herself and her life outside of the rather co-dependent relationships she has traditionally relied upon.

That said, I struggled with the end of this book. On one hand, I liked the resolution to the romance and how that was handled. But there were many questions left unanswered about just how these actions worked within the larger Fae world and rules that we had been presented with. Further, the manner in which Moira Jean escapes her situation undercut her agency. I wish she had been more actively involved in solving her problems, and I think this would have been the button that was missing on her character arc. The pacing was also a bit all over the place. The ending, especially, felt rushed and thus a bit anti-climatic.

As a character, Moira Jean was enjoyable when she was spunky and active. But there were also times that she read as very annoying and those were the times that it became hard to understand what a powerful Fae lord would see in her. Kind of like the pacing and the world-building, there was such a mix of good and bad elements that I was often left feeling off-kilter and struggling to connect to the story. I think there were a lot of good ideas here, it just didn’t feel like everything came together the way one would want. If you’re a big fan of Fae stories that focus on the darker element of these magical beings, than this book is probably worth checking out. But I do think there are more complete versions of a similar story to be found.

Rating 7: A bit of a frustrating read as I really enjoyed it at times and then, conversely, struggled at others.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Thorns Remain” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Books like Hozier songs and Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2023

Kate’s Review: “Bad Summer People”

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Book: “Bad Summer People” by Emma Rosenblum

Publishing Info: Flatiron Books, May 2023

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

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

Book Description: A whip-smart, propulsive debut about infidelity, backstabbing, and murderous intrigue, set against an exclusive summer haven on Fire Island. None of them would claim to be a particularly good person. But who among them is actually capable of murder?

Jen Weinstein and Lauren Parker rule the town of Salcombe, Fire Island every summer. They hold sway on the beach and the tennis court, and are adept at manipulating people to get what they want. Their husbands, Sam and Jason, have summered together on the island since childhood, despite lifelong grudges and numerous secrets. Their one single friend, Rachel Woolf, is looking to meet her match, whether he’s the tennis pro-or someone else’s husband. But even with plenty to gossip about, this season starts out as quietly as any other.

Until a body is discovered, face down off the side of the boardwalk.

Stylish, subversive and darkly comedic, this is a story of what’s lurking under the surface of picture-perfect lives in a place where everyone has something to hide.

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

Summer is finally here, and for some people that means getting to the beach and reveling in the sand, sun, and surf. While my summer travels aren’t taking me to such a place, I do know a few people who may be going to Fire Island this summer, though more in the capacity that many people think of Fire Island. Honestly, before “Bad Summer People” by Emma Rosenblum ended up in my hands I, too, thought of Fire Island as predominantly a place for the LGBTQIA+ community to party hard. But apparently it’s also a spot where the wealthy and entitled elites also like to spend the summer months. And in this book, those wealthy and entitled elites might just end up murdered amongst all their secrets and lies. And you know what? SIGN ME UP TO READ ALL ABOUT IT!

The mystery is presented right away at the top of the book. A body is found in the sand in a posh Fire Island community called Salcombe. We don’t know who they are, we don’t know how they got there, and we immediately jump back to the start of summer and start to meet our cast of characters, all of whom could be victims or suspects based on the secrets, backstabbing, and resentment and malice that they all feel towards each other. I liked the set up of having different third person perspective chapters of the various players, as they all have unique insights into not only how the mystery is slowly going to come together, but also into their own parts to play in the overall question as to what happened. Like so many suds filled thrillers before it, we get twists, we get turns, some are revealed more deftly than others, and the red herrings and clues pile up at breakneck pace. You add in a bunch of poisonous people who we could either take or leave in terms of their survivability and it’s the kind of book that reads super fast and keeps the reader mostly engaged. It’s at times a little predictable, and at times it’s pretty familiar with it’s tropes and plot reveals, and that these reveals mean for the identity of the victim found at the top of the narrative.

And to be fair, this is definitely more focused on the interpersonal drama and backstabbing than it is the mystery. But that didn’t stop me from having a hell of a fun time whilst reading it. I love me soap opera drama nonsense, and “Bad Summer People” delivered a whole lot of it. We get into the minds of a number of people in Salcombe, from the nasty queen bees of the summer community to outsiders desperate to be insiders to more seasoned residents who are more removed from the dramatics, and they all have a nasty bite that reads like guilty pleasure fun. Whether it’s Lauren, the most popular mom in a dying marriage who starts to seek out attention elsewhere, or Jen, the well loved wife of the community’s golden boy who has some darkness she’s always hidden, or Robert, the new tennis instructor who is desperate to be a part of the wealthy elites, all of our characters are kind of assholes, but it’s really entertaining seeing them all spiral as the summer goes on. Sure, there’s the question of whose body is found on the beach at the start and how it got there, but that sometimes feels a bit incidental. Because of that this may not be the BEST fit for people who are in it for the thriller aspects of the mystery. But for people like me, who also love watching people be dicks to each other on the page, it’s a quick, breezy jaunt, and the perfect beach read.

“Bad Summer People” was lots of fun and would be a great book to take on a beachy trip this summer! Hopefully you won’t be getting into the shenanigans that these characters stumble into, however.

Rating 7: Sudsy and indulgent with some good twists and turns, “Bad Summer People” is a fun and wicked whodunnit that revels in its soap and drama.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Bad Summer People” is pretty new and not on many Goodreads lists right now, but it would definitely fit in on “Beachy Reads”.

Kate’s Review: “The Only Survivors”

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Book: “The Only Survivors” by Megan Miranda

Publishing Info: Scribner, April 2023

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

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

Book Description: Seven hours in the past. Seven days in the present. Seven survivors remaining. Who would you save?

A decade ago, two vans filled with high school seniors on a school service trip crashed into a Tennessee ravine—a tragedy that claimed the lives of multiple classmates and teachers. The nine students who managed to escape the river that night were irrevocably changed. A year later, after one of the survivors dies by suicide on the anniversary of the crash, the rest of them make a pact: to come together each year to commemorate that terrible night.

To keep one another safe. To hold one another accountable. Or both.

Their annual meeting place, a house on the Outer Banks, has long been a refuge. But by the tenth anniversary, Cassidy Bent has worked to distance herself from the tragedy, and from the other survivors. She’s changed her mobile number. She’s blocked the others’ email addresses. This year, she is determined to finally break ties once and for all. But on the day of the reunion, she receives a text with an obituary attached: another survivor is gone. Now they are seven—and Cassidy finds herself hurling back toward the group, wild with grief—and suspicion.

Almost immediately, something feels off this year. Cassidy is the first to notice when Amaya, annual organizer, slips away, overwhelmed. This wouldn’t raise alarm except for the impending storm. Suddenly, they’re facing the threat of closed roads and surging waters…again. Then Amaya stops responding to her phone. After all they’ve been through, she wouldn’t willfully make them worry. Would she?

And—as they promised long ago—each survivor will do whatever he or she can do to save one another. Won’t they?

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

It’s mid May, with Summer hurtling towards us ever faster, and I, for one, am looking forward to a couple travel moments coming up with the season and the reading opportunities that generally come with a vacation. I’m not sure I’ll be making it to a beach before Fall sets in (Lake Superior in Fall really is just the best), but I can at least dream of beach houses with friends and relaxation and maybe get my act together to make it happen. I was thinking about the joys of a beach house getaway as I read “The Only Survivors”, Megan Miranda’s newest thriller. While it’s true that a beach house vacation like this one, what with an uneasy group of people who trauma bonded after a terrible accident in high school, and who go to a beach house every year to commemorate the anniversary, isn’t ideal, the house did sound nice. And admittedly, a slow building thriller on a precarious beach in a familiar but uncomfortable house is a GREAT set up for a mystery. I’m also happy to revisit Megan Miranda, because she’s usually doing interesting things with her thrillers.

“The Only Survivors” has a pretty solid cast of characters, most notably Cassidy, our protagonist who has forced herself to attend the annual reunion of fellow high school tragedy survivors at a beach house on the Outer Banks. The reunion is always tense and tenuous, with the friends vis a vis a horrible traumatic event not totally willing to trust each other but also unable to blow it off completely. Cassidy is the one we get to know the best, as it is from her POV for the most part (outside of the flashback moments where each survivor gets a snippet perspective of what happened the night of the accident), and I did like getting into her head and slowly understanding her turmoil. The other characters were a bit of a mixed bag. I was genuinely intrigued by Grace, a therapist who is very serious and a bit removed, and Hollis, a wellness influencer who just seems put together on the outside, but there were others who were kind of broadly brushed. I was invested enough in all of them to be really curious as to what they are being to cagey about, and I thought that when we did get moments of their personas in the flashbacks that we got to see a bit more depth. Characters play such an important role in this kind of thriller that it’s important to make them engaging, and most of them were engaging enough.

In terms of the mystery itself, I thought that it had some well done elements and some elements we’ve seen before. Or at least I have, as I’ve been reading thrillers for so long I am sometimes more likely to be privy to the ins and outs of various reveals and twists. I really liked the slow burn reveal of what exactly it is these survivors are hiding, and what brings them all together each year over everything else in their lives, including significant life changes (it’s mentioned one character almost missed the birth of his child for this reunion one year, and the way I would have dumped his ass so hard, but I digress). I also liked that we slowly get the clues to what Cassidy and the others had to go through in the immediate aftermath of the accident, and how their situation went from dire to more dire to something that needed to be kept close to the vest, through flashbacks to the accident itself. On the other hand, I also was able to find myself a few steps ahead of a couple of the reveals and twists, and there was once again a last moments twist that I felt was a little ‘eh’, but I CAN say that it wasn’t the kind that felt unearned or out of nowhere. So in the end the mystery itself was pretty serviceable and altogether entertaining.

“The Only Survivors” is the kind of thriller that would be the perfect read for the beach this summer. I just hope that it’s the kind of beach vacation that is not with a group of people that you trauma bonded with, but with those that aren’t potentially going to spill some dark secrets.

Rating 7: Entertaining, suspenseful, “The Only Survivors” is a serviceable thriller that’s the perfect read for the beach.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Only Survivors” is included on the Goodreads list “Mystery & Thriller 2023”.

Serena’s Review: “A Crown of Ivy and Glass”

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Book: “A Crown of Ivy and Glass” by Claire Legrand

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Casablanca, May 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the author!

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

Book Description: Lady Gemma Ashbourne seemingly has it all. She’s young, gorgeous, and rich. Her family was Anointed by the gods, blessed with incredible abilities. But underneath her glittering façade, Gemma is deeply sad. Years ago, her sister Mara was taken to the Middlemist to guard against treacherous magic. Her mother abandoned the family. Her father and eldest sister, Farrin—embroiled in a deadly blood feud with the mysterious Bask family—often forget Gemma exists.

Worst of all, Gemma is the only Ashbourne to possess no magic. Instead, her body fights it like poison. Constantly ill, aching with loneliness, Gemma craves love and yearns to belong.

Then she meets the devastatingly handsome Talan d’Astier. His family destroyed themselves, seduced by a demon, and Talan, the only survivor, is determined to redeem their honor. Intrigued and enchanted, Gemma proposes a bargain: She’ll help Talan navigate high society if he helps her destroy the Basks. According to popular legend, a demon called The Man With the Three-Eyed Crown is behind the families’ blood feud—slay the demon, end the feud.

But attacks on the Middlemist are increasing. The plot against the Basks quickly spirals out of control. And something immense and terrifying is awakening in Gemma, drawing her inexorably toward Talan and an all-consuming passion that could destroy her—or show her the true strength of her power at last.

Review: First off, thanks so much to Sourcebooks Casablanca for sending me an ARC of this book! I was so excited when I received it in the mail, as it’s been sitting pretty high on my wishlist of books to read in 2023. I wasn’t Legrand’s most ardent fan with her YA trilogy (I found that it began to fall into a few too many YA fantasy tropes for my preference), but there was never any question regarding her overall skill as an author. Her writing always came across as supremely confident and competent. That made me all the more excited to check out her first foray into adult fantasy, especially adult fantasy romance! Let’s dive in!

Gemma has grown up with a very priveleged existence: rich, beautiful, and a member of one of the most powerful families in the land. But, at the same time, Gemma has always felt herself to be on the outside looking in. Not only does she not possess any of the magical talent that her family is known for, and that both of her older sisters excel at in their own ways, but magic actively hurts Gemma, causing her to move through life in a very magical world experiencing constant levels of pain. When Gemma meets Talan, a young man who also feels that he exists outside the strictures of society, she finally begins to see a way forward, teaming up with him to hunt a powerful demon who may be the answer to her struggles with magic. But along the way, she begins to suspect that there is much more going on with Talan and the larger world as a whole.

So, I’ll be honest, I’ve had this post started for a few weeks now and every time I pull it up to actually write my review, I become super intimidated and find excuses to do other things. Mostly this is because I’m still not quite sure how I feel about this book! I have some extremely opposing feelings about almost every part of it. But one thing I think I can confidently start with is one of the things I referred to in my introduction: this author knows how to write. I immediately felt drawn into this world and these characters. As the story progressed, the magic and world itself felt as if it was unrolling before me, presenting more and more insights into the world-building that was on a much more grandiose scale than I had originally thought. Regardless of anything else in this review, the appeal of Legrand’s prose is enough to keep me reading this trilogy going forward.

But where my opinions become more divided is with the characters and the pacing of this story. Let’s start with the pacing and plotting. This book was blurbed as “Bridgerton meets ACOTAR.” Maybe I should have know right from there that I would be conflicted about this book! I mean, I really enjoy Bridgerton and I absolutely loathe ACOTAR. And I can confirm that both of those references feel very on point and accurate to what you’ll get if you pick up this book. I’ll even go as far as to say that the ACOTAR aspects were by no means as frustrating to me as ACOTAR itself. Indeed, I very much liked these parts of the story! No, the problem came in a very unique way. The book almost literally feels as if it has been split down the middle by these two comparisons. The first half is Bridgerton, with fantastical balls, social hierarchies, fancy gowns, and romance. And then, boom! The second half hits and we’re full on ACOTAR with magical barriers and fantasy creatures and magical systems. And, again, I enjoyed this half too! The problem is that, overall, it left the book feeling very disjointed and created a jarring reading experience. I was all down for the regency fantasy, and then it was like a bait and switch to suddenly be dropped down into a much more “traditional” fantasy setting. And due to the fact that much of the plot really takes place in the second half, I was left feeling as if the book could have been edited down quite a bit from the Bridgerton stuff of the beginning, as much as I liked it on its own.

Now, to the characters. First, I think that Legrand did an excellent job of portraying the experiences and life of someone who lives with chronic pain. Gemma is very straight-forward with her struggles while also never becoming self-pitying. She is frustrated with her limitations, while also not belittling herself. I also really like the way this aspect of her character plays out over the entire arc of the book. Unfortunately, that was about all I liked about Gemma. I get that the author was very intentionally writing this character as rather frivolous and selfish; indeed, Gemma herself comments on these aspects of her personality. And I think the book used these traits to also do a great job of diving into self-loathing and self-harm. But over the course of the book, while Gemma does experience growth, I still struggled to really like her or feel invested in her story.

But, here comes the other side of the character issue: I REALLY liked both of her sisters. Honestly, fairly quickly into the book I realized that I was mostly reading on for the glimpses we get of these two and trying to piece together the stories we’ll get from them. I was even more invested into the glimpses of what I can only guess will be the central romance for one of the sisters than I was in Gemma’s own romance. There, too, I struggled with Gemma’s story. Talan felt very one-note when he was first introduced. And then as he went on, he had a few scenes that made him incredibly unlikable. The story does go on to make this a fairly central part of the plot, but it’s hard to recover from on the romance front when the author sets the reader on a path of questioning and disliking the romantic hero from the very start.

So, overall, this was a very mixed bag for me. I think, in the end, I didn’t end up loving this book. But, BUT!, on the other hand, I’m supremely invested in the next book in this series and can’t wait to get my hands on it! Given the nature of my complaints with this book, they all feel of the very specific sort that won’t be a problem in the books going forward. Both sisters seem like much more interesting characters than Gemma. The romantic interest/plot for one of them is already laid out and is incredibly appealing. And I think the world-building is now established enough that we won’t have the same plotting/pacing issue going forward where the tone is unclear between Bridgerton or ACOTAR. So, all of this to say, while I did struggle with this book, I do recommend it for fantasy romance readers based on my faith that the trilogy will turn out to be well worth it as a whole.

Rating 7: A very mixed bag for this book specifically, but I was definitely sold on the concept and anxiously await the next entry in the trilogy!

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Crown of Ivy and Glass” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Novels with “Crown” in the Title and Epic High Fantasy/Romance/Mythology in 2023.

Kate’s Review: “We Don’t Swim Here”

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Book: “We Don’t Swim Here” by Vincent Tirado

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Fire, May 2023

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

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

Book Description: She is the reason no one goes in the water. And she will make them pay. A chilling new novel for fans of Tiffany D. Jackson, Lamar Giles, and Ryan Douglass.

From the author of BURN DOWN, RISE UP comes a chilling novel told through alternating voices that follows two cousins as they unravel their town’s sinister past, their family’s complicated history, and the terrifying spirit that holds their future captive.

Bronwyn is only supposed to be in rural Hillwoods for a year. Her grandmother is in hospice, and her father needs to get her affairs in order. And they’re all meant to make some final memories together. Except Bronwyn is miserable. Her grandmother is dying, everyone is standoffish, and she can’t even go swimming. All she hears are warnings about going in the water, despite a gorgeous lake. And a pool at the abandoned rec center. And another in the high school basement.

Anais tries her hardest to protect Bronwyn from the shadows of Hillwoods. She follows her own rituals to avoid any unnecessary attention—and if she can just get Bronwyn to stop asking questions, she can protect her too. The less Bronwyn pays attention to Hillwoods, the less Hillwoods will pay attention to Bronwyn. She doesn’t get that the lore is, well, truth. History. Pain. The living aren’t the only ones who seek retribution when they’re wronged. But when Bronwyn does more exploring than she should, they are both in for danger they couldn’t expect.

Review: Thank you to Sourcebooks Fire for sending me an ARC of this novel!

I read “Burn Down, Rise Up” by Vincent Tirado last year, and then I had the pleasure of seeing them speak at ALA Annual last summer. Given that I liked “Burn Down, Rise Up” well enough and really enjoyed their talk on their panel, I was very happy when I was sent “We Don’t Swim Here”, Tirado’s newest YA horror novel that has a small town with secrets premise combined with a healthy fear of water due to a supernatural force. My love for urban legend horror knows no bounds, so I was very excited to read this one. After all, summer is right around the corner and I intend to spend a lot of time at the pool this year, so why not freak myself out about swimming in anticipation?

The most interesting aspect of this book to me was that way that Tirado explores the way that true tragedy can turn into community lore and mythos. Hillwoods is a small town that has what appear to be superstitions and rituals that are in place to appease a supernatural force, the biggest being that swimming isn’t allowed due to a vengeful spirit. But as Bronwyn explores this and pushes against this superstition as an ‘outsider’, the story starts to come to light of what actually happened and how actual historical fact can be twisted and inflated into something else. I don’t want to give anything away as I think that the reveals are worth concealing, but given that many urban legends and local lore probably have some basis in fact, I quite enjoyed the way that Tirado explores that in this book. I also liked the way that they addressed the realities of racism and oppression in a small town community, especially when there are few people of color living there, and how that has manifested over the years in American history.

In terms of the characters and the mystery itself, I thought that Bronwyn and Anais are pretty enjoyable perspectives to follow. They are fairly typical teenagers, and I liked the alternating chapters that shed insight into what it was like for an outsider as well as someone who had lived in the community all her life. That said, I didn’t think that either Bronwyn or Anais were super fleshed out or explored to the degree I would have liked, and their conflicts with each other felt a bit repetitive with Bronwyn seeking answers and Anais refusing to provide any, again and again. There were also a number of references to the various rituals and superstitions of the town that were mentioned in passing, but not really expanded upon. There just felt like there was a lot of potential that didn’t quite get met for me, and while the main thread was entertaining and interesting, there were multiple smaller threads that didn’t really wrap up in satisfying ways.

“We Don’t Swim Here” had enough connections to real life issues and metaphors that the strengths outweigh the weaknesses. I will be very curious to see if Tirado ever goes back to this story with the other rituals and superstitions that were left unanswered. Regardless, YA horror fans should probably check this out.

Rating 7: A horror tale about the crimes of the past and the way that tragedy can be passed down into lore, “We Don’t Swim Here” is entertaining young adult horror, though I would have liked a little more character exploration.

Reader’s Advisory:

“We Don’t Swim Here” is included on the Goodreads list “Latinx Books Releasing in 2023”.

Serena’s Review: “Silver in the Bone”

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Book: “Silver in the Bone” by Alexandra Bracken

Publishing Info: Knopf Books for Young Readers, April 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: Netgalley!

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

Book Description: Tamsin Lark didn’t ask to be a Hollower. As a mortal with no magical talent, she was never meant to break into ancient crypts, or compete with sorceresses and Cunningfolk for the treasures inside. But after her thieving foster father disappeared without so much as a goodbye, it was the only way to keep herself—and her brother, Cabell—alive.

Ten years later, rumors are swirling that her guardian vanished with a powerful ring from Arthurian legend. A run-in with her rival Emrys ignites Tamsin’s hope that the ring could free Cabell from a curse that threatens both of them. But they aren’t the only ones who covet the ring.

As word spreads, greedy Hollowers start circling, and many would kill to have it for themselves. While Emrys is the last person Tamsin would choose to partner with, she needs all the help she can get to edge out her competitors in the race for the ring. Together, they dive headfirst into a vipers’ nest of dark magic, exposing a deadly secret with the power to awaken ghosts of the past and shatter her last hope of saving her brother. . . .

Review: Here I am, still getting sucked in by the covers with hands holding up swords. Not to say that I was swindled by this book, just that I’m a sucker for marketing, even when that marketing is starting to reach max capacity, I’d imagine. However, with this books focus on Arthurian legend, which, of course, heavily features a fabled sword, I guess I can give this one a pass on not just cashing in on the trends. But enough about that, let’s get into the review!

While devoid of any magic herself, Tamsin has grown up in the world of Hollowers, those adventurers who seek out and raids the highly warded crypts of ancient sorceresses. But after she and her brother were abandoned by the Hollower who raised them, she’s had to forge a life for herself however she can. And while participating in a dangerous world that she can only halfway understand would be more than most would choose, Tamsin has another goal: saving her brother who is struggling with an ever more debilitating curse. So when gets wind of an incredibly rare relic that could be the answer to her brother’s curse, Tamsin will do anything to claim it for herself, even going so far as teaming up with the boy who has been her rival for as long as she can remember.

First of all, I want to note how surprised I was to find that this was a contemporary YA fantasy story. I mean, I guess there were no clear indications one way or another, but that cover image sure does look “second world” fantasy to me! The average modern teen isn’t walking around with delicate, silver hand bracelets like that, that’s for sure. So I was fairly taken aback to start this novel and be immediately confronted with cell phones, cars, and the like. I do wish the marketing (either the cover or the book description) had made this more clear, as I had to work hard at the beginning of this read to recalibrate my expectations. It wasn’t an obvious attempt at misrepresenting a book, but I do think the overall affect obfuscates the kind of story readers are actually getting.

Preferences, of course, always lead my to picking up the “second world” fantasy over a contemporary story, so on one hand, I was glad that this book essentially forced my hand into something I wouldn’t typically read. And, overall, I do think it was a fun read. The book is absolutely brimming with new ideas and magical concepts, many of which I thought were very original and intriguing. However, the sheer number of fantastical elements also began to overlap one another in ways that I think began to confuse the issue. I was never quite clear on the history of the sorceresses, or some of the basic details about how their crypts were set up. I think it was meant to read as a combination of something like the tomb raiders of Egyptian burial sites and Arthurian legends. But as I read, I became more and more distracted by some of the details. Just how many of these sorceresses were there? How did they all manage to create these elaborate, curse-riddled hiding places before their deaths? How is there still such a thriving “business” in the raiding of these places? And on top of these questions, there were the curses themselves, the magical items, the potions, the portals. It was just a lot. So, while there was never a lack of ideas, I do think that the story could have used a good polish. A few fewer ideas that were more developed and fleshed out would have been preferred to the overwhelming number of ideas, all of which were very loosely explained.

I did like Tamsin as a character, especially in the first part of the book. I thought her history, her relationship with her brother, and the cobbled together life that she had built for them was interesting and full of nuance. She’s clearly not a perfect character, trying to hold together her small family through sheer force of will, sometimes to the extent that it’s clear she doesn’t fully understand those she loves most. I also really liked the idea that she operated in a magical world that she, being nonmagical herself, couldn’t fully see or experience. Unfortunately, the book chooses to “solve” this problem for her fairly early on, and I thought this was a big turning point to the negative for me. I would have vastly preferred to read a book that held true to that original premise rather than setting up this entire concept only to “magic potion” (quite literally) the entire problem away.

However, I did enjoy the reading experience itself. While I had questions about some of the fantasy elements and was disappointed by the character turn for Tamsin, I thought the pacing and plotting was very solid. It was a fun, fast read, and I think it will appeal to a lot of YA fantasy fans, especially those who like contemporary fantasy. I liked the way the Arthurian elements were woven throughout the book, and I thought for a topic that is very, veeeery well-covered, this book did a good job of standing out from a very crowded room.

Rating 7: Perhaps suffering from a case of a few too many ideas, this book still stands out as a fun, unique contemporary fantasy story that tackles the Arthurian legend in an interesting way.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Silver in the Bone” is on this (and others like it) Goodreads list: YA Releases April 2023.

Book Club Review: “Great or Nothing”

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We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing book club running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is retellings and re-imaginings.  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: “Great or Nothing” by Joy McCullough, Caroline Tung Richmond, Tess Sharpe, & Jessica Spotswood

Publishing Info: Delacorte, March 2022

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

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

Retelling/Re-imagining: “Little Women”

Book Description: A reimagining of Little Women set in the spring of 1942, when the United States is suddenly embroiled in the second World War, this story, told from each March sister’s point of view, is one of grief, love, and self-discovery.

In the spring of 1942, the United States is reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor. While the US starts sending troops to the front, the March family of Concord, Massachusetts grieves their own enormous loss: the death of their daughter, Beth.

Under the strain of their grief, Beth’s remaining sisters fracture, each going their own way with Jo nursing her wounds and building planes in Boston, Meg holding down the home front with Marmee, and Amy living a secret life as a Red Cross volunteer in London–the same city where one Mr. Theodore Laurence is stationed as an army pilot.

Each March sister’s point of view is written by a separate author, three in prose and Beth’s in verse, still holding the family together from beyond the grave. Woven together, these threads tell a story of finding one’s way in a world undergoing catastrophic change.

Kate’s Thoughts

I’m someone who has what is probably an average relationship with the book “Little Women”. I read it once a long time ago, I really like the 1994 film with Winona Ryder, and when I was working at a historic Victorian house I was one of the people who would lead a “Little Women” themed Christmas tour. I’m not super wedded to the book like I am “Anne of Green Gables”, but I like it enough. When I saw that Book Club was going to take on a “Little Women” re-imagining that takes place during World War II, it struck me as a perfect time period to revisit this story of sisters growing up during war time and learning hard life lessons while also finding their places in the world. And I was happy to see that I was right.

“Great or Nothing” is written in four different perspectives from four different authors, one for each March sister. The story plunks us midway through the original tale, with Beth already dead and Jo, Meg, and Amy separated and feeling the distance (especially since they all left on a sour note between the three of them). The surviving sisters take on roles that women could have during WWII that perfectly fit each of them. We have Meg at the home front doing fundraising, planting victory gardens, and teaching children. We have Jo working in a plane factory, doing a whole Rosie the Riveter thing. And we have Amy in London volunteering for the Red Cross, and meeting up with Laurie who is fighting in Europe. Beth also has a perspective, with poetry being used because she’s dead, I guess? Regardless, I really felt like all of these settings were perfect for the various sisters, and I mostly liked how all of the sisters felt like their core characters set in a new time. I think that my favorite was Meg’s, as the home front has always fascinated me with war bonds, fund raising, and advocacy, but I did like Jo’s story of working in a factory and finding romance with a lady war reporter named Charlie (as a true Professor Bhaer fan, I loved how they brought this relationship into this story with a queer twist). That said, I did find it a little bit of a bummer that we were at a point in the story where Meg, Jo, and Amy weren’t really interacting with each other, as that is part of the charm of the original story for me. It seemed like an odd choice, but at the same time since it was four different authors writing each sister, I suppose that makes some sense so as not to step on each other’s toes.

“Great or Nothing” is a really well thought out re-imagining of a classic tale, with a nice blending of voices from different authors to give Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March interesting stories in the 20th century.

Serena’s Thoughts

I’m probably similar to Kate in my devotion levels to the original “Little Women.” Enjoyed the book, liked the 90s version of the movie well enough, really liked the recent one that was released a few years ago. But, like Kate, I don’t have any strong emotions attached to it, which in many ways makes it the perfect book for a retelling! If you’re not a devoted fan, you won’t get as mad at changes!

Anyways, the first thing that stood out to me was how much I liked the change in time period. There are a million and one WWII books out there, but this story really took a unique angle at exploring all of the very different ways that women contributed to the war front, both at home and abroad. Not only did this give the reader a wide range of angles on this particular time of history, but all of these choices also worked perfectly with the characters themselves. I was also very impressed with how well the different writing styles of all of the authors worked together. Perhaps….too impressed? If I hadn’t know that this was authored by four different people, I’m not sure I would have guessed, and I’m not sure that’s really for the best. Obviously, cohesion on this sort of project is key, but I also think you lose something from the original goal if every author’s voice is paired down to the point that they’re indistinguishable from each other.

As for the story, I thought it did a good job of hitting the major plot points that fans will look for. That said, I didn’t necessarily enjoy many of these chapters. While I liked the look at the types of work that Meg and Jo were doing, their personal arcs I found more frustrating. Honestly, if I had to hear one more time about the big fight they all got into, I think I would have screamed. In this way, I felt like this book really missed the mark on the overall theme of “Little Women.” Yes, the sisters have their quarrels, but the primary heart of the story is built around the deep bonds they all share. So for this book to spend the vast majority of its time with each sister endlessly reflecting on their broken ties…it just felt like a bummer and a let down of the original premise. This being the case, Amy’s story rose to the top for me as the only one that felt as it had any real action or stakes involved. I enjoyed getting to see her and Teddy’s romance play out more in real-time as well, rather than the off-page romance we get in the original.

Overall, I felt like this book was ok. I didn’t love anything it was doing, but I also didn’t hate any of it. I think Meg and Jo both could have been done better by, but I really enjoyed Beth’s poetry sections and Amy’s plot line. Fans of the original looking for a unique take will likely enjoy this, however.

Kate’s Rating 8: A great new setting for a classic tale of sisters growing up and finding themselves, “Great or Nothing” is a successful “Little Women” retelling.

Serena’s Rating 7: An interesting reimaging with an excellent use of shifting the historical setting, but it still somehow feels as if it misses the mark on the heart of the original story.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of the time period in this retelling? Do you think that World War II fit in with the “Little Women” story?
  2. Each of the March sisters was written by a different author. Did you like any sister more than the others?
  3. Did the Beth sections with the poetry work for you as you were reading? Would you have preferred to see another character’s perspective over Beth’s, like Laurie, or Marmee?
  4. Which of the sister’s plots would you like to be in? The homefront? A factory? Acting as a Red Cross volunteer overseas? Something else?
  5. What is your experience with the original “Little Women” story?

Reader’s Advisory

“Great or Nothing” is included on the Goodreads lists “Book Riot 2022 #21: Read a Queer Retelling of a Classic of the Canon, Fairytale, Folklore, or Myth”, and “YA & Middle Grade Retellings of “Little Women””.

Next Book Club Pick: “The Raven and the Reindeer” by T. Kingfisher

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