Kate’s Review: “The Survivors”

Book: “The Survivors” by Jane Harper

Publishing Info: Flatiron Books, February 2021

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

Book Description: Coming home dredges up deeply buried secrets...

Kieran Elliott’s life changed forever on the day a reckless mistake led to devastating consequences. The guilt that still haunts him resurfaces during a visit with his young family to the small coastal community he once called home. Kieran’s parents are struggling in a town where fortunes are forged by the sea. Between them all is his absent brother, Finn. When a body is discovered on the beach, long-held secrets threaten to emerge. A sunken wreck, a missing girl, and questions that have never washed away… 

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

Someday, when the world isn’t dealing with a pandemic and I don’t have to worry about traveling with a little one, I have every intention of going to Australia. My time in the Sydney airport on the way to New Zealand doesn’t count. When I think about a trip there my mind hovers in big cities like Sydney, and also thinks about The Outback, but I’d do well to remember that there are also oceanside towns, which I tend to love no matter what the continent. I was reminded of such facts as I read “The Survivors” by Jane Harper, her newest mystery, another standalone that’s separate from the Aaron Falk Series (and I’m not sure when we’re getting another one of those, but patience is a virtue, I guess? So I’m told, I wouldn’t know).

One of the common strengths of Harper’s stories is the ability she has to bring out strong atmosphere and sense of place, and “The Survivors” is no different. Evelyn Bay is a seaside town in Tasmania, and you immediately feel the close knit strength of the community, the strength and reverence of and for the ocean, and the pitfalls that come with all of these things. Just as there is a strong sense of community, for some people that can be a downfall. Our protagonist, Kieran, knows this from first hand experience, and has only come back because he and his girlfriend Mia have a new baby, and because his father Brian is falling more and more into dementia. We know that a terrible accident happened that caused Kieran to flee this town as soon as he could, and we see the consequences, both the good and the bad, for those who stayed behind. There are those in town who hold a grudge against Kieran because of his role in the tragedy during a bad storm, and it is slowly shown just how much Kieran has held in and how much his guilt has weighed him down. Harper explores the complications of family in the wake of a tragedy, as well as unresolved trauma and grief. You throw in the worries and anxieties of being a new parent, and the sadness and stress of dealing with an ailing father, and Kieran is having a rough go all around, even BEFORE a local murder dredges up past hurts, suspicions, and ills. It’s a painful time unpacking a lot of this, and the emotions are raw and real, but that’s really the strongest aspect of this book.

The two mysteries that are the hearts of “The Survivors” are years apart, but similar in nature. During the storm that upturned Kieran’s life, a local girl went missing. She has connections to Kieran, as she was the younger sister of his friend Olivia, as well as the best friend of his now girlfriend Mia. And it just so happens that during Kieran’s visit, a young woman named Bronte is discovered dead on the beach, reigniting fears and suspicions in the community. The questions are who killed Bronte, is it connected to the past case, and who knows something. I was happy that from the get go it’s made clear that Kieran isn’t really a true suspect, at least in the reader’s eyes, as that would have been a red herring I would have had a hard time dealing with on top of all the other garbage in his life. But that isn’t to say that there aren’t red herrings; because boy are there. The mysteries take a bit of a backseat to Kieran’s inner turmoil and the atmosphere of a small town in disarray, which made it a little hard to be invested in either of them, at least to a level that I would have expected. But all that said, the clues are carefully plotted out, and there were enough curve balls thrown that I was left guessing and left pretty entertained. It was a little slow to be an addictive read, but that was alright in the end.

“The Survivors” is heavy and emotional, and certainly an interesting examination of one man’s baggage. Harper continues to show us her talents as a mystery author, and now we wait to see what she comes up with next!

Rating 7: An emotional mystery about trauma, family, and the darkness in small towns, “The Survivors” is a new entertaining thriller from Jane Harper.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Survivors” is included on the Goodreads lists “Down By The Sea”, and “Fictitious Australia”.

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

Serena’s Review: “Siege of Rage and Ruin”

Book: “Siege of Rage and Ruin” by Django Wexler

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, January 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Isoka has done the impossible–she’s captured the ghost ship Soliton.

With her crew of mages, including the love of her life Princess Meroe, Isoka returns to the empire that sent her on her deadly mission. She’s ready to hand over the ghost ship as ransom for her sister Tori’s life, but arrives to find her home city under siege. And Tori at the helm of a rebellion.

Neither Isoka’s mastery of combat magic, nor Tori’s proficiency with mind control, could have prepared them for the feelings their reunion surfaces. But they’re soon drawn back into the rebels’ fight to free the city that almost killed them.

Previously Reviewed: “Ship of Smoke and Steel” and “City of Stone and Silence”

Review: After blowing through the first two books in this trilogy last January, I had to hunker down for the long wait until January 2021 to finally get the to the release of the final book. As much as I like being current with many of the books coming out in real-time, I have to say, there’s something to be said for just waiting for a series/trilogy to be finished so you can enjoy it in one, big, binge read. Ah well. And, while this wasn’t my favorite book in the trilogy, I was overall quite pleased with this book and for the way the series wrapped up as a whole.

On her way back to her home city, Isoka imagines that nothing ahead can pose a bigger challenge than what she’s accomplished already. She simply needs to rescue Tori and head back to the mysterious land from which Soliton came. But Tori is no longer the innocent girl Isoka remembers. Instead, she’s a rebel leader caught up in a revolution that seems to be on the brink of failure. What’s more, she has a powerful magical ability to influence the minds and actions of others, a power she had kept hidden from Isoka for all of these years. Together, the sisters must work to re-learn the sibling they thought they knew while also saving a city that seems doomed to fall.

While I did enjoy this book and still love the heck out of Isoka as a main character, I did struggle with this one more than the first two. I think there are a few reasons for this. First, like the second book in this trilogy, Isoka now shares the narrative with Tori which essentially splits her portion in half.

Tori isn’t a bad character in her own right, but she simply can’t compete with the explosive force that is Isoka. Tori’s own story is much less sympathetic and her overall arch feels less complete. The last book saw her do some pretty terrible things and that’s never really addressed going forward. On one hand, I like the fact that the book doesn’t shy away from the terrible things that are done in revolutions, even by those fighting for the “good” side. But Tori also never seems to resolve her feelings of being “monstrous” in any real way. Isoka kind of just brushes the whole thing aside when she learns about it, and Tori just seems to get over it suddenly at the end for no apparent reason.

Isoka’s own story feels like it takes a back seat to Tori’s as this book is largely about the revolution Tori started and thus naturally falls more in her wheelhouse. I still loved Isoka’s chapters, if mostly because her voice and character feel so alive and compelling. But, like Tori, it didn’t feel like she had much of a character arc in this story. She’d already come into her own as a leader and recognized the fact that she didn’t enjoy brutal killing. So there’s nowhere really for her to go in this story.

The second challenge, beyond the lack of character arcs for our two leads, was my own personal preference for the unique, fantastical elements presented in the first two books. There was so much creativity to the fantasy aspect of the story in the first and second book, between the ship Soliton and the Harbor with its spooky leader, Prime. Here, the story of a fairly straightforward rebellion and a pretty predictable resolution just wasn’t cutting it. I really missed the fantasy aspects of the series and was disappointed that not much new was introduced. I never was very invested in Tori’s rebellion and to have this entire last book focused on that was a pretty big let-down. But this was definitely more a matter of personal preference than anything else.

The writing itself was still incredibly strong and Wexler shines with his action scenes. Isoka’s fights were as thrilling as ever and her companions were fun supporting characters. I think it’s telling of Wexler’s skill that Jack, who could easily have become gimmicky and annoying, served well in her role as comedic relief throughout. I was also pleased to see Tori’s romance plotline take a decided backseat role, as that was another aspect of the second book that I was not at all invested in.

Overall, this was definitely the weakest of the three books, but it did tie up the story well and ended in a satisfactory manner. Readers’ enjoyment of it will likely be directly tied to their interest in Tori and the storyline that was introduced with her in the second book. But I’d say that fans of the first two, regardless of preference, should definitely check this last book out.

Rating 7: Lacking the fantasy elements that I’ve come to love, but still a satisfying end to the trilogy.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Siege of Rage and Ruin” isn’t on many Goodreads lists yet, but it is on Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2021.

Find “Siege of Rage and Ruin” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Bridgerton Collection”

Book: “Bridgerton Collection: Volume One” by Julia Quinn

Publishing Info: Kindle Edition, May 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: own the e-book

Book Description: The first three Bridgerton books all in one e-book volume! Includes The Duke and I, The Viscount Who Loved Me, and An Offer From a Gentleman.

Set between 1813 and 1827, the Bridgerton Series is a collection of eight novels, each featuring one of the eight children of the late Viscount Bridgerton.

I’m going to do a quick mini-review for all three books in this series. I’ve reviewed a couple random books by Julia Quinn on this blog over the years, but I’ve jumped all over the place from random books in this main series to ones from the prequel series, etc. But with the Netflix show just coming out, I thought it was high time to at least familiarize myself with the first three in the correct order so that when I watched the show I wouldn’t be completely lost. Because obviously I was going to watch the show! Historical romance?? Yes, please!

The Duke and I

So I had actually read this, the first book in the series, once before years ago. I didn’t remember much about it except that, unfortunately, I had rated it fairly low on Goodreads at the time. I went in with some skepticism. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a great start to my read through of these first books in the series, and my original rating wasn’t far off for how I would rate this book now.

The strengths of Quinn’s writing is clear, and it’s easy to understand how she has become one of the most popular romance authors of the time. This book completes its most important edict: it sets the stage for a million and a half sequels, creates an interesting window in this version of British society, and has quick, snappy writing that move the story along.

Unfortunately, the actual story in this book and especially its heroine and hero’s relationship was a huge let down. Each were very toxic in their own ways, and I’m not one for throwing that word around lightly. There are some extreme inconsistencies in how knowledgeable Daphne is about certain aspects of life that stretch the point of believability to its breaking point. And the great “conflict” between the Simon and Daphne leads to each treating the other in very despicable ways, with Daphne committing a pretty unforgivable crime against Simon. I’m sure this wasn’t the intent of the author with this scene, but it’s definitely how it reads and how it would (and should!) be understood. As our first two paired up grouping, I’m sure we’ll see more of Simon and Daphne on the sidelines in other books, but I’ll try to just put this one behind me. I’m also really curious how they’ll play this particular relationship in the Netflix adaptation.

Rating 6: A good start to the series, but the horrid actions of both the hero and the heroine really drops it down.

“The Viscount Who Loved Me”

First things first: this second book was a great improvement on the first. While I still had some problems with the hero, Anthony (the Bridgerton in this little story), the heroine, Kate, was vastly better than Daphne. Not only was she not bizarrely ignorant of some pretty basic facts of life, she also didn’t assault her husband. So there’s that. But beyond all of that, Kate is just a fun character. She’s spunky, smart, and a fun character to follow through this story.

Anthony takes a bit more time to warm up. For one thing, he’s presented as the go-to historical romance leading man character type: a rake. I could probably write an entire thesis on why this type of character seems to dominate these books and why most of them get it wrong, but I’ll resist. To sum up, Mr. Darcy is considered the epitome of romance heroes, and I think many authors confuse the appeal that comes from his being a catch due to his lack of interest with the idea that rakes are a decent sit-in as they, too, have no interest in love and marriage. Big difference being that Mr. Darcy didn’t have a reputation for toying with women’s hearts. But enough on that. Anthony’s rake-ness is part of his problem, as is the fact that he has some pretty unappealing ideas about the relationship between husbands and wives initially. Thankfully, he seems to work through that and does end up being a likeable enough character.

What stood out the most about this book was the dialogue. Maybe it was just the nature of the story, Kate’s trying to spare her sister from the devious rake, but there was a lot of snappy, fun interchanges between our leading lady and leading man. There were several moments where I chuckled out loud, which was a nice reminder of why I’ve liked other books by this author in the past. Overall, I’m much more excited to see this relationship play out on the show than the first one.

Rating 8: Much better than the first, but still marked down for the hero being kind of an ass for a good chunk of the first half.

“An Offer from a Gentleman”

This book was a bit different than the two that came before it. As the cover implies, it’s a very loose re-telling of Cinderella. Sophie is an illegitimate daughter who meets our her, Benedict Bridgerton, at a ball where she’s undercover as a true lady. Sparks fly. Two years later, the two meet again, but Benedict doesn’t recognize his lady love in the servant girl before him. An intriguing enough premise and a fun twist on the more traditional retellings out there.

I, again, liked the heroine, Sophie, better than the hero (I guess Daphne goes down as the worst of the three). She was earnest and stood up for herself well enough given the situation (I’ll touch on that when I get to Benedict). But she also kept unnecessary secrets that created a bunch of angst and drama for no good reason. I always struggle with these types of narrative mechanisms that are clearly put in there to move the story one way or another but defy any understanding. There’s no good reason for Sophie to keep these secrets other than the fact that it creates the drama and fallout the author was looking for.

And Benedict. Oh, Benedict. He’s probably my least favorite hero of the three we’ve seen. When he meets Sophie again, he pressures her to be his mistress or a servant in his house. And when I say pressure, I mean he puts the screws to her over it. It’s pretty obnoxious. And from there, he goes on to warn her that somehow it is her responsibility to head him off early because if he gets too, um, excited, he wouldn’t be able to stop. Nope! Don’t like that! Throughout it all, he’s pretty self-absorbed and unable to understand Sophie or her motives. Even when the truth is revealed, somehow Benedict is the injured party in all of this. I hope the show makes some big improvements on this particular story. Well, this one and the first one.

Rating 7: Not as bad as the first one, but the hero had some big problems and the heroine created unnecessary drama.

Kate’s Review: “Secret Santa”

Book: “Secret Santa” by Andrew Shaffer

Publishing Info: Quirk Books, November 2020

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

Book Description: The Office meets Stephen King, dressed up in holiday tinsel, in this fun, festive, and frightening horror-comedy set during the horror publishing boom of the ’80s, by New York Times best-selling satirist Andrew Shaffer.

Out of work for months, Lussi Meyer is desperate to work anywhere in publishing. Prestigious Blackwood-Patterson isn’t the perfect fit, but a bizarre set of circumstances leads to her hire and a firm mandate: Lussi must find the next horror superstar to compete with Stephen King, Anne Rice, and Peter Straub. It’s the ’80s, after all, and horror is the hottest genre.

But as soon as she arrives, Lussi finds herself the target of her co-workers’ mean-spirited pranks. The hazing reaches its peak during the company’s annual Secret Santa gift exchange, when Lussi receives a demonic-looking object that she recognizes but doesn’t understand. Suddenly, her coworkers begin falling victim to a series of horrific accidents akin to a George Romero movie, and Lussi suspects that her gift is involved. With the help of her former author, the flamboyant Fabien Nightingale, Lussi must track down her anonymous Secret Santa and figure out the true meaning of the cursed object in her possession before it destroys the company—and her soul.

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

Happy Holidays, everyone! I know that it’s kind of a weird holiday season for SO MANY reasons, but I hope that everyone is making do with the circumstances and being safe as well as finding joy and togetherness. Even if that means doing it via FaceTime. In our house we’re wrapping up Hanukkah and getting ready to have a solitary Christmas, which means I’m digging into books when I’m not eating all the latkes. If you’re like me and like it when the horror genre and Yuletide combine, enjoying movies like “Gremlins”, or “Black Christmas” (more the old one. The new one was cathartic, but also SUPER hamfisted), then “Secret Santa” by Andrew Shaffer may be the kind of book you want with your holiday cheer.

Is this a scene from “Gremlins”, or is this me stuffing my face with Christmas cookies? (source)

Shaffer is known for his satire and cheeky humor, so it’s safe to say that “Secret Santa” isn’t the scariest book you could read this time of year. Luckily, I wasn’t expecting it to be terrifying, so that worked for me, for the most part. I liked Lussi, our ambitious protagonist, as she fits the ‘ambitious woman in a man’s world’ mold in a way that adds to the story. You understand her wants and her determination to succeed in the publishing industry, especially as a young woman in the 1980s. I liked her sarcasm and her wit, and I felt that her characterization fit into the story as a whole, reflecting a snide and cutthroat time and place. The mystery as to what is going on at Blackwood-Patterson when things start to go awry is a slow build, and it reads less like a horror novel building up the dread and more like a strange whodunnit. By the time we circle back to the actual origin on what is going on (I don’t want to spoil TOO much, but do know that occultism and Nazis do enter into it. Take that as you will), the lack of scares was a little frustrating. That isn’t to say that there aren’t creepy elements involved with this tale. Let’s just say that if you don’t like dolls, you will find a lot to be scared about. But overall, the scary elements are very obviously harkening to a very specific time in horror publishing, when pulp paperbacks were the rage and strange concepts weren’t hard to come by (I seriously suggest looking into “Paperbacks from Hell” by Grady Hendrix if you want more information on this). This will work for some people, but it may leave others in the cold.

But what worked the most was that this book is clearly a love letter to 1980s horror fiction, be it paperback pulp horror novels or films that involve tiny beings that wreak havoc and gaslight those around them into thinking they are losing their minds. You can tell that Shaffer really loves the horror of this era, and the winks and nods to the genre are fun for someone like me who has an affection for it. Sometimes the 80s references in general got a little heavy handed, but you feel like you’re in on the joke, so I was able to deal with it with minimal eye rolling. This book is very clearly a love letter to a very specific kind of fiction, and I, for one, really loved seeing it all unfold. You can just feel the fun he was having writing this book, and frankly, that’s charming as hell.

“Secret Santa” is a tongue in cheek ode to horror paperbacks with a festive holiday bow placed right on top. If you’re looking for some holiday creeps, it could be the right book to have by the fire with a glass of eggnog.

Rating 7: Entertaining and sardonic, “Secret Santa” has some Christmas fun as well as some creepy moments if you don’t like dolls. It’s not terribly scary, but it has more than enough 80s horror nostalgia to make up for it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Secret Santa” isn’t included on any Goodreads lists as of yet, but it would fit in on “Creepy Christmas” to be sure!

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

Serena’s Review: “Knight of the Silver Circle”

Book: “Knight of the Silver Circle” by Duncan M. Hamilton

Publishing Info: Tor Books, November 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Three dragons wreak havoc throughout Mirabay–eating livestock, killing humans, and burning entire villages to ash. It was nearly impossible to kill one, using a legendary sword and the magic of the mysterious Cup; to tackle three, Guillot dal Villerauvais will need help.

The mage Solène fears having to kill again; she leaves Gill to gain greater control over her magic.

The Prince Bishop still wants Gill dead, but more than that, he wants the Cup, and he’ll do whatever he has to to get it, even sending his own daughter–a talented thief and assassin–into the dragons’ path.

As secrets mount on secrets and betrayals on betrayals, both Guillot and Solène face critical decisions that will settle not only their own fate but that of all Mirabaya.

Previously Reviewed: “Dragonslayer”

Review: While I didn’t absolutely love the first book in this series, I could still appreciate what it was trying to do and the type of approachable, sword and magic fantasy story it was telling. The characters, while fairly predictable, were also well-drawn and familiar enough that I was definitely not set against continuing with the series. On a whim, I requested this one a while back. It took a while to get to it, but here we are! Overall, while it’s still not my favorite fantasy series ever, I did like this one better than “Dragonslayer.”

After returning with a dragon’s head, Gill has re-established himself as a dragonslayer of note. Parting ways with Solene, the two are set to go about their lives again, not expecting to see one another again. But it soon becomes apparent that dragons aren’t done with them let. Three new ones begin pestering the countryside, drawing Gill out once again and now against worse odds than ever. For her part, Solene fears what is coming and is still working on gaining full control of her powers. But there may not be time as the Prince Bishop continues to make his own moves.

So, overall, this was very similar to the first book. It’s your tried and true classic fantasy story where the heroes are heroic, the mages struggle with their magic, and the bad guy does ad things. But in a lot of ways I think it also improved on the first book. For one thing, part of what I liked about the first book was the inclusion of POV chapters from the dragon’s perspective. Here we get more of that, which I still think is pretty unique, but we also dive more into dragon culture. We learn the variety of dragons out there, how some are just rampaging beasts essentially, but how others are quite intellectual and have a sort of society amongst themselves. I definitely continued to be interested in this angle of the story.

As far as Gill goes, I still think that he’s a bit of a cookie-cutter hero in that he’s almost exactly what you’d expect. In my review of the first book, I struggled with the lack of exploration into his emotional arc dealing with the loss of his family. But I was glad to see here that his struggles with alcoholism weren’t simply swept under the rug after the first book. Yes, he had success again as a dragonslayer and is largely coming into his own again as an esteemed fighter. But we still see him struggle with his past and the part of him that has dwelled in booze for so long.

I also liked that we got more from the villain of the story, the Prince Bishop. In the first book, he, too, was fairly one dimensional. Here, we see more from him and learn more about his own motives and how far he is willing to go against our heroes. It gave him enough depth to make him more of an interesting character to follow in his own right.

The writing is also still solid and Hamilton is clearly an adept storyteller. However, the series continues to feel a bit one note. And, like I said in my first review, it still seems as if it’s not bringing much new to the genre as a whole. There’s definitely an appeal and an audience for this type of book, but I also like fantasy stories that surprise me in some way or another. A good example would be Michael J. Sullivan’s “Age of Myth” series. That, too, is a fairly typical fantasy adventure story with elves, dwarves, humans, and dragons. But the story also takes several surprising turns, focusing in on characters you originally cast as side-characters and doing away with some whom you thought would be around for the long haul and occupying important roles in the story. But, all of that said, fans of classic fantasy will still likely enjoy this second entry from Hamilton.

Rating 7: Improves on the first novel, but still a bit bland to really hit home for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Knight of the Silver Circle” isn’t on any other Goodreads lists other than November 2019 Book Releases.

Find “Knight of the Silver Circle” at your library using WorldCat!

Book Club Review: “I Will Always Write Back”

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

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: “I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives” by Caitlin Alifirenka, Martin Ganda, and Liz Welch

Publishing Info: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, April 2015

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Continent: Africa

Book Description: The true story of an all-American girl and a boy from an impoverished city in Zimbabwe and the letter that changed both of their lives forever.

It started as an assignment. Everyone in Caitlin’s class wrote to an unknown student somewhere in a distant place. All the other kids picked countries like France or Germany, but when Caitlin saw Zimbabwe written on the board, it sounded like the most exotic place she had ever heard of–so she chose it.
Martin was lucky to even receive a pen pal letter. There were only ten letters, and forty kids in his class. But he was the top student, so he got the first one
.

That letter was the beginning of a correspondence that spanned six years and changed two lives.

In this compelling dual memoir, Caitlin and Martin recount how they became best friends –and better people–through letters. Their story will inspire readers to look beyond their own lives and wonder about the world at large and their place in it.

Kate’s Thoughts

Well when we started our “Around the World” Series for Book Club, we thought that it would outlast quarantine and that it would be a fun way to pass that time. The reality is that we’re in an even worse place than we were back when we started once this session ended. But even if we have more COVID times ahead of us where we have to meet virtually, I’m glad that we did our “Around the World” cycle, as we got to read books that I may not have read otherwise. Our last book was “I Will Always Write Back”, a dual memoir by Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda, two pen pals whose friendship became so much more.

I went into this book with a very rudimentary knowledge of Zimbabwe under Mugabe’s regime, and with the unease that we may have been starting a ‘white savior’ narrative. But “I Will Always Write Back”, I think, did a good job of walking that line without crossing it, and I think that the main reason for that is because we got both Caitlin’s perspective, that of a teenage white American living in a comfortable economic situation, and Martin’s, who is a Black Zimbabwean who was living in abject poverty. Getting to hear Martin’s side of the story in his own words and getting his perspectives and experiences really helped keep it away from centering Caitlin’s journey in the narrative, which was good. Martin’s chapters were the ones that I most looked forward to, as while Caitlin was relatable (we are the same age, so I was doing and experiencing similar teenage America girl things that she was in this book), I wasn’t as interested in her story. I think that there could have been a little more introspection on her part at times, but then again, she was a teenager and young adult through the crux of it, so maybe throwing that in would have felt out of place. Luckily Martin’s sections gave the reader a lot to think about, and I feel like I got more from this story from him.

I was interested in seeing their friendship grow and change, however, and liked seeing the two of them interact with each other. You can feel the love and care they have for each other within this books pages, and seeing the two of them have each other’s backs was absolutely uplifting. Given that any pen pal situation that I had in grade school completely floundered, the fact that they kept this friendship going and changed each other’s lives so much is a lovely story in and of itself. This is the kind of book that I would recommend to teens who are wanting to start looking at cross cultural themes and issues, as I think it’s a good introduction to the idea of reaching out to others who may not have the exact same life as you, but could have very similar goals and dreams that you have.

Kate’s Rating 7: An undeniably uplifting memoir about friendship and cross cultural connection, “I Will Always Write Back” has heart and earnestness, though not as much introspection as I was hoping for.

Book Club Questions

  1. What were some of your reactions to the comparisons and contrasts when it came to the lives that Caitlin and Martin were living when they started their correspondence?
  2. Were you knowledgable about the history and the cultural and societal situation of Zimbabwe during Mugabe’s rule?
  3. Do you think that teenagers today would relate to the teenage voices of the people in this book who were teens twenty years ago?
  4. As the book goes on, we learn that Caitlin and her family help Martin out in many ways. How do you think this changed and affected their friendship?
  5. Recently there has been criticism of publishers elevating and publishing ‘white savior’ narratives in books and the publishing industry. Do you think that “I Will Always Write Back” could be considered a white savior narrative? Why or why not?

Reader’s Advisory

“I Will Always Write Back” is included on the Goodreads lists “Must Read Memoirs”, and “Southern Africa”.

Find “I Will Always Write Back” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Sailor Moon: Eternal Edition Vols. 1 &2

Serena’s Review: “Truly, Devious”

Book: “Truly, Devious” by Maureen Johnson

Publishing Info: HarperCollins, January 2018

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

Book Description: Ellingham Academy is a famous private school in Vermont for the brightest thinkers, inventors, and artists. It was founded by Albert Ellingham, an early twentieth century tycoon, who wanted to make a wonderful place full of riddles, twisting pathways, and gardens. “A place,” he said, “where learning is a game.”

Shortly after the school opened, his wife and daughter were kidnapped. The only real clue was a mocking riddle listing methods of murder, signed with the frightening pseudonym “Truly, Devious.” It became one of the great unsolved crimes of American history.

True-crime aficionado Stevie Bell is set to begin her first year at Ellingham Academy, and she has an ambitious plan: She will solve this cold case. That is, she will solve the case when she gets a grip on her demanding new school life and her housemates: the inventor, the novelist, the actor, the artist, and the jokester. But something strange is happening. Truly Devious makes a surprise return, and death revisits Ellingham Academy. The past has crawled out of its grave. Someone has gotten away with murder. 

Review: As is probably pretty evident by now, Kate is the true crime aficionado on our blog. I’ve casually looked into a few cases based on her recommendations, but my penchant for mysteries often falls into the historical, detective fiction more than anything. I also don’t read too many contemporary YA novels. So in a lot of ways, this book didn’t really meet many of my usual criteria for picking a new book. But it had fabulous ratings on Goodreads and happened to show up on my audiobook list right when I was between reads. And here we are!

Stevie Bell is shocked when she’s accepted into the exclusive, expensive private school of Ellingham Academy. It’s most highschoolers’ dream, but only accepts a handful of applicants per year. At that, they don’t even specify what they’re looking for! But apparently Stevie interest in and proficiency with true crime investigations hit some mark. What’s more, Ellingham Academy itself is the location of one of history’s most notorious unsolved crimes, the abduction of the founders wife and infant daughter. The only clue was an enigmatic riddle that has been poured over and pondered now for decades. But Stevie Bell is determined that once she’s on the grounds, she will solve this cold case. What she doesn’t expect is for this cold case to suddenly warm up with a new murder and the return of “Truly, Devious.”

So there were things I enjoyed about this book, and there were things I didn’t. Before I even get to the things I didn’t, I’ll just say again that this book has really high ratings on Goodreads, so there’s a fairly decent chance that most of the things that didn’t work for me were due to the fact that the book was way outside my usual genres of choice. But on to the good!

For one thing, I was not expecting the format that this book is told from. It’s not simply Stevie’s story while at Ellingham trying to solve this cold case. Instead, the story is told in alternating chapters between the present, which follows Stevie as she works a new murder as well, and the past, where we see various characters’ perspectives on the events that lead up to and during the abduction of Mr. Ellingham’s wife and infant daughter. I really enjoyed these chapters in the past. They really helped bring to life this cold case and avoided what otherwise would have had to be a pretty info-dumpy style of writing to give the reader the same information that Stevie would have already had. It also leaves readers free to begin making their own connections and theories, outside the influence of Stevie’s own thoughts on the mystery.

I also really liked Stevie herself. She’s your typical highschooler, in many ways, but I liked the way the story incorporated her struggles with anxiety and the differences she feels between herself and her parents. She deals with a lot of the fears and challenges that any new student comes across at a new school, but it’s made all the more interesting by the eccentric friends she meets there. The way Ellingham is described, it’s definitely the kind of school I would have loved to attend as a highschooler myself!

My problems with the book, however, also come from the modern timeline of the book. I wasn’t into the romance at all. I felt like it came out of nowhere but was also so entirely predictable that it landed flat immediately. The book tries to insert some more tension and mystery towards the end, but I just didn’t care enough about this couple to have any strong feelings about the drama or reveals. I also thought that the modern mystery was fairly predictable. The motive and history of the victim were especially obvious which just undermined Stevie’s own prowess as a burgeoning detective.

Lastly, I wasn’t expecting this book to not solve the mystery of the cold case. So there’s definitely a cliff-hanger sort of ending as far as that goes. If this book was up your alley, maybe this wouldn’t bother you as much. But for me, who enjoyed it for the most part but wasn’t in love by any means, I was just annoyed that I’d be forced to continue reading to get more answers to the one part of the book that really intrigued me. As it is, we’ll see if I get around to it or not. I’m guessing it will be a similar story, that if I do read it, it will be more a matter of happy chance than anything else. Fans of contemporary mysteries and true crime, however, will likely really like this. Just a bit too far out of my genres of choice to really hit home for me.

Rating 7: A tale of two stories: one of the past, which was excellent, and one of the future, which was more meh.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Truly, Devious” is on these Goodreads lists: Young Adult Crime/Murder Mysteries and Dark Academia.

Find “Truly, Devious” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Broken Wish”

Book: “Broken Wish” by Julie C. Dao

Publishing Info: Disney Hyperion, October 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: 1865
Hanau, Germany

Sixteen-year-old Elva has a secret. She has visions and strange powers that she will do anything to hide. She knows the warnings about what happens to witches in their small village of Hanau. She’s heard the terrible things people say about the Witch of the North Woods, and the malicious hunts that follow. But when Elva accidentally witnesses a devastating vision of the future, she decides she has to do everything she can to prevent it. Tapping into her powers for the first time, Elva discovers a magical mirror and its owner—none other than the Witch of the North Woods herself. As Elva learns more about her burgeoning magic, and the lines between hero and villain start to blur, she must find a way to right past wrongs before it’s too late.

Review: I’ve only read one other book by Dao, but it was one I definitely liked. She had a steady, beautiful way of writing that really captured the feeling or essence of a place and time. This is just the story of writing technique that is required for writing good fairytales, in my opinion. So, like always, I was excited to see a new fairytale book make its way onto the publication lists and even more intrigued when I saw that Dao was the author.

The 1800s in Germany is a time and place where women have very few options. But for Elva, it’s not only the typical things that are off-limits, but a part of her very identity: her magical abilities. Growing up, her family has instilled in her the importance of always, always keeping her abilities a secret. The dangers of being thought of as a witch are very real. But when Elva discovers a real witch and sees a glimpse into a terrible future, she realizes that she can’t hide from who she is and what she can do forever.

I feel like the book description is a bit off, as Elva herself doesn’t show up for about a third of the story. Instead, we follow the developing friendship of Elva’s mother with a local witch. The fall-out of this relationship is what puts Elva’s feet on the path of this story. Part of my struggle with this book was how much I really loved this first third, unfortunately. I really liked the beautiful friendship that was built up between Elva’s mother and the witch and then the inevitable moment where things go wrong. It had all the right markers of a fairytale while also focusing on the type of relationship (friendships between adult women) that is rarely seen in just these sorts of stories.

I did like Elva’s story well enough when she did show up. But the story took a more dramatic turn in YA stereotypes at this point, too. There were elements that seemed all too familiar, and I wasn’t super into the romance that we got either. I did like the magic and Elva’s struggles between obeying her parents and recognizing the obligations that come with the power she has. Not only the typical obligations that you usually hear about, but ones that have to do with righting past wrongs, which I thought was an interesting new take on the general concept.

The concept of this series is also interesting. Here, we have Elva’s story and the development of the curse that follows her family (for every two good things that happen, a very bad one follows). The next three (I think three?) books will jump generations and tell new stories focusing on different characters. They will also be written by different authors. This could either be really cool, or it could lead to the series feeling very disjoined and mismatched. Dao’s style of writing worked perfectly for the type of dark fairytale she’s trying to tell here. Will the next books also read like fairytales? Or will they have different tones? And will the other authors being able to capture these tones correctly?

For all the good things (the strength of Dao’s writing and the first third), I did struggle with this book once we got to Elva and the more typical YA fare. But I am curious to see where new authors will take the story in the future and how much they will verge away from or remain true to the story that was started here. Fans of fairytales or Dao’s previous books will likely enjoy this!

Rating 7: An interesting start to an interesting new series, though a bit too reliant on some YA tropes near the end.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Broken Wish” isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on Oct 2020 – Middle Grade/YA – New Releases.

Find “Broken Wish” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Luckiest Lady in London”

Book: “The Luckiest Lady in London” by Sherry Thomas

Publishing Info: Berkley Sensation, November 2013

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: Felix Rivendale, the Marquess of Wrenworth, is The Ideal Gentleman, a man all men want to be and all women want to possess. Felix himself almost believes this golden image. But underneath is a damaged soul soothed only by public adulation.

Louisa Cantwell needs to marry well to support her sisters. She does not, however, want Lord Wrenworth—though he seems inexplicably interested in her. She mistrusts his outward perfection and the praise he garners everywhere he goes. But when he is the only man to propose at the end of the London season, she reluctantly accepts.

Louisa does not understand her husband’s mysterious purposes, but she cannot deny the pleasure her body takes in his touch. Nor can she deny the pull this magnetic man exerts upon her. But does she dare to fall in love with a man so full of dark secrets, anyone of which could devastate her, if she were to get any closer?

Review: Yes, this is what it looks like. I’m reviewing a straight up historical romance novel. Pretty outside of my typical genres, but I’ve loved everything by Sherry Thomas that I’ve read, and I knew that she had started out as a historical romance author. So I wanted to go back and see what some of her earlier work was like when she was primarily publishing in this genre. I found this one kind of on a whim, and overall, I liked it pretty well and can definitely see the foundations of the traits in Thomas’s writing that I like in her other genres of writing.

Going into her first season, Louisa has one goal and one goal only: snag a rich husband to help support her family. She knows she’s not the most beautiful woman in society nor the most rich, but she’s made a study of how to succeed in London society. So with surgical precision, she goes to work. What she doesn’t expect is to draw the attention of “The Perfect Gentleman,” a Lord Wrenworth that ladies have been trying to capture for years. But she distrusts this outward appearance of perfect and is more than bewildered when his is the only proposal she receives after months in society. Now going into a marriage where the attraction is clear but the motives less so, Louisa must uncover the truth of Lord Wrenworth and discover just how “perfect” this man could be.

I feel like even if I didn’t know Thomas was the author of this book, I would have been able to guess. She has a certain way of writing her characters that is very distinctive. I’m not sure exactly how to describe it…Many of her heroes and heroines are very level-headed, have an analytical approach to life, and coolly asses those around them. There are very few emotional outbursts, and the ones they do have, are often shrouded in cold wit more than anything else. And yet, for these traits being fairly universal in the books I’ve read, all of her characters have still felt unique and new.

I really liked Louisa in this book. Her approach to a London season has many elements that I can see were drawn upon when creating Charlotte Holmes. She tackles the entire thing like a scientific experiment. The right dress here, the correct, bland smile there, some clearly targeted prospects who meet her criteria, regardless of personal looks or charm. And yet, we also see Louisa rattled by Lord Wrenworth. But even here, she rises to the challenge in some very unexpected ways. She doesn’t understand her own attraction to him, but she refuses to be shamed by it or let him use it against her. It’s an interesting dynamic.

Lord Wrenworth is more your typical romance hero. Perfect on the outside with all the brooding issues on the inside that come out at the worst times. I liked the backstory that Thomas gives for him, as I think it goes further to explain his lapses than other romantic heroes I’ve read in the past. But he still falls into the same pitfalls that often frustrate me with this genre. Just get over yourself! And quit hurting the woman you can’t admit you love for whatever reason!

Most of the typical romance beats are hit here, so what mostly stood out for me was Thomas’s strong writing. But I can also see has she’s grown as an author since producing this. The ending is fairly abrupt and the reconciliation seems to come out of nowhere a bit. I was happy enough with the conclusion, but still smarting a bit on Louisa’s behalf. If you like historical romances, this is probably worth checking out. But I wasn’t enamored enough that I feel the need to make my way through all of Thomas’s other romance novels.

Rating 7: Good for what it is with especially strong characters, but still follows a fairly standard romance plotline.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Luckiest Lady in London” is on these Goodreads lists: Best Historical Romances – Married Couples and Lords, Dukes, Rakes…Oh My!.

Find “The Luckiest Lady in London” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “These Violent Delights”

Book: “These Violent Delights” by Chloe Gong

Publishing Info: Margaret K. McElderry Books, November 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from a librarian friend.

Book Description: Perfect for fans of The Last Magician and Descendant of the Crane, this heart-stopping debut is an imaginative Romeo and Juliet retelling set in 1920s Shanghai, with rival gangs and a monster in the depths of the Huangpu River.

The year is 1926, and Shanghai hums to the tune of debauchery. A blood feud between two gangs runs the streets red, leaving the city helpless in the grip of chaos. At the heart of it all is eighteen-year-old Juliette Cai, a former flapper who has returned to assume her role as the proud heir of the Scarlet Gang—a network of criminals far above the law. Their only rivals in power are the White Flowers, who have fought the Scarlets for generations. And behind every move is their heir, Roma Montagov, Juliette’s first love…and first betrayal.

But when gangsters on both sides show signs of instability culminating in clawing their own throats out, the people start to whisper. Of a contagion, a madness. Of a monster in the shadows. As the deaths stack up, Juliette and Roma must set their guns—and grudges—aside and work together, for if they can’t stop this mayhem, then there will be no city left for either to rule.

Review: Confession time! I don’t really care for Shakespeare’s classic tragedy “Romeo and Juliet”. Even as a teen when I was even more emotional than I am now (shocker!), it never really connected with me. Well, that’s not totally true. I do enjoy Baz Lurhmann’s take on the story, but that’s because it’s SO DAMN OVER THE TOP.

That and John Leguizamo as Tybalt. I mean my GOD. (source)

But I am someone who is open minded to tinkering with the classics, so when I heard about “These Violent Delights” by Chloe Gong it caught my eye. If you take the “Romeo and Juliet” story, set it in 1920s Shanghai, involve two gangs, and have a Juliet who is nobody’s fool, you will almost certainly get my attention. And if you toss a monster into it as well? YA GOT ME.

“These Violent Delights” follows Juliette Cai and Roma Montogrov, two young adults who are heirs to their family gangs, but have a tumultuous and star crossed past. While it’s third person, we do get to alternate between their third person perspectives, seeing their sides of their ultimate falling out, and how hurt, and angry, they both are about it. I was more invested in Juliet’s perspectives, mostly because I felt that Gong really fleshed out her characterization in fascinating ways, not just making her be a love lorn and somewhat passive character. This Juliette is a calculating higher up of a violent gang, and uses her knowledge of Shanghai and her culture along with her Western education to make chess moves in the ongoing conflicts. Through her we also got to see the colonial and imperialist issues that were facing Shanghai at the time, with Western interests establishing themselves via merchants after a number of treaties after warfare. Gong addresses a number of the issues of Western influence and manipulation within this narrative, and having Juliette there to parse it out for the reader was a great device (I was so ignorant about a lot of this that I found that to be the most intriguing aspect of this story). It was also pretty cool to see not just Juliette but her cousins Rosalind and Kathleen using their wits and their own strengths as women to try to keep the Scarlet Gang in control, especially after things in the main storyline go to hell (more on that in a bit).

Roma, however, is part of a Russian family that relocated to Shanghai and that has tried to claim its own stake in the power pie. His conflicts were more family based, and seeing him (and his heavies Marshall and Benedikt, who were GREAT and WONDERFUL and I would totally read a book just about them) try to reconcile his love for Juliette and his loyalty to his family (some of which is forced upon him) wasn’t as interesting as Juliette’s journey. But all of that said, because of these conflicts that both have, some known, some unspoken, their romance is far easier to invest in than their inspirations in the original play. The two characters (as well as the side characters) harken back enough to be adaptations, but stand on their own and breathe new life into the story.

As for the main conflict, that being a monster that is infecting people in Shanghai with an illness that makes them commit suicide, it was a bit out of left field but I liked it enough. I enjoyed watching Roma and Juliette try to solve the mystery, and how the story still followed beats of the original play in subtle ways. This is where more Imperialist issues come into play, and while a less skilled author may have stumbled into some heavy handed moments, for the most part Gong pulls it off that keeps the story flowing and making good points. It did go on a little long for my taste, but a lot had to be covered for world building, as this is the first in a series. Which I will definitely be following, as the cliffhanger was searing with DELICIOUS, DELICIOUS PAIN.

Let’s call this a visual hint on where we leave off. But it has some tweaking I loved. (source)

“These Violent Delights” is a creative and fun historical fiction fantasy romance thriller (whew!) , and has me fully invested in a “Romeo and Juliet” story. Can’t wait to see where we go next.

Rating 7: A creative and unique retelling of a classic tragedy, “These Violent Delights” goes on a LITTLE long, but breathes some new life into “Romeo and Juliet”.

Reader’s Advisory:

“These Violent Delights” is included on the Goodreads list “YA Fiction Set in the 1920s”, and would fit in on “Romeo and Juliet Retellings”.

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