Kate’s Review: “Flamer”

Book: “Flamer” by Mike Curato

Publishing Info: Henry Holt and Co. BYR-Paperbacks, September 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Award-winning author and artist Mike Curato draws on his own experiences in Flamer, his debut graphic novel, telling a difficult story with humor, compassion, and love.

I know I’m not gay. Gay boys like other boys. I hate boys. They’re mean, and scary, and they’re always destroying something or saying something dumb or both.

I hate that word. Gay. It makes me feel . . . unsafe.

It’s the summer between middle school and high school, and Aiden Navarro is away at camp. Everyone’s going through changes—but for Aiden, the stakes feel higher. As he navigates friendships, deals with bullies, and spends time with Elias (a boy he can’t stop thinking about), he finds himself on a path of self-discovery and acceptance.

Review: I never did the whole summer camp thing as a kid. As far as I got was the YMCA Day camp program, but I was such an anxious kid with separation anxiety issues like whoa, overnight sleep away camp was NEVER going to work. I do feel like I missed something, especially since my sister did do one and really enjoyed it. So I do like reading stories that take place at summer camp. I stumbled upon “Flamer” by Mike Curato on Goodreads, and the themes sounded very much in my wheelhouse.

In some ways, “Flamer” feels a bit like the graphic memoir “Honor Girl” in that it has a teenager at camp struggling with their sexuality in the mid 90s. But for me the difference is that Aiden, our main character and fictionalized portrayal of Curato, has a lot more self loathing and and a lot more fear about his sexuality. Aiden is an outsider already, in that he’s bi-racial, he’s on the chubbier side, and he’s an easy target at his middle school, as well as for his emotionally abusive father. So while he has usually felt like he fits in at Scout Camp, his burgeoning sexuality starts to drive his anxiety up, especially as the micro aggressions and flat out bigotry of the time start to become more and more apparent. The story is mostly the last week at Scout Camp, as his safe space starts to feel less safe, and he moves towards an unknown future of high school and self discovery. Curato doesn’t shy away from the ugliness that Aiden has to deal with, be it because of his heritage, because of how he presents as more femme than his fellow Scouts, and how these stresses and the bullying is taking a toll on him and driving him to dark places. Aiden could be a mirror for many kids who are dealing with their own identity discoveries, and how the world around them can make those discoveries hard. The cruelty isn’t limited to fellow Scouts, but also pops up with Leaders who seem supportive, but have their own prejudices that they are harboring and that aren’t as hidden as they may think.

There is also a prevalent theme about Aiden’s Catholic Faith, and how he has always been drawn to certain aspects of the religion and the rituals. I know VERY little about Catholicism, but I thought that Curato really evoked the appreciation that Aiden has, from being an Alter Boy to having a favorite Saint that he relates to, to the struggles he has with his sexuality because of what he believes his religion says about LGBTQIA people. It’s a really fine line that Curato walks in that he definitely condemns the bigotry of those who may practice the religion, but never points fingers at the religion itself, nor does he say that the religion is ‘bad’ in this situation. I think that it would be easy to either condemn the religion as a whole, or to let it and all of its adherents off. but Curato finds a balance in the middle, and it works very well, and makes some of the moments near the end of the story all the more heartbreaking and powerful.

Along with those aspects, Curato also has a great author’s note in the back, as well as a list of resources for kids who may be dealign with the same things that Aiden is dealing with. I love it when books do this, and it feels like a really great resource to have in this story in particular.

And finally, the art work. LOVED it. It’s black and white, but there are splashes of color, specifically those of reds, oranges, and yellows. All of those work for passion, for fire, for anger, for love, and it makes the moments they are used pop and all the more powerful.

“Flamer” is a bittersweet and hopeful graphic novel that I hope people get in kids hands. You never know who is going to need a story like this.

Rating 8: Evocative, emotional, and necessary reading, “Flamer” is a touching and hopeful story about learning to love and accept yourself.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Flamer” is included on the Goodreads lists “Summer Camp Teens”, and “Guides and Scouts”.

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

Kate’s Review: “Concrete Rose”

Book: “Concrete Rose” by Angie Thomas

Publishing Info: Balzer + Bray, January 2021

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

Book Description: International phenomenon Angie Thomas revisits Garden Heights seventeen years before the events of The Hate U Give in this searing and poignant exploration of Black boyhood and manhood.

If there’s one thing seventeen-year-old Maverick Carter knows, it’s that a real man takes care of his family. As the son of a former gang legend, Mav does that the only way he knows how: dealing for the King Lords. With this money he can help his mom, who works two jobs while his dad’s in prison.

Life’s not perfect, but with a fly girlfriend and a cousin who always has his back, Mav’s got everything under control. Until, that is, Maverick finds out he’s a father.

Suddenly he has a baby, Seven, who depends on him for everything. But it’s not so easy to sling dope, finish school, and raise a child. So when he’s offered the chance to go straight, he takes it. In a world where he’s expected to amount to nothing, maybe Mav can prove he’s different.

When King Lord blood runs through your veins, though, you can’t just walk away. Loyalty, revenge, and responsibility threaten to tear Mav apart, especially after the brutal murder of a loved one. He’ll have to figure out for himself what it really means to be a man.

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

Back in 2019 when Angie Thomas’s “On The Come Up” made my Favorite Read list for the year, I promised myself that even though her genre isn’t usually one I cover, I would make exception for her books. Both that one and “The Hate U Give” made my lists, so when “Concrete Rose”, her newest novel, was announced I knew that it would be the first to keep the promise. I was STUNNED when I saw that it was available for request on NetGalley, but took advantage of that and downloaded it. We were finally going to get the backstory for Maverick Carter, Starr’s compelling father in “The Hate U Give”. And I was very interested to see where that backstory went.

While her previous works have tackled social justice themes and Black girlhood, “Concrete Rose” now has a focus on that of Black boyhood, and the difficulties it can entail in a racist society. When we met Maverick in “The Hate U Give”, he is a loving father and very well respected member in his community of Garden Heights. In “Concrete Rose” he’s seventeen, he’s a member of the King Lords (the gang his father was a high ranking member of), and he’s just found out that he’s the father of a three month old baby that had previously been believed to be his best friend’s (you may remember King from THUG). It’s a lot of change and a lot of pressure, and Maverick doesn’t know how to tell his girlfriend Lisa about the baby, and doesn’t want to sell weed anymore now that he is a father who needs to be there. Thomas, unsurprisingly, captures Maverick’s voice very well, as he feels like an authentic teenager who can make bad decisions, but has a lot of heart and determination. We also see the barriers that he has to face due to systemic and societal racism and the poverty that his community is dealing with. He wants to support his son, and stay in school, AND go straight so that he doesn’t end up like his own incarcerated father, but there are few opportunities, and dealing, though dangerous, feels like the only way to be successful. It’s a very empathetic look at why decisions are made to join gangs and to deal, as for Maverick, when things get really hard, it feels like the only support system he has. While I don’t think that it connected with me as much as THUG and “On the Come Up”, I do think that “Concrete Rose” will connect with other readers, especially boys who see themselves in Maverick.

In terms of being a prequel to “The Hate U Give”, “Concrete Rose” does stand well enough on its own. There are certainly a couple of references to the other book with characters and some other plot points that are mentioned, but if you go into this one without any knowledge you aren’t going to feel like you’re missing anything. I really like that Thomas decided to look more at Maverick, as he was definitely one of my favorite characters in THUG. I loved seeing Mav and Lisa’s relationship as well, as in THUG they are Starr’s parents, but in “Concrete Rose” they are a burgeoning teenage couple with ups and downs. As someone who used to dabble in fiction writing, and as someone who ALSO found herself wanting to go back and explore characters that were supposed to be supporting characters only, I definitely LOVE that we got to see Mav and Lisa go through these ups and downs with the spotlight on the two of them. Some reviews I’ve seen has questioned whether this love story needed to be explored, but so what if it didn’t ‘need’ to be? It’s a great story regardless of ‘need’.

“Concrete Rose” is another well done book by Angie Thomas, whose voice and skills are undeniable and so, so important to YA fiction right now. I’ll be curious to see what comes next. While I wouldn’t mind a whole new tale, this book proves that she could go back and explore other characters and give them rich and emotional back stories.

Rating 8: A heartfelt and emotional prequel to one of the most important YA novels of the 21st Century, “Concrete Rose” gives a great backstory to a compelling character.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Concrete Rose” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Books for BLM Movement”, and “Contemporary Books with Black Leads”.

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

Kate’s Review: “Eight Perfect Murders”

Book: “Eight Perfect Murders” by Peter Swanson

Publishing Info: William Morrow, March 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: Audible

Book Description: A chilling tale of psychological suspense and an homage to the thriller genre tailor-made for fans: the story of a bookseller who finds himself at the center of an FBI investigation because a very clever killer has started using his list of fiction’s most ingenious murders.

Years ago, bookseller and mystery aficionado Malcolm Kershaw compiled a list of the genre’s most unsolvable murders, those that are almost impossible to crack—which he titled “Eight Perfect Murders”—chosen from among the best of the best including Agatha Christie’s A. B. C. Murders, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, Ira Levin’s Death Trap, A. A. Milne’s Red House Mystery, Anthony Berkeley Cox’s Malice Aforethought, James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, John D. Macdonald’s The Drowner, and Donna Tartt’s A Secret History.

But no one is more surprised than Mal, now the owner of the Old Devils Bookshop in Boston, when an FBI agent comes knocking on his door one snowy day in February. She’s looking for information about a series of unsolved murders that look eerily similar to the killings on Mal’s old list. And the FBI agent isn’t the only one interested in this bookseller who spends almost every night at home reading. The killer is out there, watching his every move—a diabolical threat who knows way too much about Mal’s personal history, especially the secrets he’s never told anyone, even his recently deceased wife.

To protect himself, Mal begins looking into possible suspects—and sees a killer in everyone around him. But Mal doesn’t count on the investigation leaving a trail of death in its wake. Suddenly, a series of shocking twists leaves more victims dead—and the noose around Mal’s neck grows so tight he might never escape.

Review: As we say goodbye to the year 2020 (and hope that 2021 is better….), I look back at the complete shitshow that we leave behind and I see ways that I was affected that I hadn’t really thought about at the time. There are many, but for this review I’m going to talk about the lack of audiobooks on my list. In normal times I would probably listen to about one audiobook a month, mostly when driving to work or wherever. But with my job being on hold until the pandemic is better controlled and it’s safer, I haven’t been driving so I really wasn’t listening to things outside of my favorite podcast. But once the weather got a little cooler, I started taking my daughter on walks around the neighborhood, and my audiobook intake rose once more (though with winter being here now I am doing more listening at night before bed). Enter “Eight Perfect Murders” by Peter Swanson, the audiobook I got right before things went to hell. Months after I downloaded it, I finally dove in. Peter Swanson, I’m sorry I waited so long.

In true Swanson form, “Eight Perfect Murders” has a weird mystery at its heart, a narrator who is unreliable and perhaps hiding something from the reader, and a compulsively readable style that made my walks with the kid a bit longer than normal. Our protagonist is Malcolm Kershaw, a bookstore owner who finds himself being questioned in a string of murders, as the murders seem to be mimicking a blog post he made years ago where he selected ‘eight perfect murders’ from mystery fiction. The FBI agent, Gwen, knows that the theory is a bit nutty, but wants his insight after she rules him out as a suspect. Malcolm cooperates, if only to help clear his name, but also because he realizes that this is a cat and mouse game between him and the person who read his post and has started killing people. It’s pretty clear pretty early that Malcolm has some skeletons in his closet, and since Swanson has kind of made the ‘interesting and also kinda likable (or at least easy to root for) psychopath’ a bit of a trope, some aspects of this mystery were kind of predictable. Or if not predictable, not shocking when the reveals were done. I liked Malcolm a lot, actually. I also liked Gwen. And I wanted to know what was happening in the story, be it trying to see who was targeting Malcolm, or what Malcolm may have to hide. And at the end of the day, the big reveal did surprise me, which is the important thing when it comes to a mystery story.

What I liked more about this book is that it’s really a love letter to mystery books and book lovers. Swanson references so many authors, stories, series, and moments within the genre that I had a huge grin on my face basically the whole time I was listening. Swanson very clearly loves this genre and this book was a carefully crafted homage to it. I haven’t read a good number of the stories on the Eight Perfect Murders list, but because of this book I’m definitely going to look into a few of them.

On top of everything else, it is claimed on Goodreads that this is the first in a series that is implied to focus on Malcolm. I won’t go into spoilers here, but I will say that the book ends in a way that I am not totally certain how that is going to work, it it’s true. But if it is true?

“Eight Perfect Murders” was a fun and engrossing thriller mystery that (for the most part) kept me guessing. Swanson is still an author that I want more people to get on board with. If you’re looking for new authors to try in 2021, he may be a good choice!

Rating 8: A fast paced and thrilling mystery and love letter to books. Though somewhat predictable at times, I am VERY interested to see how/if Swanson will continue this series, as implied…

Reader’s Advisory:

“Eight Perfect Murders” is included on the Goodreads lists “Unreliable Narrators”, and “Books About Books”.

Find “Eight Perfect Murders” at your library using WorldCat, at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

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: “Redbone: The True Story of a Native American Rock Band”

Book: “Redbone: The True Story of a Native American Rock Band” by Christian Staebler, Sonia Paoloni, and Thibault Balahy (Ill.)

Publishing Info: IDW Publishing, September 2020

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

Book Description: Experience the riveting, powerful story of the Native American civil rights movement and the resulting struggle for identity told through the high-flying career of west coast rock n’ roll pioneers Redbone.

You’ve heard the hit song “Come and Get Your Love” in the movie Guardians of the Galaxy, but the story of the band behind it is one of cultural, political, and social importance.

Brothers Pat and Lolly Vegas were talented Native American rock musicians that took the 1960s Sunset Strip by storm. They influenced The Doors and jammed with Jimmy Hendrix before he was “Jimi,” and the idea of a band made up of all Native Americans soon followed. Determined to control their creative vision and maintain their cultural identity, they eventually signed a deal with Epic Records in 1969. But as the American Indian Movement gained momentum the band took a stand, choosing pride in their ancestry over continued commercial reward.

Created with the cooperation of the Vegas family, authors Christian Staebler and Sonia Paolini with artist Thibault Balahy take painstaking steps to ensure the historical accuracy of this important and often overlooked story of America’s past. Part biography and part research journalism, Redbone provides a voice to a people long neglected in American history.

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

As we all know, I am not really all that versed in Marvel movies, though I did see “Guardians of the Galaxy” once and enjoyed it overall. One of the things that made me realize I was in for a treat was when Star Lord started playing “Come And Get Your Love” on his Walkman as he went to salvage some stuff. I like that song, having first heard it via sample by Cyndi Lauper in her remix of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” for “To Wong Foo”. So I liked the song, but had no knowledge of the band Redbone, who sings it. When “Redbone: The True Story of a Native American Rock Band” was brought to my attention, I jumped at the chance to read it. I was expecting a pretty straightforward rock and roll biographic novel, but was pleasantly surprised to find out that it had a bit more to say.

“Redbone” tells two stories, one being a personal recollection and the other being of a growing movement in the United States. The book follows brothers Pat and Lolly Vegas (thought Pat’s eyes), who eventually formed Redbone, the first commercially successful Native rock band. We follow their history on the Sunset Strip in the 1960s, hanging out with famous acts like The Doors and Jimi Hendrix, and see how they formed their own band that seemed to be on the way to stardom. The other story is of the American Indian Movement (or AIM), a social justice/activist group that focuses on Native rights and formed in Minneapolis in the 1960s. As Pat, Lolly, and the rest of the band began to live the rock and roll lifestyle, the rights of other Native people started being promoted and fought for, which intertwined with their rock careers as they wanted to bring their heritage and own activism into the band.

I liked hearing the backstories of the band itself, and also seeing a broad but informative look into the Residential School system in this country, and AIM and the activism and protests that it brought to the public consciousness. I was fairly familiar with most of the activism and protests that this book covers, and found the explanations to be easy to understand and powerful in both the personal and the communal effects it had. Given that history classes neglect so much non-white history in our schools, I thought that this book would be a great resource for educators to use when wanting to give an introduction to AIM and the social justice issues it tackles both then and now. I also appreciated that this story did address the racism that Redbone had to face in the music industry because of their heritage, and how it’s very clear that their pride in their heritage and want to assert their rights as Native people is what ended their careers when they had SO much talent. I’m pretty damn mad that I didn’t know anything about this band before now, when their most famous song is one that I’ve known and liked for a long time. That’s partially on me, of course. And I’m happy that this book is out there to educate readers on their story, and the broader story of AIM.

I did have a little hard time with the graphic style at first. The images aren’t in a clear linear box design, in that a lot of the time they all bleed together into larger images. Sometimes I had a hard time parsing out which dialogue bits happened where, but I eventually adjusted. And it wasn’t exactly hard to figure it out based on context. Overall I like the unique and nontraditional style.

“Redbone: The True Story of a Native American Rock Band” is a great introduction to the greater fight for Native Rights in the U.S., and finally puts a spotlight on a band that had success taken from them. If you want to know more about an important part of Rock and Roll history, check this out!

Rating 8: A fascinating history of a long neglected band, as well as an overview of the beginnings and contributions of the American Indian Movement, “Redbone: The True Story of a Native American Rock Band” is an informative and interesting graphic novel!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Redbone: The True Story of a Native American Rock Band” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but I think it would fit in on “Native American Biography (Non-fiction)”, and “Best Books on Rock and Roll”.

Find “Redbone: The True story of a Native American Rock Band” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “This Is Not a Ghost Story”

Book: “This Is Not a Ghost Story” by Andrea Portes

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, November 2020

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

Book Description: I am not welcome. Somehow I know that. Something doesn’t want me here.

Daffodil Franklin has plans for a quiet summer before her freshman year at college, and luckily, she’s found the job that can give her just that: housesitting a mansionfor a wealthy couple.

But as the summer progresses and shadows lengthen, Daffodil comes to realize the house is more than it appears. The spacious home seems to close in on her, and as she takes the long road into town, she feels eyes on her the entire way, and something tugging her back.

What Daffodil doesn’t yet realize is that her job comes with a steep price. The house has a long-ago grudge it needs to settle . . . and Daffodil is the key to settling it.

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

I love haunting and eerie ghost stories of the Gothic variety, though I will admit that I sometimes find them to be predictable. The genre itself has such specific building blocks to it that a little bit of a road map is in place from the get go, which is perfectly okay. Because of this, I thought that I knew where “This Is Not a Ghost Story” by Andrea Portes was going to go when I picked it up. I was still excited to read it, mind you, but my overconfident ass thought that it wouldn’t have much new to say. But lo and behold, this story took me by surprise in all the best ways possible.

While the set up definitely seems run of the mill (money strapped college student agrees to house sit an isolated home, strange things start happening), Portes has created a Gothic ghost story that feels unique and fresh specifically because of how she has chosen to tell it. Daffodil, our first person protagonist, has a stream of consciousness and anxious voice in her narration, and as she tells the reader what is happening to her in this house and in the town around it, we have a slow build up of dread in the way that Daffodil would be experiencing it. As she tries to write off strange occurrences as they happen, we see the panic rise and rise until she is unable to deny that something very bad is happening, which I REALLY liked. From things that could very easily be explainable to the absolutely disturbing, Daffodil’s stream of consciousness builds the tension and also becomes VERY relatable as the story goes on. And all along she is cracking wise, making funny observations, and generally cracking me up, which helped cut the tension but didn’t ruin it. But along with the present bad things happening inside the house and on the grounds, we also get a slow unfolding of Daffodil’s past, and why her anxiety and unease is ever present. Most of this involves a love story with her high school boyfriend Zander, someone that she had always felt was out of her league but who loved her very much. Their high school romance felt real, and as it runs its course in her memories and unfolds in tragic ways, you see a whole other side to Daffodil that makes her all the more endearing.

In terms of scares and plotting, “This Is Not A Ghost Story” has some elements that are old hat, and some reveals that didn’t quite catch me by surprise in the way that they were probably supposed to do. But Portes still manages to write these elements and reveals in a way that made them enjoyable, and they still felt pretty fresh and convincing. I worry that if I say too much we’ll start getting into spoiler territory, but I do want to mention two aspects that worked really well for me. The first is the uncanny creepiness, of things going missing or ending up in places that don’t make sense. The other is the slow building unease with the people on and around the property, from a construction worker on the guest house named Mike to a nosy and stuffy neighbor named Penelope. We think one thing about them at first, but Portes picks away at our perceptions of them and makes them suspenseful in their own way (though I will say that Daffodil does the thing that MANY women do when it comes to men who may be threatening: she second guesses herself and her instincts. THIS was so well done that it felt like a GREAT way to show the target audience that no, your instincts should probably be listened to).

So while it may not have shocked me or really scared me too much, “This Is Not A Ghost Story” was an enjoyable and poignant ghostly tale of trauma, forgiveness, and the things that haunt us. Fans of Gothic horror should definitely check it out!

Rating 8: A haunting, bittersweet, and sardonically funny Gothic tale, “This Is Not a Ghost Story” will keep you guessing, and will stay with you.

Reader’s Advisory:

“This Is Not a Ghost Story” is new and not on many specific Goodreads lists, but I think it would fit in on “Modern Gothic”, and “Not the Normal Paranormal”.

Find “This Is Not a Ghost Story” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Victory of Eagles”

Book: “Victory of Eagles” by Naomi Novik

Publishing Info: Del Rey, August 2008

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

Book Description: It is a grim time for the dragon Temeraire. On the heels of his mission to Africa, seeking the cure for a deadly contagion, he has been removed from military service – and his captain, Will Laurence, has been condemned to death for treason. For Britain, conditions are grimmer still: Napoleon’s resurgent forces have breached the Channel and successfully invaded English soil. Napoleon’s prime objective: the occupation of London.

Separated by their own government and threatened at every turn by Napoleon’s forces, Laurence and Temeraire must struggle to find each other amid the turmoil of war and to aid the resistance against the invasion before Napoleon’s foothold on England’s shores can become a stranglehold.

If only they can be reunited, master and dragon might rally Britain’s scattered forces and take the fight to the enemy as never before – for king and country, and for their own liberty. But can the French aggressors be well and truly routed, or will a treacherous alliance deliver Britain into the hands of her would-be conquerors?

Previously Reviewed: “His Majesty’s Dragon” and “Throne of Jade” and “Black Powder War” and “Empire of Ivory”

Review: It’s so nice to have a long-running series that one can return to every once in a while. It’s fun to discover new books, of course, but with the fantastic new stories also comes the chance of having to slog through something that isn’t a good fit. Not only do I love Novik’s “Temeraire” series, but I also particularly enjoy the audiobook version of the series and the narrator who reads it. So, when waiting on a few of my holds at the library to come through, I thought it was about time to re-visit this series.

Things are not going well for Temeraire and Laurence. After sharing the cure to the deadly dragon disease with their enemies in France, Temeraire has been banished to the north where he is to remain the rest of his days, and Laurence has been sentenced to death as a traitor. But when Napoleon lands on English shores, Britain quickly realizes that it can’t lose one of its best dragons and dragon captains. But Temeraire is no longer interested in blinding following orders. After seeing the advancements back in his native land, he’s sure that England can do better with its treatment of its own dragons, and Temeraire is prepared to go to great lengths to see that it is so.

This book was a bit different than others in the series in that, for a large part of it, we’re following the separate stories of Temeraire and Laurence. But as the series has progressed, Temeraire has become more and more of a character in his own right, with thoughts and opinions of his own that sometimes differ from Laurence’s own. So it also makes sense that at some point we would begin to follow him as his own character with his own arc. And I really liked what we got from him here! Aside from his obvious anxiety over Laurence’s situation, we see Temeraire begin to actively pursue a new role for dragons in England’s society and military, something he’s been discussing for the last several books since their trip to China.

In an interesting twist, while Temeraire is in the north, we see that it isn’t only the humans of England who are set in their ways. He has to convince the dragons, too, that change is in their own best interest. As the story continues, we see Temeraire’s vision turn more and more into a reality, but with that comes challenges of its own. I liked how this wasn’t simply done easily, and Temeraire himself, while knowing the direction he wants things to move, hasn’t thought out the details of what dragons serving in the military under their own command would really look like.

Laurence’s own story is also interesting. We see the fall-out of his and Temeraire’s decision, not only in his initial imprisonment, but in the different ways those around him view what he did. For many, it is seen as out-right treason with very little sympathy for the reasoning behind it. Others might understand, but they still can’t behave the same way around Laurence. It’s all painful to hear about, especially because of how honorable we know Laurence to be. But it’s also very realistic of what a situation like that would look like.

I also really liked how this alternative history is really leaning into the “alternative” aspect of it all. Napoleon actually lands on English soil in this version of history and makes significant inroads in an occupation. Much of the story is highlighting how desperate the English situation really is, and Laurence and Temeraire are clearly fighting on the underdog’s side of this war all of a sudden.

In the end, this was another solid entry in the “Temeraire” series. I really enjoyed the continued exploration of what reform for the dragons would look like in this situation. And how far Novik is willing to play with history in her alternative world is always surprising and a joy. For those who have been reading this series, this is more of the same: good stuff all around!

Rating 8: Veers into some surprising new territory but never loses sight of what we’re there for: Temeraire and Laurence and their lovely friendship!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Victory of Eagles” is on these Goodreads lists: Best Alternate History Novels and Stories and Best Book With or About Dragons.

Find “Victory of Eagles” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Dragon Hoops”

44280830Book: “Dragon Hoops” by Gene Luen Yang

Publishing Info: First Second, March 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: In his latest graphic novel, New York Times bestselling author Gene Luen Yang turns the spotlight on his life, his family, and the high school where he teaches.

Gene understands stories—comic book stories, in particular. Big action. Bigger thrills. And the hero always wins.

But Gene doesn’t get sports. As a kid, his friends called him “Stick” and every basketball game he played ended in pain. He lost interest in basketball long ago, but at the high school where he now teaches, it’s all anyone can talk about. The men’s varsity team, the Dragons, is having a phenomenal season that’s been decades in the making. Each victory brings them closer to their ultimate goal: the California State Championships.

Once Gene gets to know these young all-stars, he realizes that their story is just as thrilling as anything he’s seen on a comic book page. He knows he has to follow this epic to its end. What he doesn’t know yet is that this season is not only going to change the Dragons’s lives, but his own life as well. 

Review: Though I’m not really a huge sports fan in general, if you asked me what my least favorite ‘mainstream’ sport to watch was, I’d undoubtedly say basketball. I can’t even tell you why that is, but I’ve never enjoyed it, even when I was playing on the basketball team in sixth grade. But given that Gene Luen Yang is one of my favorite comics writers, I knew that I was going to read his newest book “Dragon Hoops”, even if it was about basketball. Looking into it more, I realized that this wasn’t going to be a book that was just about basketball. And because of that, I was immediately hooked on this story that’s part memoir, part history, and part inspirational sports story.

We follow Yang as he’s following his school’s basketball team in it’s journey to hopefully win State, and he finds a lot of layers and depth and heart to put on display. While he could have had a structure that was purely factual, or perhaps a story that profiles just one player, or even a story that focuses on a coach’s deferred dreams that are possibly going to come true, he manages to take aspects of all these things and balance them into a combination. We get profiles of the various members of the team, from the players themselves and their varied backgrounds, to Coach Lou and his own personal connection as a former player, to Yang himself as he is thinking about his own dreams. I really enjoyed getting the context of the various team members, but I thought that Yang putting his own story in there was a nice touch, as it shows that even those who don’t have a specific sports connection can find commonality with these inspirational, and sometimes difficult, sports stories that we hear about ever so often. He uses devices and symbolism that repeats throughout the story, and it almost always landed. Yang has always been really good at showing the deeper meaning of what he’s trying to say without outright saying it, and it comes through in this non fiction story just as well as it does in his fictional stories. I also really enjoyed Yang’s way of toying with the fourth wall, as he would have have himself in comic form acknowledge things that were being done for story telling purposes, as well as toying with the other characters perceptions of things that were going on or had gone on. While the action of the basketball games still kind of lagged on the page for me, I do acknowledge that Yang really captured the action and the tension of the moments as the Dragons are trying to get to State.

But ironically enough, it was the introductions to each section which focused on different parts of the history of basketball that clicked with me the most. Yang would give us a pretty easy to follow but comprehensive moment of history of the game, and that moment would then provide context or connect with the focus on that chapter, which was usually another member of the team or support system. I’m a history buff to be sure, and the way that Yang grounded his story within the context of this history was really well done. Plus, it all connects to the fact that Coach Lou, after his dreams of basketball success ended prematurely, decided to focus his education on history because he knows that history can inform us in the present. LOVED that, and it’s exactly the kind of theme I would expect from Yang.

And, of course, I love Yang’s style of artwork. It’s definitely a bit cartoony, but that doesn’t make it any less resonant or emotional when it needs to be. There were multiple moments where the emotions being portrayed were so well done both in writing and in imagery that I was moved to tears. Yang’s style is unique and well known at this point, but it always works.

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“Dragon Hoops” is another triumph for Gene Luen Yang! And if you’re hesitant to read it because of the basketball thing, take it from me. It’s absolutely worth it.

Rating 8: A charming graphic novel about basketball dreams, and dreams of doing something great, “Dragon Hoops” is a personal and emotional story from one of my favorite comics writers.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Dragon Hoops” is included on the Goodreads lists “Project LIT”, and “Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month Book List”.

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

Kate’s Review: “The Cousins”

Book: “The Cousins” by Karen M. McManus

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, December 2020

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

Book Description: From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of One of Us Is Lying comes your next obsession. You’ll never feel the same about family again.

Milly, Aubrey, and Jonah Story are cousins, but they barely know each another, and they’ve never even met their grandmother. Rich and reclusive, she disinherited their parents before they were born. So when they each receive a letter inviting them to work at her island resort for the summer, they’re surprised . . . and curious.

Their parents are all clear on one point–not going is not an option. This could be the opportunity to get back into Grandmother’s good graces. But when the cousins arrive on the island, it’s immediately clear that she has different plans for them. And the longer they stay, the more they realize how mysterious–and dark–their family’s past is.

The entire Story family has secrets. Whatever pulled them apart years ago isn’t over–and this summer, the cousins will learn everything.

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

I don’t know what we did to deserve it, but the book world gave us two YA thrillers by Karen M. McManus this year. Maybe it was to try to balance the scales of this year just a little bit? Whatever the case may be, it’s hard to deny that McManus is a hot commodity in YA thriller publishing, and “The Cousins” is her newest foray into the genre. Had this book come out a little later, it certainly would have been on my list in our upcoming Highlights Post. It wasn’t easy letting it sit on my Kindle as long as I did, but once I dove in I found myself pretty well ensnared.

Like a couple of McManus’s other stories, “The Cousins” involves a group of teenagers who are thrown together under strange circumstances, even though they are not alike in any way, shape, of form. Milly, Aubrey, and Jonah are cousins who never spent time together as kids, as their parents are generally estranged from each other and completely estranged from their grandmother Millicent. We get the perspectives of each cousin, who all have their own secrets, insecurities, and reasons that they want to get back in their grandmother’s good graces. Milly is desperate to know more about her family, if only because her mother has been so cold to her over the years that she wants to know what made her that way. Aubrey wants to please her father, as his indifference towards her that borders into disdain is a constant hurt that has only amplified as of late because of his escalating callousness. And Jonah, well, Jonah is a bit of a mystery. He wants to meet his grandmother, but he has ulterior motives that aren’t as clear as Milly’s and Aubrey’s. Each of these characters had a distinct voice and read like teens coming from the backgrounds that they do, and their authentic personalities were easy to latch on to, even as their various flaws and, in some cases, lies come to light. I wouldn’t say that any of them were super outside of the box from what I’ve come to expect from McManus, but that’s more than okay because I liked all of them. While I expected myself to like Milly the best (who doesn’t love a sarcastic and somewhat privileged protagonist?), it was Jonah whose voice stood out the most. His frustration, resentment, and ultimate softening towards Milly and Aubrey was a nice journey, and he does get a well set up and believable romance to boot. He was just so easy to care for, and I wasn’t expecting that at first. McManus really has a knack for writing characterizations that really click.

The mystery itself, and the sub mysteries within, were also fairly strong, though once again my jaded self was able to figure out a couple a few steps before I probably was supposed to. I wasn’t as interested in the answer as to why Millicent cut her children out, because as far as I was concerned they probably DID deserve it. But as things became to be not as they seemed my expectations shifted a bit, and I was more interested. Again, sometimes the clues to the various mysteries and secrets sprinkled throughout the story were a little obvious and therefore the solutions predictable. But the pace was fast and I was going through quick enough that I didn’t find myself hindered by my abilities to guess what was coming up. I think that there are still a good amount of surprises here that are, indeed, well set up but well shrouded as well. So even if you do find yourself predicting some things, I can almost be positive that you won’t get them all.

“The Cousins” is fun and quick, and should be on the lists of anyone who likes YA thrillers. Karen M. McManus has a lot of talent and I am very excited to see what she comes up with next!

Rating 8: Another fun mystery thriller from Karen M. McManus!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Cousins” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best YA Mystery/Spy books”, and “YA Suspense/Thriller/Mystery”.

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

Serena’s Review: “Fable”

Book: “Fable” by Adrienne Young

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, September 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: For seventeen-year-old Fable, the daughter of the most powerful trader in the Narrows, the sea is the only home she has ever known. It’s been four years since the night she watched her mother drown during an unforgiving storm. The next day her father abandoned her on a legendary island filled with thieves and little food. To survive she must keep to herself, learn to trust no one, and rely on the unique skills her mother taught her. The only thing that keeps her going is the goal of getting off the island, finding her father, and demanding her rightful place beside him and his crew. To do so Fable enlists the help of a young trader named West to get her off the island and across the Narrows to her father.

But her father’s rivalries and the dangers of his trading enterprise have only multiplied since she last saw him, and Fable soon finds that West isn’t who he seems. Together, they will have to survive more than the treacherous storms that haunt the Narrows if they’re going to stay alive.

Review: Pirate stories definitely had their day in the sun in the YA publishing world. It hits its peak probably about 2 years ago I’d say and has noticeably tapered off since then. During its peak, I think I only read one duology in this subgenre that I really liked (“Song of the Current”). Many of the others couldn’t quite strike on the right tone, in my opinion, too often falling into angsty, drama traps that didn’t befit the dangerous but cavalier nature of what I was looking for in a pirate story. But I’ve liked Adrienne Young’s work in the past, so I was happy to pick up her most recent book and see if she could crack the code!

The last four years of Fable’s life have been a mad scramble for survival. Abandoned on a island made up of thieves and murderers, every day is a danger. But Fable is driven: she will earn her way onto a ship and track down her powerful sea trader father and reclaim what is hers. But getting off the island is only the least of her struggles, she soon realizes. Alongside West, a secretive ship’s captain with mysteries of his own, and his ragtag crew who don’t trust Fable farther than they can throw her, Fable makes her way back out onto the ocean where storms are only the tip of the iceberg as far as dangers go.

This is what I like in a pirate story! The action is non-stop, the stakes are high, and death could be right around the corner for practically anyone, and that’s just life. Fable’s story starts out with the loss of her mother, but from there on out, Young doesn’t let up on the gas. These pirates have teeth and they’re not afraid to use them. The world-building sets up a nautical trade war where different factions vie for power using whatever methods they have at their disposal.

To live in this world, Fable is equally ruthless and accepting of living life on the edge of a knife. While her arch includes self-discovery, she also begins her journey from a solid foundation of trusting her own judgement, determinedly facing down challenges before her, and pursuing goals single-mindedly. Rather predictably, perhaps, many of her lessons come from learning the value of others, be they crew members, friends, or lovers. But even in the midst of these learning moments, I liked how practical and sure-footed Fable felt. She meets hardship and disappointment head-on and is a character that is easy to root for.

I also really liked the world Young created here. The various trading organizations, the tensions between captains, ships, and their crews, and the small dash of magic here and there that roots the entire thing in a fantasy setting. There’s just enough magic to make it feel “other,” but it’s also very recognizable as a “Pirates of the Caribbean” type place and culture. Could perhaps have dealt with a bit more humor and gallows humor to really fit that pirate stereotype, but it walks pretty close to the line.

The side characters were all interesting enough but weren’t breaking any boundaries, really. Most of them fell into fairly predictable roles, and their initial feelings and their changes of heart towards Fable all follow a paint-by-numbers format. The romance is also nothing special. I didn’t dislike West by any means or the romance as a whole, but there simply wasn’t much new there. West’s original motives and interest in Fable are left fairly unexplained. He seems to just kind of fall for her offscreen. And her own feelings develop in the usual way. The minute West shows up, you pretty much know exactly what you’re going to get here. I am curious to see what the second book will do with this, though. There’s less of a format for continued love stories than there is for their initial set-up.

Overall, I really liked this book. It didn’t blow me out of the water, but it also presented a solid pirate story of the sort I couldn’t seem to find even at the peak of the subgenre’s popularity. The story does end on a bit of a cliffhanger, so be aware of that going in. I think the next book is slated to come out this very spring, though, so the wait is short for those who want to dive into this now and not worry about being strung along for years and years. If you like pirate stories or are a fan of Young’s past work, this book is definitely worth checking out.

Rating 8: A solid main character and interesting new world make up for the fairly predictable romance.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Fable” is on these Goodreads lists: Nautical Tales and Most Exciting Upcoming YA Books.

Find “Fable” at your library using WorldCat!