Serena’s Review: “Where the Lost Wander”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Where the Lost Wander” by Amy Harmon

Publishing Info: Lake Union Publishing, April 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

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

Book Description: The Overland Trail, 1853: Naomi May never expected to be widowed at twenty. Eager to leave her grief behind, she sets off with her family for a life out West. On the trail, she forms an instant connection with John Lowry, a half-Pawnee man straddling two worlds and a stranger in both.

But life in a wagon train is fraught with hardship, fear, and death. Even as John and Naomi are drawn to each other, the trials of the journey and their disparate pasts work to keep them apart. John’s heritage gains them safe passage through hostile territory only to come between them as they seek to build a life together.

When a horrific tragedy strikes, decimating Naomi’s family and separating her from John, the promises they made are all they have left. Ripped apart, they can’t turn back, they can’t go on, and they can’t let go. Both will have to make terrible sacrifices to find each other, save each other, and eventually… make peace with who they are.

Review: Great authors are hard to come by. It’s especially exciting when you come across one who excels in one of your favorite genres. But the magical unicorn great author is one who seems able to write excellent novels in almost any genre! Authors like Sylvia Moreno Garcia and Naomi Novik come to mind. Amy Harmon turns out to be yet another of those authors. Everything she writes is a solid, individual piece of art, and yet she flits from genre, time period, and theme with the ease of an author who has written twenty books of the same ilk before. It’s so impressive. All of this to say, I was very excited when I saw she had written a historical novel about the Oregon Trail. There aren’t too many books out there (at least that I’ve found) that tackle this period of time, so I was excited to see what Harmon had to bring, knowing full well that she was more than up to the task of delivery something great once again!

Like others who came before them, Naomi and her family brave the dangers of the long trip out West on the promise of a new life to be found by the end. For Naomi, a young widow, this opportunity to begin again is precious to her. But like all travelers of the trail, Naomi and her family need the benefits offered by a knowledgeable guide. For this, they turn to John Lowry, a half Native American man whose familiarity with the territory is sure to help their journey run smoothly. Along the way, Naomi and John feel themselves drawn closer and closer together. But disaster and tragedy strike, and, now separated, John and Naomi must fight to return to each other.

So, beyond being excellent, I think I can also say that Harmon always writes books that will pull at the heartstrings in some way or another. As much as I’ve loved all of her books, this one included, I haven’t managed to get through any of them without tearing up. And this one had big time tears! Not to say that this is a bad thing. Indeed, it speaks to the power of Harmon’s writing that you will quickly find yourself so immersed in this world and story that the sheer power of will found in our main characters is enough to pull at your heart. Not to mention the very real dangers and tragedies they each must face in the course of this story.

Harmon doesn’t shy away from portraying the harsh realities of this time and place (she also has an excellent author’s note at the end about her own family’s history and her approach to researching and writing this story.) For his part, John clearly doesn’t fit into either of his parents’ worlds. Not that of his Native American mother with whom he only lived the first few years of his life. Nor the white settlers who continually side eye him even though he has lived and worked alongside them his entire adult life. There was no neat solution or simplistic “good” or “bad” guys. Instead, Harmon took a nuanced look at the life and experience of an individual in this role. For her part, Naomi’s life is not straightforward either. She’s a young woman (though widowhood does offer a certain sort of freedom) in a time period where she has very little agency over her life and choices. Instead, she must work within the strict options given to her, often having to make heartbreaking decisions just to survive.

The romance itself was lovely. It was a slow-burn romance, and we had plenty of time to get to know both John and Naomi individually. And then they are separated, and we have to get to know them once again when they must rise to the challenges set before them. When they come together again, it’s bittersweet and lovely. Like I said, there’s a lot of tragedy in this book, but the for its part, the romance itself is completely satisfying.

This is definitely a challenging read, so readers picking it up should be prepared to read some darker themes, both of violence against women as well as death. But all of the tragedy is balanced with beauty and a clear-eyed look at life during this time period. Fans of historical fiction, specifically the time of the Oregon Trail, should definitely check this one out!

Rating 8: Beauty and heartbreak are equally balanced in this lovely work of historical fiction.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Where the Lost Wander” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Historical Fiction 2020 and Amazing Books that are Barely Known.

Kate’s Review: “Hide”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Hide” by Kiersten White

Publishing Info: Del Rey Books, May 2022

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

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

Book Description: The challenge: spend a week hiding in an abandoned amusement park and don’t get caught.

The prize: enough money to change everything.

Even though everyone is desperate to win–to seize their dream futures or escape their haunting pasts–Mack feels sure that she can beat her competitors. All she has to do is hide, and she’s an expert at that.

It’s the reason she’s alive, and her family isn’t.

But as the people around her begin disappearing one by one, Mack realizes this competition is more sinister than even she imagined, and that together might be the only way to survive. Fourteen competitors. Seven days. Everywhere to hide, but nowhere to run.

Come out, come out, wherever you are.

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

I’ve mentioned it before, but it’s always kinda fun when Serena and I have an author that we both really enjoy. Partially because it’s interesting to see how we interact with an author’s work as two people with different literary focuses, but also because it usually means an author is good at genre jumping. And while Kiersten White has been more in Serena’s genres of fantasy and historical fiction, she has dabbled in horror now and again. And for her debut adult novel “Hide”, she returns to horror, enticing fans of the genre with an abandoned theme park, adults hoping to play hide and seek for a cash prize, and sinister ulterior motives from the people who are running the contest. I mean come on. I live for all of this, and I really like White as an author. So you know I was really excited to jump into the thick of it.

White already had me with the premise of a high stakes hide and seek game where money is the prize but undisclosed dangers threaten the players. Given that stories like “Hunger Games” and “Squid Game” have appealed to me for a very long time, it was a no brainer that this theme would work for me in this novel. Especially since I enjoy White’s writing and deconstructions of other tropes she’s taken on. And I’m not going to spoil to much here in terms of big details, but the way that White handles this story, with nods to Greek mythology as well as very real issues regarding the idle rich vs an ever more strained lower class, is a well balanced take on all the things she seeks to take on. I really liked the slow build up, as each day passes we see various players start to drop out of the game, with insights into the moments leading up to their ‘loss’ that start innocuous but then turn more and more sinister as the story goes on. I was in the dark for a lot of the plot, until I started to realize just what the broader picture was, influence wise, and once I did I became all the more invested in seeing how it all played out. And the way that she weaves this in with the social aspects of wealthy elites taking advantage of lower income groups for their own gains makes it all the more interesting. Sometimes the dialog of said wealthy elites was a LITTLE on the nose (which was a bit surprising as this is marketed as an adult novel; I tend to expect more of that in YA, but hey, this is White’s first foray into adult audiences and perhaps some old habits die hard), but it was few and far between and never took me too far out of the story.

I also mostly enjoyed the characters of this book. We mostly focus on Mack, who survived a massacre on her family when her father went full family annihilator, but wasn’t able to find her to kill her as well. Mack felt pretty realistic in her personality and her closed-offness, and I enjoyed how we slowly unpacked her trauma as well as how she perceives her role in some of the outcomes. I was a bit skeptical about how White was seemingly giving bits of perspective to EVERY contestant, as boy, that’s fourteen people in only a certain number of pages. But I thought that, for the most part, she gave at least a little bit of a glimpse into all of their psyches, and let us see why they would agree to this strange contest through their motivations and bits and pieces of their backstories. Some felt more contrived than others, but in general the most important players (be it cast wise or game wise) were given a lot to work with. I especially liked Ava, a disabled veteran with whom Mack becomes quite attached to, in spite of her fears of getting attached. Ava has a lot of great lines and some great characterization, and I was very invested in hers and Mack’s relationship as well as their wellbeing.

This foray into the adult reading demographic was pretty successful, which doesn’t surprise me. Honestly, given that White’s YA books have massive crossover appeal to adult audiences, I wouldn’t be shocked if the same can be said for “Hide” appealing to teens. Regardless, I thought it was fun, and it just emphasizes how much I really like White as a dark fantasy and horror author. I hope we get more of that from her in the near future!

Rating 8: A creative and suspenseful story with nods to Greek mythology and social maladies, “Hide” is a fun new horror novel from Kiersten White and a nice crossover to adult horror!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Hide” is included on the Goodreads list “2022 Horror Novels Written by Women and Non-Binary Femmes”.

Serena’s Review: “Phoenix Unbound”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Phoenix Unbound” by Grace Draven

Publishing Info: Ace Books, September 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

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

Book Description: Every year, each village is required to send a young woman to the Empire’s capital – her fate: to be burned alive for the entertainment of the masses. For the last five years, one small village’s tithe has been the same woman. Gilene’s sacrifice protects all the other young women of her village, and her secret to staying alive lies with the magic only she possesses.

But this year is different.

Azarion, the Empire’s most famous gladiator, has somehow seen through her illusion, and is set on blackmailing Gilene into using her abilities to help him escape his life of slavery. And unknown to Gilene, he also wants to reclaim the birthright of his clan.

To protect her family and village, she will risk everything to return to the Empire and burn once more.

Review: For the most part, I’ve really loved Grace Draven’s books. Nothing has quite lived up to “Radiance,” but it’s definitely a win when I’ve read a good number of books from one author and never actively disliked any of them. This trilogy (comprised of three stand-alone books set in the same world with overlapping characters) is due to be finished up this coming November, so I thought it was a great time to dive in and set myself up to review that last book when it comes out (if all goes well with the first two books, of course!) And I’ll say, if the second one is like the first, I’m definitely already excited for November to come!

It is the Empire’s cruel tradition: each year, every village must sacrifice one of its women to travel to the capitol and be sacrificed on the pyre for the entertainment of the masses. But one village has been able to escape that fate, for they have a fire witch, a woman blessed with fire abilities and able to survive this doom. Only to have to relive the horror each and every year. But this time, when Gilene travels to the city to meet her fate, she is unmasked by the famous gladiator, Azarion, and he has a deal for her: together, they will escape this awful place and he will reclaim his birthright. But Gilene knows that whatever this man promises, she must return to her village before another girl is sent to her death.

Honestly, I didn’t really look at the book description too much for this one before I went in. Part of that is due to my general comfort level with the author: Draven regularly writes romantic fantasy that is approachable and entertaining. The other part was…I don’t know, laziness? Either way, it made the reading experience interesting. For one thing, I’ll say this book was darker than I had expected. Yes, said skipped book description mentions the fact that women are regularly burned alive in some sadistic festival every year. But it fails to mention that the same women are offered to the gladiators the night before for their entertainment. Thus, our heroine’s yearly horrendous experience includes not only walking to her “death” with other women who she knows won’t survive the experience like she will, but she must also allow herself to be assaulted every year. And her magical abilities do nothing to lessen this part of her ordeal. So yes, that’s a dark thought. Even more so since Gilene is not the first fire witch of her village, and she doesn’t expect to be the last.

Her entire journey, even once she has escaped with Azarion, is about her single-minded focus on returning to her village to spare another innocent woman this fate. And knowing that another girl will be born who will have to be trained to take up this horrific mantle after Gilene becomes too old to accomplish it. Her courage in the face of this reality is incredible, but we also see her grapple with the anger that would come in belonging to a village that so fully takes advantage of her abilities. It’s a tough balance, because Gilene acknowledges the lack of real choice before her people, but also simmers with rage that her existence is so reduced to this object of torment to spare others who spend the rest of the year uncomfortably looking away from her with shame. It’s a very interesting exploration of humanity under the pressure of terrible choices.

I also really liked the romance at the heart of this story. It’s a true slow-burn, enemies-to-lovers story. While Gilene and Azarion aren’t necessarily true enemies in the basic sense of the world, they do have opposing goals and spend much of the first half of the book at odds with one another. Their growth to understand and care for each other feels natural and a product of the journey they take together. Each has been brutalized by the cruel Empress and her regime, but that alone isn’t enough to form a lasting relationship. Indeed, in some ways, each is less trusting than they would be due to the nature of their experiences. The growth and slow-gained love for one another is beautiful and heart-warming.

The story also doesn’t take the easy way out in its solutions for the problems thrown at our main characters. The world they live in is brutal, and the power structures they are up against are strong and persistent. I really liked the bittersweet nature of the final fourth of the book. There were no easy solutions presented, and each character remained true to themselves and their goals, neither sacrificing their core essence just because of their romance. But it also ended in a very satisfying way. I can also see easily who the next character will be in the second book, and am very excited to read her story! Fans of Grace Draven or romantic fantasy should definitely check this one out!

Rating 8: A bit darker than I expected, but with two strong main characters and a swoon-worthy romance, this one is definitely a win!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Phoenix Unbound” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Slow Burn Romances that are not YA or Erotica and Fantasy Romance

Kate’s Review: “Parachute”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Parachute” by Holly Rae Garcia

Publishing Info: Easton Falls Publishing, May 2022

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

Where You Can Get This Book: Amazon

Book Description: Angela Rodriguez and her friends aren’t sure what they want out of life now that they’ve graduated high school, but they think there is plenty of time to figure it all out. When a trip to an abandoned elementary school leads to a break-in, they discover an old gym parachute.

Raising the fabric above their heads, the group expects it to balloon out around them like it did when they were younger. But instead, the parachute reveals alternate universes and terrifying worlds.

There’s only one ruleDON’T LET GO.

Review: Thank you to Holly Rae Garcia for sending me an eARC of this novella!

Grade school gym class was never a favorite of mine. This is probably not so shocking, given that I was fairly unathletic and very much an outcast, so there would be MANY reasons to pick me last for the various exercises and games that we would be playing. But there was always one gym class theme that I was super excited for, and that was when we’d walk into the gym and there would be the huge parachute all spread out. That usually meant we were just going to be dicking around as opposed to having to be skilled at sports. So when Holly Rae Garcia sent me the summary of her new novella “Parachute”, I immediately was interested (and definitely let her know that I LOVED the parachute in gym class, which I imagine she has probably heard a lot as of late). A horror novella that makes a gym class parachute into a tool of horror is so out of the box and interesting that I just couldn’t pass it up!

“Parachute” is a novella that takes place during the course of one evening where a group of friends, soon leaving high school behind and feeling a bit lost because of it, decide to break into the old elementary school, and find a gym class parachute. Nostalgia is a huge theme in this story, as not only does it take place during the 1990s (and has many quirks and moments that harken back to my youth), it is about young adults who are nostalgic for a dynamic they are leaving behind. As someone who can’t get enough of nostalgia, especially during trying times, I loved all the 90s references and tidbits. Now I more came of age around the Y2K part of the late 90s, so some of this was a little out of my personal experience wheelhouse, but Garcia made it feel realistic with a little bit of camp value for good measure. I felt like she nailed the time and place, and I thought that I got a good sense of the characters, their group dynamic, and their bravado that also hides insecurity. Of course this group would leap at the chance to play with a relic of their childhoods! Even if that relic is in actuality a portal to other places, dimensions, and supernatural dangers!

But what really sells this tale is how imaginative it is, with alternate dimensions, cosmic and inter-dimensional horrors, chaos, and no true answers to be found. Why can this parachute do this? Where are the places that these teens are being taken to? How many people have fallen victim to this? None of it really matters and I hope you don’t want concrete solutions. And that worked for me, because it adds to the chaotic breakdown of this friend group as one by one they are either lost in time and space, or become victims of the creatures they stumble upon. It really makes the reader have to feel the confusion and terror at the breakneck pace that our characters are feeling, and it amps the anxiety levels up in a way that felt super effective to me. And having the catalyst be an honest to goodness gym class parachute? That’s bananas! We run a gamut from generally unsettling moments of the uncanny to straight up gorefests, Garcia utilizes a lot of horror types and they all work pretty well. It was fun seeing what new weird scary thing Angela et al were going to find with each ripple of the parachute!

“Parachute” is a quick and tension filled horror novella that works outside of conventions in wholly unique ways. It both utilizes and weaponizes nostalgia, and it’s weird and funky. Definitely a fun read.

Rating 8: A quick, scary, and super imaginative read, “Parachute” jumps through time, space, and dimensions, and will make you rethink elementary school gym class activities.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Parachute” isn’t on any Goodreads lists as of yet, but I think it would fit in on “Best Reality Warping Fiction”.

Blog Tour, Review, and Giveaway: “Hidden Pictures”


This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  
Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Hidden Pictures” by Jason Rekulak

Publishing Info: Flatiron Books, May 2022

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

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

Book Description: From Jason Rekulak, Edgar-nominated author of The Impossible Fortress, comes a wildly inventive spin on the classic horror story in Hidden Pictures, a creepy and warm-hearted mystery about a woman working as a nanny for a young boy with strange and disturbing secrets.

Fresh out of rehab, Mallory Quinn takes a job in the affluent suburb of Spring Brook, New Jersey as a babysitter for Ted and Caroline Maxwell. She is to look after their five-year-old son, Teddy.

Mallory immediately loves this new job. She lives in the Maxwell’s pool house, goes out for nightly runs, and has the stability she craves. And she sincerely bonds with Teddy, a sweet, shy boy who is never without his sketchbook and pencil. His drawings are the usual fare: trees, rabbits, balloons. But one day, he draws something different: a man in a forest, dragging a woman’s lifeless body.

As the days pass, Teddy’s artwork becomes more and more sinister, and his stick figures steadily evolve into more detailed, complex, and lifelike sketches well beyond the ability of any five-year-old. Mallory begins to suspect these are glimpses of an unsolved murder from long ago, perhaps relayed by a supernatural force lingering in the forest behind the Maxwell’s house. With help from a handsome landscaper and an eccentric neighbor, Mallory sets out to decipher the images and save Teddy—while coming to terms with a tragedy in her own past—before it’s too late.

Review: Thank you so much to Maris Tasaka of Macmillan for sending me an ARC of this book and for including our blog on the Blog Tour of this book!

I’m the person on here who reads and reviews the graphic novels for the blog, so books with visual components are pretty common in terms of me coming across them. But I always like seeing novels that use the occasional visual component to add to the story. I think of books like “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”, or the more recent (and recently reviewed on here) “Secret Identity”, which use photos or illustrations in regards to what a character may be seeing in the story. Which is why when Flatiron Press reached out to me asking if I’d be interested in participating in a Blog Tour of “Hidden Pictures” by Jason Rekulak I jumped at the chance. I already love a ghost story. But I’m even more interested by a ghost story that has creepy drawings that tie into the ghost story!

In terms of plot, “Hidden Pictures” is straight forward and moves at a fast clip. It’s a relatively long book (almost four hundred pages) but I was basically able to devour it in two evening’s time because it is such a quick read. It’s told through Mallory’s eyes, a new babysitter to a precocious little boy named Teddy who is newly clean off hard drugs and desperate for a second chance. Teddy’s parents have very high standards for his care, and while they are seemingly supportive Mallory feels a little judged by them due to her past and their very elite lifestyle. So when Teddy starts drawing strange pictures and talking about his imaginary friend Anya, and things start to escalate, Mallory has to worry about keeping Teddy safe from a potential unseen force, and not overstepping boundaries that could destroy the progress of a new life she’s made. I liked how Rekulak sets up many good reasons for Mallory to be feeling pretty alone in this as she worries more and more about Teddy, and I liked how she slowly starts to investigate and uncover clues about who could potentially be haunting her charge. The puzzle pieces aren’t overly complicated and they are familiar themes, but they are well placed and timed out. There were a lot of good twists and turns on the way to the ultimate solution, with a lot of really creepy and sometimes downright frightening moments involving a presence whose intentions are not clear. The pacing works really well and I just couldn’t put it down.

In terms of characters, it’s a little bit of a mixed bag. Mallory is probably the most interesting, which isn’t super surprising as she’s our narrator, but Rekulak brings out her layers and her background in ways that made her easy to like and empathize with. I appreciated that Rekulak took care (as far as I could tell? Tell me if I’m wrong please!) to portray her past addiction and the fallouts of that as she rebuilds in a sympathetic light, avoiding stereotypical pitfalls or trying to make a potential relapse a side plot. Her backstory is also treated with care, and it all made sense in how she makes decisions and the actions she takes as the story goes on. In terms of other characters, they were hit or miss. I liked her friend and love interest Adrian, as it was nice having someone in her corner and I liked their chemistry. Teddy was your typical precocious kid who communicates with ghosts, and his parents Caroline and Ted were a right mix of saccharine supportive and perhaps a little untrustworthy (the way they treated Mallory was another well done unease to the story; supportive but conditionally only is one way I’d describe it). Other supporting characters like Mallory’s sponsor, or the ‘eccentric’ (read belligerent and racist, but not really called out enough about it) neighbor next door didn’t work as well. But hey, the strength was Mallory and that’s what you need in this kind of mystery horror story.

And oh boy, let’s talk about the pictures. I loved that Rekulak decided to use both words and images for this book, as while I appreciate using my imagination to create images when I read, I also REALLY love a visual medium that enhances a reading experience. And the pictures in “Hidden Pictures” are awesome, running a full range of realistically five year old aesthetic, to creepy unsettling, to genuinely beautiful and moving. They really added to my enjoyment of the story overall.

With summer just around the corner, you may be looking for a fast and fun read to take on a trip or just to read while hanging around the house. “Hidden Pictures” would be a great choice for such occasions!

Rating 8: A fast and compelling plot, a creepy ghost story, and some truly unsettling artwork make “Hidden Pictures” a fun horror tale just in time for Summer!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Hidden Pictures” is included on the Goodreads lists “Anticipated 2022 Horror/Thriller Releases”, and “52 Book Club 2022: A Book With Photographs Inside”.

And as mentioned in the title of this post, I am running a giveaway of the ARC of this novel! So if you think this sounds right up your alley, enter a chance to win! The giveaway is open to U.S. Residents only and will end on May 24th.

Enter The Giveaway HERE!

Serena’s Review: “Hall of Smoke”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Hall of Smoke” by H.M. Long

Publishing Info: Titan Books, January 2021

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

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

Book Description: Hessa is an Eangi: a warrior priestess of the Goddess of War, with the power to turn an enemy’s bones to dust with a scream. Banished for disobeying her goddess’s command to murder a traveler, she prays for forgiveness alone on a mountainside.

While she is gone, raiders raze her village and obliterate the Eangi priesthood. Grieving and alone, Hessa – the last Eangi – must find the traveller, atone for her weakness and secure her place with her loved ones in the High Halls. As clans from the north and legionaries from the south tear through her homeland, slaughtering everyone in their path, Hessa strives to win back her goddess’ favour.

Beset by zealot soldiers, deceitful gods, and newly-awakened demons at every turn, Hessa burns her path towards redemption and revenge. But her journey reveals a harrowing truth: the gods are dying and the High Halls of the afterlife are fading. Soon Hessa’s trust in her goddess weakens with every unheeded prayer.

Thrust into a battle between the gods of the Old World and the New, Hessa realizes there is far more on the line than securing a life beyond her own death. Bigger, older powers slumber beneath the surface of her world. And they’re about to wake up.

Review: I heard great things about this book last year when it came out. I diligently researched it on Goodreads and quickly added it to my TBR list. And then….I waited over a year to read it. Sometimes this works out well for me, and this was one of those instances! If you wait long enough, sometimes your local library will acquire the audiobook. And sometimes that audiobook will have an excellent narrator. And sometimes all of the procrastination pays off with having a great book to listen to throughout the week while you clean the house and care for kids!

Hessa’s entire life she has been centered around a task set her by her priestess and her goddess: she must kill a particular man when the signs align. But when that time comes, Hessa is swayed by mercy and stalls her hand. Now banished by her goddess and with her village razed, Hessa struggles to re-organize a world that has gone mad. Gods are fighting and dying. Strange beings are rising and claiming that these gods are not even gods at all. And an entire history and world order that Hessa thought she knew is beginning to crumble before her. What’s more, it seems the role that she and the man she spared will play is much bigger than she could ever have imagined.

There were many things to like about this book. Hessa herself goes on an incredible journey of both understanding herself and understanding her world. She starts off as a priestess who, while currently out of grace, still understands who she is and who she serves: her warrior goddess Eang. Throughout time, the goddess’s priestesses have fought and served her, and in return she has given them her blessing and abilities to quell their enemies with a magical scream. But as the story continues, Hessa begins to question Eang and her entire world order.

Unlike many other fantasy books that include a sprawling pantheon of new gods, this one is unique in the fact that the gods themselves are very much characters in their own right. They walk the land, fight amongst themselves, and interact with their followers. It was such a unique take to have these gods present in this way. Like Hessa, we see Eang and her fellow gods and begin to question the stories they tell about themselves and the roles they play for their followers. Eang, of course, is central, and her coolness and cruelty towards Hessa immediately raises eyebrows. But an entire lived experience and history of one’s own people is not easy to dismiss, so Hessa’s journey towards self-discovery and her decision to take the reigns of her own choices is slowly earned over time.

Beyond the sprawling history of gods (there is Eang and her fellow gods, a set of gods that she and the new gods defeated, another set of gods who may have come before those, and then another god making his own way onto the scene, to the dismay of Eang and her brethren), the world itself is quite large and peopled by a variety of cultures with their won practices and gods. I believe there is a map in the physical book, so this was definitely a struggle with the audiobook. I really enjoyed the narrator, so on that front, it was a complete win. But with such a big world with so many lands and peoples, I had a hard time keeping track of where exactly Hessa was on the map and where she was headed.

The story is also very narrowly focused on Hessa and her own personal experiences. There are a few side characters who play important roles, but no side-kick, no love interest, and no quirky best friends. Her world is burned down on the first page, and the story doesn’t shy away from the very unbalanced individual that is Hessa after this fact. While I always enjoy love interests and friendships, Hessa’s story was also completely satisfying on its own.

Readers who enjoy sprawling epic fantasy where you’re plopped down in a completely new world with very little initial explanation, this is definitely a book for you! It’s a nice balance of focused character work and grand-scale storytelling.

Rating 8: With a world equally peopled by its gods as its human characters, this is epic fantasy at some of its best.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Hall of Smoke” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2021 and Vikings and Viking-inspired Fantasy.

Kate’s Review: “Like a Sister”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Like a Sister” by Kellye Garrett

Publishing Info: Mulholland Books, March 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

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

Book Description: A twisty, voice-driven thriller for fans of Megan Miranda and Jessica Knoll, in which no one bats an eye when a Black reality TV star is found dead in the Bronx—except her estranged half-sister, whose refusal to believe the official story leads her on a dangerous search for the truth.

When the body of disgraced reality TV star Desiree Pierce is found on a playground in the Bronx the morning after her 25th birthday party, the police and the media are quick to declare her death an overdose. It’s a tragedy, certainly, but not a crime. But Desiree’s half-sister Lena Scott knows that can’t be the case. A graduate student at Columbia, Lena has spent the past decade forging her own path far from the spotlight, but some facts about Desiree just couldn’t have changed since their childhood. And Desiree would never travel above 125th Street. So why is no one listening to her?

Despite the bitter truth that the two haven’t spoken in two years, torn apart by Desiree’s partying and by their father, Mel, a wealthy and influential hip-hop mogul, Lena becomes determined to find justice for her sister, even if it means untangling her family’s darkest secrets—or ending up dead herself.

Review: Sometimes a good book can be a balm during very trying times. That has become abundantly clear during these past two years, though sometimes a fresh hell will be a good reminder of that, since this pandemic hell can sometimes fade into the background because it’s been with us for awhile (ugh, how depressing). My personal fresh hell was one of my cats having a sudden health spiral, and at nearly 18 years of age (14 of which were with me and my husband) we had to put her down. As her health deteriorated over the course of a few days, when I wasn’t tending to her and wrangling my toddler, on my down time I needed an escape. Enter “Like a Sister” by Kellye Garrett, a thriller mystery I got from Book of the Month that had been on my radar for a bit. It kept me well distracted and entertained when I really, really needed to decompress.

Garrett has a great set up for her mystery. Lena Scott finds out that her reality show star half sister Desiree has been found dead, in the Bronx, in lingerie, with signs of a drug overdoes. Though Lena has been estranged from her, she is struck with grief, and also refuses to believe that Desiree OD’d. So she starts to investigate what could have actually happened to her. That is a hook in and of itself, and we follow Lena as she has to unpack and untangle the complicated life her sister had built in the past few years. Garrett does a really good job of creating a hook, but also carefully exploring all of the suspects that Lena comes upon, as well as many of the things that Desiree had been up to that give various suspects very clear motives of why they would want her dead. I really enjoyed the twists and turns, and while I called a few of them here and there, a lot of the time I was surprised or tricked. We also get the story told through Lena’s voice, as well as through descriptions of various social media posts that Desiree has made that give hints as to what is going on, and I like how both could be insightful as well as deceptive. Lena as a main character is enjoyable to follow, and while sometimes her voice was repetitive I thought that she had a very clear perspective (I really liked how Garrett used this to talk about a lot of pressures as racism she faces as a Black woman; from having to don a ‘Strong Black Woman’ demeanor at all times to preconceptions about who she is as a person due to her race and her family, these moments flow very well and feel very realistic.

But I also really loved the complexities between all of the characters in Lena’s family circle, not just that between her and Desiree, and how her deliberate distancing from much of her family has worked both as armor and also as grief. Lena is determined to find out what happened to Desiree, unwilling to believe the narrative that seems logical, but is also bogged down in societal ideas about race and wealth. But Lena also admittedly didn’t really KNOW Desiree anymore in the months leading up to her death, as their estrangement was bitter, and perhaps this guilt is what is driving Lena’s determination. The other relationship that is fraught (and had more interaction in the moment) is the one between Lena and her father Mel, the record mogul, who left Lena’s mother for Desiree’s mother, and seemingly left Lena in the dust. Lena resents Mel and tries to keep her distance, but resents him for respecting that distance, and the unsaid resentment about his public relationship with Desiree weaves in and out of Lena’s investigation. Mel is one of the more mysterious characters, who sounds a lot like Suge Knight, but who has many depths that Lena can’t, or won’t, acknowledge. These circumstances of the estranged father and daughters means we have more mysteries to unravel for Lena, and a lot of emotional baggage to go with the murder mystery. Which Garrett depicts very well.

I really enjoyed “Like a Sister”. It’s very entertaining and will hold your attention, and if you’re looking for a thriller with some well done family strife, this is a good pick. It certainly helped me get through a very difficult week due to how darn enticing it is.

Rating 8: A gripping mystery that has complicated family relationships at the center, “Like a Sister” is a compelling thriller.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Like a Sister” is included on the Goodreads lists “Can’t Wait Crime, Mystery, & Thrillers 2022”, and “Thrillers by ITW Authors”.

Monthly Marillier: “The Well of Shades”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

“Monthly Marillier” is a review series that is, essentially, an excuse for me to go back and re-read one of my favorite author’s back catalog. Ever since I first discovered her work over fifteen years ago, Juliet Marillier has been one of my favorite authors. Her stories are the perfect mixture of so many things I love: strong heroines, beautiful romances, fairytale-like magic, and whimsical writing. Even better, Marillier is a prolific author and has regularly put out new books almost once a year since I began following her. I own almost all of them, and most of those I’ve read several times. Tor began re-releasing her original Sevenwaters trilogy, so that’s all the excuse I needed to begin a new series in which I indulge myself in a massive re-read of her books. I’ll be posting a new entry in this series on the first Friday of every month.

Book: “The Well of Shades” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Tor, May 2007

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

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

Book Description: Juliet Marillier continues the epic fantasy begun with” The Dark Mirror, ” which” Interzone” called: “A fascinating evocation of life in Pictish England and an emotional roller coaster of a story.” King Bridei is a man with a mission. His wish to unite his kingdom seems almost within his grasp but there are forces working to undo his dream. He sends Faolan, his most trusted advisor (who is also a master assassin and spymaster) out into the world to ferret out the truth of who is friend and who is foe. Along the way Faolan will uncover many truths. Some may hold the key to Bridei’s future. But more important, they may unlock the secrets that Faolan has held deep within his soul for decades. And offer him the chance of redemption.

Previously Reviewed: “The Dark Mirror” and “Blade of Fortriu”

Review: While there are some books by Juliet Marillier that I feel confident I could review perfectly without even reading them again (due to the millions of re-reads I’ve done over the years), there are others where I have practically no memories. The Bridei trilogy is probably my least-read series of all of her books, and thus I have the fewest memories of these books individually. I had a few vague ideas about the first one, a fairly good memory of the second one (the only one I’ve re-read of the bunch), and now absolutely zero memory of this third book. I mean, I guess I remember there being a mom and her kid involved, but you can also see that from the cover, so that’s really no props to my memory. So it was fun getting to almost read this book again for the first time.

After his recent adventures (and disappointments), Faolan is sent on yet another task by his king, Bridei, in his continuing mission to bring together his country. With dark secrets that have plagued him, Faolan has made a life for himself focusing solely on these missions. But this time, the mission brings him up against that which he has sought to run from for years. Along the way, he meets a young mother with secrets of their own. Together, can they find a way to heal their pasts?

While I didn’t particularly care for Faolan in the first half of the previous book, by the end, he and the situation he find himself in is quite sympathetic. That being the case, it’s no surprise that Marillier chose him as a focal point for this last book in the trilogy. She does love her broken heroes, doesn’t she? She’s also excellent at writing this type of character, so it naturally follows that Faolan continues his trajectory as an increasingly compelling character in this story. His arch of personal reconciliation and redemption is both compelling and emotional. There were a few twists and turns in his story that I remember being fairly surprising, and, in the end, I really liked what the author did with this character.

Ellie and her daughter, Saraid, were also excellent characters. I’m always a bit of a hard sell on child characters. And while Saraid did have her moments of “preciousness” that I struggled with, overall, I did like her quite a lot. Ellie’s story is also dark, and her journey to trusting both herself and, in particular, Faolan, is slow but emotionally fulfilling. Their romance is definitely of the “slow burn” variety, which is just what I like.

The story also switches between Faolan’s journey and Bridei’s court. There’s a lot of work to be done in this book to wrap up all the various plot lines, and Bridei’s ongoing political conflicts do make up a good amount of the story. There were also a lot of twists and turns here that were fun to see, serving as good payoffs for groundwork that was laid down earlier in the book. It’s also always nice to revisit our favorite characters from the first two books.

Due to the nature of this story, with its flip-flopping between two narratives, I did struggle a bit more to fully connect to either story line. I never really felt myself being fully drawn into the book. But I still enjoyed it! It just wasn’t as immersive as some of Marillier’s best books are. Fans of the trilogy should definitely complete the series and should enjoy this final entry!

Rating 8: A satisfying conclusion to this trilogy that focuses on two broken characters learning to find a safe haven with each other.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Well of Shades” is on these Goodreads lists: Books With Heroes/Heroines Who Are Assassins and Character Driven Fantasy Books.

Kate’s Review: “Trailed”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Trailed: One Woman’s Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders” by Kathryn Miles

Publishing Info: Algonquin Books, May 2022

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

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

Book Description: A riveting deep dive into the unsolved murder of two free-spirited young women in the wilderness, a journalist’s obsession, and a new theory of who might have done it.

In May 1996, Julie Williams and Lollie Winans were brutally murdered while backpacking in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, adjacent to the world-famous Appalachian Trail. The young women were skilled backcountry leaders who had met—and fallen in love—the previous summer while working at a world-renowned outdoor program for women. But despite an extensive joint investigation by the FBI, the Virginia police, and National Park Service experts, the case remained unsolved for years. In early 2002, and in response to mounting political pressure, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that he would be seeking the death penalty for Darrell David Rice—already in prison for assaulting another woman—in the first capital case tried under new, post-9/11 federal hate crime legislation. But two years later, the Department of Justice quietly suspended its case against Rice, and the investigation has since grown cold. Did prosecutors have the right person?

Journalist Kathryn Miles was a professor at Lollie Winans’s wilderness college in Maine when the 2002 indictment was announced. On the 20th anniversary of the murder, she began looking into the lives of these adventurous women—whose loss continued to haunt all who had encountered them—along with the murder investigation and subsequent case against Rice. As she dives deeper into the case, winning the trust of the victims’ loved ones as well as investigators and gaining access to key documents, Miles becomes increasingly obsessed with the loss of the generous and free-spirited Lollie and Julie, who were just on the brink of adulthood, and at the same time, she discovers evidence of cover-ups, incompetence, and crime-scene sloppiness that seemed part of a larger problem in America’s pursuit of justice in national parks. She also becomes convinced of Rice’s innocence, and zeroes in on a different likely suspect.

Trailed: One Woman’s Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders is a riveting, eye-opening, and heartbreaking work, offering a braided narrative about two remarkable women who were murdered doing what they most loved, the forensics of this cold case, and the surprising pervasiveness and long shadows cast by violence against women in the backcountry.

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

As I’ve mentioned before, I really love visiting National Parks, even if I do so in a way that doesn’t involve camping or roughing it much beyond a hike or two. I’m just not a camper. While I hope to visit a lot of National Parks throughout my life, I am also always compelled by the darker things that have happened there. I actually hadn’t heard of the Shenandoah Murders of Lollie Winans and Julie Williams, two women who were murdered in Shenandoah National Park in 1996 and whose murders are still unsolved today, in spite of some movement in 2002 when John Ashcroft announced that a man named Darrell Rice was being charged with their murders under new hate crime legislation… which quietly fizzled out. So when I saw “Trailed: One Woman’s Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders” by Kathryn Miles, I was very interested. National Parks and true crime, two things I really find fascinating. But “Trailed” is more than a typical true crime book, as it not only presents a true crime story, it also looks into very bleak issues when it comes to this unsolved case.

Miles does a really good job of laying out all of the things in this case that made it go cold and stay cold, and how it ranges from a killer in a remote place to prejudice to just a good old fashioned inept group of investigators from the jump. I’ve read a bit about violence, murder, and death in National Parks and on public lands before, and how bureaucracy, lack of funding, and red tape can really slow down investigations when time is of the essence. There is definitely a bit of that here, though there is also rangers at Shenandoah who didn’t want to admit that a violent crime could have happened and dragged their feet. Or the investigators who decided that since these women were lesbians it was obviously a violent dispute between the two of them gone awry. There is also the fact that once investigators zoned in on Darrell Rice, who was charged with the crime but never went to trial, they weren’t interested in looking into anyone else. Even as Miles tries to get information regarding DNA (as Rice’s DNA did not match that found at the scene), or whereabouts of another very probable potential killer, she is met with pushback and hostility from the government and people she had been working with prior. And let me tell you, Miles makes a VERY good case as to why Rice probably didn’t do this, and how a serial killer named Richard Evonitz very well could have (who was murdering women and girls in the area around the same time Lollie and Julie were murdered). I was seething by the end, as Miles is going to great lengths to try and get answers, but is being stopped at every turn.

But Miles also takes care to give a lot of time and space to give the victims, Lollie and Julie, a voice and to let us get to know them as people. One of the very fair critiques of true crime as a genre is that it objectifies the victims of violent crimes by centering the killers instead of those that were killed. In “Trailed” that is already inherently less of an issue because of the fact the crime is unsolved, but in many ways that’s even more horrific because two women’s lives were cut short in a horrendously violent fashion and no one knows who did it. At least not officially. I liked that Miles gave us a lot of information on both Lollie and Julie, as well as their families and friends, and what kind of holes their deaths left in many peoples lives. It felt to me like Miles was very respectful of them as people and was very careful in how she told and framed their stories, and it makes things all the more maddening that these women were so failed in this investigation almost from the start and then repeatedly, even up through the past couple of years as Miles has tried to find something, ANYTHING, that may give them families some answers. And unfortunately, as we’ve seen before in other cases where law enforcement and the justice system would rather double down on a theory that doesn’t hold weight rather than find actual justice, I just don’t see that happening.

“Trailed” is a well researched and compelling true crime story about a justice system failure and the dark realities of violence against women in wilderness and rural settings. Maybe someday Lollie and Julie’s families will get the answers they seek. I sure hope so.

Rating 8: Thorough, heartbreaking, and at times maddening, “Trailed” is a look at justice long overdue and the failures of a system that is supposed to seek justice, but gets caught up in ineptitude, politics, and refusal to admit mistakes.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Trailed: One Woman’s Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders” isn’t on many lists as of yet, but it would fit in on “National Park Non-Fiction Books”.

Serena’s Review: “Echo North”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Echo North” by Joanna Ruth Meyer

Publishing Info: Page Street Publishing Co., January 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

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

Book Description: Echo Alkaev’s safe and carefully structured world falls apart when her father leaves for the city and mysteriously disappears. Believing he is lost forever, Echo is shocked to find him half-frozen in the winter forest six months later, guarded by a strange talking wolf—the same creature who attacked her as a child. The wolf presents Echo with an ultimatum: If she lives with him for one year, he will ensure her father makes it home safely. But there is more to the wolf than Echo realizes.

In his enchanted house beneath a mountain, each room must be sewn together to keep the home from unraveling, and something new and dark and strange lies behind every door. When centuries-old secrets unfold, Echo discovers a magical library full of books-turned-mirrors, and a young man named Hal who is trapped inside of them. As the year ticks by, the rooms begin to disappear, and Echo must solve the mystery of the wolf’s enchantment before her time is up, otherwise Echo, the wolf, and Hal will be lost forever.

Review: I’ve always loved the fairytale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” but for some reason, it’s one of those stories that has proven difficult to adapt and reimagine. I’ve read quite a few re-tellings over the years but have never found one that really clicked for me. But hope springs eternal, so I’ve had my eyes on this one for a bit. When I saw that there was a companion book coming out in May, I knew now was the time so that I’d have a chance to read that one, too, if I ended up liking it. Well, I have my ARC in hand for book two, so there’s your spoiler for what I thought of this book ultimately!

Echo believes her father is lost forever when he leaves home and doesn’t return for six months. So she is shocked to discover him one day in the woods, near death. More surprising still, he is guarded by a talking wolf who promises to save her father if Echo comes and lives with him for a year. She agrees and so starts a year filled with magical wonders and horrors, all found in a mysterious house within a hill. There, Echo grows closer and closer to the wolf and a mysterious man found in the magical library. But she strains against some of the magical rules of this realm, and when she breaks one near the end of her time, she begins an entirely new adventure.

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve read a decent number of adaptations of this fairytale. One of the particular challenges of this story, I think, is the turn it takes about halfway through the tale. The heroine is instructed to never look at the face of the man who sleeps beside her every night. And then, of course, she does, and this is what sets off the second act of the story where she must travel north to battle the troll queen to save her love. So it’s a bit challenging to write a heroine who is doomed to make what seems like a really silly mistake. Of all the magical challenges that you see heroes/heroines tasked with in fairytales, simply not looking at someone at night is about as easy as it gets. And the reasoning for these heroines making this mistake is often weak and hard to recover from. But that’s one of the best things this book did!

Echo’s story is different than the classic tale in a few ways, and I don’t want to spoil them all here. But I do think the author did a much better job than her contemporaries have for providing Echo with a reason for making this mistake. It’s both understandable and doesn’t harm our perception of her going forward. Instead, it’s easy to understand making the exact same decision she does, given the circumstances of her year in the magical house and her connection with the wolf and mysterious man she meets in the library regularly.

The story also took a very surprising twist in the final third of the book. I don’t want to spoil it, so I can’t say much about it. But it was an aspect of the story that I didn’t see coming at all, and one that also managed to tie up a few loose ends that I had been wondering about previously. There was, however, another revelation that came about in this twist that I thought impacted the romance in a pretty negative way. The book works through Echo’s thoughts and feelings pretty well, but as a reader, I was less forgiving of the fall-out of this twist than she seemed to be. It left a kind of sour note in my mouth, all the more disappointing because it came right at the end as the story seemed to be ready to end on a super high note.

Overall, despite this last second reveal that I disliked, the book was an excellent retelling of this fairytale. Definitely the best one I’ve read so far (I’ll just scrub my mind of that last little bit). That being the case, I’m very excited to read the second book! We briefly meet the protagonist of that story here, and her situation seems just as compelling. Fans of fairytale retellings should definitely check this one out!

Rating 8: Despite a misstep at the end (a very subjective one, at that), the best “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” story I’ve read so far!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Echo North” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Polar Fantasy and East of the Sun and West of the Moon.

%d bloggers like this: