Serena’s Review: “Serpent & Dove”

40024139Book: “Serpent & Dove” by Shelby Mahurin

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, September 2019

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

Book Description: Two years ago, Louise le Blanc fled her coven and took shelter in the city of Cesarine, forsaking all magic and living off whatever she could steal. There, witches like Lou are hunted. They are feared. And they are burned.

Sworn to the Church as a Chasseur, Reid Diggory has lived his life by one principle: thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. His path was never meant to cross with Lou’s, but a wicked stunt forces them into an impossible union—holy matrimony.

The war between witches and Church is an ancient one, and Lou’s most dangerous enemies bring a fate worse than fire. Unable to ignore her growing feelings, yet powerless to change what she is, a choice must be made.

And love makes fools of us all.

Review: Have to get all of these books that were so popular last fall in before their sequels drop this summer/fall! But one more down! I didn’t know much about this book when I placed my audiobook request other than the fact that a few of my YA librarian friends had said it was super popular last fall when it came out. So like a good little YA fan, I placed my request without much more thought. So I really had no idea what to expect when I actually got the book, so the whole thing was an interesting surprise (I never even looked at the book description until after the fact). While it didn’t blow me away, I can see why it was so popular and I’m definitely interested to see what the sequel has to offer this September!

Living undercover as a witch in hiding means Lou’s life is one of constantly looking over her shoulder and being suspicious of everyone. In a world where all women are under constant scrutiny, under threat of death by fire for being a witch, Lou must be particularly careful. But in a comedy or tragedy of errors and crossed paths, Lou suddenly finds herself in the viper’s nest itself: making her home among her enemies and married to a Chasseur, a witch hunter. Now both she, and Reid who was raised to strictly believe the evil at the heart of all of witches, must confront what they really know about the opposite side. And as their feelings for each other grow, will these differences prove detrimental?

You don’t really see too many “forced marriage” plots outside of fanfiction and romance novels, so it was definitely interesting seeing this book’s attempt to use this trope in a more mainstream YA fantasy novel. And overall, I think it was very successful. The set-up for their marriage was believable, and because the book is told through alternating perspectives, readers are able to watch the slow change and progression of feelings on both sides. Of course, it’s still all told over one book’s length, and not an uncommonly long one at that, so I do feel that the romance itself came on a bit quickly. But I also felt like the author did just enough to lay the groundwork for these changes and given her characters the room and opportunity to believably begin changing their minds about one another.

As with all stories that feature multiple POVs, I had a preference for one over the other. But in this case it wasn’t because I felt that one was more strongly written than the other; both perspectives felt grounded and believable. But Reid was definitely a bit harder to empathize with. Over the course of the book, we begin to see more of what shapes his belief system, but it’s always going to be a hard sell to be in the head of a male character who thinks burning women at the stake is a good idea. He obviously comes around, but there are some definite moments where I just wanted to smack him.

Lou, on the other hand, is your kind of standard YA heroine: strong, feisty, and independent. She didn’t blow me away as anything incredibly original, but her dialogue, both in her POV sections and in Reid’s, was always great and had some really funny bits to it. She disappears a bit towards the end of the book, and this did make that section a bit more challenging to get through. But luckily by that time Reid is coming around again and is able to take over for the most part.

There were quite a few twists and surprises throughout the book. As a reader of a lot of YA fantasy, I was able to see almost all of these coming, but that didn’t make them less enjoyable, really. And, of course, this is the kind of thing that will hit different readers in different ways. Combined with the French-focused world-building and an interesting magic system, I felt like the story itself felt fairly fresh and new.

This is the first book in what I believe is a trilogy, so the end of the book is by no means a proper “ending.” But given the fact that the next book is coming out in September, if you, like me, haven’t gotten around to this one yet, you won’t have a long wait fo

Rating 8: A solid start to a new series that will hopefully grow into something even better.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Serpent & Dove” is on these Goodreads lists: “Characters Hate Each Other Then Fall In Love” and “Epic High Fantasy/Romance/Mythology by 2020.”

Find “Serpent & Dove” at your library using WorldCat!

Bookclub Review: “A Thousand Beginnings and Endings”

35430013._sx318_We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Around the World”, in which we each picked a continent and had to match a book that takes place there and/or is written by an author from that continent or of that continent’s descent.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “A Thousand Beginnings and Endings” by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman (Eds.)

Publishing Info: Greenwillow Books, June 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Continent: Asia

Book Description: Star-crossed lovers, meddling immortals, feigned identities, battles of wits, and dire warnings: these are the stuff of fairy tale, myth, and folklore that have drawn us in for centuries.

Sixteen bestselling and acclaimed authors reimagine the folklore and mythology of East and South Asia in short stories that are by turns enchanting, heartbreaking, romantic, and passionate.

Compiled by We Need Diverse Books’s Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman—who both contributed stories to this edition, as well—the authors included in this exquisite collection are: Renée Ahdieh, Sona Charaipotra, Preeti Chhibber, Roshani Chokshi, Aliette de Bodard, Melissa de la Cruz, Julie Kagawa, Rahul Kanakia, Lori M. Lee, E. C. Myers, Cindy Pon, Aisha Saeed, Shveta Thakrar, and Alyssa Wong.

A mountain loses her heart. Two sisters transform into birds to escape captivity. A young man learns the true meaning of sacrifice. A young woman takes up her mother’s mantle and leads the dead to their final resting place.

From fantasy to science fiction to contemporary, from romance to tales of revenge, these stories will beguile readers from start to finish. For fans of Neil Gaiman’s Unnatural Creatures and Ameriie’s New York Times–bestselling Because You Love to Hate Me.

Kate’s Thoughts

I read the short story collections “A Thousand Beginnings and Endings” back when it first came out in 2018, and for being a short story collection I greatly enjoyed it! I felt like there was a hearty mix of genres and perspectives in its pages, and was more satisfied than not with the tales that were derived from various Asian folklores and mythologies. When our Book Club picked it, I was eager to re-read the stories, but didn’t expect to feel any differently. But what I discovered as I re-read the book was that my own perspectives changed, and my old favorites either had new depth, or completely shifted out in favor of new ones.

The two stories that remained favorites for me were “Olivia’s Table” by Alyssa Wong and “The Land of the Morning Calm” by E.C. Myers. “Olivia’s Table” is about a young woman who has inherited her mother’s job of ‘exorcist’ for a small ghosttown in the Southwest, in which actual ghosts of the area congregate during the Hungry Ghost Festival. Olivia makes them a feast that helps them cross over. “The Land of the Morning Calm” is about a teen whose mother’s ghost is seemingly trapped inside an MMORPG based upon Korean folklore. I mean, of course stories about ghosts are always going to float my boat, so it’s probably no surprise that those were still near and dear. But both of them had some very touching themes about mother/daughter relationships, grief, and moving on which were incredibly touching and emotional. But as mentioned above, this time around I had stories move up in my rankings upon a second read. The best example of this was Julie Kagawa’s “Eyes Like Candlelight”, which takes the Japanese fox spirit mythology and puts it into a short story about love, loss, and vengeance. A fox spirit falls for a man whose village is being taken advantage of by tax collectors, and after tragedy strikes she takes her revenge on those who wronged her and her lover. I don’t even know why this one didn’t catch my eye the first time around, because this time I REALLY liked the tone and storytelling.

And the best thing about all of the stories in this book is that at the end of each of them, there is an author’s note about the original mythology or folktale that gives it context and allows the reader to see how the stories have been adapted for this collection. I love me an authors note with historical factoids, and having that at the end really enhanced the experience for me. As someone who hadn’t been familiar with a lot of the story origins on my first read, I found this to be super helpful. This time around it was nice just having the reminder, as I hadn’t retained all of the information after two years. It’s just a great idea to have this kind of thing in general. On top of context, this is such a varied collection of all different type of genres, I feel like it has something for everyone. There’s mild horror, modern teen hijinks, romance, Sci-Fi, “A Thousand Beginnings and Endings” shows the vast creativity of these authors, and it has encouraged me to read more of a few of their works.

“A Thousand Beginnings and Endings” is engaging and varied, and if you are looking for a short story collection with a vast range of tastes, this is a great choice.

Kate’s Rating 8: A varied and well rounded selection of stories with influences from the Asian Diaspora, “A Thousand Beginnings and Endings” is a well done collection with something for everyone.

Book Club Questions

  1. Did you have a favorite story in this collection, or any that particularly stood out to you? What was it about this story that caught your attention? How about a least favorite?
  2. How familiar were you with the folklore in this book?
  3. What did you think of the interpretations of some of these myths and folktales and how they were re-told within their new stories or genres? Were any of the genre choices surprising to you?
  4. Had to read any of the authors whose works were in this collection? If not, did this collection inspire you to pick up their other works?
  5. Who would you recommend this book to?

Reader’s Advisory

“A Thousand Beginnings and Endings” is included on the Goodreads lists “Modern Mythologies”, and “Alternative Summer Reading List”.

Find “A Thousand Beginnings and Endings” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “The BreadBeat Poets Vol.4: LatiNext” by Felicia Rose Chavez, José Olivarez, and Willie Perdomo (Eds.).

 

Kate’s Review: “The Night Swim”

51169341Book: “The Night Swim” by Megan Goldin

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, August 2020

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

Book Description: After the first season of her true crime podcast became an overnight sensation and set an innocent man free, Rachel Krall is now a household name―and the last hope for thousands of people seeking justice. But she’s used to being recognized for her voice, not her face. Which makes it all the more unsettling when she finds a note on her car windshield, addressed to her, begging for help.

The small town of Neapolis is being torn apart by a devastating rape trial. The town’s golden boy, a swimmer destined for Olympic greatness, has been accused of raping a high school student, the beloved granddaughter of the police chief. Under pressure to make Season Three a success, Rachel throws herself into interviewing and investigating―but the mysterious letters keep showing up in unexpected places. Someone is following her, and she won’t stop until Rachel finds out what happened to her sister twenty-five years ago. Officially, Jenny Stills tragically drowned, but the letters insists she was murdered―and when Rachel starts asking questions, nobody seems to want to answer. The past and present start to collide as Rachel uncovers startling connections between the two cases that will change the course of the trial and the lives of everyone involved.

Electrifying and propulsive, The Night Swim asks: What is the price of a reputation? Can a small town ever right the wrongs of its past? And what really happened to Jenny?

Review: Thanks to St. Martin’s Press for sending me a print ARC of this novel!

We’re seeing more and more podcast themed books, and as of now I, for one, am still very pleased with this theme in thrillers. If an author does it well, it adds a whole other layer to a story that combines my favorite kinds of books with one of my other favorite forms of entertainment. When St. Martin’s Press sent me “The Night Swim” by Megan Goldin I was elated, as this book had already kind of been on my radar because of the podcast theme. When I did jump on into the narrative, it sucked me right in. And it also made me very, very uncomfortable.

“The Night Swim” has two crimes that our protagonist, Rachel, is following. One is for her podcast, ‘Guilty or Not Guilty’, and it follows a high profile rape case in the small town of Neapolis. A popular and charismatic young man with Olympic dreams is accused of raping a sixteen year old girl, and the town (as well as people all over the world) are split on whether or not he’s guilty. While Rachel is in town, she keeps getting mysterious correspondence from Hannah, a woman who wants Rachel to investigate the death of her older sister Jenny, who was found drowned twenty years before, also in Neapolis. We have multiple narrative styles to tie these two seemingly unrelated cases together. We have Hannah’s letters to Rachel, Rachel’s podcast, and a third person narrative following Rachel’s podcast research and eventual investigation into Jenny’s death. It’s a lot, but Goldin makes it work, blending them all together and carefully revealing how some things, like rape culture and small town politics, never really change even as decades pass. This thriller is really part murder mystery, part courtroom drama, and Goldin balances both aspects meticulously. I was held in suspense regarding what the outcome of the rape trial was going to be, but also as to whether or not Rachel was going to find out what really happened to Jenny. The reveals were all well done and some were genuinely surprising, and while I did piece together a few clues probably earlier than I was supposed to, all of the big reveals were still surprising and enjoyable.

But what made this book stand out from other thrillers I’ve read as of late, and what made it a very difficult read at times, was how frank and unflinching Goldin is when it comes to the themes of rape in this book. While I feel that sometimes other thrillers will have rape as a plot point or as a crime in their pages, going into details or seeing the traumatic fallout aren’t as focused on, rather focusing on the investigation to bring the perpetrator to justice. In “The Night Swim”, Goldin opts to show what it is like for a victim to have to relive her attack while on the stand, and in the spotlight of a high profile trial. After reading Chanel Miller’s “Know My Name”, the memoir of the woman raped by Brock Turner (and whose case is clearly inspiration for this storyline), it was especially jarring and upsetting to read these parts as the victim, Kelly, is forced to tell her story in graphic detail in front of a courtroom full of strangers. But while it was hard, I thought that it was important to show that rape isn’t just a plot point, that it has a horrific fallout, and that the fact that victims have to basically be re-traumatized to get justice, justice that isn’t even guaranteed, is abominable. The descriptions of Kelly’s rape (as well as the assault of Jenny) will definitely be hard to read for many people, so content warnings abound in this book. And while we don’t really get to know much about Kelly outside of her victim status, we DO get to know Jenny very well.

It’s a hard one, but I did really like “The Night Swim”. Steel your heart and get ready for righteous indignation to rush through you, but I think that if you are a thriller reader you should probably pick it up.

Rating 8: A compelling mystery is accompanied by an unflinching look at rape culture and trauma. “The Night Swim” is difficult at times but also feels like it takes on difficult themes that other thrillers may gloss over.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Night Swim” is included on the Goodreads lists“Books for Serial Podcast Lovers”, and “Crime, Mystery, and Thrillers 2020”.

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

Kate’s Review: “The Cold Vanish”

48717769Book: “The Cold Vanish: Seeking the Missing in North America’s Wildlands” by Jon Billman

Publishing Info: Grand Central Publishing, July 2020

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

Book Description: For readers of Jon Krakauer and Douglas Preston, the critically acclaimed author and journalist Jon Billman’s fascinating, in-depth look at people who vanish in the wilderness without a trace and those eccentric, determined characters who try to find them.

These are the stories that defy conventional logic. The proverbial vanished without a trace incidences, which happen a lot more (and a lot closer to your backyard) than almost anyone thinks. These are the missing whose situations are the hardest on loved ones left behind. The cases that are an embarrassment for park superintendents, rangers and law enforcement charged with Search & Rescue. The ones that baffle the volunteers who comb the mountains, woods and badlands. The stories that should give you pause every time you venture outdoors.

Through Jacob Gray’s disappearance in Olympic National Park, and his father Randy Gray who left his life to search for him, we will learn about what happens when someone goes missing. Braided around the core will be the stories of the characters who fill the vacuum created by a vanished human being. We’ll meet eccentric bloodhound-handler Duff and R.C., his flagship purebred, who began trailing with the family dog after his brother vanished in the San Gabriel Mountains. And there’s Michael Neiger North America’s foremost backcountry Search & Rescue expert and self-described “bushman” obsessed with missing persons. And top researcher of persons missing on public wildlands Ex-San Jose, California detective David Paulides who is also one of the world’s foremost Bigfoot researchers.

It’s a tricky thing to write about missing persons because the story is the absence of someone. A void. The person at the heart of the story is thinner than a smoke ring, invisible as someone else’s memory. The bones you dig up are most often metaphorical. While much of the book will embrace memory and faulty memory — history — The Cold Vanish is at its core a story of now and tomorrow. Someone will vanish in the wild tomorrow. These are the people who will go looking.

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

I love National Parks. I’m not really an outdoorsy person in the sense that I don’t like camping, but I do love hiking, I do love nature, and I do love epic landscapes. And National Parks give me all of that and more! While it’s hard to pick a favorite, I will say that my most recent National Park trip, Rocky Mountain National Park last summer, was beautiful and breathtaking. But one of the weird/surreal moments during our trip was standing at the top of a trail head and seeing a Missing Person poster for a man who had disappeared in the park earlier in the spring. It was a grim reminder that while the National Parks are treasures and wonderful opportunities for education and exploration, they are not without their dangers. Enter “The Cold Vanish: Seeking the Missing in North America’s Wildlands” by Jon Billman, a book I had been looking forward to ever since I read his Outside Magazine article that inspired it. Missing people in public lands is scary, guys. And Billman does a great job of demonstrating why while personalizing some of the missing, and how in some cases they vanished with nary a trace.

Billman’s main focus is on the disappearance of Jacob Gray, who disappeared after going for a bike ride in Olympic National Park. Jacob had been showing signs of mental illness and depression, but his family members don’t believe that he was suicidal. His bike and stuff was found but he never was. Billman follows the family members, especially father Randy, as they continue the search in the park well beyond the initial date missing. It feels a little voyeuristic, but at the same time I did like that we got to see the fallout for the family members after the searches, or lack thereof (more on that in a moment) stopped and it was left up to family and friends to go on. The search takes Randy and in turn Billman far and away from the park, and they have to parse through conspiracy theories, rumors of serial killers, and even Bigfoot sightings in hopes of finding a lead. It’s emotional and very sad, but also quite compelling to see how these searches can go. There are other stories dropped in as well, such as a woman who went missing while on a run (who may have been killed by her husband… or maybe it was a serial killer who had means and opportunity), another hiker who went missing in Olympic National Park around the same time that Jacob did, and a hiker who disappeared while on a trail in Mesa Verde. It’s strange and distressing, but Billman is sympathetic and respectful in his accounts. On top of that we also get a look into cadaver dogs and how they’re trained, various histories of some of the settings, and some deep dives into Bigfoot theory. So many Bigfoot theories.

For me the most interesting aspect of this book was not so much about the missing person cases themselves (though some are admittedly fascinating as hell), but how the bureaucracy when it comes to doing official searches gets so gunked up when people disappear on public lands like this. Billman talked about this in his article, but it’s no less frustrating when he talks about the issues specifically in Jacob’s case. For example, there was question as to whether he disappeared in the park itself, or if he crossed the river and the disappeared in the Olympic National Forest. Both places wanted to shirk the duty onto the other, and then there was a large delay in getting any official search parties on the ground when time is of the essence. The unclear jurisdiction issues are one of many issues. Another one that confounded me was that there was no database of missing people in various public lands and parks. One would think that you’d want to have records of this, but it seems the government is barely keeping on top of the number of people missing, much less who they are and other pertinent info. It just kind of reiterates how messed up our government can be in some ways, and it doesn’t make me want to do any heavy duty hiking or camping in remote areas any time soon if it’s to be done on public land. I’ll stick to the paved trails, thanks.

Overall, “The Cold Vanish” is fascinating and eerie, and digs a little deeper than a typical ‘missing persons’ themed book.

Rating 8: A look at missing people and the mysteries of so called ‘conquered’ wilderness, “The Cold Vanish” is strange, bittersweet, and compelling.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Cold Vanish” isn’t on many specific Goodreads lists as of yet. But if you liked “Into the Wild” or other books about disappearing into the wilderness, this would be for you.

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

Serena’s Review: “Girl, Serpent, Thorn”

51182650._sx318_sy475_Book: “Girl, Serpent, Thorn” by Melissa Bashardoust

Publishing Info: Flatiron Books, July 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley!

Book Description: There was and there was not, as all stories begin, a princess cursed to be poisonous to the touch. But for Soraya, who has lived her life hidden away, apart from her family, safe only in her gardens, it’s not just a story.

As the day of her twin brother’s wedding approaches, Soraya must decide if she’s willing to step outside of the shadows for the first time. Below in the dungeon is a demon who holds knowledge that she craves, the answer to her freedom. And above is a young man who isn’t afraid of her, whose eyes linger not with fear, but with an understanding of who she is beneath the poison.

Soraya thought she knew her place in the world, but when her choices lead to consequences she never imagined, she begins to question who she is and who she is becoming…human or demon. Princess or monster.

Review: Here was another book I requested based mostly on cover lust. But the description itself, particularly the original fairytale-ness of it all, was another sure a attraction. It’s also yet another book that seems to feature siblings, though this one is only from Soraya’s POV, which is a nice change of pace in my reading lately. The story took a few twists and turns that I wasn’t expecting, but most of them turned out for the good, and I enjoyed this read!

Soraya is a forgotten princess. With a power that kills at her touch, she’s spent her life sequestered in shadows, separated from her family, friends, and people. She’s spent her life watching her brother pass all of the milestones that she herself has missed out on. And now it is coming to a head with his marriage to a lost friend from Soraya’s childhood. In unexpected places she begins to find new allies and new pathways, opening doors that she never dreamed possible. Some of them lead into the light, and some further into the dark. Which will she choose?

I ended up really enjoying this book. It was an original fairytale, something I always love, and it took a few unexpected twists and turns as it was told. On top of all of that, it’s a standalone novel. One small criticims there, however, was the story did feel like it had to distinctive arcs that may have been better suited to their own books, making the story into a duology. But even typing that feels wrong as I love standalone books so much and they’re hard to find! It’s kind of a mixed bag thing, here, I guess. The two storylines work well enough, and I don’t feel like either was truly lacking much. Just that as a complete work, it did feel oddly balanced with the first half telling one tale and the second another.

I really liked Soraya herself. She had a great narrative voice, and she was easy to become immediately invested in. This was important as the book took a twist down an antihero path that I hadn’t seen coming from the book description. Looking back now, yeah, it’s kind of there. But it was another nice surprise for me when going through this book. It’s always tough to sell a true antihero story, as often your main character is doing some pretty questionable things and walking a very narrow line. This made the likablity of Soraya’s character incredibly important. It was easy to understand her struggles and even some of her more questionable decisions, especially in the context of the life she had lived prior to this story.

Another surprise for me was that Soraya was a bisexual and the main romance ends up being a f/f one. For the book itself and its story, I really enjoyed this romance. I’ve read a bunch of f/f/ stories recently, and really liked them! Just last week, I reviewed a book by Django Wexler who is known for almost always giving his heroine a female love interest. My problem with it being a surprise here isn’t the book’s fault. It’s the marketing.

Looking over the book description, it’s clear that it’s intentionally deflecting away from using gendered pronouns in places, and then goes out of its way to place interest on the male love interest. The male love interest is a thing, so that’s fine. But there should be mention, clearly, of the female option. I really dislike these type of marketing techniques. It seems clear that its done out of mistrust of one’s audience, and that’s never going to work. Either your reader is game for a f/f romance, in which case readers like me would like to know ahead of time what to expect without having to delve into Goodreads reviews to get basic information like this. Or your reader is not down and once it becomes clear that you tried to hoodwink them with your marketing, they’ll put the book down. It’s bad faith marketing, and we need to get past this.

Overall, I really liked this book. If you’re looking for an original fairytale story with a morally grey main character, this is definitely the book for you!

Rating 8: A great standalone fantasy novel featuring an interesting anti-heroine!

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Girl, Serpent, Thorn” is on these Goodreads lists: “2020 YA LGBT+ Sci-Fi/Fantasy” and “Magical Realism.”

Find “Girl, Serpent, Thorn” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Ashes of the Sun”

52822248._sx318_sy475_Book: “Ashes of the Sun” by Django Wexler

Publishing Info: Orbit, July 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher

Book Description: Long ago, a magical war destroyed an empire, and a new one was built in its ashes. But still the old grudges simmer, and two siblings will fight on opposite sides to save their world, in the start of Django Wexler’s new epic fantasy trilogy

Gyre hasn’t seen his beloved sister since their parents sold her to the mysterious Twilight Order. Now, twelve years after her disappearance, Gyre’s sole focus is revenge, and he’s willing to risk anything and anyone to claim enough power to destroy the Order.

Chasing rumors of a fabled city protecting a powerful artifact, Gyre comes face-to-face with his lost sister. But she isn’t who she once was. Trained to be a warrior, Maya wields magic for the Twilight Order’s cause. Standing on opposite sides of a looming civil war, the two siblings will learn that not even the ties of blood will keep them from splitting the world in two.

Review: This will be the third Django Wexler book I’ve read this year, so I’m definitely on a roll! I had read a book by him before, but I think because it was the first in a long-ish series, I became intimidated and kind of let it slide. But I loved his new YA series and am looking forward to the final one in that coming out soon. Which made me all the more surprised when this, a beginning to a new adult series, suddenly popped up! I’m not sure how long of a series is planned, but based on this first book, I’m all in!

When his little sister, Maya, is taken away at age 5 by the powerful Twilight Order, Gyre’s idealic family life is broken. Years of simmering anger build until he comes of age to make is own way. And that way includes spending every resource he has delving into the underworld of the Republic in search of a power strong enough to destroy the organization that stole his sister and, in many ways, controls his world. Maya, raised by the Order and on the bring of becoming independent, is committed to the ideals of her organization. Raised to believe that the Order protects and serves, Maya sees the good that she and her people can do for the common folk who are plagued by dangerous monsters. But as she comes closer and closer to striking out on her own, she begins to see cracks among her people and a corruption that may go deeper than she thought.

The world-building in this story is excellent. It almost seems to be set in a post-apocaptic version of the “Star Wars” universe. Kind of an odd comparison, but once you read the book, you’ll totally see it. The author has a great afterward where he even states “Star Wars” as an influence, but it’s so subtly done, that at no point does this in any way feel like a “Star Wars” book. So it feels both familiar as well as incredibly unique all at once. I really liked the glimpses we have into the history of this world, and there were a lot of great reveals that game out over the course of the story. Of course, most of these just raised more questions than they answered, but what else can you expect from the first book in a series?

I also really liked both Maya and Gyre. This is one of those rare, great examples of a book where the duel narrators are equally strong and compelling. Especially since they are essentially representing opposing forces. It’s quite difficult to write two such characters and maneuver your reader into rooting for them both, a losing battle from the start. Gyre was perhaps a bit less sympathetic to start, but he definitely grew on me. And Maya is just the sort of bad-ass warrior women I gravitate towards. They also each had unique romance arcs that were at times quite unexpected.

The story is also action-packed from start to finish. It did take quite a while to get into the main conflict, with what felt like a bunch of side/mini quests taking up the majority of the first half. But as the main conflict begins to unfold, we see the importance of these early action scenes in setting the stage for the character choices are two leads make and how they end up where they are. Each also came with their own set of side characters, sidekicks, and enemies, so there was a lot of groundwork that needed to be laid out to really set the stage for the grand finale.

And while the grand finale itself was pretty intriguing, it was also clear that this was only the beginning. Sure, the current big bad was dealt with, but Maya and Gyre, while both questioning their own goals, are still clearly on opposing sides of a brewing conflict. I can’t wait to find out where their adventures lead them next and how or if they will ever be able to find a middle ground between them.

Also, don’t forget to enter to win an ARC copy of this book! I also had an e-book copy, so this is a completely fresh ARC ready and waiting for its first reader! Enter to win!

Rating 8: A rollicking adventure story with two fantastic leads at its heart.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Ashes of the Sun” is a new title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists. But it is on “Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2020.”

Find “Ashes of the Sun” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “The Girl from Widow Hills”

52754102Book: “The Girl from Widow Hills” by Megan Miranda

Publication Info: Simon & Schuster, June 2020

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

Book Description: Everyone knows the story of “the girl from Widow Hills.”

Arden Maynor was just a child when she was swept away while sleepwalking during a terrifying rainstorm and went missing for days. Strangers and friends, neighbors and rescue workers, set up search parties and held vigils, praying for her safe return. Against all odds, she was found, alive, clinging to a storm drain. The girl from Widow Hills was a living miracle. Arden’s mother wrote a book. Fame followed. Fans and fan letters, creeps, and stalkers. And every year, the anniversary. It all became too much. As soon as she was old enough, Arden changed her name and disappeared from the public eye.

Now a young woman living hundreds of miles away, Arden goes by Olivia. She’s managed to stay off the radar for the last few years. But with the twentieth anniversary of her rescue approaching, the media will inevitably renew its interest in Arden. Where is she now? Soon Olivia feels like she’s being watched and begins sleepwalking again, like she did long ago, even waking outside her home. Until late one night she jolts awake in her yard. At her feet is the corpse of a man she knows—from her previous life, as Arden Maynor.

And now, the girl from Widow Hills is about to become the center of the story, once again, in this propulsive page-turner from suspense master Megan Miranda.

Review: Thanks to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this book!

There are some authors out there that I really want to like, but I have very hit or miss interactions with their books. I will usually keep going back unless a book is so poorly done that I decide that I don’t have the reading time to continue giving chance after chance. I thought that Megan Miranda was going to be one of those authors, where I liked one book but nothing else worked for me. After her last book, “The Last Houseguest”, I thought that I was done for good. But something told me that I should give her newest novel “The Girl from Widow Hills” a chance. And am I glad I did. Megan Miranda has missed the chopping block for now, because I think that “The Girl from Widow Hills” is my favorite of her books that I’ve read.

“The Girl from Widow Hills” has a compelling mystery that drives it, a complicated and perhaps unreliable narrator, and a little bit of critiqued nostalgia for human interest journalism, which combined to make a very enjoyable read. Our protagonist is Arden, a woman whose claim to fame was being swept up in a flood when she was six years old and miraculously surviving as a community, and then a nation, watched with bated breath to find out her fate. The trauma of that experience, being trapped for a few days until a man passed by and found her, has followed her the rest of her life, as her mother profited off of the story and the public began to think that she was ungrateful of their support as she tried to live her life. Now living under the name Olivia, I thought that Olivia/Arden’s trauma and need to escape her past was very realistic. It also made for an interesting and perhaps unreliable narration device, as she doesn’t remember much about those days where she was missing. It felt different from unreliable narrations we see in this genre in that the gaps in her story aren’t gaps that she has placed on purpose, but rather the result of being so young at the time, and suffering from PTSD after the fact. The mysteries that she’s trying to solve, mostly why did the man who saved her back then end up dead on her property now, given they have had no connection since, are very compelling and kept me guessing for a lot of the story. I liked following Olivia/Arden, and liked seeing the clues come together. And while it’s true that I did figure a couple things out before the end, and while it’s also true that the reveal at the end felt a little farfetched, just getting there was an enjoyable experience, so I didn’t even mind that it was a bit clunky, reveal wise.

But the thing that I liked the most was the way that Miranda shows the entitlement and ownership that the public can get when it comes to these heartwarming human interest stories. The media and the community focused in on this missing little girl, much like the Baby Jessica story, and rejoiced in her being recovered safely. But then the joy and relief slowly turns poisonous as Arden tries to move on with her life, and people think that she should be more grateful of the donations, well wishes, and care that was sent her way. It’s a very pointed criticism of how people expect to be rewarded for doing good things, and that victims can continue to be victimized when they don’t act or behave in a way that others deem ‘worthy’. That was the aspect of this book that I really, really enjoyed. It felt like the ballsiest thing I’ve seen Miranda put in her books.

“The Girl from Widow Hills” was an addictive thriller, and if you haven’t put it on your summer reading list yet you definitely should! I’ll definitely be taking a look at whatever Megan Miranda has in store next!

Rating 8: A fun and suspenseful thriller with some searing social commentary, and definitely a book that revives my faith in Megan Miranda!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Girl from Widow Hills” is included on the Goodreads lists “Mother and Daughter Thrillers”, and “Family Secrets (mystery/suspense/thriller only)”.

Find “The Girl from Widow Hills” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “The Obsidian Tower”

50147675._sx318_sy475_Book: “The Obsidian Tower” by Melissa Caruso

Publishing Info: June 2020, Orbit

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

Book Description: The mage-marked granddaughter of a ruler of Vaskandar, Ryx was destined for power and prestige at the top of Vaskandran society. But her magic is broken; all she can do is uncontrollably drain the life from everything she touches, and Vaskandar has no place for a mage with unusable powers.

Then, one night, two terrible accidents befall her: Ryx accidentally kills a visiting dignitary in self-defense, activating a mysterious magical artifact sealed in an ancient tower in the heart of her family’s castle.

Ryx flees, seeking a solution to her deadly magic. She falls in with a group of unlikely magical experts investigating the disturbance in Vaskandar—and Ryx realizes that her family is in danger and her domain is at stake. She and her new colleagues must return to the family stronghold to take control of the artifact that everyone wants to claim—before it destroys the world.

Review: I really loved Melissa Caruso’s original trilogy, rating and reviewing them all pretty highly. So I was excited to see that she was coming out with a new series so quickly, and one that is set in the same world, no less! Vaskandar and its very different society and approach to magic was one of the more intriguing aspects of the original series, so I was particularly interested to see how that would work in this new story. While I wasn’t quite as blown away as I was with the first book in her other trilogy, overall, I still very much enjoyed this one.

While Ryx’s life has never been ordinary (her broken magic that kills anything she touches has prevented that), she has managed to make a place for herself in her powerful grandmother’s land. She not only manages the large familial estate that houses an ancient secret, but she’s become adept at political maneuvering and negotiation. These skills become all the more important when things go deadly wrong the eve before important negotiations between Vaskandar and Ravera. But they won’t be enough to combat the ancient evil that has been unleashed, forcing Ryx to turn to a society made up of magical experts in whose hands might rest the future of both nations.

As I said, I was really interested in checking out this book when I learned it was set in Vaskadar. That country had played a fairly large role as the villains in the previous series, and their approach to magic, culture, and societal structure differed greatly from Ravera. Ryx is an interesting entry point into this world. She is born into a powerfully magical family and does have the important ring in her eyes that designates her as a magic user, a marker that distinguishes her as someone important. However, her experience with magic has been the opposite of that of most everyone else’s. Instead of opening doors and leading to a  life of power and influence, her magic has done nothing but close them. With anything she touches dying on contact, the only life she can make for herself is one that is strictly guided by distancing rules and made up of people who know to keep their distance. Where in the previous book, we saw mages struggle against the restrictions that wearing a jess (a magical tool that contains a magic user’s power) brought on, Ryx has always longed for the freedom that one would grant her.

Her story throughout this book was very compelling, learning more about her own magic and the unexpected roles she can play in a world that she had thought off limits to her. We see a character who has never felt like she belonged in her powerful family, but whose very identity is caught up in the guardianship of the land and people that family holds dear. She’s a novice at forming relationships with new people, and we see her struggle to learn how to have friends and, maybe, even romantic relationships.

I also liked the greater exploration of Vaskandar and the rules and cultural norms that were so different than what we saw of Ravera in the previous series. The power structure is built into every aspect of Vaskandar society, and we see both the strengths this gives their society as well as the weaknesses it opens up. Because their power and long lives are connected to the land, Vaskandar has an uneasy relationship with borders, and it’s easy to see why tensions have historically been high with its neighbor nations. But here, the book veers off the expected course, and we see a new enemy arise. This was a nice switch from the Vaskandar vs. Ravera tensions from the first series which would have felt like a retread had it been repeated here.

I did struggle with the pacing of the story. Thinking back over it, while there are definitely tense moments, action-packed scenes, and a nice climax at the end of the book, while reading it, I felt like it was moving very slowly. The first half in particular seemed to really strain to get going. Some aspects of the story felt rushed (the building of character relationships, for example), but many of the actual plot points were talked about quite a lot before they actually happened. I think it could have been edited down and streamlined a bit.

But, like I said, other bits felt rushed. Ryx seems to meet the members of this magical society, and then in a hot minute become instant friends with them all and implicitly trust them. She shares crucial information with them and seems to be immediately accepted on the same level. I get that her joining up with these folks was a large point of the book and the series as a whole, but it kind of felt like the author was in such a rush to get to that, that she just skipped the natural build that is needed in developing these types of relationships. I had similar problems with the romance which seemed to kind of come out of nowhere. Ultimately, I was able to get on board with it, but it was a bit jarring.

While not the perfect start to a new series, this book definitely set the stage for what could be an excellent series. Ryx is a great main character, and the author has expanded the world-building out quite a bit with the introduction of the new evil force they will be working against. I found some of the twists and turns slightly predictable, and the pacing felt off at times. But I think if you enjoyed the author’s first series, this one is well worth checking out as well!

Also, don’t forget to enter our giveaway to win a ARC version of “The Obsidian Tower!”

Rating 8: Not without flaws, but a solid start to what promises to be an interesting new series!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Obsidian Tower” is a newer title so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists. But it is on “2020 Queer Sci-Fi Fantasy.”

Find “The Obsidian Tower” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Guinevere Deception”

43568394Book: “The Guinevere Deception”  by Kiersten White

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, November 2019

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

Book Description: There was nothing in the world as magical and terrifying as a girl.

Princess Guinevere has come to Camelot to wed a stranger: the charismatic King Arthur. With magic clawing at the kingdom’s borders, the great wizard Merlin conjured a solution–send in Guinevere to be Arthur’s wife . . . and his protector from those who want to see the young king’s idyllic city fail. The catch? Guinevere’s real name–and her true identity–is a secret. She is a changeling, a girl who has given up everything to protect Camelot.

To keep Arthur safe, Guinevere must navigate a court in which the old–including Arthur’s own family–demand things continue as they have been, and the new–those drawn by the dream of Camelot–fight for a better way to live. And always, in the green hearts of forests and the black depths of lakes, magic lies in wait to reclaim the land. Arthur’s knights believe they are strong enough to face any threat, but Guinevere knows it will take more than swords to keep Camelot free.

Deadly jousts, duplicitous knights, and forbidden romances are nothing compared to the greatest threat of all: the girl with the long black hair, riding on horseback through the dark woods toward Arthur. Because when your whole existence is a lie, how can you trust even yourself?

Review: I’ve been a big fan of White’s work since I read her re-imaging of the life of Vlad the Impaler, gender swapping the main character and creating a tension-filled and deeply stressful (but fantastic) trilogy. From that reading experience, when I heard of this book, a re-imaging of the Camelot story from Guinevere’s perspective, I knew the author was up to the task! And I wasn’t wrong!

Guinevere arrives at Camelot with a mission: to marry Arthur. But that’s only the beginning of her story, for she’s not really Guinevere at all, but a protector sent by Merlin to watch over Arthur himself from all magical threats. While well-versed in magical protections and wards, Guinevere soon learns there is much more to this task than simply being on the look-out for threats to the king. She must actually be the queen, as well, something she feels much less suited for. And as she begins to peel back the layers of the mysterious Camelot and its political maneuverings, she starts to see that there is more at stake than she had thought, and that even she, the woman sent to protect Arthur, may not know the whole story.

This book surprised me in many ways, not least of all in its protagonist herself. We soon discover that Guinevere is not a reliable narrator. I love it when books can pull off an unreliable narrator approach as it opens up so many new doors for discovery as the story unfolds. Here, Guinevere herself isn’t aware of her own unreliability, and in many ways, the reader begins to put together pieces before she does herself. We know that she is an envoy sent by Merlin to protect Arthur. But we don’t know much more than that. It’s only as the story begins to move forward that the layers in Merlin’s plots become clear, and Guinevere begins to suspect larger things at play than a simple protection task.

She’s a very sympathetic character, a necessity for one of fiction’s most vilified female characters. Like she did with Lada Dracul, White builds open and adds to the original character blocks in such a way that the character is easy to understand and root for. Beyond that, the author doesn’t hold back from re-imaging all of the characters involved. If you suspect you know the role that any given familiar name will play, prepare to be surprised. I saw a few of these twists coming, but there were definitely one or two that took me by surprise. Luckily, one of the biggest twists towards the end was one of those surprises.

This was also one of the books I referenced a few weeks ago that has a love triangle that I miraculously didn’t hate. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised since White also included an unconventional love triangle in her “And I Darken” series. But, again, here I was very pleased with the direction this love story ended up taking. Again, knowing the author’s way, I won’t pretend that this book really establishes any end game as far as the romance goes, but for this book, I was satisfied. It’s always nice to be reminded that even much-detested tropes can be done right by a skilled writer.

The story also doesn’t answer all the mysteries it sets up. There are still a bunch of questions on the table, and I have my own theories about Guinevere’s past and the role she will play going forward. The stage has been set with magical mysteries, old villains and new, and a main character who has only now realized just how under-prepared she really is. I can’t wait to see where it goes from here!

Rating 8: Another excellent twist on a classic tale from Kiersten White!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Guinevere Deception” is on these Goodreads lists: “Best Retellings of fairytales, legends and history” and (just for kicks) “Covers With Beautiful Art.”

Find “The Guinevere Deception” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Guest List”

51933429Book: “The Guest List” by Lucy Foley

Publishing Info: William Morrow, June 2020

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

Book Description: The bride ‧ The plus one ‧ The best man ‧ The wedding planner ‧ The bridesmaid ‧ The body

On an island off the coast of Ireland, guests gather to celebrate two people joining their lives together as one. The groom: handsome and charming, a rising television star. The bride: smart and ambitious, a magazine publisher. It’s a wedding for a magazine, or for a celebrity: the designer dress, the remote location, the luxe party favors, the boutique whiskey. The cell phone service may be spotty and the waves may be rough, but every detail has been expertly planned and will be expertly executed.

But perfection is for plans, and people are all too human. As the champagne is popped and the festivities begin, resentments and petty jealousies begin to mingle with the reminiscences and well wishes. The groomsmen begin the drinking game from their school days. The bridesmaid not-so-accidentally ruins her dress. The bride’s oldest (male) friend gives an uncomfortably caring toast.

And then someone turns up dead. Who didn’t wish the happy couple well? And perhaps more important, why?

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

Last May, I spent a lovely Colorado trip with my husband at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado. While it wasn’t exactly ‘isolated’ in the way that we think of isolation, it felt removed enough from the hustle and bustle of a big city that the tranquility of solitude was definitely present. It was here that I read “The Hunting Party”, Lucy Foley’s isolated whodunnit. I was very taken with this book, and when I saw that her newest novel, “The Guest List” was available on NetGalley I immediately opted to read it. It sounded similar to “The Hunting Party” with the isolation and the circle of friends/acquaintances hiding secrets from each other, but it worked well enough last time I was happy to dive into a similar story again. Even if isolation this time feels a little too close to home.

The first thing that really captured my attention in “The Guest List” was the setting. A somewhat spoiled bride and her charismatic and B-List famous fiance have decided to hold their wedding on a remote island off of Ireland, and boy oh boy did Foley really bring this locale to life. I could practically see the waves crashing against the rocks, and smell the salt in the air, and feel the odd foreboding of a rough terrain and perilous landscape for the unfamiliar. It also serves as a perfect spot for a gathering in which a murder is going to take place. Foley sets up the story with multiples narratives, and tells it between present time and flashbacks to give an entire picture as to who the potential victim is, and what exactly they did that ended with their cruel fate. I always like a non linear mystery if it’s done well, and Foley has no problem with keeping multiple balls in the air as the lays out various puzzle pieces as to who the victim is, and why they were killed. I am also happy to report that I was mostly caught off guard by the mystery as a whole, from who the victim was to who committed the crime to the motive. There are plenty of red herrings along with justifiable grudges that, in familiar Agatha Christie style, everyone is a possible suspect. Did it sometimes seem like the ‘everyone has a reason’ angle feel a little unbelievable? Sort of. But did that detract from the mystery or make it any less suspenseful? Not for me! I was able to overlook some of the REALLY coincidental stuff, because overall I thought that the work was put in to really pull off a satisfactory web of motives, secrets, and twists.

In terms of the characters and their perspectives, overall I thought that their characterizations were well rounded and interesting. Even though we are really only getting into who they are and what they are like in regards to their relationship to the bride and or groom, and even though it’s really only a snapshot taken within this one event, we learn a lot about all of them. From Aoife the wedding planner to Johnno the Best Man to Jules the Bride, everyone gets a moment to shine, and to show why they could be either a victim, or a perpetrator. My favorite of the perspectives was Olivia, the younger half sister of the bride, who is struggling with a fragile mental state. While it may have been tempting to fall back on tried and true tropes when it comes to characters who struggle with depression or depressive episodes, I really appreciated the effort and care that Foley put into Olivia, and how we learned where he difficulties stem from, and the difficulties those around her have to contend with when dealing with a mentally unstable loved one.

“The Guest List” was an enjoyable thriller mystery, and Lucy Foley continues to delight and entertain. If you’re looking for a fun mystery this summer, consider picking this one up!

Rating 8: A mystery filled with turns and surprises, “The Guest List” kept me guessing and held me in suspense.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Guest List” isn’t on any super relevant Goodreads lists as of now, but I think that it would fit in on “And Then There Were None: Deadly Parties”.

Find “The Guest List” at your library using WorldCat!