Kate’s Review: “Giant Days (Vol.1)”

25785993Book: “Giant Days (Vol.1)” by John Allison & Lissa Treiman (Ill.)

Publishing Info: BOOM! Box, December 2015

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Susan, Esther, and Daisy started at university three weeks ago and became fast friends. Now, away from home for the first time, all three want to reinvent themselves. But in the face of handwringing boys, “personal experimentation,” influenza, mystery-mold, nu-chauvinism, and the willful, unwanted intrusion of “academia,” they may be lucky just to make it to spring alive. Going off to university is always a time of change and growth, but for Esther, Susan, and Daisy, things are about to get a little weird.

Review: I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but I look back at my time in college and get overwhelmed with a massive wave of nostalgia. I really came into my own in college, I made friendships that I cherish to this day, and I have lots of fond memories of the various misadventures my friend group and I got into while on and around campus. When my friend and fellow librarian Jenny told me about “Giant Days”, I looked into it and knew that it was something I definitely wanted to check out. A university setting starring quirky and snarky girls could be a bit of a gamble for me (given that TOO quirky can put me off), but I trusted Jenny, and requested the first volume of the series. And boy oh boy, did I immediately miss college.

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Let me take this moment to say GO GOPHERS! (source)

“Giant Days (Vol.1)” is more of a collection of vignettes as opposed to a large, overarching plot at this point, and said vignettes focus on three unlikely friends just starting out at University. There’s Susan, an ill tempered and cynical tomboy who puts on a tough facade even though she’s actually fairly sensitive. There’s Esther, a dramatic and emotional beauty who is goth to the core and rather impetuous. And finally there’s Daisy, the sweet and somewhat naive kind soul who is loyal and hard working. They all share a dorm, and while they seem like they wouldn’t get along, it’s their differences that make them totally suited for each other. They find themselves dealing with a new home, the flu, perverted boys, and the ups and downs of romance, usually with very snide and hilarious results. Author John Allison is certain to make all three of the characters flawed and awkward as they try to navigate their new path, and is never unkind towards them, even when putting their sometimes bad behavior on display. Their banter and their interactions made me smile and laugh a large number of times, and it felt refreshing to see a college story focusing on predominantly women characters and the foolish shenanigans that they get into. I feel like that’s afforded far more often to dudes, and seeing some of the bullshit that Susan, Esther, and Daisy get into made me think of the lady friends I had in college and some of the dumb things we did. All of them are relatable and fun to follow, and super easy to root for even when they’re being ridiculous.

As I mentioned above, as of now “Giant Days” is mostly separate vignettes, though the stories have had some overlap between each other. One segment would focus on a specific arc, then the next segment would be a different arc that might have been hinted at in segment one. I liked that it meant that they could stand on their own, and then we could go into a fresh story with new possibilities and stakes. It also meant that each of our three main characters got to deal with the conflict of the segment in their own ways, and got basically equal time to navigate the plot (the only example I can think of where this wasn’t necessarily the case was when Esther ended up on a ‘hot or not’ website run by a bunch of cretins, but even then we saw how Susan and Daisy reacted as well). I am curious to see if this format continues into the later volumes, or if larger plot starts to form. As of now, I like the vignettes, but I don’t know how long my investment would hold if it continued.

Finally, I really REALLY love the artwork by Lissa Treiman! She has done work for a number of recent Disney movies, and you can definitely see the similarities between those styles and the ones you see in this. It makes for very vibrant and expressive faces and designs, and part of the humor comes from the imagery.

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“Giant Days (Vol.1)” is a fun and humorous read, and those of you who are feeling extra nostalgic for friendships from your formative years will find so much to like here. I’m definitely going to continue on with this series, because I can’t get enough of Susan, Esther, and Daisy.

Rating 8: A snarky and witty graphic novel involving three irreverent college women, “Giant Days (Vol.1)” will make you nostalgic for college, and will remind you of the joys of friendships in your young adult years.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Giant Days (Vol.1)” is included on the Goodreads lists “Girls Read Comics”, and “Female Power Comics”.

Find “Giant Days (Vol.1)” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Pumpkinheads”

40864790Book: “Pumpkinheads” by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks (Ill.)

Publishing Info: First Second, August 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Deja and Josiah are seasonal best friends.

Every autumn, all through high school, they’ve worked together at the best pumpkin patch in the whole wide world. (Not many people know that the best pumpkin patch in the whole wide world is in Omaha, Nebraska, but it definitely is.) They say good-bye every Halloween, and they’re reunited every September 1.
But this Halloween is different—Josiah and Deja are finally seniors, and this is their last season at the pumpkin patch. Their last shift together. Their last good-bye.

Josiah’s ready to spend the whole night feeling melancholy about it. Deja isn’t ready to let him. She’s got a plan: What if—instead of moping and the usual slinging lima beans down at the Succotash Hut—they went out with a bang? They could see all the sights! Taste all the snacks! And Josiah could finally talk to that cute girl he’s been mooning over for three years . . .

What if their last shift was an adventure?

Beloved writer Rainbow Rowell and Eisner Award–winning artist Faith Erin Hicks have teamed up to create this tender and hilarious story about two irresistible teens discovering what it means to leave behind a place—and a person—with no regrets.

Review: Halloween has come and gone (pardon me while I sigh deeply over this fact), but it’s still technically Fall, even if in Minnesota our weather starts to trend towards Winter a bit earlier than other places. Given that Fall is such a short season here, I cherish it as long as we get to experience it. “Pumpkinheads” is the perfect Autumn story. It has a pumpkin patch, it takes place on Halloween, and it brings to life all of the best Autumn sights, games, and treats. Rainbow Rowell has always been great at creating charming and relatable characters and settings, and therefore she was probably the perfect person to create a story about two pumpkin patch workers on their last shift ever. Highjinx, nostalgia, and candy apples galore ensue!

Josiah (or Josie) and Deja are our seasonal BFF protagonists, coworkers who only interact when they are working at DeKnock’s World Famous Pumpkin Patch & Autumn Jamboree. Josiah is shy and pragmatic, while Deja is effervescent and free spirited. They work at the succotash stand together (this concept alone was so ridiculously endearing) and are besties until the season ends. This is their last night working at the patch, as it’s Halloween and they are both graduating in the spring and moving on. Their friendship was the beating heart of this book, and Rowell is superb at showing why they are such a good friend match through one night of misadventures. It reminded me of the classic film “American Graffiti”, as both in that film and in this book we really get a sense of these two people based on one seemingly random night. But we get to see through the happenings of that night so much about both of these characters that I felt like I knew everything about them by the time I was finished and their last shift had come to an end. I loved both of them for different reasons, and found them both to have lots of layers that were well explored. Josiah is sweet and shy, but also filled with hesitation that has prevented him from talking to his crush Marcy for three years. Deja is kind and adventurous, but she also can be capricious and impulsive. They balance each other out and their relationship is fun to see as she drags him around the patch in hopes of making his romantic dreams come true (and in hopes of finding all the delicious food to munch on. SO relatable). There is also the always looming bittersweet reality that once their night is done, they aren’t sure if they will ever see each other again. It’s light hearted and yet bittersweet.

Rowell also nails the joys of the Autumn season. This is certainly a kinder and gentler way to spend one’s Halloween, but the pumpkin patch is filled with all the fun things you want from this kind of thing: hayrides, candied apples, pumpkin picking, a corn maze, you name it, this place has it. I could practically smell the hay and the apple cider, and it felt like I was seeing a number of my favorite Autumn festivals come to life on the page. I WANTED TO VISIT DEKNOCK’S WORLD FAMOUS PUMPKIN PATCH & AUTUMN JAMBOREE!

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And I can’t guarantee I would leave unless I was dragged away. (source)

And the icing on this pumpkin cake is that the illustrations by Faith Erin Hicks perfectly complement Rowell’s story. They are expressive and detailed, but also have this coziness to them that just evokes feelings of Autumnal nostalgia.

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I really enjoyed reading “Pumpkinheads”. Rainbow Rowell is such a delightful author who always writes such pleasing stories. Keep that Fall spirit alive and grab this one to read over some hot apple cider and something pumpkin-y!

Rating 8: A very cute seasonal story with fun characters, a cheerful setting, and an adorable plot.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Pumpkinheads” isn’t on very specific Goodreads lists as of yet, but it would fit in on “Best Books to Read in Autumn”, and “Black Girl Comics”.

Find “Pumpkinheads” at your library using WorldCat!

Blog Tour: “Song of the Crimson Flower”

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32605126._sy475_Book: “Song of the Crimson Flower” by Julie C. Dao

Publishing Info: Philomel, November 2019

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

Book Description: Will love break the spell? After cruelly rejecting Bao, the poor physician’s apprentice who loves her, Lan, a wealthy nobleman’s daughter, regrets her actions. So when she finds Bao’s prized flute floating in his boat near her house, she takes it into her care, not knowing that his soul has been trapped inside it by an evil witch, who cursed Bao, telling him that only love will set him free. Though Bao now despises her, Lan vows to make amends and help break the spell.

Together, the two travel across the continent, finding themselves in the presence of greatness in the forms of the Great Forest’s Empress Jade and Commander Wei. They journey with Wei, getting tangled in the webs of war, blood magic, and romance along the way. Will Lan and Bao begin to break the spell that’s been placed upon them? Or will they be doomed to live out their lives with black magic running through their veins?

In this fantastical tale of darkness and love, some magical bonds are stronger than blood.

Review: First off, I would like to send out a big thanks for being included in the blog tour for this book! It’s always great to be included in a collaboration between between authors, publishers, and bloggers. I hadn’t read any other books by this author, but “Forest of a Thousand Lanterns” has been on my TBR pile for a long time (this is more a reflection of how out of control my TBR pile is than anything about the book itself). But this recent release seemed like a great time to jump on the bandwagon, and here I am! Fully on board!

Lan’s future is simple: marry the man she loves who just so happens to love her back and to be a perfectly appropriate match, thank you very much. Problem is, that man is not who she thinks and when Bao, a lowly apprentice, makes this known to her, the exchange doesn’t go well for either. When a witch’s curse binds the two together once more, Bao and Lan find themselves on an adventure that involves not only Bao’s mysterious origins but catches them up in the maneuverings of rulers and countries, bringing with it a few familiar faces from previous books.

There were many things to love about this book. For me, one of the best part was the fairytale-like nature of the story. It’s well-documented that this type of fantasy is one of my favorites, and it’s all the more exciting when I stumble across one that is unique, rather than just a re-telling of the ever popular “Beauty and the Beast” and “Cinderella.” While I do wish the rules of the curse itself had been fleshed out a bit more, I did like the fact that, while new, much of it was based on familiar staples of fairytales: a curse involving a witch, some type of magical object, family ties, and, of course, love as a cure. But while these elements on their own were wholly original, I think the way the author incorporated them into her original world lent them a feeling of freshness.

I think this was especially clear in the way the cure played out and the romance at the heart of the story. While the two characters have known each other since childhood, the beginning of the book makes it clear that they each saw this friendship very differently. And when the truth of the original romance is revealed, each behave poorly (most especially Lan). From there, the romance really begins to build as each has to get to know the real version of the other, metaphorical “warts” and all. I really enjoyed the slow burn of this love story. Aside from the lovely romance at the heart of it, the way their story developed allowed for each character to go through a lot of self discovery, exploring themes of forgiveness, patience, and understanding.

As I haven’t read the other stories by this author, I wasn’t familiar with some of the characters who showed up here but had clearly been the main characters in previous books. Readers familiar with those books will likely get a lot more out of these appearances than I did. But I can say that this book is also fully capable of standing alone and introducing these characters and this world on its own. While I may not have had any previous attachment, I was never confused or felt like more reading was necessary to understand the players at the table.

The world-building was also very interesting. And for being such a short book, I was impressed by how fully fleshed out this world was. To top that off, the secondary plot of the story (I would argue that the romance is mostly the main plot) was interesting and had many twists and turns. A mysterious illness, an illegal plant/drug, and, of course, how Bao is connected to it all. Even if I was there mostly for the relationship drama, there were enough other things going on to keep me on my toes.

I really enjoyed this story. It’s a fresh, fairytale fantasy with a sweet romance at its heart. Fans of the author’s other books will likely be happy with this one and pleased to see familiar faces. However, readers new to the story will have an easy introduction to the world and characters. Those looking for a lovely, standalone fairytale are sure to be happy with this one!

Rating 8: Sweet and unique, this story was lovely from start to finish.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Song of the Crimson Flower” is on these Goodreads lists: “Apprentices” and “Fairy tales & Retellings.”

Find “Song of the Crimson Flower” at your library using Worldcat!

Check out these other stops on the blog tour!

Week One

November 4 – Velarisreads – Review + Creative Instagram Picture

November 5 – A Gingerly Review – Dream Cast

November 6 – Love.books.and.coffee – Creative Instagram Picture

November 7 – Lovely Loveday – Review

Week Two

November 11 – Old.enough.for.fairytales – Creative Instagram Picture

November 12 – Confessions of a YA Reader – Author Q&A

November 13 – Library Ladies – Review

November 14 – The Paige-Turner – Creative Instagram Picture + Tumblr post

Bookclub Review: “Gone”

2536134We 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 ‘Books On Our To Read Shelf’, where we pick books that we’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten to.

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: “Gone” by Michael Grant

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, June 2008

Where Did We Get This Book: From the library!

Book Description: In the blink of an eye, everyone disappears. Gone. Except for the young.

There are teens, but not one single adult. Just as suddenly, there are no phones, no internet, no television. No way to get help. And no way to figure out what’s happened.

Hunger threatens. Bullies rule. A sinister creature lurks. Animals are mutating. And the teens themselves are changing, developing new talents—unimaginable, dangerous, deadly powers—that grow stronger by the day. It’s a terrifying new world. Sides are being chosen, a fight is shaping up. Townies against rich kids. Bullies against the weak. Powerful against powerless. And time is running out: On your 15th birthday, you disappear just like everyone else…

Kate’s Thoughts

When I was in middle school I had already dived right into adult fiction. I would imagine that part of that was because when I was that age (totally dating myself a bit here) we were still a number of years off from the YA boom and I had already read horror and thrillers for teens by the time I had entered fifth grade. Because of this, I had a few preconceived notions about what to expect from “Gone” by Michael Grant. True, it was published in 2008, a time when the YA book dynamics had already started to change, but I thought that it was going to be straight forward and ‘kid gloved’. I was wrong. I was so wrong.

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Probably my face as disturbing detail after disturbing detail came to fruition. (source)

“Gone” is an imperfect YA end of world tale, with a lot of ideas, a lot of characters, and a lot of details that are building to something that has yet to be seen. It also has a lot of darkness within its pages, at least compared to other YA end of world thrillers that I’ve read. Nothing I can’t handle, of course, but damn, Michael Grant, you went all in. That said, I LIKED that he went all in, because it makes it seem like he trusts that his readers can handle whatever he tosses their way. And boy, does he toss some rough things their way. From grotesque wounds to spates of violence perpetrated against children to the very concept of very small children being left alone with no one to protect them, “Gone” was bleaker than I anticipated, but that made it all the more enjoyable.

That said, there is a LOT going on in this book. It makes some sense, given that 1) Michael Grant used to work on the “Animorphs” books with Katherine Applegate and those had a lot of details and world building, and 2) it has six books in the entire run. But I think that the reason it didn’t really work for me was because so much was crammed in and only touched upon, and there were so many characters to address that a lot of them didn’t get a lot of attention or development. True, there are more books to flesh all of these things out, but, at the same time, there are MORE BOOKS TO FLESH THIS ALL OUT. In other words, I wish that Grant had saved some of the details and developments for later books, just because this story did feel bloated and there were multiple characters that I didn’t feel like we really got to know. Luckily, it was the villains who were the most interesting, which is what I like to see in books like this.

This is also a very 2008 book in terms of how it approaches a number of themes, and it didn’t age well in that regard. From an autistic character to the very clear gender roles of some of the girl characters, I totally see how these things wouldn’t have been seen as problematic back then, but are definitely a bit hard to read now. I’m not going to write this book off completely because of this, as it is very of the time and that’s just the reality of it. But I wanted to note it.

I don’t think that I will keep going in this series, but I was pleasantly surprised that “Gone” trusts its YA readers to be able to take on some bleak, bleak themes.

Serena’s Thoughts

The timing of reading this book couldn’t really be better. I had just finished up my re-read of “Animorphs,” a middle grade science fiction series that Grant collaborated on with his partner, K.A. Applegate, and our bookclub theme (books on our TBR pile) gave me the perfect excuse to inflict it upon the entire group! “Inflict” being purely a dramatic term, as, while it was darker than some of our group preferred, it was still a quick, action-packed read. But oof, talk about dark.

From a non-“Animorphs” perspective, I agree with almost everything Kate said, especially about just how much is packed into this book. It didn’t really hit me until I was starting to write up questions for our bookclub discussion, but this book really through everything in at once. You have the post-apocalyptic setting with the adults suddenly gone, kids with powers, family drama, a mysterious nuclear power plant, mutated animals, some dark force potentially behind it all. There are a lot of cards on the table, and for a book that is quite obviously the beginning of the series, I do wonder if it would have been better served to introduce some of these mysteries in the next books. As it is, there is a lot to get done and I think some of the issues Kate highlighted with the characters could have been better served had they been given more time, no longer needing to fight for page time against the numerous mysteries being set up.’

The character stuff is what really struck me in this book, however, both in a good and bad way. Having read “Animorphs,” it is very easy to see bits and pieces of those characters here, and I think in some ways, these are almost better in that they are not, in fact, better people. Our main character, for example, is essentially the Jake of this story. Except that Jake accepted the call to action as a leader almost from the get go and fairly seamlessly fit into that role. There were some bumps along the way and he struggled with this role throughout, but he took up the mantle quite quickly and with little real conflict. Here, Sam is much more reluctant, and with his reluctance come real consequences. I mean, REAL. As in kids die because he backs off originally. And he knows it. This makes Sam in some ways a much more believable character than Jake. He messes up big time right off the bat because of a the very real reaction of any kid in that situation, not wanting to be the one responsible.

So that’s a good example of characters. Kate mentioned some of the negatives. To be honest, I have a hard time separating this book from Grant’s collaboration with Applegate on the “Animorphs” in this regard. Having read that series, which came first, it’s hard not to read this book through the lens of faith that some of the problematic character issues, most especially the women, will be resolved some how. If this book is of its time for handling some things poorly, “Animorphs” was way ahead of it by offering up a very diverse team and making its most badass character a girl. This makes it hard for me to reconcile the two together. I think I can objectively say that while a few things stuck out to me (there’s an unfortunate line about the autistic character, for sure), I still felt that there was enough groundwork laid in other areas to excuse some of the more gendered roles some female characters were given. For one thing, I think Diana, an enigmatic character on the bad side, was set up as one of the more complicated characters in the entire book. Does this make up for the fact that a girl is running the daycare and another the hospital while the boys duke it out for leadership? I’m not sure. But I feel like enough was done to make me want to read more and find out how everything plays out.

Where the book was definitely ahead of its time, however, was the way it treated its readers as capable of handling darker elements of the story. It almost made me wonder if YA has regressed a bit in this regard, as the stakes felt much higher and more real in this book than they have in other YA stories I’ve read recently where YA protagonists are leading armies and the fate of the world!!! yada yada. As hard as some of it was to read, this commitment to the harsh realities of what this situation would look like is probably one of the biggest reasons I want to keep reading. The next books is called “Hunger,” for heaven’s sake!

Kate’s Rating 7: A darker than I expected YA novel with lots of components, “Gone” is entertaining, a little much, and a good fit for YA readers who want more thrills than juvie fiction but aren’t necessarily ready for adult end of world sagas.

Serena’s Rating 8: This book takes it premise and goes full throttle, but its wackiness is quickly squashed beneath a serious, “Lord of the Flies”-like exploration of human nature. Also talking coyotes.

Book Club Questions

  1. This book explore similar themes to “Lord of the Flies.” If you’ve read that, how does it compare? In what ways does this book tackle themes of power and civilization?
  2. There are a lot of characters who perspectives are covered in this book. Which ones stood out to you and why?
  3. If there was an element of the story that could have been explored more in this book, which one was it? Which element would you leave out (perhaps for the second book) to make room for this?
  4. Some of the roles in this burgeoning civilization seem to be falling along traditionally gendered lines. Are there examples of the book challenging this? Particular failures that you struggled with and wish were changed?
  5. We have several explanations offered up as to what caused this situation. Which one are you leaning towards?
  6. What predictions do you have for book two?

Reader’s Advisory

“Gone” is included on the Goodreads lists: “Best Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic Fiction” and “Original Stories . . . a Breath of Fresh Air.”

Find “Gone” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “An Ember in the Ashes” by Sabaa Tahir

Serena’s Review: “Flamebringer”

40401975Book: “Flamebringer” by Elle Katharine White

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, November 2019

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

Book Description: Monsters, manners, and magic combine in this exciting final volume in the Heartstone Trilogy—an exhilarating blend of epic fantasy and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice—in which a fearless healer and her dragon-riding husband must stop a reawakened evil from destroying their world.

It starts with the inconceivable: Wydrick, sworn enemy of the Daireds, is back from the dead, possessed by a ghast that grants him immortality and inhuman strength. From the isolated northern mountains, Aliza, Alastair, and Akarra chase him into the dangerous Old Wilds, realizing too late that he’s led them into a blizzard. Before he vanishes, Wydrick utters a warning: A terrible, ancient evil has awoken, hungry for blood, and is headed their way.

The danger is closer than they know. The Tekari—sworn enemies of humans—are openly roaming the kingdom and are headed towards the capital, Edonarle. Then unexpected news arrives: riding like a dark dragon on the winds from the south, an ambassador from the Silent King of Els, has left the shores of the distant desert kingdom for the first time in centuries.

Unknown enemy? Or unexpected ally? Plunged into a dangerous world of royal intrigue and ancient grudges, Aliza and Alastair soon realize it will take more than steel and dragonfire to save their kingdom. For the silence of Els hides a secret that could shake House Daired to its foundations, and the time has come to settle accounts.

Silence, it seems, is about to be broken.

Previously Reviewed: “Heartstone” and “Dragonshadow”

Review: As I mentioned in the post for the giveaway for “Flamebringer,” this series kind of came out of nowhere in many unexpected ways. Not only did it manage the difficult task of adapting “Pride and Prejudice” into an original fantasy story without losing the foundations of the former or sacrificing the freshness of the latter, but it produced an equally compelling sequel that was completely new. The second book went further to explore some challenging topics while also expanding on the original concepts set up in the first book. It also set up this third book. So, first chance I got, obviously I read it!

After the dire warning/threat from Wydrick, Aliza and Alistair attempt to make their way home and gather a council of war. On the way, they encounter various other mysterious parties, all with their own whispers of an evil stirring. History, it appears, holds secrets. Some on the grand scale, and some much more close to home. Will Aliza, Alistair and Akarra be able to piece together the puzzle in time? Or is the ancient evil that is coming beyond even the scope of House Daired?

While about average in length for a fantasy novel, this one sure packed a lot in. From my perspective, this was both a good and bad thing. It was definitely not lacking in story, plot, or action. But at times it also felt as if the author had crammed two books into this one. Both books were interesting, but at times the story felt disjointed and overwhelming.

For one thing, the story picks up immediately where the previous one left off. I’ve read both of the first books right when they came out, so there hasn’t been any delay in my read of this series other than the one that came with its own publication schedule. And yet I still found myself having to re-read sections to re-orient myself with this story. Part of this is due to the fact that the world is so fully formed and unique. There’s a lot going on with different places, peoples, histories, and religions. This is definitely a good thing, but it did make the story a bit challenging to focus in on.

This struggled isn’t helped by the fact that the first half of the book sees our main trio off on a few mini adventures. On their own, these events are exciting, a bit creepy, and give even more depth to the world that we’re in. They also sprinkle in more clues as to what the greater conflict may be. But they also add more things to keep track of. And throughout these action pieces, we also have the emotional repercussions of the last book still playing out for Aliza and Alistair, as well as some new, shocking information for them both. Again, great character development, but even more story points.

By the middle of the book, the main story does feel as if it is getting started, and once the final conflict begins, the story is off and running. The second book definitely introduced a darker theme to this series, and this one is quick to take that torch and run even further with it. As I mentioned, several sections were pretty spooky and the threat presented deals real damage to our characters. I whizzed through this last section of the book, intrigued and yet dreading every page turn.

As a final book, I do feel that this one perhaps bit off more than it could chew. There was just so much! The mystery of what is going on isn’t revealed until quite near the end of the book and it wasn’t a simple explanation by any means. Between trying to wrap my mind around that, while also getting through the emotional character arcs of our characters, I felt a bit overwhelmed. After the book was finished, I found myself looking back on it and still not feeling as certain portions of it were fully resolved or that I fully understood how it all fit together.

It was almost an excess of good things, in the end. I enjoyed it all, but felt that it might have all worked a bit better had it been given two books. The second book in the series was a neat little mystery of its own that laid some ground work for the larger conflict of the series. This, too, could have been a nice third book that contained its own smaller story (the first half of the book has several portions that could have been expanded out further, I feel) while laying even more groundwork. This would have left a final book with more room to really breathe and fully dive into the complicated history and conflict of the threat looming on the horizon. So, too, it would have given a bit more resolution to our main characters.

The strengths of the first two books are definitely still here, however. I still loved Aliza as our main character and the ways she finds to contribute to a battle that she is not well-equipped to fight (not being raised a warrior). I also liked that we saw a return of several characters from the first book who were absent in the second.

Overall, I did very much enjoy this book. My main complaint seems like a weird one, that there was almost too many good things here. I do think, perhaps, the book would read better if being picked up immediately after the second. Had I not needed to spend as much time re-orienting myself in the beginning, some of these feelings of being overwhelmed may not have lingered as long. Mostly, I think the trilogy as a whole is a great success and that this book is best viewed as a segment of that. If you haven’t already, make sure to enter our giveaway to win your copy!

Rating 8: Best appreciated as part of a larger whole, but still a thrilling conclusion to the series!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Flamebringer” is on this Goodreads list: “Jane Austen variations published in 2019.”

Check out “Flamebringer” from your library using Worldcat!

Kate’s Rev Up Series Review: The Valerie Hart Series

 

Books: “The Killing Lessons” and “Lovemurder” by Saul Black

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, September 2015; Orion, November 2016

Where Did I Get These Books: The library!

Book Descriptions: When the two strangers turn up at Rowena Cooper’s isolated Colorado farmhouse, she knows instantly that it’s the end of everything. For the two haunted and driven men, on the other hand, it’s just another stop on a long and bloody journey. And they still have many miles to go, and victims to sacrifice, before their work is done.

For San Francisco homicide detective Valerie Hart, their trail of victims–women abducted, tortured and left with a seemingly random series of objects inside them–has brought her from obsession to the edge of physical and psychological destruction. And she’s losing hope of making a breakthrough before that happens.

But the murders at the Cooper farmhouse didn’t quite go according to plan. There was a survivor, Rowena’s ten-year-old daughter Nell, who now holds the key to the killings. Injured, half-frozen, terrified, Nell has only one place to go. And that place could be even more dangerous than what she’s running from.

In this extraordinary, pulse-pounding debut, Saul Black takes us deep into the mind of a psychopath, and into the troubled heart of the woman determined to stop him.


The second spine-chilling serial-killer thriller featuring homicide detective Valerie Hart from the author of the critically-acclaimed THE KILLING LESSONS.

Troubled San Francisco homicide detective Valerie Hart is planning a rare weekend away from the job when she gets the call. A body has been found. A woman, brutally murdered. And the cryptic note left by the body is addressed to Valerie.

The victim is unknown to her, but as Valerie analyses the scene, the clues begin to point in a deeply disturbing direction: to a maximum security prison where a woman called Katherine Glass is awaiting execution for a series of gruesome killings. And Valerie was the cop who put her there.

The last thing Valerie wants to do is re-enter Katherine’s twisted world, but when a second body is discovered, with another puzzling clue, she realises she has no choice. Katherine Glass holds the key to the killings, and Valerie needs to find out what she knows before the murders come even closer to home.

Even if it means playing a deadly game where once again, the psychopathic killer holds all the cards.

Review: A few years ago, I took a chance on a book called “The Killing Lessons” by Saul Black. I went in more interested in the overall story and plot, expecting it to be a one off with horrific travelling murderers and a run of the mill hard boiled detective on their tail. But what I found instead was Valerie Hart, a damaged, complex, and fascinating protagonist whose demons and past eclipsed the already compelling and disturbing main plotline. A year later, “Lovemurder” came out, and I was thrilled to see that Valerie Hart was, once again, the hero of the tale. And now, a few years after that, the third in the Valerie Hart series “Anything For You” is about to come out. In anticipation of this new novel, I decided to go back and revisit “The Killing Lessons” and “Lovemurder”, and get myself super hyped for the return of Valerie. So before I review that book, let’s look at the books that came before it, as they are very different stories, and yet are connected by a protagonist that I’ve come to really enjoy.

When we first meet Valerie in “The Killing Lessons”, she is a detective in San Francisco who is haunted by a couple of different things. The first is that she has had a couple of unsolved cases that she can’t shake, cases that have rocked her to her core and have become a dark obsession. The other is a failed relationship with another detective named Nick Blaskovich. She and Nick had a real shot at happily ever after, but after her frustrations about her unsolved cases made her spiral, she pushed him away in the most destructive ways possible. Little does she know that out east in Colorado, the men she has been trying to find are about to strike again, and this time they mess up and leave a witness alive, a little girl named Nell who ran when her mother and brother were brutally murdered. Black seamlessly connects the stories of Valerie, Nell, and the two murderers, and shows them on a collision course. Black gives a lot of attention to all of the players, the chapters trading off between what Xander and Paulie, the murderers, are up to, what Nell is doing as she hides from them, and how Valerie is slowly but surely piecing their tracks together and closing in on them. The story treads more towards the literary than what you may expect from a detective story, and the brutality is striking, and at times a little much to handle. When I read it initially it didn’t seem to bother me, but during my revisit the violence, which is mostly directed towards women, was very difficult to swallow. I think that had Valerie not been given as much attention, depth, and complexity, I would have been more critical. But as it was, Valerie’s storyline shows not only the tenacity and spunk of a truly gifted detective, but also what being a good detective can sometimes do to your psychological state. 

In “Lovemurder”, we turn from overblown sadistic violence, and gravitate more towards a psychological cat and mouse game. In this story, Valerie has to confront Katherine Glass, a serial killer that she put away years ago, but whose mystery partner has started killing again, and claims they won’t stop unless Glass is set free. Like Hart, Glass is a hyper-intelligent woman who knows how to read people, and when she and Valerie start to face off again, the mind games start up again between the two women. Glass claims that she wants to help Valerie since her partner, whom she never knew the identity of, left her high and dry to rot in jail, but Valerie isn’t certain that she can fully trust this woman, insights aside. In this story, there is still a case that is haunting her, but Valerie has grown from the complete mess that she is in “The Killing Lessons”, and exudes a new strength and confidence that really suits her. I like seeing her character grow between novels, as had she just remained static between the two it would have been exhausting. I also liked that Black didn’t feel a need to up the ante on the violence, and that while there is STILL violence in this book, it doesn’t feel nearly as exploitative or misogynistic as it did in “The Killing Lessons”. On top of that, Katherine Glass is another fascinating, complex character, and I really liked seeing her and Valerie go head to head in a battle of the wits. Another aspect I liked is that Valerie’s personal life with Nick is still there, but it doesn’t take the forefront, nor does Black put Valerie in any situation where she is the ‘bad guy’ because she takes her job so seriously and will put it over romance when she deems it fit to do so. 

That isn’t to say that there aren’t pitfalls with Hart and her characterization. I do think that from time to time Black does fall into the ‘men writing women’ trap. Every once in awhile Valerie may do something that would make me pause and say ‘okay, that reads more like a guy’s idea of what a woman would do as opposed to how a woman author would write and read the same situation’. And it’s hard to deny that, as mentioned above, there are definitely misogynistic undertones towards some of the women characters, be it as victims, or just other characters that aren’t Valerie (this is especially evident with a character named Carla in “The Killing Lessons”; her hatred for Valerie is petty and comes back to a man). Plus, there were some strange moments, especially in “The Killing Lessons”, where objectification and violence ruled, and sexuality popped up in places it probably shouldn’t. While it makes some sense when it’s from Xander and Paulie’s point of view (they are sexual sadists after all), there was one moment involving Nell, a prepubescent girl, and the odd note that she hasn’t hit puberty yet as denoted by a, shall we say, lack of certain secondary sexual characteristics. Why did THAT need to be noted? What did it add to the plot as a whole, ESPECIALLY when the observation is coming from a character who is supposed to be benevolent and someone she is safe with? 

But that said, as a whole I am always interested in finding out more about Valerie, and to see where she goes next. So go on I shall, problematic aspects aside (but also kept track of, in case it becomes too much). Suffice to say, when I saw that Black had a new book about her, I was THRILLED and requested it from NetGalley almost immediately. Valerie herself is such a compelling character, as of now I am eager to come back for more. On Thursday, I’ll review her newest adventure, “Anything For You”.

Rating 7 and 8: Black has brutal, dark, and propulsive thrillers, but the true strength is the protagonist Valerie Hart. These books aren’t for the faint of heart and sometimes come off as sexist in some ways, but overall Hart is a complex and interesting character to follow.

Reader’s Advisory:

The Valerie Hart Series is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Female Lead Characters”, and “Best Modern Thrillers”.

Find “The Killing Lessons” and “Lovemurder” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “His Hideous Heart”

39127647Book: “His Hideous Heart” by Dahlia Adler (Ed.)

Publishing Info: Flatiron Books, September 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Thirteen of YA’s most celebrated names reimagine Edgar Allan Poe’s most surprising, unsettling, and popular tales for a new generation.

Edgar Allan Poe may be a hundred and fifty years beyond this world, but the themes of his beloved works have much in common with modern young adult fiction. Whether the stories are familiar to readers or discovered for the first time, readers will revel in Edgar Allan Poe’s classic tales, and how they’ve been brought to life in 13 unique and unforgettable ways.

Contributors include Kendare Blake (reimagining “Metzengerstein”), Rin Chupeco (“The Murders in the Rue Morge”), Lamar Giles (“The Oval Portrait”), Tessa Gratton (“Annabel Lee”), Tiffany D. Jackson (“The Cask of Amontillado”), Stephanie Kuehn (“The Tell-Tale Heart”), Emily Lloyd-Jones (“The Purloined Letter”), Hillary Monahan (“The Masque of the Red Death”), Marieke Nijkamp (“Hop-Frog”), Caleb Roehrig (“The Pit and the Pendulum”), and Fran Wilde (“The Fall of the House of Usher”).

Review: I’ve been a fan of Edgar Allan Poe since grade school when I read “The Raven” and “The Tell Tale Heart” in my free time. It was truly the first indication that I was going to shift into full on Goth in high school. His melancholic writings and nerve wracking imagery is still very effective, and while it does have some dated elements it can’t be denied that he has had a huge influence on American Horror writing to this day.

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Super relatable in so many ways too. (source)

I still hold him and his works near and dear to my heart, even if I haven’t read as many as I thought I had. I came to this realization as I read “His Hideous Heart”, a collection of new YA interpretations of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous works, edited by Dahlia Adler. I bought this book for my Kindle, as I was so excited to read it I really didn’t want to wait before I could get it in my hands. The group of YA authors selected was really the icing on the cake, as it includes some of my favorites like Stephanie Kuehn and Tiffany D. Jackson. A group of authors coming from lots of backgrounds and experiences to update some of the stories from the OG Creep Master of American Literature? It can’t get better than that! Like with most Short Story collections I am going to talk about my three favorite works, and then give a summation of the collection as a whole.

“Night-Tide” (based on “Annabel Lee”) by Tessa Gratton

The poem “Annabelle Lee” has made me cry many times in my life. It’s about the death of a young woman and her husband who has been left behind to mourn her, and is most likely based on Poe’s own wife Virginia who tied of tuberculosis. Tessa Gratton takes this always upsetting story theme and twists it up in many positive ways. She changes it into a prose narrative instead of a poem, sets in in a historical fiction timeline, and makes the two lovers two young women who are living in a time where gay romance and love is never going to be accepted. Annabel Lee and Jackie have spent summers at the resort of Kingdom by the Sea and became close friends. But the summer she’s sixteen Jackie arrives to find out that Annabel has passed away of illness, and that Annabel’s family blames Jackie because of their ‘close friendship’ and the sin it was. As Jackie tries to come to terms with her friend’s death, and to try to come to terms with the guilt that she is feeling because of it. Like the poem there are no happy endings here, but it makes the sadness of the poem all the more emotional, as Jackie has to live with the guilt that others and society has placed upon here merely because she and Annabel Lee were in love. And, like it’s inspiration, it made me cry as well.

“The Glittering Death” (based on “The Pit and the Pendulum”) by Caleb Roehrig

“The Pit and the Pendulum” is a tense and scary read where a prisoner is being psychologically and physically tortured during the Spanish Inquisition. Caleb Roehrig, however, subverts that into a modern retelling involving a serial killer, a teenage girl, and misogyny. Laura finds herself the newest victim of a murderer called The Judge, who kidnaps and tortures young women for the sins he’s perceived they’ve committed. Laura has to figure out how to survive the situation and escape. This was probably my favorite story in the collection, as Roehrig does a GREAT job of drawing comparisons between his zealous and woman hating serial killer and the forces that were behind The Spanish Inquisition, showing how repression, misogyny, and religious fundamentalism can instigate violence. Laura as a main character was spunky and tough, and the tension of her imprisonment and her plans for escape had me on the edge of my seat. It’s definitely the scariest story in this book, and I thought that it really found the heart of the source material and cleverly applied it.

“Happy Days, Sweetheart” (based on “The Tell-Tale Heart”) by Stephanie Kuehn

One of Poe’s most famous stories is “The Tell-Tale Heart”, and it’s about jealousy pushing someone to murder, and the guilt that drives the murderer insane. Leave it to Stephanie Kuehn to take that and make something totally different, all while finding the deeper themes and applying them perfectly. An unnamed high school girl has been living in the shadow of Jonah, a charismatic but mediocre white guy at their boarding school. She has always worked hard to be the best, but being a bi-racial girl from outside their community has always kept her down. But now she has a plan to finally become number one, to finally get the praise and recognition she deserves. I LOVED how Kuehn took the idea of women (especially women of color) having to work harder and do more to get the same recognition that a white man gets just by existing, and how that frustration can turn into an all encompassing anger. While it’s true our narrator eventually takes it to extremes (as one would have to with the source material), I still felt that Kuehn drew out her motivations in a way that I found incredibly relatable in a lot of ways. Kuehn is one of my favorite authors, and her contribution to this collection knocked it out of the park to be sure.

And there were a lot of other really strong stories that I didn’t mention! “His Hideous Heart” covers a wide range of genres, and most of the segments were all very strong in their own ways. Even the ones that I didn’t end up caring for as much were more based on the genres they fell in as opposed to the content. There are so many strong authors here, and they all did their very best to do justice to Poe’s original works, with many of them succeeding. But wait, there’s even more to sing the praises of! “His Hideous Heart” not only has these thirteen original stories, it also includes the original works by Poe! So if you aren’t familiar with the source material, you have direct access to it. LOVED that!

“His Hideous Heart” was a great short stories collection. If you are a Poe fan you should read it, and if you aren’t familiar with Poe this is the perfect introduction to the original works AND the updates. And hey, it’s almost Halloween. This is just the book to read this time of year.

Rating 8: A well done and well updated collection of stories that pay homage to Poe, “His Hideous Heart” is an enjoyable read and the perfect book for the Halloween season.

Reader’s Advisory:

“His Hideous Heart” is included on the Goodreads lists “Edgar Allan Poe in YA & Middle Grade Fiction”, and “The Unlikable Female Characters Podcast”.

Find “His Hideous Heart” at your library using WorldCat!