Book Club Review: “Red at the Bone”

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 “Outside the Genre Box”, in which we each picked a book from a genre or format that we don’t usually read.

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: “Red at the Bone” by Jacqueline Woodson

Publishing Info: Riverhead Books, September 2019

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Genre/Format: Literary Fiction

Book Description: Moving forward and backward in time, Jacqueline Woodson’s taut and powerful new novel uncovers the role that history and community have played in the experiences, decisions, and relationships of these families, and in the life of the new child.

As the book opens in 2001, it is the evening of sixteen-year-old Melody’s coming of age ceremony in her grandparents’ Brooklyn brownstone. Watched lovingly by her relatives and friends, making her entrance to the music of Prince, she wears a special custom-made dress. But the event is not without poignancy. Sixteen years earlier, that very dress was measured and sewn for a different wearer: Melody’s mother, for her own ceremony– a celebration that ultimately never took place.

Unfurling the history of Melody’s parents and grandparents to show how they all arrived at this moment, Woodson considers not just their ambitions and successes but also the costs, the tolls they’ve paid for striving to overcome expectations and escape the pull of history. As it explores sexual desire and identity, ambition, gentrification, education, class and status, and the life-altering facts of parenthood, Red at the Bone most strikingly looks at the ways in which young people must so often make long-lasting decisions about their lives–even before they have begun to figure out who they are and what they want to be.

Kate’s Thoughts

Although this genre doesn’t tend to make it onto the blog, I am not really a stranger to literary fiction. If a literary novel has a topic that sounds interesting, or has a lot of hype around it, I will probably pick it up, and a lot of the time I enjoy it as a genre. But somehow I missed “Red at the Bone” by Jacqueline Woodson when it came out, so when book club picked it as the Outside the Genre Box book I was eager to dive in. I read it in the course of an afternoon, as the family saga theme is one that I’ve always been a sucker for.

“Red at the Bone” is an emotional look at a family that has gone through a lot through the generations. We start with the society coming out celebration of Melody, a sixteen year old Black teenager living in New York City in 2001. She is wearing the dress that her mother Iris was supposed to wear before her, but her pregnancy at 16 cancelled the event. We look at the entire family, jumping through time, perspectives, and themes, and learn how Melody came to be, how her relationship with Iris has become what it has, and how the influence of her other family members, and the influences of their experiences, has affected her, and all of them. Woodson takes a good hard look at class differences, the way that parents have hopes for their children that don’t always mesh, and the way that trauma can be passed down through family lines, even if the later generations weren’t there to experience the initial traumatic event (for example, there is a lot of attention paid to the Tulsa Massacre, and how that horrible event has lingered down the family line). I found the different perspectives of different family members to be powerful, and Woodson gave all of them a lot of attention even in the comparatively lower number of pages. I was especially moved by the way that Woodson looks at mother and daughter relationships, and the difficulties that can be found there (I’m probably a bit biased in that regard, but I have no doubt that anyone will find it emotionally resonant as Woodson is so good).

I really liked “Red at the Bone”. It’s a quick read, but it hits in all the right ways.

Serena’s Thoughts

Unlike Kate, I really and truly don’t read a lot of literary fiction. Pretty much rules me out of being an adult librarian (rather than YA/children’s, which what I was trained for)! But I have read one or two here and there, usually upon recommendation, and often enjoyed them. I typically want more magic and unicorns in my reading, but if the writing and story are strong, I can get behind ordinary life as well.

I knew nothing about this author before reading this. Or, really, anything about what the story was about even. So I picked it up with no real preconceptions. And then I didn’t set it down until it was finished. Yes, it is a shorter book as well, but it was also compulsively readable. The layers of family history and personalities perfectly layered one on top of the other to weave together an intricate tapestry of lives lived through various trials and tribulations. We see the many ups and downs of everyone’s lives and how these experiences shape not only the character whose head we are in currently, but how these traumas, joys, choices ripple out to affect everyone else around them and following them.

Like Kate, I was particularly interested in the story of motherhood that is at much of the heart of this story. While I have two boys instead of a daughter, I am, of course, a daughter myself. It was heart-breaking and yet completely relatable to experience the fierce love and fierce hurt that can exist within this unique relationship. I also very much related to the sudden, sometimes harsh, reality of what parenthood looks like.

My own experience was very different, behind older, married to my husband, and both hoping for this outcome. But there were also moments of very real, very dark places in the actual experience of become a mother, too. The idea that overnight your entire identity seems to be sucked into this new born baby. It’s the first thing people ask you, it’s almost all you are to people for so long. And, you know, the baby isn’t even grateful! Just screaming and crying and demanding food all the time! Little punk. I kid, but it is also very hard. I can’t even imagine going through it as a young teenager and trying to find some way to be a good mother while also retain some part of a life for yourself that you hadn’t even had a chance to start.

There were so many incredible themes that resonated in this book: family, identity (both sexual and racial), history and legacy. For such a short book, it would be easy to write several essays covering different topics broached in this story. Fans of literary fiction, especially those focused on family and identity should definitely check this one out.

Kate’s Rating 8: An emotional and lyrical family saga, “Red at the Bone” is a quick and powerful read.

Serena’s Rating 8: Beautiful and heart-breaking, a must-read for fans of stories focused on family.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of the structure of the narrative? Was it easy for you to follow?
  2. Did you have a character that you liked the most, or wanted to learn more about beyond the story that they had in this book?
  3. What did you think about the way that Woodson presented this family and the dynamics within in?
  4. There is a lot of family trauma and grief that this family has gone through over the years, as well as hope for future generations. What did you take away from this story in terms of trauma that passes through family lines, as well as aspirations for legacy?
  5. Iris and Melody are the central relationship within this story. Do you think that their relationship has hope to evolve into something new beyond the end? Do you think that it needs to?

Reader’s Advisory

“Red at the Bone” is included on the Goodreads lists “Anticipated Literary Reads for Readers of Color 2019”, and “Popsugar 2021 #33: A Book Featuring Three Generations”.

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

Next Book Club Book: “Annihilation” by Jeff VanderMeer

Monthly Marillier: “Heir to Sevenwaters”

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

Book: “Heir to Sevenwaters” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Roc, November 2008

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: The chieftains of Sevenwaters have long been custodians of a vast and mysterious forest. Human and Otherworld dwellers have existed there side by side, sharing a wary trust. Until the spring when Lady Aisling of Sevenwaters finds herself expecting another child? A new heir to Sevenwaters. Then the family’s joy turns to despair when the baby is taken from his room and something…unnatural is left in his place. To reclaim her newborn brother, Clodagh must enter the shadowy Otherworld and confront the powerful prince who rules there.

Review: Marillier wrote several other books between her first three “Sevenwaters” entries and this, the first of a second set of three. I’ll get to many of those books later, but I thought it might be nice to review all of the “Sevenwaters” books straight out in order. Reading this the first time, I remember being concerned that Marillier was returning to a world and story that had largely felt contained and completed in the first trilogy. But this was a strong outing for the second set and started this next trilogy out on the right foot.

Set during the same generation as Fainne from “Child of the Prophesy,” this second trilogy shifts its focus to the Lord of Sevenwaters, Sean’s, children. The well-ordered life of Sevenwaters is disrupted in the best way with the birth of the first boy in the family, Finbar. But this joyous arrival is soon cut short when Finbar is stolen away. Only Clodagh recognizes that something magical is afoot, seeing the sticks-and-stones baby that was left behind as a living, breathing magical infant and not simply the cruel, inanimate doll the others all see. She sets out on a dangerous mission to exchange this magical creature for the return of her baby brother. With her travels Cathal, a young man with his own mysteries and a distinctly rude take on Clodagh and her life, but who has his own connections to the Fae world and could help her rescue baby Finbar before his loss tears Clodagh’s family and world apart.

There’s a lot to love about this return to the Sevenwaters world. But there were also elements of this story that began to frustrate me in their similarity to hiccups I had with the previous books. But we’ll start with the pros, as always!

Marillier’s writing and creativity with the magical elements of the story are as strong as ever. She has a beautiful way of painting scenes on the page that feel just as real as they do magical and whimsical. In this story, Clodagh and the reader travel into the wonderous world of the Fae themselves, and here Marillier’s masterful portrayal of magic with an underlying sense of danger was on point. As beautiful and mystical as this world and its beings are, it is also clear that it is a distinctly inhuman place and the rules and dangers are not of the sort that are immediately clear or rational to a human mind.

I particularly loved description of the Fae infant that is left behind in Finbar’s place. The bond that grows between this baby and Clodagh was beautiful and heart-breaking. Frankly, I was almost more invested in this relationship than I was in the building romance between Clodagh and Cathal. But man, reading this book as a mother now made some elements of it very difficult to get through. There was more ugly crying than I care to admit.

I also enjoyed Clodagh as a main character. However, she was also very similar to some of the leading ladies we’ve seen in the past, particularly Liadan. They are both described as very domestic and happiest at home. But when faced with challenges and the obstinance of their families, each chooses to make their own choices and way in the world. So while I like Clodagh, just as I liked Liadan before her, I wish there had been a bit more variety to her characterization that would make her stand out as distinct in her own right.

I also struggled to connect to Cathal. While there are several interesting reveals to his character later in the story, and the eventual romance is very sweet, he comes across as a bit too rude and harsh in the beginning. I enjoy a good enemies-to-lovers romance as much as the next person, but it’s a delicate balance to strike, and I think Cathal veered a bit too far in the rude direction initially (and for too long) to fully recover in my opinion as the story went on.

The book also takes quite a while to really get going. This is also a standard feature of Marillier’s works and something that only bothers me now and then. I think if the main character and tertiary characters are strong enough, I don’t notice the slow starts. But this one had weaker characters in Clodagh and Cathal, so I felt myself beginning to become impatient that we get this show on the road. This wasn’t helped by my incredible frustration with the entire Sevenwaters clan other than Clodagh herself.

In “Son of Shadows,” we see the Sevenwaters family’s awful treatment of Niamh. The explanations that come later don’t do much to rectify this treatment of a beloved daughter. And then here, again, we see Clodagh, a young woman who, to this point, had been completely trusted and relied upon, suddenly dismissed as crazy and irrational when she draws attention to the Fae characteristics at play in Finbar’s disappearance. She’s spoken to quite badly at points. It’s pretty shocking treatment towards a young woman who’s given no prior indications to being prone to flights of fancy. And shocking to have it come from a family who has more experience with magical beings and enchantments than most could say. Something is definitely wrong with this family and its treatment of supposedly “beloved” daughters.

Overall, however, I enjoyed this return to Sevenwaters. The magical elements, in particular, felt unique and interesting. The main character is endearing, if familiar, and her bond with the Fae baby is quite lovely. Fans of Marillier’s work and the previous Sevenwaters trilogy are sure to like this book.

Rating 8: A return to a familiar world brings some new magical elements, but also a few familiar tropes.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Heir to Sevenwaters” is on these Goodreads lists: Best Australian Fantasy Reads and The Best Books about Elves or Faeries.

Find “Heir to Sevenwaters” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Namesake”

Book: “Namesake” by Adrienne Young

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, March 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Trader. Fighter. Survivor.

With the Marigold ship free of her father, Fable and its crew were set to start over. That freedom is short-lived when she becomes a pawn in a notorious thug’s scheme. In order to get to her intended destination she must help him to secure a partnership with Holland, a powerful gem trader who is more than she seems.

As Fable descends deeper into a world of betrayal and deception she learns that her mother was keeping secrets, and those secrets are now putting the people Fable cares about in danger. If Fable is going to save them then she must risk everything, including the boy she loves and the home she has finally found.

Previously Reviewed: “Fable”

Review: I’ve really liked some books from Adrienne Young in the past, but I think “Fable” might have been my favorite in a while. For one thing, I always enjoy a good pirate/sea-faring story, and they’re fairly hard to come by, making the stand-out ones all the better when you find them. While the first book wasn’t perfect, it was definitely a solid start to the duology and the cruel cliff-hanger did its work: I picked up this one as soon as possible when it became available!

Shortly after thinking she’d finally found a place and family of her own in the Marigold and its crew, Fable is abducted and finds herself caught up in the scheming of several powerful players. Unbeknownst to her, Fable might be the clue to unlocking one of the rarest finds in the sea. And soon, Fable must risk it all to make a future for herself and her crew. But to do so, she must delve into the secrets of her family, especially her mother, a woman Fable had thought she knew up until now.

I wasn’t quite sure where this book was going to be headed when I got to the cliffhanger at the end of the first book. In many ways, most of Fable’s arcs had already been completed. She’d confronted the father who abandoned her. Found a crew. Made her fortune in a risky treasure hunt. And found love with the captain of the Marigold. And then she was abducted, with very little fanfare or clues as to why. This could have gone two ways, of course. It could have felt like a last-minute addition by an author/publisher who insisted they’d wring a sequel out of this thing come hell or highwater. Or it could be a thoughtful addition to Fable’s story that felt organic and natural in its own right. I’m glad to report that it is the second.

While much of the first book dealt with Fable’s complicated relationship with a father who refused to acknowledge her as his daughter publicly, this book dives into Fable’s relationship and understanding of her mother and her mother’s family. From the first book, Isolde is made out to be the prototypical perfect mother figure. She was everything Fable wanted to be and looked up to, while also a comforting, loving mother to Fable as a child. But this book tackles the idea that we never really know our parents, as much as we may love them and want to emulate them. Isolde, like the sea she loved, had depths and currents to her that very few understood, and it was exciting watching Fable navigate the twists and turns uncovered in her own family history through Isolde’s lingering relatives.

There were several points in this story, particularly with regards to the Isolde storyline, that could have felt very predictable. I had a number of suspicions regarding the direction the story seemed to be headed. Luckily, only one of those really played out (though that one in particular still frustrates me to no end, as I felt like at least part of it should have been more obvious to Fable and her crew). Instead, we see new layers to many characters. Villains come and go. Motivations wax and wane. It’s always a bit unclear as to who is doing what and why.

And at the heart of it, Fable is a steady, sympathetic character. The revelations about her family that rock her own understanding of herself and history, while shocking, don’t dislodge her core purpose and understanding of her place in the world. Her values, her love for her family, both found and blood, remain true even when tested by power, suspicion, and deception.

I also liked that we got to see a bit more backstory for a few of the other crew members. In the first book, many of them felt like token characters with only one or two traits to really distinguish them from each other. Here, we get a bit more history for a few of them that grounds their stories in ways that make you care about more than just Fable herself.

I still found the romance to be a bit dull. But in this different circumstance, the second book versus the first, I was almost glad for that dullness. More than anything, I hate it when authors add drama to their established romances as if that’s the only way to maintain the reader’s interest in it. If your romance can’t hold up to its characters being together, it wasn’t great to start with. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying probably forever.

Overall, I was very pleased with this sequel. It explored new areas of the duology’s central theme, that of family, while also staying true to the main character and foundations of the story that were laid down in the first book. Fans of “Fable” are sure to enjoy this second high-seas adventure!

Rating 8: Exciting but poignant, “Namesake” continues to build on the excellent foundation laid down in the first book.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Namesake” is on these Goodreads lists: OE Fiction, Fantasies & Epics Book Club and Ginger woman: Redheaded Heroine in Romance.

Find “Namesake” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Every Vow You Break”

Book: “Every Vow You Break” by Peter Swanson

Publishing Info: William Morrow, March 2021

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

Book Description: A bride’s dream honeymoon becomes a nightmare when a man with whom she’s had a regrettable one-night stand shows up in this electrifying psychological thriller from the acclaimed author of Eight Perfect Murders.

Abigail Baskin never thought she’d fall in love with a millionaire. Then she met Bruce Lamb. He’s a good guy, stable, level-headed, kind—a refreshing twist from her previous relationships. But right before the wedding, Abigail has a drunken one-night stand on her bachelorette weekend. She puts the incident—and the sexy guy who wouldn’t give her his real name—out of her mind, and now believes she wants to be with Bruce for the rest of her life.

Then the mysterious stranger suddenly appears—and Abigail’s future life and happiness are turned upside down. He insists that their passionate night was the beginning of something much, much more. Something special. Something real—and he’s tracked her down to prove it. Does she tell Bruce and ruin their idyllic honeymoon—and possibly their marriage? Or should she handle this psychopathic stalker on her own? To make the situation worse, strange things begin to happen. She sees a terrified woman in the night shadows, and no one at the resort seems to believe anything is amiss… including her perfect new husband.

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

After totally dropping the ball on getting my hands on Peter Swanson’s last book, I vowed, VOWED, that I wouldn’t let that happen again. They are just far too enjoyable. So when I saw that NetGalley had his newest book “Every Vow You Break” available, I jumped at the chance to read it, therein guaranteeing that I wouldn’t be so incredibly late this time. And, like most Swanson books, I was completely taken in by the mystery, this time taking place on a strange and isolated island as a newly married couple starts to crumble under secrets, lies, and a looming threat of a potential stalker hiding in the woods. Oh yes. This is exactly what I wanted from this book.

What I find striking about Swanson’s books is that they can hit completely different notes and feelings depending on the story. I think that were I to have no idea that Swanson wrote both “Eight Perfect Murders” and “Every Vow You Break” I’d have been gobsmacked that they were the same author. And “Every Vow You Break” also has a different feel from some of his earlier works as well. It doesn’t rely on a big early twist to set the reader off course, nor does it toss in any last moment twists and turns that feel unearned. But all that said, what I thought was going to be a pretty straight forward thriller about a woman being stalked by a man she had a single sexual encounter with turned into something far more sinister than I imagined. And I LOVED that. I pieced together a few aspects of this book, but for the most part I was kept on my toes, and fell for a couple of the red herrings that Swanson tossed out there. It felt fresh and new, and I had a hard time putting the book down once I had picked it up. Swanson took the story to places that I didn’t really anticipate, and I will say (whilst keeping it vague) that he tackles themes like misogyny, rape culture, and sexism in ways that felt responsible and biting. Which, again, I wasn’t expecting from this read. I should really learn to expect the unexpected from him, and yet….

Beyond the plot, our main character of Abigail was also a genuine and realistic protagonist. She definitely makes some poor decisions as the story goes on, as it’s really not a good idea to sleep with another person during your bachelorette party weekend, but for all of her faults you can understand why she does the things she does. And she’s probably the least screwed up protagonist that Swanson has introduced us too, or at the very least the least morally grey trending towards malevolent. I really liked Abigail by the end and was fully invested in what was going to happen to her. While the other characters didn’t feel as multi dimensional as she did, that didn’t bother me so much because even though it was in the third person, it was really her point of view that we were getting. Would I have been intrigued to get the POV of a few of the other characters, in particular Scottie, the man who she is trying to get away from? Absolutely. But at the same time, the decision to make it purely Abigail’s tale not only leaves more room for twists and surprises, it also lets her experience and perspective have the control of the narration as to what is happening to her.

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times (or at least as many times as I’ve reviewed a Peter Swanson book): if you are into thrillers and still haven’t read something by Peter Swanson, do yourself a favor. Go read one of his books. “Every Vow You Break” would be a great place to start.

Rating 8: Another fun thriller filled with twists and turns from Peter Swanson!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Every Vow You Break” is included on the Goodreads lists “Wedding Mysteries & Thrillers”, and “Domestic Thrillers”.

Find “Every Vow You Break” at your library using WorldCat or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “The Mask of Mirrors”

Book: “The Mask of Mirrors” by M. A. Carrick

Publishing Info: Orbit, January 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: copy from the author!

Book Description: Renata Viraudax is a con artist who has come to the sparkling city of Nadezra — the city of dreams — with one goal: to trick her way into a noble house and secure her fortune and her sister’s future.

But as she’s drawn into the elite world of House Traementis, she realizes her masquerade is just one of many surrounding her. And as corrupt magic begins to weave its way through Nadezra, the poisonous feuds of its aristocrats and the shadowy dangers of its impoverished underbelly become tangled — with Ren at their heart.

Review: M. A. Carrick is the pen name for two authors, Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms. I’m not familiar with any of Helms’ work, but I’ve enjoyed the books by Brennan that I’ve read. Both are anthropologists as well, which I think often adds an extra layer of detail and attention to the world-building in original fantasy novels. Like so many before it, this book has been hyped with comparisons to “Six of Crows,” and based on the description alone, I can see where that would come from: any fantasy novel that features cons and has multiple POVs MUST be compared to “Six of Crows!” We all know what my record has been with those so far…

Renata is not who she claims to be, the lost cousin of a down-and-out noble family who nonetheless hold power at their finger tips. No, Renata is truly Ren, a former street urchin who has always had an eye for a con. But the plan that she and her sister conjured up, for Ren to ingratiate herself with a noble family as a long lost cousin and hence secure a future for them both, quickly goes sideways and Ren soon finds herself caught up in events that are greater than she had prepared for. What’s worse, she’s beginning to feel a bit too much like Renata, caring about and for things and people she shouldn’t.

Not only do the comparisons to “Six of Crows” feel accurate in this case, this book escapes the curse of being a massive let-down that has struck so many “wanna-be ‘Six of Crows'” imitations in the past. In a lot of ways, it’s like the adult version of that. It definitely goes to some darker places than the YA novel is allowed to, and its character more fully exist in the shades of grey between good and bad. Good people doing bad things for good reasons. Bad people doing good things for horrible reasons. It’s all deliciously complicated and prickly, making you both love and despise characters at various times and question how you, yourself, would handle certain situations.

I also liked many of the characters introduced, especially Ren. It’s always important to like the main character, and it can be especially hard to write a realistic character such as this without having her become a caricature con artist, constantly quipping and not founded in any deeper human emotion beneath it all. Not here. Through Ren’s perspective, we see the challenges she faces, trying to become part of a group of society that she also despises. And slowly grows to appreciate. And then equally begins to struggle with her own feelings towards these people and the balance between her original goals and the individual connections she’s made.

There were also a lot of twists and turns throughout the story. For much of it, the identity of the mysterious Robin Hood-like character is unknown, and it was a constant challenge trying to figure out the identity of this enigmatic force to be reckoned with. The end of the book also really kicked things up and left the story in a very primed state for the sequel.

My one ding is in regards to the length and pacing of this book. It’s over 600 pages long, which is just a lot to ask of readers taking on a new fantasy world such as this. The story did fairly well supporting this page length, but the pacing did stutter at times, and I think the entire thing would have been more approachable if it had been edited down a bit. But, in the end, I think most fantasy fans will enjoy this book, and I’m definitely curious about the sequel!

Rating 8: A complex new fantasy world bites off a bit more than it can chew in length, but makes up for it with strong characters and compelling mysteries.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Mask of Mirrors” is on, funnily enough, this Goodreads lists: The Best Random Genre List Of Books…Ever.

Find “The Mask of Mirrors” at the library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Smoke Bitten”

Book: “Smoke Bitten” by Patricia Briggs

Publishing Info: Ace, March 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: I am Mercedes Athena Thompson Hauptman. My only “superpowers” are that I turn into a thirty-five pound coyote and fix Volkswagens. But I have friends in odd places and a pack of werewolves at my back. It looks like I’m going to need them.

Centuries ago, the fae dwelt in Underhill–until she locked her doors against them. They left behind their great castles and troves of magical artifacts. They abandoned their prisoners and their pets. Without the fae to mind them, those creatures who remained behind roamed freely through Underhill wreaking havoc. Only the deadliest survived.

Now one of those prisoners has escaped. It can look like anyone, any creature it chooses. But if it bites you, it controls you. It lives for chaos and destruction. It can make you do anything–even kill the person you love the most. Now it is here, in the Tri-Cities. In my territory.

It won’t, can’t, remain.

Not if I have anything to say about it.

Previously Reviewed:“Moon Called,” “Blood Bound,” “Iron Kissed,” “Bone Crossed,” “Silver Borne,” “River Marked,” “Frost Burned,”and “Night Broken” and “Fire Touched” and“Silence Fallen” and “Storm Cursed”

Review: This series has probably been the longest-running Urban Fantasy series I’ve read. With a series that has run for so long and includes so many books, it’s assumed that there will be highs and lows. There was a period a few books back that had me worried, with several underwhelming entries in a row. But the last one was super dark and very good, so it was with a refreshed interest in the series that I picked up this latest book. And while it wasn’t my favorite, it at least didn’t backslide into the low points that had come before.

All is not well for Mercy Thompson. Her husband, Adam, has been withdrawing from her for the last few months, clamming up when asked and shutting down the magical bond between them. On top of this, another werewolf pack is attempting to move in on their territory and the magical creator Underhill has created a doorway to her realm in Mercy’s backyard. And a door goes both ways, letting thins in…and out. Not a powerful magical creature is on the loose, taking over people and making them murder to fuel its terrible power. But so is the life of one Mercy Thompson: full of madness and danger. Will she, Adam, and their pack be able to tackle this most recent threat?

This book was kind of hit and miss. There were several things I really liked about it, and then some that I didn’t care for as much. For the positives, I like that we’re back to the trend of having Mercy as our one and only narrator. Some of the weaker installments were the ones that deviated from her and included POV chapters from Adam. He’s great as a romantic interest, hero type. But it was pretty boring being in his head. Mercy’s voice remains strong and compelling, lending needed animation to even the less exciting mysteries and villains.

I also really liked the action in this book. The fight scenes were fast and thrilling, and the aspects of the fight that existed on a more magical element were also interesting. I liked the increased exploration of how the pack’s bonds and Mercy and Adam’s bond work and affect each other. Mercy’s own background and heritage adds an extra level of interest into how she deals with magical threats and powers. There was also the return of a fairly beloved element of her magic, which was fun to see.

I also liked the story regarding Adam and the reasons behind why he was pulling away from Mercy. At first I was concerned that it was going to be some sort of silly melodrama, especially with the return of his ex-wife’s meddling early in the book. But luckily it went a different route and even tied back to some of the challenges that we know Adam has faced throughout his long life. There was also an unexpected sense of real danger to this particular problem. If anything, it was almost the bigger threat than the actual villain of the story.

And that I didn’t love as much: the main villain and the threat he/she/it presents. For one thing, I was able to very quickly guess who/what they were dealing with, which just made the delay for the final reveal to read as boring at best and frustrating at worst. It’s implied that Mercy figures it out around the time that I did, so at least it doesn’t dumb her down in the process. But I still felt like the build-up itself didn’t work and the story would have done better without it. A few more jokes and references would have been way more fun than the false tension.

There were also a few story elements and subplots that I didn’t think were needed. The book wasn’t super long, so maybe these were used just to pad out the wordcount. But I think that speaks to problems with the main plot that needed to be tweaked anyways. Not only did these subplots not add anything to the overall story, but they drained out some of the tension when they popped up again here and there throughout the story.

That said, I still enjoyed this book overall. It could be a bit slower than I’d prefer at times, but I still found the characters compelling, especially the evolving relationship between Adam and Mercy. Fans of the series will likely be pleased with this installment.

Rating 8: Not as good as the one that came before it, but still much better than the low-points of the series.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Smoke Bitten” isn’t on too many Goodreads lists, but it is on I checked it out of the library!

Find “Smoke Bitten” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York”

Book: “Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York” by Elon Green

Publishing Info: Celadon Books, March 2021

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

Book Description: The gripping true story, told here for the first time, of the Last Call Killer and the gay community of New York City that he preyed upon.

The Townhouse Bar, midtown, July 1992: The piano player seems to know every song ever written, the crowd belts out the lyrics to their favorites, and a man standing nearby is drinking a Scotch and water. The man strikes the piano player as forgettable. He looks bland and inconspicuous. Not at all what you think a serial killer looks like. But that’s what he is, and tonight, he has his sights set on a gray haired man. He will not be his first victim. Nor will he be his last.

The Last Call Killer preyed upon gay men in New York in the ‘80s and ‘90s and had all the hallmarks of the most notorious serial killers. Yet because of the sexuality of his victims, the skyhigh murder rates, and the AIDS epidemic, his murders have been almost entirely forgotten. This gripping true-crime narrative tells the story of the Last Call Killer and the decades-long chase to find him. And at the same time, it paints a portrait of his victims and a vibrant community navigating threat and resilience.

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

As someone who has had a deep fascination with psychopaths and serial killers since she was a kid, it sometimes takes some digging for me to be completely caught off guard by a story that I’ve never heard of. But the sad truth is that in the cases I’ve never heard of it, a lot of the time is because of the fact that the victims fall into the ‘less dead’ category (aka marginalized groups, such as POC, drug addicts, sex workers, LGBTQIA, etc) and because of that, it’s not as publicized. This is basically what I ran into when I learned about “Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York” by Elon Green. My initial though was ‘why haven’t I heard of this?’, and then I realized that if a serial killer was preying on the gay community in 1990s New York City, it was going to get muffled for a myriad of reasons. So I decided I needed to read it.

“Last Call” is about Richard Rogers, aka the Last Call Killer, a man who murdered gay men after interacting with them at a piano bar in New York City in the early 1990s. This time period was tumultuous for the LBGTQIA community, as violence, HIV/AIDS, and prejudice were constant threats to a group whose safety wasn’t really a high priority for law enforcement officials. Green does a really good job of capturing an contextualizing the time period and the place, breathing life into a New York City that has been transformed from that time, though for both better and worse depending on what angles you decide to approach it by. The socio-political context is incredibly important to this story; there was still a lot of fear and stigma around gay men because of misconceptions about HIV/AIDS, as well as their sexuality, so for gay men to be targeted in this way wasn’t exactly focused on or considered a priority. While some detectives were dogged in their investigations, you get the overall sense that there wasn’t much urgency in spite of the fact dismembered bodies with similar M.O.s were being dumped like trash on the outskirts of the city. Green really sets all of this up well, and as he tracks the case as time goes on and explores how things began to change in the city, he shows how it all is connected. Throw in a lot of really helpful notes and research information at the end, and you have a well researched true crime story that’s brimming with historical context! Which I love.

But the other thing about this book that I really liked is that Green is very careful to shine a light on each of the victims that Rogers murdered. Given that true crime does have a problem with exploitation and salacious framing as it strives for ‘entertainment’, Green wants to be sure that each of the people who Rogers murdered has a voice and is depicted as more than a victim, especially given how forgotten this whole thing was. There are sections devoted to each victim’s background, from their childhood, to how they were faced with prejudice and turmoil because they were gay, to the friends that they made and the found families that the crafted while living in New York City. Along with this we see the resilience and determination of a community that is having to contend with so much strife and trauma. As if it wasn’t enough that prejudice and threats of general violence and an epidemic were threats that the LGBTQIA community was having to think about at the time, a serial killer that the police weren’t exactly gunning for was another horrible reality.

And Green is also very dogged in his investigation into Rogers as a person. Though Rogers didn’t cooperate with this book (and whatever, that’s fine, there’s no need to give the guy a platform), Green still does a deep dive into his life and psyche, building a compelling argument that there were undoubtedly more victims that we never heard about, even going further back into his history to reveal that there had been ANOTHER murder he had committed even before the Last Call murders (but the record was sealed due to various circumstances). It’s impressive and thorough journalism.

“Last Call” is bleak and sad, but it gives voice to horrible crimes that deserve to be remembered, for the sake of the victims. It’s a deep dive with a lot of notes, and while it’s a hard and tragic read, I think that true crime fans should make note to read it.

Rating 8: An impactful and haunting book about a forgotten killer and his forgotten victims, “Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York” shines a light on how some true crime stories are lost due to society’s prejudices.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York” is included on the Goodreads list “Can’t Wait Nonfiction of 2021”, and would fit in on “Tales of New York City”.

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

Book Club Review: “The Right Swipe”

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 “Outside the Genre Box”, in which we each picked a book from a genre or format that we don’t usually read.

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: “The Right Swipe” by Alisha Rai

Publishing Info: Avon, August 2019

Where Did We Get This Book: I own it.

Genre/Format: Romance

Book Description: Alisha Rai returns with the first book in her sizzling new Modern Love series, in which two rival dating app creators find themselves at odds in the boardroom but in sync in the bedroom.

Rhiannon Hunter may have revolutionized romance in the digital world, but in real life she only swipes right on her career—and the occasional hookup. The cynical dating app creator controls her love life with a few key rules:

– Nude pics are by invitation only

– If someone stands you up, block them with extreme prejudice

– Protect your heart

Only there aren’t any rules to govern her attraction to her newest match, former pro-football player Samson Lima. The sexy and seemingly sweet hunk woos her one magical night… and disappears. Rhi thought she’d buried her hurt over Samson ghosting her, until he suddenly surfaces months later, still big, still beautiful—and in league with a business rival. He says he won’t fumble their second chance, but she’s wary. A temporary physical partnership is one thing, but a merger of hearts? Surely that’s too high a risk…

Kate’s Thoughts

Though I tend to stick to a few genres that I tackle on this blog, in my overall reading habits I try to be varied and open minded when it comes to what book I decide to pick up. But like most people, I do have my blind spots in genres. My goal this year is to try and read more romance because of this. So the fates were lining up when I decided to take on the Outside the Genre Box book for February. After all, our book club meeting was going to be on Galentine’s Day, the day before Valentine’s Day. Obviously picking a romance was going to happen. I decided on “The Right Swipe” by Alisha Rai for a couple of reasons. 1) It had some good reviews and solid hype. 2) I saw that it had a diverse cast of characters, and 3) I’m not quite ready to jump into Regency era bodice rippers, so something contemporary felt just right.

And I really enjoyed “The Right Swipe”. I liked our main characters, Rhiannon and Samson, whose one night stand could have turned into something more, had Samson not ghosted on Rhiannon before their second date. It’s a pretty typical premise, and I was expecting it to be fairly obvious in execution of the plot (they meet again, it’s frosty at first, then it gets hot, then it gets cold, then it ends up okay in the end). But that may have just been my preconceived notions of the genre, because it didn’t go in ways that were expected for me. I liked both Rhiannon and Samson as characters, as they both had their flaws and their strengths, and all of that felt realistic. Their chemistry is palpable, and it’s very easy to root for them because they are both good people who clearly are right for each other. But you also understand why Rhiannon is reluctant to give him another chance with her past relationship traumas, and why Samson has his own insecurities and hurt from past experiences. They just click, but aren’t perfect, nor melodramatic.

But what really struck me was that Rai brings in some really relevant and meaty social issues into this story that both Rhiannon and Samson have to deal with. For Rhiannon, it’s the fact that she is a social media mogul on the rise, but has to work twice as hard and be twice and brilliant because she is a Black woman in a white dominated industry, and has an unearned difficult reputation because of a vindictive white man whom she used to be involved with. You see her drive and her hunger, as well as the emotional labor and pain that comes with the constant roadblocks because of her race and her gender. For Samson, his history of being a professional football player from a family of football greats is darkened by the very real issue of CTE. While he himself doesn’t have it, people he cared about suffered and deteriorated because of it, and while Rai doesn’t overtly call out the NFL for how it has ‘handled’ the issue, the commentary is very much there.

And yeah, it’s definitely steamy. It lives up to all my expectations of the genre in that regard, and that is a compliment to be sure.

I really liked “The Right Swipe”, and I am definitely going to continue on in Rai’s series. I’m expanding my literary horizons, people, and it feels good!

Kate’s Rating 8: A cute and steamy romance with some really good social commentary, “The Right Swipe” is a fun read, and a great place to begin if you want to check out the romance genre with little experience within it.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of Rhiannon and Samson’s relationship? Healthy? Unhealthy?
  2. What were your thoughts on Rhi’s personal rules for dating? Did you find the rules too stringent? Not stringent enough?
  3. Both Rhi and Samson have some pretty significant back stories. What did you think of them? Did you like one more than the other?
  4. What were your opinions on the CTE subplot? How aware were you of CTE before this book?
  5. Rhi has a number of roadblocks she has to deal with being a Black woman in the dating app industry. Did you think that Rai did a good job balancing these themes with the plot?
  6. This is the first in a series. Assuming the next books are going to follow side characters, whose story would you like to hear in the coming books?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Right Swipe” is included on the Goodreads lists “Radical Romance”, and “2019 Romance Books by Authors of Color”.

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

Next Book Club Book: “Red at the Bone” by Jacqueline Woodson

Kate’s Review: “Good Girl, Bad Blood”

Book: “Good Girl, Bad Blood”(A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder #2) by Holly Jackson

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, March 2021

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

Book Description: The highly anticipated sequel to the instant New York Times bestseller, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder! More dark secrets are exposed in this addictive, true-crime fueled mystery.

Pip is not a detective anymore. With the help of Ravi Singh, she released a true-crime podcast about the murder case they solved together last year. The podcast has gone viral, yet Pip insists her investigating days are behind her.

But she will have to break that promise when someone she knows goes missing. Jamie Reynolds has disappeared, on the very same night the town hosted a memorial for the sixth-year anniversary of the deaths of Andie Bell and Sal Singh. The police won’t do anything about it. And if they won’t look for Jamie then Pip will, uncovering more of her town’s dark secrets along the way… and this time everyone is listening. But will she find him before it’s too late?

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

Perhaps you remember that last year I greatly enjoyed the YA mystery “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” by Holly Jackson, and it even made my Top Ten Books of 2020. I also mentioned in that review that I was super stoked for the sequel. Well folks, the time has arrived. “Good Girl, Bad Blood” is here.

My first highly anticipated thriller book of the year! (source)

We pick up not to far after we left off in “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder”. Pip is no longer actively seeking out mysteries to solve, instead working on a podcast about the Andie Bell/Sal Singh case, and attending the trial of serial rapist Max Hastings. Pip, however, is drawn into helping her friend Connor, whose brother has gone missing, and dedicates a new season of her podcast to her investigation. What I liked most about “Good Girl, Bad Blood” is that while Jackson could have set Pip up to be a modern day Nancy Drew who is just going to solve cases and move on to the next, instead we get a front seat at the physical, mental, and emotional labor that she has to endure to help those she cares about. Well, and to give her that purpose that she felt she had in the first book. It’s an angle that may seem obvious, but Jackson does it in a way that makes you really start to wonder how much of this is all worth it as Pip gets sucked into another case, and risks her safety in trying to solve it. I didn’t expect it to go in this direction, and I was happy that it did. Jackson also takes this time to examine the weaknesses in our current law and order systems, as the police in town aren’t really taking Jamie’s missing status seriously, and the rape trial of Max Hastings follows a lot of the same ‘he said, she said’ injustices we see in real life. All of these things combine that leaves Pip in some pretty bleak places as the story goes on, and since there is going to be another book in the series, I want to see how Jackson tackles this for our imperfect heroine.

In terms of the plot itself, “Good Girl, Bad Blood” has a lot of the same strengths as the first book. I still really like Pip, and I loved seeing her relationship with Ravi Singh evolve and flourish (cutest couple ever). I also liked getting to know some of her other friends a little bit better, like Connor. As to the mystery, once again we got a taut and suspenseful thriller, and we get to see everything laid out in a cohesive way through podcast transcripts and Pip’s notes. It’s a much better way to keep everything organized without making any of the characters seem like they’re reciting facts in a robotic way, and I really enjoy it. I will say that there were a couple of trip ups for me, however. The first was that a couple of red herrings tossed out there didn’t really get resolved as red herrings or not. Like, I think that they were? But it felt a little too touched upon in the narrative to just be left behind without explanation. That’s nitpicky. The other issue isn’t as such, in that one of the big puzzle pieces that ties everything together wasn’t even hinted at until well into the last fourth of the book. It felt sort of like a deus ex machine, but for a plot point. But that said, I was pretty much kept guessing until the end. And what an ending it was. It has set us up for the next book in the series. And now, once again, I am waiting anxiously to see where Pip can go next.

“Good Girl, Bad Blood” continues a fun series that is on my must read list going forward. If you haven’t tried these books yet and like a good YA mystery/thriller, you absolutely need to pick them up.

Rating 8: A twisty and suspenseful sequel, “Good Girl, Bad Blood” has a couple of stumbles, but is overall a great follow up to a runaway hit!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Good Girl, Bad Blood” is included on the Goodreads lists “Young Adult Crime/Murder Mysteries”, and “Fiction Books Featuring Podcasts”.

Find “Good Girl, Bad Blood” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Initial Insult”

Book: “The Initial Insult” by Mindy McGinnis

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, February 2021

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

Book Description: Welcome to Amontillado, Ohio, where your last name is worth more than money, and secrets can be kept… for a price. Tress Montor knows that her family used to mean something—until she didn’t have a family anymore. When her parents disappeared seven years ago while driving her best friend home, Tress lost everything. She might still be a Montor, but the entire town shuns her now that she lives with her drunken, one-eyed grandfather at what locals refer to as the “White Trash Zoo,” – a wild animal attraction featuring a zebra, a chimpanzee, and a panther, among other things.

Felicity Turnado has it all – looks, money, and a secret that she’s kept hidden. She knows that one misstep could send her tumbling from the top of the social ladder, and she’s worked hard to make everyone forget that she was with the Montors the night they disappeared. Felicity has buried what she knows so deeply that she can’t even remember what it is… only that she can’t look at Tress without having a panic attack.

But she’ll have to. Tress has a plan. A Halloween costume party at an abandoned house provides the ideal situation for Tress to pry the truth from Felicity – brick by brick – as she slowly seals her former best friend into a coal chute. With a drunken party above them, and a loose panther on the prowl, Tress will have her answers – or settle for revenge.

In the first book of this duology, award-winning author Mindy McGinnis draws inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe and masterfully delivers a dark, propulsive mystery in alternating points of view that unravels a friendship . . . forevermore.

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

As I’ve mentioned before, I really enjoyed Edgar Allan Poe and his poems and short stories. From the sad to the dream like to the macabre, the guy always has something that is going to connect with me. It’s been a long time since I read “The Cask of Amontillado”, the short story in which a man slowly seals up his rival into a tomb brick by brick, but I do remember how much it unsettled me the first time I read it back in middle school. When I head that Mindy McGinnis had written a new YA novel that took that story and updated it to be between two teenage girls, I was interested, but wondered how it could be done! But I was absolutely game to give it a try.

Taking a story like “The Cask of Amontillado” and turning it into a thriller/horror about two teenage girls whose friendship has gone bad is a lofty goal to set for oneself, but McGinnis rises to the occasion and has created a creepy and suspenseful story. We get the perspectives of both Tress, the one with the bricks, and Felicity, the one in the chains, and see how their relationship has gotten to this point. I really enjoyed both voices of each girl, and McGinnis was very careful to show that each of them had their own roles to play in the disintegration of their friendship. She doesn’t really give either of them a pass, but is also very empathetic to each of them in their struggles. It made it easy to both feel for them, and hate them, depending on the moment of the story. But it was the third perspective that I didn’t expect that kind of worked the best for me, and that is of the Panther that Tress’s grandfather Cecil owns, who has escaped from the exotic zoo. It’s this element that makes “The Black Cat” our other most prominent Poe work, and I thought it upped the ante, but also added an experimental and all knowing third perspective to bring in other, dreamy elements.

I WILL say, and I never thought I’d ever say this given how much I like Poe, that there was a little too much Poe stuffed into this book. It’s one thing when you are throwing references with names, vague similarities between the source content and the interpretation, and a main plot that’s paying homage. But McGinnis put a few too many plot points in that were a bit overwhelming. If it had just been “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Black Cat” with a few other nods I think it would have been fine. But we also get a whole “The Mask of Red Death” subplot which feels underexplored because there is so much else going on, and some plot points from “Hop Frog” thrown in as well that are also superfluous. It just made things seem a bit more bloated than they needed to be, especially since there is, indeed, going to be another book in the series. Could these things have been saved for that? Or will there be even MORE underutilized opportunities with some great source material?

But yes, having said that, “The Initial Insult” was a lot of fun, and while I’m curious about how a sequel is going to work (given that things seemed pretty final in some regards), I have a couple of theories as to what McGinnis may be up to. And even if those theories don’t pan out, I’m definitely anticipating what comes next.

Rating 8: A creative modern day interpretation of an Edgar Allan Poe classic, “The Initial Insult” sometimes does too much, but is entertaining and suspenseful nonetheless.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Initial Insult” is included on the Goodreads list “Books Influenced by Edgar Allan Poe”.

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