Serena’s Review: “Murder on Cold Street”

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Book: “Murder on Cold Street” by Sherry Thomas

Publishing Info: Berkley, October 2020

Where Did I get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Inspector Treadles, Charlotte Holmes’s friend and collaborator, has been found locked in a room with two dead men, both of whom worked with his wife at the great manufacturing enterprise she has recently inherited.

Rumors fly. Had Inspector Treadles killed the men because they had opposed his wife’s initiatives at every turn? Had he killed in a fit of jealous rage, because he suspected Mrs. Treadles of harboring deeper feelings for one of the men? To make matters worse, he refuses to speak on his own behalf, despite the overwhelming evidence against him.

Charlotte finds herself in a case strewn with lies and secrets. But which lies are to cover up small sins, and which secrets would flay open a past better left forgotten? Not to mention, how can she concentrate on these murders, when Lord Ingram, her oldest friend and sometime lover, at last dangles before her the one thing she has always wanted?

Previously Reviewed: “A Study in Scarlet Women” and “A Conspiracy in Belgravia” and “The Hollow of Fear” and “The Art of Theft”

Review: Overall, I’ve been enjoying Sherry Thomas’s “Lady Sherlock” series. I’ve found all of the mysteries to be appropriately complicated, and I’ve really liked the swaps and changes to staple characters that Thomas has added in. I have had some growing questions, however, as the series has continued, mostly having to do with the very slow burn romance, the use of Moriarty, and the role of Charlotte Holmes’s sister. So those were all elements I had on my eye on this go around. Kind of a mixed bag as far as results go, but I did enjoy this book quite a bit and more than the previous one, so that’s always good.

After returning from their last mystery, Charlotte Holmes and company are immediately set upon by a distraught Mrs. Treadles. Her husband, the inspector, has been arrested for a double homicide. Charlotte takes on the case, of course, but considering the locked room that Mr. Treadles is found in along with the two dead bodies, the mystery posed is quite a stumper. As she wades through the various clues, more and more questions arise with regards to the Treadles themselves, as well as with the family company over which Mrs. Treadles has recently taken operation.

To start out with the basic things I review, this book was successful in all the ways its predecessors were. The mystery itself is complicated with a wide assortment of red herrings, false clues, and various suspects, all with their own motives. Each time I thought I was beginning to piece together where things were going, I’d be pulled in a different direction and realize I’d been heading down the completely wrong path. The various motives and suspects that are introduced are all plausible, and many of them aren’t even directly laid out, leaving it to the reader to begin to piece together their own theories, never quite knowing what is going on in Charlotte Holmes’s mind.

The writing also continues to be solid and engaging. I’ve read quite a few of Thomas’s books over the years (I just finished one of her romances, which is the genre she started out in), and her writing style has always clearly unique to her and solid throughout a wide variety of genres. She has a way of writing that always seems to pull me in. It somehow manages to be completely engrossing and pull the story along quickly, even when the sentences themselves are often not incredibly action-packed and more often read in a more dry, lofty tone.

As for the concerns that have slowly been building as the series progressed, I’m happy to report that on at least one count things seem to be moving along. The romance between Charlotte and Lord Ingram seems to have finally turned a new bend. Things are obviously not resolved on this front, but I was pleased to see that the relationship itself was evolving, with Charlotte now being the one to confront her own role in this burgeoning relationship, what it has been in the past and what she wants it to be in the future. It was a nice change of pace to have Lord Ingram, for once, the more confident and secure in his decisions of the two. I’m curious to see where things will go from here!

On the other hand, however, my other two questions, those regarding the of Livia Holmes and Moriarty, were less satisfactory. Frankly, I would have preferred Livia Holmes to have been completely absent from this book. She only has a handful of chapters as it is, and her story felt wholly unconnected from the mystery and goings-on of the other characters. I think the character would be better served to show up when/if the story call for it, as, here, she felt shoe-horned in in a way that disrupted the flow of the greater plot line altogether.

In some ways, I have the same complaint/suggestion regarding Moriarty. I’d been starting to feel that the ties to Moriarty in every single mystery thus far were beginning to feel like a bit much. It’s maybe a bit of a spoiler, but the character once again is connected here, though in a very small, sideways manner. So small and so sideways, even, that I really questioned the necessity of involving him at all. It seems to be meant to continue building the tension between the inevitable clash between Charlotte and Moriarty, but honestly, here, it just felt tacked on and unnecessary. Most fans of this series are likely already fans of the original Holmes and need very little manipulation to become quickly invested in this rivalry. It also just begins to feel implausible that all of these mysteries that seem to randomly fall on Charlotte’s plate are also connected to this shadowy other character.

Overall, however, I really enjoyed this book. I thought the mystery itself was much more compelling than what we had in the previous book, and I was excited to see some movement on the romance front. Now, alas, another year or so until the next entry. Luckily, I’ve found a YA fantasy series also written by Thomas, so that’s probably on the schedule for this winter.

Rating 9: Another great entry in the “Lady Sherlock” series, though, bizarrely, I wish for a little less Moriarty.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Murder on Cold Street” is on these Goodreads lists: “Best Sherlock Holmes Fiction (Pastiches)” and “Historical Mysteries and Thrillers Featuring Women.”

Find “Murder on Cold Street” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Sandman (Vol.4): Season of Mists”

25101Book: “The Sandman (Vol.4): Season of Mists” by Neil Gaiman, Matt Wagner (Ill.), George Pratt (Ill.), Dick Giordano (Ill.), Kelley Jones (Ill.), P. Craig Russell (Ill.), Mike Dringenberg (Ill.), & Malcolm Jones III (Ill.).

Publishing Info: Vertigo, 1991

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Ten thousand years ago, Morpheus condemned a woman who loved him to Hell. Now the other members of his immortal family, The Endless, have convinced the Dream King that this was an injustice. To make it right, Morpheus must return to Hell to rescue his banished love — and Hell’s ruler, the fallen angel Lucifer, has already sworn to destroy him.

Review: Up until this point, “The Sandman” has been a combination of vignettes, massive world building, and showing how Morpheus/Dream is adjusting to trying to rebuild The Dreaming after his captivity. I think that it’s safe to say, however, that we don’t really know THAT MUCH about Morpheus as a character in terms of his wants, desires, and personality. He’s a deity of sorts. He’s a bit grumpy. He can be vengeful, or merciful. But in “The Sandman (Vol.4): Season of Mists”, we finally get to see him grapple with some very tough decisions, as well as having to look inwards and grapple with his own demons and mistakes. After a meeting with the other Endless, aka his siblings, Morpheus is taken to task by Death for banishing his former lover Nada to Hell after she refused to marry him and rule The Dreaming by his side. Realizing that he did something reprehensible, he decides to go to Hell, confront Lucifer Morningstar, and see if he can set her free. You think that the story you’re about to read is going to be a great battle between two powerful beings, and that it’s going to be a focus on the big fight between the two to save Nada.

But instead, when Dream arrives to confront Lucifer…. Lucifer quits his mantle as the ruler of Hell, and tells Dream that he is now responsible for what happens next to his former kingdom.

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Lucifer as he peaces out. (source)

So in a great twist and subversion, now Dream has to hold court to those who would want to take Hell over, and The Dreaming becomes host to Gods, Goddesses, Deities, Demons, and others who all think that they should get this prime real estate. Frankly, I loved that this was the main conflict. Seeing Morpheus have to bring all of these beings into his home and to let them say their piece, and then have to do some critical thinking about the pros and cons of giving one of them Hell (through sucking up, threats, or bribes no less), was such a fascinating turn of events. We get to see Gods from various mythologies come in, from Odin to Anubis to Bast to Susanoo-no-mikoto, Gaiman gives all of them a reason to want Hell for themselves. It also gives Dream time to think about what kind of terrible fate he left Nada to. That was actually the greatest weakness of this arc, in that things with Dream and Nada is almost resolved too quickly and easily. I liked seeing Death read Dream the Riot Act about how AWFUL he was to her. It doesn’t sit as well these days for MANY reasons (given that she was also of African royalty, so seeing Morpheus subjugate a Black woman just feels all the more tone deaf and problematic). But over all, I really liked this entire arc, and feel that this is where “The Sandman” has finally become it’s own thing, even more so than “The Doll’s House”.

But more significant for me within the whole of “The Sandman” mythos and universe is that this is the collection in which we finally get to meet Delirium, the youngest Endless and my number one favorite character in this series. Sure I’ve sang the praises of Death, and while she is my number two gal, Delirium holds the key to my heart. I love her so much that in 2015 I was her for Halloween.

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Not many people at my party got it, but those who did were LIVING. 

Along with the intros of Delirium and Destiny, we get to see the Endless interacting with each other, and seeing the power dynamics, as well as hints towards a missing Endless, but more on that in later collections. They are definitely dysfunctional, but you at least get the feeling that they, mostly, care for each other, as well as otherworldly godlike beings can (though Dream seems to have no love for Desire, which is fair as Desire is the wooooorst in many ways). This extended scene felt natural and was incredibly charming.

As I’m sure you noticed above, there are SO MANY illustrators with this arc, and they all added something unique to each story. But once again my favorite is the one that deals with the Endless, with illustrations by Dringenberg and Jones. The dreamy details of the Endless as they confer and debate really made me feel like I was in a strange place between worlds.

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(source)

Rating 9: A fascinating and twisted (yet also somewhat lighthearted) storyline that brings together many myths and legends, “Season of Mists” gives Morpheus a lot to think about in terms of fairness, and his own culpability in monstrous acts. We also meet my favorite character in the series.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Sandman (Vol.4): Season of Mists” is included on the Goodreads lists “Great Non-Super Hero Graphic Novels”, and “Mythic Fiction Comics”,

Find “The Sandman (Vol.4): Season of Mists” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed: 

Kate’s Review: “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder”

45874065Book: “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” by Holly Jackson

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, February 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Everyone in Fairview knows the story.

Pretty and popular high school senior Andie Bell was murdered by her boyfriend, Sal Singh, who then killed himself. It was all anyone could talk about. And five years later, Pip sees how the tragedy still haunts her town.

But she can’t shake the feeling that there was more to what happened that day. She knew Sal when she was a child, and he was always so kind to her. How could he possibly have been a killer?

Now a senior herself, Pip decides to reexamine the closed case for her final project, at first just to cast doubt on the original investigation. But soon she discovers a trail of dark secrets that might actually prove Sal innocent . . . and the line between past and present begins to blur. Someone in Fairview doesn’t want Pip digging around for answers, and now her own life might be in danger.

This is the story of an investigation turned obsession, full of twists and turns and with an ending you’ll never expect.

Review: Back when we were a COVID-free world and the thought of going shopping in person didn’t give me hives, my Mom and I went to Barnes and Noble on a trip to the Mall of America. I always like to check what the YA display has, because even though I know it will usually be heavy on the fantasy and romance, you can also find some gems of teen thrillers. That was how I initially learned about “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” by Holly Jackson. I let it be, but the name stuck in my head enough that when quarantine happened about a month later I had the title of a book I wanted to order. It still took a little time to get to it, but I finally picked it up and gave it a go…. and kicked myself for waiting to start it as long as I did.

“A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” has all the elements that I want in any kind of thriller, let alone a teen one. The protagonist is interesting and well fleshed out, for one thing. Pippa is the kind of teenage girl I probably wished I was at the time. She’s clever, she’s funny, and her true crime obsession, one true crime in particular, is a fun nod to all true crime enthusiasts everywhere. But on top of all of those things, she is by no means perfect, but not in the obvious ways that some thriller heroines go. She has a well adjusted home life, she has healthy friendships and relationships, and she isn’t drowning in her own dysfunction. You like her almost immediately, and even when she does sometimes do dumb things (like most teenagers probably would on occasion), they are believable. And it isn’t just Pip that is enjoyable as a character. Her friends are all fun with witty and snappy personalities, and her partner in investigating, Ravi, is incredibly likable along with being a little bit tragic. Ravi is the younger brother of Sal, the boy who everyone assumes murdered Andie but who ended up dead before he could be charged (supposedly by his own hand). Not only does Ravi’s involvement make Pip’s endeavor all the more personal and high stakes, it also makes it feel more ‘legitimate’ as opposed to just a random girl not really connected to a tragedy sticking her nose in it because of a quirky true crime obsession. Jackson also makes note of racism within police investigations and media coverage, as Sal, being Indian American, was immediately accepted as the murderer because of racist ideas about his culture and how women fit into it, in spite of a few big inconsistencies. Ravi, too, doesn’t have the same privileges as Pip does as they investigate, and Jackson definitely makes certain to address these things when Pip needs to be educated on them. I thought that was a good theme throughout this novel.

And on top of likable characters, we also get a VERY stellar, complex, but not overwrought mystery at hand. We get to see Pippa approach it through her perspective in a few different ways, be it through the narrative itself, her log entries for her capstone project, or the notes that she has taken about the case. The clues are all there, and while I admit that I kind of figured out one of the big aspects to the case pretty early on, Jackson throws in enough believable red herrings that I did end up doubting myself. It’s a classic whodunnit with a lot of people who would have reason and motive, and then you add in ANOTHER layer with a mystery person starting to threaten Pip as she gets closer and closer to finding out the truth about what happened to Andie. There are well executed moments of legitimate tension, and you do really start to worry about Pip as she starts to unearth long kept secrets and lies. This is the kind of suspense you really want in a thriller, and Jackson is able to maintain it throughout the story, though there are a good number of moments of levity sprinkled in. Just to give the reader a break in the tension here and there. I was hooked, and basically read it in the course of two days, foregoing other forms of entertainment until I was done. Yeah, it’s VERY fun.

And the best part is that a sequel is coming out next Spring here in the States.

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Between this and the hope of a potential vaccine, Spring 2021 is looking PRETTY good! (source)

“A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” is a great read and a hell of a lot of fun! Shame on me for sleeping on it for so long! Thriller fans, do yourself a favor and go read this book!

Rating 9: Incredibly fun, properly twisty, and a very impressive debut novel, “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” gave me everything I want in my YA thrillers, and more.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” is included on the Goodreads lists “Young Adult Crime/Murder Mysteries”, and “Can’t Wait Crime, Mystery, and Thrillers 2020”.

Find “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Grown”

49397758Book: “Grown” by Tiffany D. Jackson

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, September 2020

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

Book Description: Korey Fields is dead.

When Enchanted Jones wakes with blood on her hands and zero memory of the previous night, no one—the police and Korey’s fans included—has more questions than she does. All she really knows is that this isn’t how things are supposed to be. Korey was Enchanted’s ticket to stardom.

Before there was a dead body, Enchanted was an aspiring singer, struggling with her tight knit family’s recent move to the suburbs while trying to find her place as the lone Black girl in high school. But then legendary R&B artist Korey Fields spots her at an audition. And suddenly her dream of being a professional singer takes flight.

Enchanted is dazzled by Korey’s luxurious life but soon her dream turns into a nightmare. Behind Korey’s charm and star power hides a dark side, one that wants to control her every move, with rage and consequences. Except now he’s dead and the police are at the door. Who killed Korey Fields?

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

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times: if you haven’t checked out Tiffany D. Jackson’s books, be you a YA thriller fan or just a thriller fan in general, you absolutely NEED to. Jackson is one of my favorite authors, and when I heard that her newest novel, “Grown”, was taking on the sexual exploitation of Black teenage girls searching for stardom, I knew that it was going to be her toughest, but perhaps most important, novel yet.

First of all, content warnings abound on this book. Jackson herself puts a content warning at the beginning of this book, and it is definitely necessary. “Grown” deals with themes of sexual abuse, grooming, and psychological abuse and trauma.

“Grown” is an unflinching look at the sexual abuse and victimization of teenage girl Enchanted, a Black girl with dreams of becoming a singing sensation. When R&B superstar Korey Fields (who is twenty eight to her seventeen) sees her at an audition, he offers to take her under his wing and help her become a singer, but from the get go you know that something is off. He texts her about her life. He compliments her on how pretty she is. He calls her ‘Bright Eyes’. But once he gets her on tour and away from her parents and her support system, he isolates her, he abuses her, and he makes her completely subservient to him under guise of care and love. There are clear influences from R. Kelly in this story (side note: if you are interested in social justice issues regarding the #MeToo movement but haven’t watched “Surviving R. Kelly” yet, go watch it. Go watch it now.), but Enchanted as a character is wholly original and an incredibly realistic teenage girl. Her insecurities, her dreams, her certain naiveté, everything about her was on point. Jackson paints a clear portrait of a girl who has been manipulated into a dangerous situation, and you never feel any victim blaming towards her. On the contrary, we see how easy it would be for Enchanted to get into that situation because of the manipulations of a predator, and the inaction of those who are willing to prop up a predator based on his fame, wealth, and power. Jackson also points out the very important point that Black girls aren’t as easily seen as victims in our culture due to societal racism that dehumanizes Black people, and sexualizes Black girls from a young age. Misogynoir is a very dangerous thing, and it allows predators to get away with their predation, and you see it over and over again with Enchanted, even in seemingly mundane ways (one moment that struck me was when her swim coach told her to get a bigger suit because she was ‘spilling out’ of the one she was wearing, as if Enchanted’s body is somehow her fault). Seeing all of this play out is devastating, and seeing Enchanted failed by those who should be protecting her (I am leaving her parents out of this indictment, by the way, as while I don’t want to go into TOO many details, they are powerless in their own ways) is so upsetting.

Oh, and there is also a mystery at hand here! Right off the bat, Korey Fields is dead, and Enchanted is covered in ‘beet juice’. The narrative is split into two timelines. The first is before, and the second is during and after, with first person accounts, transcripts, and conversations all sprinkled in to lay out the building blocks of the murder case. I did feel like the mystery took a back seat to the bigger issues at hand, but that is totally okay in this work. In fact, things that made the mystery more complex and threw doubt as to Enchanted’s reliability as a first person narrator almost weakened the narrative, as it didn’t feel necessary to throw in twists and turns to throw the reader off the scent. Regardless, it was a satisfying mystery that was well laid out, and I liked how Jackson used different writing styles and devices to build up a suspenseful story that you are invested in.

“Grown” is once again a triumph by Tiffany D. Jackson. But it’s also perhaps one of the more important reads about #MeToo themes. It also asks many hard questions and makes the reader really think about how society values power and fame over the welfare of others.

Rating 9: An important, suspenseful, and heart wrenching story, “Grown” shines a much needed light on misogyny, sexual violence, and the way that race plays a part to make victims, especially Black women and girls, even more vulnerable.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Grown” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Books for BLM Movement”, and “YA Contemporary by Black Authors”.

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

Serena’s Review: “Driftwood”

9781616963460_b1ce2Book: “Driftwood” by Marie Brennan

Publishing Info: Tachyon Publications, August 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Who is Last?

Fame is rare in Driftwood- it’s hard to get famous if you don’t stick around long enough for people to know you. But many know the guide, Last, a one-blooded survivor who has seen his world end many lifetimes ago. For Driftwood is a strange place of slow apocalypses, where continents eventually crumble into mere neighborhoods, pulled inexorably towards the center in the Crush. Cultures clash, countries fall, and everything eventually disintegrates.

Within the Shreds, a rumor goes around that Last has died. Drifters come together to commemorate him. But who really was Last?

Review: I requested this book mostly on the premise that I have enjoyed the two books by Marie Brennan I had read before. Both were in some way part of her “Lady Trent” dragon fantasy series. This….sounded different. But as I felt that her strong writing was one of the biggest pluses for both of those other books, I was curious to see how this skill set would apply to a completely different story, one that seemed to much more science fiction and post-apocalyptic than high fantasy. And boy was I pleased!

It turns out that even worlds have a place to go when they die. Or, more accurately, when they’re still in the process of dying. After whatever sort of apocalypse suits any particular world, it makes its way to Driftwood, a place made up of many different worlds slowly shrinking and moving inwards towards the Crush where the last bits of them and their people will disappear for good. But there is one being who seems to have been around forever, Last. No one remembers his world or his people, but many remember stories of ways that Last touched their lives. Now, when he has disappeared, maybe for good, they gather to share those stories.

I wasn’t aware of this from the book description, but it turns out that this book is more of an anthology-like story than a plot-driven storyline about any specific character. I guess it’s there enough in the blurb, but I didn’t pick up on it. But it turned out to be a really nice surprise and a perfect way of creating such a unique, creative world. As much as this book is about Last and the influence he had on many people’s lives, it’s also about Driftwood. And by telling the story through these smaller narratives, we get to dip our toes into not only a bunch of really interesting new worlds, but into a variety of ideas and coping mechanisms that people have for dealing with death, the end of the world, and inevitability as a whole.

I also read the author’s blurb at the back and discovered that the author was trained as an anthropologist. This all makes so much sense. Not only for this book, but now in hindsight looking at the way the Lady Trent books were written and their focus. But here, we can really see those skill sets shine. When describing all of these different worlds and peoples, it’s not as simple as describing different ecosystems or different body types. No, Brennan creates religions, cultures, hierarchies, ways of speaking, all of the little things that really go into forming a “people.”

Last was a great character in and of himself. But he is also the type of character that we know so little about (even by the end of the book), that it quickly becomes clear that what we do “know” about him are only impressions left by those telling their unique stories of him. But through them we can parse together a really interesting character who has existed in a space that, by definition, operates to undue existence. To be the only one of his kind. To not be “known” by anyone. To go on while the “world” is shifting constantly around you. Learning new things, but also constantly losing what you know. I really liked the brief insights we got into the kind of mentality that Last had to develop to survive. And that, while bleak at times, we’re left with a character who values hope and love above everything.

The only real ding I have for this book was the ending. It felt like it came out of nowhere, was very sudden, and left me with a bunch of questions. On one hand, I’m ok with there still being secrets hidden in this world and about Last. Indeed, that’s half of what makes the book so intriguing, the feeling that you’ve only scratched the surface. But there were a few “reveals,” for lack of a better word, toward the end that left me scratching my head. I couldn’t figure out whether I was missing some grand point or not. Part of me really feels like I am. But I re-read it several times and…I still don’t really know what point the author was trying to come to, if any. Maybe others will have more success.

If you’re a fan of this author, than this is definitely another of hers to check out. But, overall, if you’re a fan of anthologies, science fiction, and stories that explore what “humanity” really is, this is an excellent read. If I had the “Beach Reads” list to do over, this is definitely the kind of book that I’d throw on there.

Rating 9: Beautifully written and incredibly unique. This is definitely a book to check out this summer!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Driftwood” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “Hugo 2021 Eligible Novels.”

 

Serena’s Review: “The Faithless Hawk”

41022295._sy475_Book: “The Faithless Hawk” by Margaret Owen

Publishing Info: Henry Holt and Co., August 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: As the new chieftain of the Crows, Fie knows better than to expect a royal to keep his word. Still she’s hopeful that Prince Jasimir will fulfill his oath to protect her fellow Crows. But then black smoke fills the sky, signaling the death of King Surimir and the beginning of Queen Rhusana’s merciless bid for the throne.

With the witch queen using the deadly plague to unite the nation of Sabor against Crows—and add numbers to her monstrous army—Fie and her band are forced to go into hiding, leaving the country to be ravaged by the plague. However, they’re all running out of time before the Crows starve in exile and Sabor is lost forever.

A desperate Fie calls on old allies to help take Rhusana down from within her own walls. But inside the royal palace, the only difference between a conqueror and a thief is an army. To survive, Fie must unravel not only Rhusana’s plot, but ancient secrets of the Crows—secrets that could save her people, or set the world ablaze.

Previously Reviewed: “The Merciful Crow”

Review: I listened to the first book in this duology as an audiobook. And in my review I credited the narrator with really pulling her weight to imbibe this story with an extra level of emotion and sense of character that helped push the book forward past what, at times, was rather slow-paced storytelling. With that in mind, I was a bit nervous when I picked up this book as a standard e-ARC through Edelweiss. Would it hold up without the narrator’s perfect voice for Fie? Yes, yes it did and not only that, but it was better than the first in all ways.

With Prince Jasimir delivered to relative safety and with an army at his back, Fie’s hope for the future, a future where Crows are protected from the vicious groups that hunt them, seems within grasp. As a Chief now herself, Fie feels this sense of responsibility to her people more strongly then ever. But one things goes wrong after another, one devastating loss after another, until Fie wakes up one morning with her people in hiding and a choice of either a future of starvation and being hunted down, or of leaving her people and going into the heart of her enemy, the castle itself, to do what needs to be done. But even there, Fie must rely on half-lost Crow magic and unravel an erased history to truly find a path forward for not only her own people, but everyone in Sabor.

As I mentioned in my intro, while I did enjoy the first book this duology overall, I did finish it with some lingering questions about the book’s pacing and ability to carry a more plot-driven storyline. So I was incredibly pleased to see both of those issues fully addressed in this second book. Not only does this book have a more action-packed plot than the first, but the pacing was sustained throughout the book without any of portions that seemed to lag (something that happened for a fairly substantial portion in the middle of the first book.)

I also really liked how much this book expanded on the magic-system and history of Sabor. I thought the hierarchy system and the unique abilities assigned to each group was interesting in the first book, so I was really excited to see this book dive much more deeply into not only how it all worked, but in the history of the system itself. I hadn’t even realized until this book started answering them how many lingering questions I had had from the first book, particularly about the Crows and Fie’s own magic. And all of this information seemed to unfold in a very organic, natural way, without any infodumps or unbelievable revelations.

I also really liked Fie’s own part in the story. She takes on a very active role in this book and faces completely different challenges than the ones she dealt with the first go-around. We see not only how she is better prepared for these greater ordeals this time, but also how the increased feeling of responsibility and the new closeness to others affects her own abilities to trust and make decisions on a grand scale vs. personal feelings. Jasimer also featured more heavily in this book than I expected, and, as I didn’t love his character so much in the first book, I was extremely pleased with what we had from the character here. We got to see a lot of the growth he experienced in the first book pay off, and, overall, he was incredibly likable this go-around. Something about being a “cat wrangler” didn’t hurt my impression of him either!

I was also pleased with the romance in this story. Things definitely didn’t go the route I expected. But some of the “twists” here were also easy enough to see through that for those of us who were worried, you can rest fairly assured that all turns out well, though perhaps not how you expected.

Overall, I was really pleased with this book, both in and of itself and as a conclusion to the duology as a whole. There were some legitimate surprises and twists that I didn’t see coming, and those that I did were so purely satisfying that I didn’t care that I could predict them in advance. I think the author had a better handle on the pacing in this book and really came into her own with the strength of writing. For those who enjoyed “The Merciful Crow,” definitely don’t miss out on this one!

Rating 9: A completely satisfying conclusion in pretty much every way!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Faithless Hawk” is a new title, so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it is on “2020 YA Sequels.”

Find “The Faithless Hawk” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “This Is My America”

52855111._sx318_sy475_Book: “This Is My America” by Kim Johnson

Publishing Info: Random House Children’s Books, July 2020

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

Book Description: Dear Martin meets Just Mercy in this unflinching yet uplifting YA novel that explores the racist injustices in the American justice system.

Every week, seventeen-year-old Tracy Beaumont writes letters to Innocence X, asking the organization to help her father, an innocent Black man on death row. After seven years, Tracy is running out of time—her dad has only 267 days left. Then the unthinkable happens. The police arrive in the night, and Tracy’s older brother, Jamal, goes from being a bright, promising track star to a “thug” on the run, accused of killing a white girl. Determined to save her brother, Tracy investigates what really happened between Jamal and Angela down at the Pike. But will Tracy and her family survive the uncovering of the skeletons of their Texas town’s racist history that still haunt the present?

Fans of Nic Stone and Jason Reynolds won’t want to miss this provocative and gripping debut.

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

Though I don’t live right in the city, I live close enough to Minneapolis that I was following the aftermath of the George Floyd murder with a heavy heart and no small amount of anger. Anger towards the MPD, anger towards racists who were saying awful shit, anger at the white supremacists who came into the city to stir up trouble (a bit of fear of that too; given that we’re a Jewish household, for a few nights there we were taking precautions). While I hope that this senseless murder and the protests that came after will start to produce some change when it comes to race in this country, I also know that racism is a deep part of our society and not easily swayed. It was around this time that I got “This Is My America” by Kim Johnson. While I love that more books are being published that address the racism in our country, be it societal or systemic, it’s terrible that things have changed so little that these books continue to be necessary. Circumstances aside, “This Is My America” is another serious contender for one of my favorite reads of the summer.

First and foremost as mentioned above, the themes of this book of racism in the American Justice System and in America itself are pressing and emotional, and I thought that through Tracy’s story Johnson has a more unique perspective. I’ve read a good number of YA books where an unarmed Black person is murdered by the police, which is of course a horrific reality, but in “This Is My America” we look at a different injustice: wrongfully convicted/accused Black men who end up on Death Row. Tracy’s father has been on Death Row for seven years and his date of execution is less than a year away, so for her and her family the hope of his case being revisited is imperative. We see how the trauma has affected her family, from the financial burden laying on their mother, to her younger sister Corinne never knowing her father at home, to Tracy’s obsession affecting her relationships at home and at school. It’s an angle that we don’t get to see as often, that even when ‘justice’ is supposedly served, for a lot of Black men in prison there is no actual justice. Tracy’s desperation is compounded when her brother Jamal is accused of murdering his friend Angela, a white girl who had an on and off again relationship with the sheriff’s son. Jamal didn’t do it, but given that he’s Black he doesn’t trust the police, so he runs. And as Tracy starts to dig into what happened to Angela, she starts to see that it’s not the Black community in their small Texas town that is the threat, but a hidden rot of White Supremacy that has started to rise in the current social conditions. Add into that a corrupt police force and sheriff’s office and you have Tracy trying to find justice on her own. Johnson addresses all of these themes with care and shows the complexity, and it never feels like she’s talking down to her audience. The only time that it feels like it’s being spoon fed or explained is when within the story one would be carefully explaining the ideas, so it fit and didn’t feel out of place. And on top of all that, Johnson included a very substantial Author’s Note at the end that provided a lot of context and resources for the topics in this book.

As if a fabulous overall thematic wasn’t enough, we also get a really well done and well thought out mystery! I wanted to know who killed Angela, just as I wanted to know what actually happened to the couple whose murder sent Tracy’s father to prison. Johnson lays out a lot of clues, a lot of suspects, and a lot of suspenseful moments as Tracy takes the investigation into her own hands, and manages to weave a lot of complexities into the story. I was kept in suspense and on the edge of my seat as more sinister clues were unveiled, and genuinely taken in with each reveal.

One qualm that kept it from a perfect rating: there is a love triangle between Tracy, her best friend Dean, and her childhood friend Quincy (whose father was killed by the police while Tracy’s father was arrested). I don’t really know why there is a love triangle, but there is. I found it a little hard to believe that Tracy would even be entertaining the idea of romance with two different boys when her brother is wanted for murder, her father’s days on death row are dwindling, and there is a potential threat of the Klan being directed towards her family. But at the same time, I know that teenagers can get caught up in hormones maybe? It wasn’t distracting enough to totally throw me off, but it felt out of place.

But really, “This Is My America” is fantastic. It absolutely deserves to  become the next YA sensation, and given how a lot of the themes in this story seem to have come to a head this summer, it feels all the more relevant and all the more pressing. Kim Johnson, I cannot wait to see what you do next!

Rating 9: Incendiary, powerful, and still far too relevant, “This Is My America” peels back systemic racism in the American Legal Justice System, and has a compelling mystery to boot.

Reader’s Advisory:

“This Is My America” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Books Similar to THUG”, and “YA Contemporary by Black Authors”.

Find “This Is My America” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “The Poppy War”

35068705Book: “The Poppy War” by R. F. Kuang

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, May 2018

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

Book Description: When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.

Review: Whew! That book description is about half the length of my entire post usually! But I guess given that this is a 600+ page book, it kind of makes sense. There’s a lot to pack in there! This summer continues to be the summer of catching up on books that were quite a hit a year or so ago, and that for whatever reason, took me forever to get to! I have clear memories of seeing this cover and title being thrown about everywhere and yet I never really knew anything about what it was about! Which, having read it now, I kind of get! There’s a lot in here, and it’s the kind of book that’s hard to pin down or to compare to some other, obvious read-alike. And, while I was not prepared for everything in this, I really loved it!

Rin has always been a fighter. Maybe not in the classical sense, though she gets even there eventually. No, she is one who fights against the life that others have chosen for her. A war orphan from a poor providence, through sheer stubbornness and force of will she studies hard enough to earn her ticket out of an arranged marriage. Then, in a northern school that looks down on her lowly beginnings, Rin, again through sheer stubborness, finds a way to become one of their best students. And then the war hits, and her real fight begins. Not only against an almost unstoppable invading force, but the fight within herself to define her future. Will she follow a beloved teacher, warning of dark paths ahead? Or an esteemed leader who asks her to embrace every bit of power she has always hid within herself.

This book took me by complete surprise. For one thing, it almost reads as two entirely different books, so right when you’re getting settled in and think you understand the type of story you’re read, bam! Nope! The first half is your classic coming-of-age, boarding/military school story ala Tamora Pierce’s “Alanna” series. You have Rin, the girl who has nothing going for her, proving to everyone again and again that sheer stubbornness is enough to get you through most everything. She’s an outcast among her peers with the one sweet friend and the one big enemy in the local school enemy. She befriends the quirky teacher. It’s all lovely. And as familiar as that all sounds, the author imbibes her story with such a complicated history, culture, and mythology that the reader never once feels like these aspects of the story are coming off as tropes.

And then, whoops! Not the innocent school story anymore! A foreign army invades and suddenly the story takes a steep turn into a grim and gritty war story. And even that came with surprises. It starts out well enough with a few things going Rin’s way as she learns more about her abilities, her history, and her potential. She joins up with a crew of other “freaks” and they have a few wins. And then…it gets dark. Pretty suddenly even. And when I say dark, I mean dark. I’m not a prude about violence by any means, but man, I wasn’t prepared for where this book headed. I definitely teared up a number of times and had to put the book down (metaphorically, as it was an audiobook) at least two or three times. Some parts of it were really hard to get through.

I will say that this is the one part of the story that knocked it back a point from being a full “10 rating” book: at times, it felt like the violence was almost a bit too much. There was one section in particular about three fourths of the way through where I felt like the book just seemed to linger and repeat examples of the atrocities. While a lot of this was necessary for Rin’s own arc and to justify her choices and how she ends up where she does, I think the point was made even without some of the circling round again through all of the horror. It’s a fine line to walk, and it’s the kind of thing that many readers will have different tolerances for. But, the warning stands: this book goes to some awful places. I wasn’t prepared, so I’ll let you know so you can be!

I really liked Rin’s character. Her arc is incredibly compelling, especially as we see her struggle through some awful choices. And by the end, we have a character who is very different than the one we started with. But at the same time, completely recognizable. And the changes are so subtle and the influences on her pile up so slowly, bit by bit, that by the grand conclusion, we’re not shocked by what should be shocking.

I also loved the incredibly world-building, history, and mythology. This story felt completely fresh, and even after 600+ pages, I still only felt like I was scratching the surface of this world. This is the first book in a trilogy, and while I have a few guesses as to where one or two things are going, I’m also prepared to be dead wrong. Since I was completely blown off my feet with this one, it’d be the height of arrogance for me to assume I know what’s coming next! That said, I will need to give myself a bit of breathing time before getting into the second one. My heart can only take so much!

Rating 9: A little late to the game and repeating what’s been said a bunch of times already, but this book is incredible.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Poppy War” is on these Goodreads lists: “Asian Speculative Fiction by Asian Authors — #ownvoices” and “Fantasy of color.”

Find “The Poppy War” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Only Good Indians”

49045750Book: “The Only Good Indians” by Stephen Graham Jones

Publishing Info: Gallery/Saga Press, July 2020

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

Book Description: The creeping horror of Paul Tremblay meets Tommy Orange’s There There in a dark novel of revenge, cultural identity, and the cost of breaking from tradition in this latest novel from the Jordan Peele of horror literature, Stephen Graham Jones.

Seamlessly blending classic horror and a dramatic narrative with sharp social commentary, The Only Good Indians follows four American Indian men after a disturbing event from their youth puts them in a desperate struggle for their lives. Tracked by an entity bent on revenge, these childhood friends are helpless as the culture and traditions they left behind catch up to them in a violent, vengeful way.

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

It wasn’t until recently that I decided to give Stephen Graham Jones a try in terms of looking at a new horror author. I knew that he was a favorite of a friend of mine, and I had requested his book “Mongrels” but never got around to reading it. But when I saw that his newest book, “The Only Good Indians” was available as a ‘Wish For It’ option on NetGalley (aka if you throw your hat in the ring, you may get lucky and get a copy. Kind of a literary lottery for us book reviewers!), I thought why the heck not, and clicked the wish button. To my great (and pleasant) surprise, I was sent an eARC of the book, and waited until it was closer to the publication date to give it a go. It became very clear from the get go of two things: this was going to be quite the experience, and that I had really missed out during my wishy washy ‘I’ll get to him eventually’ malarkey.

“The Only Good Indians” is a horror novel, but it takes great care to go much deeper than merely trying to scare the reader. Along with the tension and scares, we get a deep and heartfelt look into the minds and lives of our main players, all of whom are marked for doom, though the reasons as to why are held close to the vest. Four men, Lewis, Gabriel, Cassidy, and Ricky are four Blackfeet men who were friends in their youth but have vaguely grown apart for various reasons. But the biggest thing that connects them now is a decade old hunting trip that ended with not only the breaking of important traditions. Not only did they hunt on a part of the reservation that was reserved for the elders of the group, they also killed far more elk than they really needed to, including one young female that really, really fought to live. Though they tried to make things right by using as much of the bodies as they could, and giving all the meat to the elders, they were banned from hunting on the reservation ever again. And now, something is hunting them down one by one. It seems like it could be a paint by numbers vengeance folk horror story, but Jones dives in deeper, slowly letting the reader get to know each of these men and the various highs and lows that they reckon with in their day to day lives. By the time vengeance has arrived, you know so much about these men that them being in danger raises the stakes higher than they normally would be. And not only do we get to know them, Jones intermingles their stories along with themes of what modern Indigenous people both on and off the reservation have to contend with, from a loss of identity to a disconnect from traditions to substance abuse to flat out racism. When you take this weaving of social justice issues into a horror motif, what you get is a story that hits you all the more in the gut, but also brings in bits of humor and joy and hope that, if not for these men, that things can slowly be better for those they care about of the younger generations. That is, if this hellbent on revenge and angry entity doesn’t get to them first.

And let’s talk about the horror aspects. Because HELL YES, this is EXACTLY what I want from my folk horror. Jones lets the tension ebb and flow, with slow burning building up and explosive climaxes, and a slow build up again onto the next. It makes the dread feel palpable and makes it so that it’s hard to put the story down. On top of that, the reader really gets into the minds of not only the four hunters, but also that of the thing that is after them. You understand it’s motives, you understand it’s rage, and you can’t help but feel like all of that is justified. It’s easy just to have a monster that slowly takes people out one by one, but far more satisfying to see what makes the monster tick. And with the more subtle and cerebral horror of that we also get some very graphic, gross you out body horror and unsettling imagery that has stuck with me ever since I finished the book. Take all this into account with the social justice issues, and I think that the comparisons between Jones and Jordan Peele are fairly justified. Though that said, Jones stands on his own, no question.

“The Only Good Indians” was a fantastic and emotional horror novel. Don’t make the same mistake I did, people! If you’ve been sleeping on Jones, go out and read this book. You will not regret it.

Rating 9: Haunting, horrifying, and hopeful, “The Only Good Indians” is an examination of revenge, identity, and the circles of violence that can cause such pain.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Only Good Indians” is included on the Goodreads lists “2020 Books by Native Authors and Authors of Color”, and “2020 Horror to Scream For”.

Find “The Only Good Indians” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Sandman (Vol.2): The Doll’s House”

25099Book: “The Sandman (Vol.2): The Doll’s House” by Neil Gaiman, Steve Parkhouse (Ill.), Chris Bachalo (Ill.), Michael Zulli (Ill.), Mike Dringenberg (Ill.), & Malcolm Jones III (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Vertigo, June 1990

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: A being who has existed since the beginning of the universe, Dream of the Endless rules over the realm of dreams. In The Doll’s House, after a decades-long imprisonment, the Sandman has returned to find that a few dreams and nightmares have escaped to reality. Looking to recapture his lost possessions, Morpheus ventures to the human plane only to learn that a woman named Rose Walker has inadvertently become a dream vortex and threatens to rip apart his world. Now as Morpheus takes on the last escaped nightmare at a serial killers convention, the Lord of Dreams must mercilessly murder Rose or risk the destruction of his entire kingdom.

Collecting issues #9-16, this new edition of The Doll’s House features the improved production values and coloring from the Absolute Edition.

Review: Our revisit of this classic comic series presses on, and now that Morpheus/Dream has reclaimed his power over The Dreaming, he has more work to do! As I continue my re-read I have been struck by how visceral and enchanting “The Sandman” universe is, and while it does still harken to other DC characters and mythos on occasion, we have started to stay firmly within a world of Gaiman’s making. And it is just as engrossing this time as it was the first time.

I don’t know why I waited so long to revisit Dream, The Endless, and the Dreaming, because going back to “The Sandman (Vol. 2): The Doll’s House” really hit home how much I love this series. There’s dark humor, there’s lovely fantastical world building as you get more familiar with The Dreaming (Dream’s domain he rules over) and begin to meet other Endless (specifically Desire in this arc), and there’s an undercurrent of horror to go along with the fantasy. Our main drive this time is that of Rose Walker, a woman who is, unknown to her, a Dream Vortex, and therefore something very dangerous for The Dreaming as her very existence could damage it beyond repair. On top of that, a few of Dream’s Nightmares have escaped, and are wreaking havoc in different ways. In this volume Dream is still trying to re-steer his ship after his captivity, and we see just how far the damage of his absence has  gone. Rose has her own mission, and it is to find her little brother, who has gone missing. With the help of a mysterious but kind man named Gilbert, Rose goes looking for her brother, just as Dream starts looking for her. We see a few callbacks to other parts of “Preludes and Nocturnes”, which were done in slow and subtle ways, which made them feel all the more satisfactory as they were peeled back and revealed. The dreamlike atmosphere of this series is still present, as is the darkness. This time that horror aspect is in the form of a ‘Cereal Convention” that Rose and Gilbert stumble upon, which is actually a gathering of serial killers that are hoping to share insight with each other. I had forgotten how twisted this entire thing was, and let me tell you Gaiman doesn’t hold back. To the point that I really feel a need to give a content warning for abuse and sexual assault (and also a note that there is descriptions of violence against trans people in particular. Which felt very problematic but also very of the time that this series was going).

But once again, it’s a standalone story that has a lot of philosophical oomph and a lot of heart that stood out to me in this volume. While the arc of Rose Walker and the ‘cereal’ convention is definitely stellar, it was the story “Men of Good Fortune”, in which Dream and Death decide to give a man named Hob Gadling eternal life after they hear him waxing philosophical about mortality in a pub in 1389. Every hundred years, Hob and Dream meet at this pub, and Hob tells Dream about what he is doing with his eternity. There are highs and lows as Hob experiences the evolution of London, and we get to see how he changes the direction of his life and how it leads to success and devastation. What struck me the most about this story, outside of seeing how one person might shift and evolve with the world they live in were they to have eternity to do so, is that Hob and Dream are an unlikely set of friends whose friendship feels natural and touching. I remembered that Hob pops up here and there throughout the series, but I had forgotten how lovely his introduction was.

The art is still excellent. We’ve started to see more experimentation in design, style, and placement, and while sometimes there is a very traditional art style (like in “Men of Good Fortune”), sometimes it is very abstract. It really just adds to the flavor of the atmosphere that they’re all trying to create, and for the most part it works.

“The Sandman (Vol.2): The Doll’s House” opens up the series to more possibilities, and more darkness. You can tell that this is something very special on these pages.

Rating 9: More chills and world building along with introductions to more of the Endless, “The Sandman (Vol. 2): The Doll’s House” keeps the horror elements up while also showing moments of true tenderness.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Sandman (Vol.2): The Doll’s House” is included on the Goodreads lists “Great Non-Superhero Graphic Novels”, and “Psychological and Philosophical Comics”.

Find “The Sandman (Vol.2): The Doll’s House” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed: