Kate’s Review: “The Sun Down Motel”

45885644Book: “The Sun Down Motel” by Simone St. James

Publishing Info: Berkley, February 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Book Description: The secrets lurking in a rundown roadside motel ensnare a young woman, just as they did her aunt thirty-five years before, in this new atmospheric suspense novel from the national bestselling and award-winning author of The Broken Girls.

Upstate NY, 1982. Every small town like Fell, New York, has a place like the Sun Down Motel. Some customers are from out of town, passing through on their way to someplace better. Some are locals, trying to hide their secrets. Viv Delaney works as the night clerk to pay for her move to New York City. But something isn’t right at the Sun Down, and before long she’s determined to uncover all of the secrets hidden…

Review: Thanks to Berkley and NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book!

I have memories of spending childhood road trips, be it out to Lake Superior or just visiting family down in Iowa, staying in motels. Eventually my mother had it and we were upgraded to hotels, but there was always something kinda fun about the rooms leading out to the parking lot, at least in my mind. It’s been a long while since having that kind of experience, but I thought about it a lot as I read “The Sun Down Motel” by Simone St. James. I greatly enjoyed her book “The Broken Girls”, and when this ended up in my inbox I was happy to see that she had a new book. And not just any old new book, but a new book involving a missing woman, a true crime obsessed amateur sleuth, AND a haunted motel!

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It’s like this book was written with me in mind!! (source)

Our two stories/mysteries take place in two different timelines and POVs. The first is that of Viv, who left home in 1982 in hopes of going to New York City, but finds herself in Fell, a strange small town in upstate New York that has a lot of weird and violent baggage. Stranded and broke, she decides to take a job as the night clerk at the Sun Down Motel, a run down motel that’s seedy at best. She disappears without a trace. Then in 2017, her niece Carly, wanting to figure out what happened to her aunt, arrives in Fell, and takes the same job Viv had. Viv’s perspective is in the third person, and Carly’s is in the first, and both POV styles worked well for their parts of the story, and worked together to weave a complex and rich set of mysteries. The first mystery is what happened to Viv, and the second is the question of why the Sun Down Motel is so damn haunted, and I was fully invested in both. St. James was masterful at building upon both mysteries from each others foundations, and I was kept guessing for pretty much all of the book.

And then there are the haunting and ghost elements of this story. These too were incredibly well done and right up my alley. From strange noises, to the feeling of a presence near you even if you can’t see anyone, to lights going out one by one and doors opening on their own, St. James has taken a number of the best tropes from the haunted house genre and applied them effortlessly to a run down motel. The history of The Sun Down has the tragedy and scandal that is comparable to The Overlook in “The Shining”, and like King St. James has created a whole character for a place made of brick, mortar, and ectoplasm. The various ghosts range from the tragic to the intimidating, and all of them had sufficiently creepy moments. Both Viv and Carly have their run ins, and the first one we see was genuinely heart pounding and knocked my socks off. St. James makes it clear that she has not come to play, nor has she come to be ambiguous. There are ghosts at the Sun Down, and one of them is especially PISSED OFF.

But the thing that struck the most resonant chord with me as a reader was the undercurrent of the toxicities of misogyny within our culture, both in the 1980s and in modern times. Girls go missing or are murdered in Fell, and while it causes sensation and gossip, the women are completely forgotten soon thereafter, or objectified in the moment. A mother goes missing and ends up murdered, and the town mourns and turns her into a martyr. A girl with a bad reputation is murdered, and there are underpinnings of victim blaming. A warning is sent out about a strange man who is seemingly fixated and following a girl, and no one cares enough to investigate further. And a ghost who was the victim of misogynistic rage has a wrath and fury that was never afforded to her in life, and has turned her into an unsolved and salacious mystery in death. St. James both makes true crime aficionados plucky and useful in their quest for the truth, but also points out that their interest and arguably ‘hobby’ is based in actual people’s pain, and can cause damage in and of itself. I really, really liked how these themes were sprinkled throughout the story.

I highly recommend “The Sun Down Motel” for fans of thrillers and horror alike! And if you can, read it in a roadside motel, and don’t pay too much attention to the strange sounds you may hear outside. It’s probably nothing.

Rating 9: Eerie and suspenseful, and simmering with justifiable anger, “The Sun Down Motel” is a wonderful mystery with fantastic characters.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Sun Down Motel” is included on the Goodreads lists “2020 Gothic”, and “Haunted House Books”.

Find “The Sun Down Motel” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Disappearing Earth”

34563821._sy475_Book: “Disappearing Earth” by Julia Phillips

Publishing Info: Knopf, May 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I borrowed it from my Mom

Book Description: Beautifully written, thought-provoking, intense and cleverly wrought, this is the most extraordinary first novel from a mesmerising new talent.

One August afternoon, on the shoreline of the north-eastern edge of Russia, two sisters are abducted. In the ensuing weeks, then months, the police investigation turns up nothing. Echoes of the disappearance reverberate across a tightly woven community, with the fear and loss felt most deeply among its women.

Set on the remote Siberian peninsula of Kamchatka, Disappearing Earth draws us into the world of an astonishing cast of characters, all connected by an unfathomable crime. We are transported to vistas of rugged beauty – densely wooded forests, open expanses of tundra, soaring volcanoes and the glassy seas that border Japan and Alaska – and into a region as complex as it is alluring, where social and ethnic tensions have long simmered, and where outsiders are often the first to be accused.

In a story as propulsive as it is emotionally engaging, and through a young writer’s virtuosic feat of empathy and imagination, this powerful novel provides a new understanding of the intricate bonds of family and community, in a Russia unlike any we have seen before.

Review: I was visiting my parents when I saw “Disappearing Earth” by Julia Phillips on their coffee table. I asked them who had read it, and my Dad said ‘Your Mom got it for me. I read it. I didn’t like it at all.’ Not the highest of praise, but I also knew that it was probably less a reflection of the quality of writing, and more of the kind of writing. I know my Dad, and I know that literary fiction isn’t really his style. Therefore, I was definitely interested in giving it a go, especially since it had so much praise from the book community. Because that’s what “Disappearing Earth” is at it’s heart: it has the plot of a thriller, but the foundation and bones of a literary novel.

While it’s true that “Disappearing Earth” starts with, and deeply connects, to the disappearance of Alonya and Sophia, two sisters who vanish in an isolated town in Kamchatka, Russia. But it’s definitely more about life in an isolated town in a country that is still feeling the effects of a fallen empire, and the people who live their lives there every day. Each chapter takes place in a different month after the disappearance, spanning over nearly a year, and has a different perspective of a member of the community, or the surrounding communities. Each character has their own connection to the missing girls, from their mother, to a police officer, to the only witness, to members of the Even community who had their own disappearance a few years prior (but more on that later). But focusing on the various people in the town and their own connection to the girls and their disappearance, as direct or indirect as it may be, we get a slice of life narrative that is steeped in sadness, resilience, and a little bit of hope. Can I understand why this perhaps wasn’t my Dad’s kind of book? Sure. It’s not your typical thriller/mystery, even though Alonya and Sophia’s disappearance is always at hand. It’s really more about how these girls went missing, how different people react to it (from disbelief to coldness to determination to know what happened).

The theme that really stood out to me, however, was that of the Even community and characters, specifically Alla Innokentevna, the mother of the missing Lilia, and Ksyusha, a University student who is torn between her community at home and the community she has at school, specifically her boyfriend, a white Russian named Ruslan. One of the big reveals of this book is the disappearance of Lilia, whose disappearance was like Alonya and Sophia’s, but went largely unnoticed by those outside of Esso and the natives who live there. I know so little about Russian society, and the little that I do know has very little to do with the rural communities and the relationships between the white Russians and the native communities. And like in other parts of the world, the non-white victim has gone largely forgotten while two white girls have their faces splashed all over town and beyond. It’s not a mystery what happened to Alonya and Sophia, as we see what happens to them in the very first chapter, but we do find ourselves wondering if Lilia did actually leave by her own volition, or if she fell victim to the same predator as the two younger girls. And Phillips does a very good job of making you fear the very worst, and wrings out some truly heart wrenching moments involving her family. Especially when Alla interacts with Martina, Alonya and Sophia’s mother.

And finally, Phillips completely captured what life is like in this village, making the village feel like a character in and of itself. I got a very good feel for not only the location and the people, but also the day to day emotions and experiences that the communities as a whole had, and how they were shaped by where they live. This was so well done, and I was a bit astounded by how real and evocative the place of this story was.

“Disappearing Earth” may not be the kind of thriller I usually cover, but it’s so damn good. Phillips has blended two genres to make a satisfying and compelling read. I’m no doubt going to have to have a long conversation with my Dad to try and plead its case!

Rating 9: Evocative and melancholy, “Disappearing Earth” is about life on an isolated peninsula, and the way lives change yet continue when a community is rocked by tragedy.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Disappearing Earth” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Books on the North”, and “Russia Based Thrillers”.

Find “Disappearing Earth” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Ship of Smoke and Steel”

34618380Book: “Ship of Smoke and Steel” by Django Wexler

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, January 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: In the lower wards of Kahnzoka, the great port city of the Blessed Empire, eighteen-year-old ward boss Isoka comes to collect when there’s money owing. When her ability to access the Well of Combat is discovered by the Empire—an ability she should have declared and placed at His Imperial Majesty’s service—she’s sent on an impossible mission: steal Soliton, a legendary ghost ship—a ship from which no one has ever returned. If she fails, her sister’s life is forfeit.

Review: Our bookclub has been doing a Secret Santa book exchange for the last several years (have we mentioned how awesome our bookclub is recently??). It’s great because A.)more books! and B.) having librarians as friends means you’re sure to get a great new read that has been careful tailored to your own reading preferences. I’d seen the sequel for this book coming up on “most anticipated” lists for a few months now and am not sure how I missed this first one when it came out last year. But this has now been rectified, and I’m now halfway through said sequel. So, spoiler alert, I loved this book.

Reigning as a crime lord on the streets of Kahnzoka may not be an ideal life, but it’s a living, and one that Isoka is particularly skilled at. With her Well of Combat, she can be as brutal as she is efficient. But behind her cold exterior, her true purpose is one of love, the protection and future of her beloved younger sister Tori. But it all goes awry when she is captured and sentenced to an almost sure death on the mythical ship Soliton. There, she realizes that what once had seemed only a fable is all too real, and the powers that had made her almost legendary on the streets may be only a drop in the bucket against the new foes that await her.

I’ve only read one other book by Wexler, a military fantasy fiction novel which I quite enjoyed. This was the author’s first foray into YA fantasy fiction, and I have to say, I think this might be the key to it. Having been an adult fantasy author first, there seems a decent chance that Wexler was less influenced by the pervasive YA tropes that all too often undercut many potentially good YA fantasies these days. This book has all of the originality, spunk, diversity and grimness that one would find in an adult novel. The only thing that makes it YA is the age of our main characters. And that’s what makes it so good.

Isoka may be a teen, but she is completely believable as young woman who grew up on the streets and whose sense of morality and survival have been worn down to just the basics. This book doesn’t shy away from the grim reality that would take over a character who has had to fight for her own, and her much younger sister’s, very survival almost from infancy. Isoka is a bringer of death, and while over the course of this book she learns to take others under her wing as well, her lack of angst over the harshness of her life was incredibly refreshing. She may not be a “good” person by the standards a modern individual would set, but she’s a survivor and doesn’t apologize for doing what she thinks is necessary to protect those she loves.

The magic system was also very compelling. It’s simple enough to be understood easily, with a variety of Wells that users can pull from that grant them different abilities. But as the story progresses, we learn that not all is fully understood about these Wells. And even by the end of the story, there are mysteries still to be unraveled here. Isoka’s own power, the Well of Combat, is an excellent choice for our main character. The action is riveting, feeling almost cinematic as Isoka battles monstrous beasts with her twin power blades and armor. There are also those with powers such as speed, fire, and shadow, and the greater battle scenes paint an epic-feeling picture of these incredible individuals battling alongside one another.

Most of the action takes place on board the mysterious ship Soliton. I don’t want to spoil anything, as discovering the horrors and wonders of this ship was half the fun of the book. Just as you feel you understand one layer of this creepy place, another unfolds. Again, like the magic system itself, by the end of the book the reader feels as if they have only scraped the surface of what is really going on behind this secretive ship.

This was an excellent read. I blew through it in only two days. It’s a fast read, full of action and creepy fantasy elements. There’s also a lovely romance between Isoka and her friend Meroe, a girl with her own barely understood abilities. I already have the second book loaded up on my Kindle, so expect a review for that one up soon. If you’re looking for a fun new fantasy series, definitely check this one out!

Rating 9: Epic, action-packed, and best of all, the start of what promises to be an exciting trilogy!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Ship of Smoke and Steel” is on these Goodreads lists: “2019 Queer SFF” and “Best Fantasy 2019.”

Find “Ship of Smoke and Steel” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Shining”

11588Book: “The Shining” by Stephen King

Publishing Info: Doubleday, 1977

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Jack Torrance’s new job at the Overlook Hotel is the perfect chance for a fresh start. As the off-season caretaker at the atmospheric old hotel, he’ll have plenty of time to spend reconnecting with his family and working on his writing. But as the harsh winter weather sets in, the idyllic location feels ever more remote…and more sinister. And the only one to notice the strange and terrible forces gathering around the Overlook is Danny Torrance, a uniquely gifted five-year-old.

Review: Believe it or not, “The Shining” has a deep, personal meaning for me, and that is because it’s proof that Stephen King books can bring people together. I approached my best friend from high school (and still good friend today) Blake because of this book. He was reading it in the hallway, and as someone who had already read it seeing someone else experiencing it gave me the need to be like ‘I LOVE that book!’ It was the start of an enduring friendship. But on top of that, “The Shining” is a terrifying read that has gone down in literary history as one of the best horror novels of the 20th Century, and really solidified King’s place as a horror author. And the rest, as they say, is history. In anticipation of the film adaptation of “Doctor Sleep”, the sequel to “The Shining”, I decided to re-read both books to see how they held up. So, just in time for Halloween Week, the first up is the original, and I’m finally returning to The Overlook Hotel after all these years of being away.

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Outside of the time I went to the actual Overlook this past summer, aka The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado!

At the very heart of “The Shining” is a gothic ghost story, and while it may not take place on a moor in England, it has all the elements that make the genre great. You have an isolated hotel that cannot be escaped once the snows come. You have three people living in said hotel, and one of them is slowly being driven mad, be it because of the isolation, his own demons, or something else. And you have unique and incredibly scary ghosts and a twisted history that has made the location rotten to the core. King has a variety of bad things at The Overlook, from the decomposing Mrs. Massey in room 217 to visions of a Mafia murder in the Presidential Suite to topiaries that move and fire hoses that act like coiling snakes.  Mrs. Massey is by far the worst, a lurching a rotting corpse that reaches out for those who dare enter her room, but many others are lurking and effective in their own right. While it may seem like the idea of moving animal shaped plants is a little cheesy, it’s not cheesy when a character is being slowly stalked by them in a deranged game of red light, green light. King builds the dread and makes you wonder if what we are seeing is real, a vision (on Danny’s part), or a descent into madness (on Jack’s part), and boy does the tension pull you tight. Even the little things that could just as easily be placed in real life, like the boiler that ‘creeps’, set a scene on a knife’s edge. The Overlook is still one of King’s greatest villains, and the way that King made a place into a character with such malevolence and horror stands the test of time all these years later. 

Danny Torrance is one of the people who sees the Overlook’s horrors, his gift of ‘The Shining’ (or psychic powers) making him incredibly perceptive, but also susceptible, to it’s evils. Danny’s voice is so authentic, as King really harnesses the thoughts, feelings, and actions of a little boy. Danny is endearing, and strange, and as his visions get worse and his father Jack starts to become more and more corrupted, he becomes more vulnerable and yet resilient. Reading this book as a teen I liked Danny enough, but now revisiting it I just loved him. King captures childhood earnestness, captures the innocence that a little boy could still have even though he’s seen and experienced terrible things, and never makes Danny sound juvenile, nor too precocious either. And the things that he sees are filtered through a child’s eyes, which in some ways makes them all the more disturbing. Danny going into Room 217 is still one of the most horror filled moments of this novel, and perhaps of all of King’s bibliography.

But for me, the scariest part of “The Shining” has changed. As an adult, and a new mother to boot and therefore someone with a whole new perspective on parenthood, now the biggest scares come from Jack Torrance and his potential to be a family annihilator, be it due to the hotel’s influence or his own violent tendencies.

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I know King hates this movie, but honestly, it really got Jack right. (source)

Even before The Overlook, Jack’s alcoholism had him spiraling into addiction, emotional instability, and domestic abuse towards his wife and little boy. When we meet Jack he’s been sober for a little over a year, and while it seems that he is on the upswing with Wendy and Danny, there are still violent tendencies that come through and have serious consequences, consequences that make him take this isolating job in the first place, and more vulnerable to the malignant influence of The Overlook. It’s interesting to read this now, knowing that King himself was battling his own addictions as he wrote it, and how his insecurities about how he was as a father and husband come through off the page. Jack’s portrayal is both a villain who could potentially kill those he loves most, and yet a tragic figure who wants so badly to be better, even if he can’t quite achieve it. While The Overlook is certainly a bad influence and its ghosts are certainly helping drive Jack insane, you can’t help but get the feeling that perhaps, even without the ghostly interference, he might have ended up doing something horrible to Wendy and Danny, should he give in to his addictions at any time. It’s a deeply resonant characterization, and knowing that King was struggling as well it gives it even more dour weight and tragedy. I remember that around the time I read this book as a teen I asked my Dad why he hadn’t read it or even seen the movie. And he said that he couldn’t handle the idea of a husband and father murdering those he was supposed to love and care for. I didn’t really get it then. I absolutely get it now. King, once again, shows that some monsters in life don’t have to be supernatural.

“The Shining” isn’t without faults. Wendy, our one female (non ghost) character, isn’t terribly fleshed out or interesting. And as much as I love Dick Halloran, he sure fits into the ‘magical negro’ trope that King still tends to embrace with too much vigor. And, like many King stories, the ending has some flaws and doesn’t QUITE land, at least not completely. But there is a reason that it has endured for so long, and that it’s one of King’s most beloved works. It’s damned scary. I am so glad I went back to it after all these years. And given the influence this book, like all of King’s works, has had on my life, in some ways, like the ghosts at The Overlook, I never really left.

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(source)

On Thursday we’re going to dive in to the sequel, “Doctor Sleep”.

Rating 9: A haunting and deeply scary horror story that melds ghosts, evil, and emotional demons into one entity of terror. Stephen King’s classic is still effective and disturbing.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Shining” is included on the Goodreads lists “Ghost Stories”, and “Modern Gothic”.

Find “The Shining” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan”

44059557._sy475_-1Book: “The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan” by Sherry Thomas

Publishing Info: Tu Books, September 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: CHINA, 484 A.D.

A Warrior in Disguise

All her life, Mulan has trained for one purpose: to win the duel that every generation in her family must fight. If she prevails, she can reunite a pair of priceless heirloom swords separated decades earlier, and avenge her father, who was paralyzed in his own duel.

Then a messenger from the Emperor arrives, demanding that all families send one soldier to fight the Rouran invaders in the north. Mulan’s father cannot go. Her brother is just a child. So she ties up her hair, takes up her sword, and joins the army as a man.

A War for a Dynasty

Thanks to her martial arts skills, Mulan is chosen for an elite team under the command of the princeling–the royal duke’s son, who is also the handsomest man she’s ever seen. But the princeling has secrets of his own, which explode into Mulan’s life and shake up everything she knows. As they cross the Great Wall to face the enemy beyond, Mulan and the princeling must find a way to unwind their past, unmask a traitor, and uncover the plans for the Rouran invasion . . . before it’s too late.

Review: There are certain stories out there that I always think about wistfully. They are the ones that have so much potential and yet, while tried, have still not (to my mind at least) come out with a definitive version (like “Beauty” by Robin McKinely is for me for “Beauty and the Beast). Even worse, sometimes, are those that have so much potential and have been attempted only to muck it up badly. “Mulan” is one of those tales. It has all the right ingredients to make a great story and to be (seemingly) easily adapted into a story that is sure to appeal to many readers right now. And yet…for me, it definitely falls in the latter category of disappointment: attempts have been made but not only are they not the definitive version (again, my own opinion of it at least), but I had varying levels of frustration with these attempts. From boredom to out-right anger. cough”Flame in the Mist”cough. But…but…finally!

Mulan has spent much of her life disguised as a boy and training to compete in an age-long duel between her family and another over the possession of two incredible swords. Her days are filled with swordplay, catching flying arrows while blindfolded, and other incredible feats. She has defined her life around this role, though secretly mourns the loss of her own identity as her father’s only daughter. But when war strikes, thoughts of the duel are set aside and duty rises to the forefront. Now, marching to battle, Mulan finds herself in the company of a handsome prince who seems somehow familiar. And all too soon her fighting skills are put to the test, not in an organized duel, but out in the wild with death on the line.

I was incredibly hopeful for this version of “Mulan” when I saw that Sherry Thomas would be the author writing it. Not only is Thomas a Chinese American who was born and lived in China during her childhood, but she’s successfully tackled retelling other well-known historical stories, like her “Lady Sherlock” series (guess what review you’ll be reading from me next??). Like that series, here Thomas not only masterfully recreates the character of Mulan but deftly draws a version of early China that not only feels authentic but is very informative of a time and culture that many Western readers may not be familiar with.

The central conflict, for example, doesn’t center  around the ubiquitous, largely undefined Huns as many past versions have done. Instead, it dives into the various political maneuverings of North and South China, their differing cultures, and the challenges of bringing together a nation as large and diverse as that. It also speaks to the seeming randomness of borders and how being on one side or another can define much about a person and have lasting effects on the way one group is perceived over time.

But don’t get me wrong, the story isn’t just an exploration of cultural definitions in China; Mulan and her fellows are going to war. I very much enjoyed the action of this story. From the beginning, we see the differences between how Mulan has been raised to fight, seeing it as something bound in duty and a form of art, and what fighting looks like on a battlefield when your life depends on your choices. Here we see Mulan struggle not because she is a woman and has to somehow overcome more due to this “deficiency” (no, she is largely acknowledged as one of the most skilled fighters from the beginning), but because she is human, and being human makes fear and courage very real things that must also be learned and mastered. Here, we have not only the exploration of these themes through Mulan’s experiences, but some really great examples seen in the princeling himself.

I think of them all, much as I love Mulan herself, the princeling struck me as the most interesting character. Thomas goes some surprising routes with this character and deftly sidesteps the pitfalls that other versions have fallen into where his “manliness” is used to bluntly contrast Mulan’s own femininity. Much as I love Disney’s “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” song, this version provides a much more layered character and one who contrasts Mulan, but not in the ways one would expect.

I’m not terribly familiar with the original tale of Mulan, but this one feels right. The added layer of the ancient sword duel and the use of this aspect of the story to delve into family, honor, and trust fleshed the story out beyond the confines of a war story where a girl disguises herself as a man. Mulan’s conflicts are not only battles and war tactics, but the challenge of understanding one’s parents and the choices of those who came before us. Through this understanding, she is better able to find peace with her own walk of life.

I absolutely loved this story. It’s everything I could have wanted for a “Mulan” retelling. If I had to ding it, HAD to, I would say I could have used a tad bit more of the romance. But this is such a niggling thing that it barely is worth mentioning. Overall, I found the romantic plotline, like everything else, to be very satisfying. This story not only retells the known tale (at least what most readers know of it, probably, again, based on Disney), but it adds new layers to the main characters and the conflict itself. If you, like me, were waiting for the version, your wait is over! Check out this book immediately!

Rating 9: Absolutely brilliant. Thomas has done for “Mulan” what she did for Sherlock: taken a challenging-to-get-right story and blown it away!

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “Retellings of Mulan” and “YA East Asian Fantasy.”

Find “The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Tea Dragon Festival”

42369064Book: “The Tea Dragon Festival” by Katie O’Neill

Publishing Info: Oni Press, September 2019

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

Book Description: Rinn has grown up with the Tea Dragons that inhabit their village, but stumbling across a real dragon turns out to be a different matter entirely! Aedhan is a young dragon who was appointed to protect the village but fell asleep in the forest eighty years ago. With the aid of Rinn’s adventuring uncle Erik and his partner Hesekiel, they investigate the mystery of his enchanted sleep, but Rinn’s real challenge is to help Aedhan come to terms with feeling that he cannot get back the time he has lost.

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

A couple years ago I stumbled upon a sweet and unique graphic novel called “The Tea Dragon Society”, a charming story about a group of people who raise and care for Tea Dragons. After reading that book I became and instant fan of author Katie O’Neill’s fantasy tales, and when I saw that she had a follow up called “The Tea Dragon Festival”, I immediately requested to read it via NetGalley. I’m still in need of all the dragon positivity I can get in my stories, as dragons are my favorite mythical creatures and any and all positive depictions are going to bring me all kinds of joy. Especially if it means characters get to coexist with dragons peacefully and everything ends happily.

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Happier times. (source)

“The Tea Dragon Festival” is something of a peripheral prequel to “The Tea Dragon Society”, but it is able to exist on its own. But this time around, our dragon lore moves beyond the Tea Dragons, and expands it to include wild Dragons. While a mountain town prepares for the annual Tea Dragon Festival, a girl named Rinn discovers a sleeping Dragon named Aedhan. Aedhan was supposed to be the protector of the town, but some kind of forest magic put him to sleep for eighty years. The focus of the story has two aspects. The first is trying to figure out what kind of being put Aedhan to sleep, which brings in the familiar faces of Erik and Hesekiel! In “The Tea Dragon Society”, Erik and Hesekiel have retired and opened a tea shop where they care for Tea Dragons, but in “The Tea Dragon Festival” they are still young and adventuring throughout the lands together. Erik is Rinn’s uncle, and his connection to the town is deftly placed and he and Hesekiel feel right at home in the pages of this story. But the larger focus of the tale is about Aedhan trying to readjust to life after being asleep for so long. Perhaps not as long for a Dragon, but still long enough that he feels like he’s missed out and failed the people he was supposed to look over. I really liked that this was the narrative with the most attention, as it let the characters grow and unfold organically. That isn’t to say that the Erik and Hesekiel storyline was neglected; on the contrary, I also enjoyed the mystery of the magic of the forest, and it was awesome getting a glimpse into their adventuring days while still being overall positive and not succumbing to tropes of wandering adventurers and bounty hunters. They were still true to their characters even in a completely different circumstance.

The new characters were also lovely and endearing. Not only was Rinn a kind and unique protagonist, as she too is trying to find her place in town and what role she has to play, Aedhan and his own background is rewarding and fascinating. He has the ability to shapeshift to look more ‘human’, which is explained as a defense against people who still may want to slay Dragons out of a toxic need to prove themselves as brave and fearless. The friendship that develops between Rinn and Aedhan really reminded me of Chihiro and Haku in “Spirited Away”, as their deep friendship is touching and isn’t really defined by platonic, romantic, or anything else. But they aren’t the only characterizations that were strong and well thought out. From Rinn’s Gramman, who is her mentor in all of her cooking endeavors, to Lesa, one of Rinn’s friends who is deaf and mute (note on this: I LOVED that not only did O’Neill incorporate a disabled character into her story, she created a way to denote sign language within her illustrations), to a little girl named Aya who looks up to Rinn, a number of the characters all have their parts to play and feel complex and interesting. And just like in “The Tea Dragon Society”, O’Neill brings in a lot of diverse characters, be they different skin tones, or different sexual orientations, or having different abilities. Both overt diversity and more everyday diversity are very important for kids to see in their stories, and these stories handle both kinds beautifully.

And finally, THE TEA DRAGONS ARE BACK AND THEY ARE ADORABLE! Not only do we see Tea Dragons again, we get new kinds of Tea Dragons because of the different region within the world of the story. That said, O’Neill brings in other fantasy creatures that are just as breathtaking as the Tea Dragons, such as Aedhan’s full Dragon form and some of the forest creatures. The designs are both adorable and gorgeous.

the-tea-dragon-festival-9781620106556.in05
Cuteness overload. (source)

I am so glad that Katie O’Neill decided to revisit her Tea Dragons and their friends with “The Tea Dragon Festival”. It’s a dragon story that stands out from the rest, and while I don’t want to be greedy, I am going to once again hope that she makes more stories within this world!!

Rating 9: Katie O’Neill has once again brought a gentle and calm fantasy story to vibrant life. “The Tea Dragon Festival” lets us revisit the Tea Dragons and other familiar faces, and brings in more delightful characters with rich mythologies.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Tea Dragon Festival” is included on the Goodreads lists “Dragons”, and “Graphic Novels Featuring LGBTQ Themes”.

Find “The Tea Dragon Festival” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed: “The Tea Dragon Society”.

Serena’s Review: “The Bone Houses”

36524503._sy475_Book: “The Bones Houses” by Emily Lloyd-Jones

Publishing Info: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, September 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Seventeen-year-old Aderyn (“Ryn”) only cares about two things: her family, and her family’s graveyard. And right now, both are in dire straits. Since the death of their parents, Ryn and her siblings have been scraping together a meager existence as gravediggers in the remote village of Colbren, which sits at the foot of a harsh and deadly mountain range that was once home to the fae. The problem with being a gravedigger in Colbren, though, is that the dead don’t always stay dead.

The risen corpses are known as “bone houses,” and legend says that they’re the result of a decades-old curse. When Ellis, an apprentice mapmaker with a mysterious past, arrives in town, the bone houses attack with new ferocity. What is it about Ellis that draws them near? And more importantly, how can they be stopped for good?

Together, Ellis and Ryn embark on a journey that will take them deep into the heart of the mountains, where they will have to face both the curse and the long-hidden truths about themselves.

Review: Given that it’s almost October and Halloween is coming up quickly, I thought it was time to keep my eyes out for a fantasy novel that I could point to when asked if I read anything spooky. I’m not up to Kate’s level of horror, but I thought that this mixture of what sounds like a zombie story and a fairytale would do the trick! And boy oh boy was I right! It’s really the best thing when you go into a book with zero expectations and end up with a huge hit on your hands!

Ever since her father disappeared, presumed dead, Ryn has taken up his mantle as the village grave digger, scraping by a meager existence for herself and brother and sister. She cares for them with the respect and peace they deserve, laying them to rest in the warm earth. And she, more than anyone else, is struck by the wrongness when the dead don’t stay that way and begin to roam free. Soon enough the risen dead become more than an occasional nuisance, and Ryn and a young map-maker, Ellis, embark on a dangerous trek through the dead-infested woods to track down the origins of an old curse hoping to give the bone houses the rest they finally deserve.

First things first, whomever wrote this book description did a very poor job. If you haven’t read it already, DON’T! Not only does it get several things wrong, it also spoils a decent-sized reveal that comes up in the book! Luckily for me, I hadn’t read it (or maybe did months ago when I requested an ARC of this book), so I was still surprised, but what were they thinking? Things like this really highlight how often the people writing these descriptions either didn’t read the entire book or skimmed through it so quickly that they didn’t even catch the fact that hey, some of these things are best left discovered by the readers and not blabbed about in your dang blurb! Anyways.

That out of the way, man I loved this book! In many ways it’s a re-imagining of “The Black Cauldron,” down to the precocious animal friend, though this time it’s a goat instead of a pig. The fairytale and quest of the story loosely tie to that tale, but are also unique enough in their own version to remain well and truly separate. It’s kind of like how closely/loosely “Uprooted” was to “Beauty and the Beast.” The barest hints are there, but it is mostly just its own fairytale.

I also loved the messages about family, grief, and wanted-ness at the heart of this story. Ryn’s occupation as a gravedigger isn’t just a passing trait to make her badass or something; it’s a real point of entrance into a larger discussion about how people process, or don’t process, grief. Through out the story, we see many different approaches to managing loss and the story does a lovely job of delving into the challenges of loving someone who will one day leave you. At its heart, we see that love can be both the greatest blessing but also the most painful of curses.

Ryn and Ellis were amazing lead characters as well. Ryn’s bravery and stubbornness were endearing and realistic in a way that is often lost in other YA leading ladies who are also, of course, brave and stubborn (since somehow those have become default traits for heroines in YA). These traits felt based in the story of her life up to the point at which the reader meets her, and we aren’t just told she is these things: we see it again and again, for better or worse. Ellis was also excellent. He deals with chronic pain and I appreciated the way this was handled and discussed. There are some excellent points made about the way he approaches his own life and the challenges of dealing with others and how they perceive him due to it. But this also doesn’t define his character, and his journey is one of self-discovery and sheer determination.

There is a romance in this story as well, though it, too, feels earned and is definitely a slow burn story. I particularly appreciated how when the characters first meet and then part ways, neither thinks anything more of it, each still rightly focused on their own lives and missions. No instalove to be found here.

Obviously, given the bone houses themselves, the story would definitely fall under the category of a darker fantasy story. I really liked how the “zombies,” essentially, were never just big bad monsters. There was always a tinge of sadness and “wrongness” that could be found there that made them feel like more than simple, disposable monsters. This darkness was also balanced out by some unexpectedly funny moments of dialogue that helped lift the story out of what could have been a rather gloomy place.

At its heart, this is a pretty simple, standalone fairytale fantasy story. But it does everything it needed to do and had a lot to say about the ties of love and the challenges of death. The characters were lovely, the adventure was fun, and the romance was sweet and understated. I definitely recommend this book for fans of “Uprooted” and “Sorcery of Thorns.”

Rating 9: A superb fairytale, deftly drawing upon “The Black Cauldron” to bring us an entirely fresh-feeling story of love and grief.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Bone Houses” is a new title, so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be one “Best Standalone Fantasy Books.”

Find “The Bones Houses” at your library using WorldCat!