Serena’s Review: “Spells for Forgetting”

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Book: “Spells for Forgetting” by Adrienne Young

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, September 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: A deeply atmospheric story about ancestral magic, an unsolved murder, and a second chance at true love.

Emery Blackwood’s life changed forever the night her best friend was found dead and the love of her life, August Salt, was accused of murdering her. Years later, she is doing what her teenage self swore she never would: living a quiet existence on the misty, remote shores of Saoirse Island and running the family’s business, Blackwood’s Tea Shoppe Herbal Tonics & Tea Leaf Readings.

But when the island, rooted in folklore and magic, begins to show signs of strange happenings, Emery knows that something is coming. The morning she wakes to find that every single tree on Saoirse has turned color in a single night, August returns for the first time in fourteen years and unearths the past that the town has tried desperately to forget.

August knows he is not welcome on Saiorse, not after the night everything changed. As a fire raged on at the Salt family orchard, Lily Morgan was found dead in the dark woods, shaking the bedrock of their tight-knit community and branding August a murderer. When he returns to bury his mother’s ashes, he must confront the people who turned their backs on him and face the one wound from his past that has never healed—Emery.

Review: I’ve been a big fan of Adrienne Young from the start. I think I’ve read all of her YA fantasy to date? But I believe this is her first foray into adult fantasy, so I was really excited to see what changes in storytelling we’d see from her in this new target demographic. Some authors can managed the switch back and forth, while others struggle. Given her general high quality of writing, though, I was never really in doubt that we’d get anything other than a success from this book. And low and behold, how right I was!

Two tragedies in one shocking night. A fire in the apple orchard that provides the primary source of tourism to the remote island of Saiorse. And worse, the murder of a teenage girl right on the verge of starting her life. But while these tragedies might be in the past for some, for Emery and August, their lives have never been the same. After being accused of the murder, August is only now returning to his island home after a decade of exile. And while Emery remained on the island, her close connection to her accused boyfriend August has left her dealing with mistrust and sideways glances her entire adult life. But August’s return has forcibly dragged the past into the present, and old forces on the island are beginning to awake again.

A lot of the promotional blurbs for this book mentioned the word “atmospheric” and likened the feel of the story to “Practical Magic.” And I am here to attest to the fact that both of those descriptions are spot on! This is the type of fantasy story where the magic to be found is very mystical, more to be seen in the fluctuations of nature, the small changes of animal behavior. To be enacted by a very few and in very specific, restricted ways. In that way, the magic of this story was mostly to be found in the misty, mysterious island of Saiorse. From the get go, the sense of place was strong in this book. And as the island itself serves as such a backbone to the story that is being built up, this immediate feeling of familiarity and wonder instantly drew me into the book.

But more than just the beaches and forests that make up the island itself, Saiorse is a place with history. And that history was slowly, oh so slowly, unspooled for the reader as the story continued. Outside of our primary two narrators in August and Emery, we would get sporadic chapters from the perspectives of the other side characters who play such an important role not only in the events we are trying to piece together from the past, but in the mystery of the current day. These interwoven lives and each character’s different understanding of their own place in this community added such a level of depth to the story; it was fantastic.

I will say I was able to predict a few of the major twists of the story, which, at times, left me feeling anxious to speed through the book so our main characters could begin to piece things together, too. But I think this instinct to rush undermined the true beauty of the book which was to be found in the slow, ratchetting up of tension and dread. Even guessing a few pieces of the puzzle, there was no escaping the feeling of immanent doom careening towards our main characters. In a similar vein, the romance is a slow burn as well, with Emery and August drifting around each other in ever tightening circles for much of the book before finally coming back together at last. And as tense as that was, waiting for them to get their acts together, their romance was one of the strongest parts of this book for me. I liked what we were given in the present portion of this book, but I also loved the insights into their doomed teenage romance. It’s the kind of teenage relationship that every romantic young girl wishes for and one that even older, married women can still sigh over.

I really enjoyed this book. It only gets marked down from a ten due to some of the pacing issues regarding the reveals of certain mysteries and a couple of questions I had regarding the way the murder wrapped up. I’ve watched a few too many crime dramas to not be suspicious of some of the conclusions that were being reached about what could and couldn’t be actually prosecuted. But crime drama this is not, and once I firmly turned off that portion of my brain, I was able to fully sink into the lovely reading experience that was this book.

Rating 9: Beautiful and heart wrenching, the story revolves around a romance and mystery that draw the reader in and won’t let go until the final moment.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Spells for Forgetting” can be found on this Goodreads list: Spooky Season Reads.

Kate’s Review: “Daphne”

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Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Daphne” by Josh Malerman

Publishing Info: Del Rey Publications, September 2022

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

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: It’s the last summer for Kit Lamb: The last summer before college. The last summer with her high school basketball team, and with Dana, her best friend. The last summer before her life begins.

But the night before the big game, one of the players tells a ghost story about Daphne, a girl who went to their school many years ago and died under mysterious circumstances. Some say she was murdered, others that she died by her own hand. And some say that Daphne is a murderer herself. They also say that Daphne is still out there, obsessed with revenge, and will appear to kill again anytime someone thinks about her.

After Kit hears the story, her teammates vanish, one by one, and Kit begins to suspect that the stories about Daphne are real . . . and to fear that her own mind is conjuring the killer. Now it’s a race against time as Kit searches for the truth behind the legend and learns to face her own fears—before the summer of her life becomes the last summer of her life.

Mixing a nostalgic coming-of-age story and an instantly iconic female villain with an innovative new vision of classic horror, Daphne is an unforgettable thriller as only Josh Malerman could imagine it.

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

Let me set the scene. It was 2003. I was a senior in high school. One afternoon in the senior lounge during the school day ‘X period’ (aka a free period where clubs could meet or kids could talk to teachers or you could just dick around for a bit), some other girls and I started talking about Bloody Mary. We decided it would be fun to go to the locker rooms by the gym and play, as it had been FOREVER since we all had. I went with this group of girls, none of whom who were my friends, per se, just classmates whose orbits I generally wasn’t around, but bonded by nostalgia for an urban legend. We turned off the lights, said ‘I believe in Bloody Mary’ three times, and expected nothing of it. So imagine our surprise when there was a loud BANG in the darkness of the locker room. We tore out screaming, only to find out shortly thereafter a gym teacher was tidying up and that was the bang, and we had scared her to death with our terrified shrieks. I kept thinking about this story while I read Josh Malerman’s newest book “Daphne”, a horror novel about an urban legend that slasher kills her way through a high school girls basketball team. Mostly because of the urban legend factor. But also because this deeply disturbing horror novel also touches on the undercurrent left unsaid in this memory: that of teetering between youth, and adulthood, and the things we grapple with in between.

First and foremost, yes, “Daphne” is a very unsettling horror story, and I expected nothing less from Malerman. I’ve enjoyed the other books I’ve read of his, and I think that this one is probably the scariest yet for me. He knows how to slowly build a strangling dread as our cast of characters, a group of high school basketball players with WNBA dreams and interests, are picked off one by one by a brutal urban legend called Daphne after her story is told at a sleepover. We mostly focus on star player Kit, a girl who loves her teammates and the game, but is also plagued by her own struggles with severe anxiety, even before she starts obsessively thinking about Daphne and those around her start dying. Malerman does a fantastic job of slowly pacing the tension in this story so that the reader goes through similar beats as the characters. General unease slowly morphs to gear morphs to genuine dread. The characters find themselves thinking of Daphne, and then she comes for them in truly grotesque, slasher-y ways, and I was basically freaking out every time we got to a kill scene. It’s brutal and very splatter-y, but the tension is top notch psychological suspense to give it more oomph. We slowly start to get the real story behind the urban legend, and we start to care about these characters and invest in them even know we know that terrible things at the hands of this ghost, or monster, or SOMETHING are going to happen to them. It’s unnerving as hell and it really got under my skin. I think that I would have liked a bit more come down at the end, as all the tension has to go somewhere and I didn’t feel like there was enough room for it by the conclusion. But ultimately this book delivers on scares. EVEN THE GODDAMN COVER JUST FUCKS WITH MY HEAD.

But along with the scares is the very relatable undercurrent of Kit’s anxiety, anxiety about not only Daphne, but also of the unknown aspects of life itself. I’m someone who has been grappling with anxiety my entire life, and one of the worst times was in high school because of how much was unknown. I had no idea what life had in store after I left the very familiar life I was leading, with my parents and my friends and my family being left behind. As someone who had panic attacks, a good amount of them in late high school, I really, really related to Kit, and I loved that Malerman wanted to explore her mind even beyond that of a slasher killer’s potential victim, but also a girl who is battling her fears of the unknown as they manifest into panic attacks and buzzing dread without obvious cause. Perhaps it doesn’t get to this level for all teens, but Kit battling her mind to try and keep Daphne out is just as much Kit battling her mind to keep fear itself out. It hit home in a way I wasn’t really expecting, and just felt like it really captured that unease about what comes next when you are about to leave the life you’ve known for eighteen years. And really, the way that Daphne creeps up on you until you can’t stop thinking about her, and then completely wrecks you? That’s anxiety in a nutshell. Daphne crushes her victims, just as anxiety crushes those that it affects.

“Daphne” is going to stay with me awhile. It’s deeply fucked but also bittersweet. And like the titular character, I don’t see myself being able to stop thinking about it for awhile.

Rating 9: Disturbing, unnerving, and in some ways bittersweet, “Daphne” is a horror novel that won’t leave a reader’s thoughts for awhile after reading it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Daphne” is included on the Goodreads list “Horror to Look Forward to in 2022”.

Kate’s Review: “I’m The Girl”

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Book: “I’m The Girl” by Courtney Summers

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, September 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from the publisher at ALAAC22.

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: The new groundbreaking queer thriller from New York Times bestselling and Edgar-award Winning author Courtney Summers.

When sixteen-year-old Georgia Avis discovers the dead body of thirteen-year-old Ashley James, she teams up with Ashley’s older sister, Nora, to find and bring the killer to justice before he strikes again. But their investigation throws Georgia into a world of unimaginable privilege and wealth, without conscience or consequence, and as Ashley’s killer closes in, Georgia will discover when money, power and beauty rule, it might not be a matter of who is guilty—but who is guiltiest.

A spiritual successor to the 2018 breakout hit, Sadie, I’m the Girl is a masterfully written, bold, and unflinching account of how one young woman feels in her body as she struggles to navigate a deadly and predatory power structure while asking readers one question: if this is the way the world is, do you accept it?

Review: Thank you to Wednesday Books for giving me an ARC of this novel!

Ever since I read “Sadie” by Courtney Summers, I knew that she was going to become one of my must read authors. “Sadie” kicked me in the gut, but I loved every minute of it because of it’s rawness. I was lucky enough to snag her newest book “I’m The Girl” at the Annual ALA Conference (well, Serena snagged it for me on our first night strategic ‘split up and find all the ARCs’ mission), but I knew that I would probably drag my feet on reading it for a bit. Just because I knew that she wasn’t going to pull punches in her newest thriller. She never does, you see. But I also knew that this one, with its haunting cover and somewhat vague description, was going to be something else. And when I did finally sit down and read it, it had my attention, even if it was another kick in the gut.

I will first and foremost say that this book, like most of Courtney Summers’s books, is a rough one. We do not shy away from pretty bleak but realistic issues, like grooming, sexualization of children, trauma, and rape, and it makes for a book that is filled to the brim with content warnings that should be heeded by those who have sensitivities. I am a fairly steely reader for the most part, but even this one had me deeply uncomfortable at a number of moments. But I think that it’s also important to be frank and candid about these things, especially if they are handled in a way that isn’t exploitative or titillating, and I think that Summers achieves that. If we are going to explore beauty as power and how, in turn, powerful people wish to exploit and own beautiful things and people, it’s important to look at what all that means, and I think that we do that here. Even when it’s dark and very disconcerting to do said exploration.

The mystery is the main artery of this story, as our protagonist Georgia stumbles upon the dead body of thirteen year old Ashley James, who was the missing daughter of the local deputy sheriff, after she herself was hit by the car of the potential perpetrator. George is recruited by Ashley’s sister Nora to help solve what happened, but there is a lot more to this story than a teenage murder mystery, and the complexity is deftly handled. George is also hoping to start working at the small town’s elite resort and social club Aspera, where celebrities, politicians, and other big wigs come from far and wide to experience the luxury provided by Matthew and Cleo Hayes and their done up employees, the women known as ‘Aspera Girls’. George’s mother was an Aspera girl until a scandal left her without a job, and while George has always been beautiful her mother, now deceased, always told her she wouldn’t belong. George is a very complicated character, whose foray in amateur detective-hood is overshadowed by her quest to fit into the opulence of Aspera, no matter the cost and no matter the sacrifice. Summers takes her time in unveiling bits and pieces of the plot, be it the mystery of what happened to Ashley, or the reasons that George is so desperate to join Aspera, and what she has tried to do to make herself stand out from the crowd in an effort to wield her beauty as the only power she feels she has. I did like the mystery overall, and I liked seeing George delve into the secrets of Aspera in connection to Ashley as she worked there, given that small town secrets are always okay in my book as a theme, and mysterious organizations are as well. I kind of figured out what was going on in regards to Ashley, but ultimately that isn’t the point of this book. This is more an exploration of the ways that girls are told they can be powerful, but how those in power can also take that power away in insidious ways. Especially if there is wealth and disenfranchisement involved between the players. And it all set me on edge, even as I tore through it over the course of a couple nights.

“I’m The Girl” is another triumph by Courtney Summers that looks into the void and doesn’t sugar coat what it sees. People will need to steel themselves for this one, but I think it’s powerful reading all the same.

Rating 9: Dark, powerful, and gritty to the bone, “I’m The Girl” is another unnerving YA thriller from Courtney Summers.

Reader’s Advisory:

“I’m The Girl” is included on the Goodreads lists “If You Love Veronica Mars… YA Books”, and “#MeToo”.

Serena’s Review: “Belladonna”

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Book: “Belladonna” by Adalyn Grace

Publishing Info: Little Brown for Young Readers, August 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from ALA convention!

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: Orphaned as a baby, nineteen-year-old Signa has been raised by a string of guardians, each more interested in her wealth than her well-being—and each has met an untimely end. Her remaining relatives are the elusive Hawthornes, an eccentric family living at Thorn Grove, an estate both glittering and gloomy. Its patriarch mourns his late wife through wild parties, while his son grapples for control of the family’s waning reputation and his daughter suffers from a mysterious illness. But when their mother’s restless spirit appears claiming she was poisoned, Signa realizes that the family she depends on could be in grave danger and enlists the help of a surly stable boy to hunt down the killer.
However, Signa’s best chance of uncovering the murderer is an alliance with Death himself, a fascinating, dangerous shadow who has never been far from her side. Though he’s made her life a living hell, Death shows Signa that their growing connection may be more powerful—and more irresistible—than she ever dared imagine.

Review: Here’s another case of me almost missing out on another great title because I didn’t like the cover. In this instance, there’s something striking of the worst 90s romance novels and the worst YA knock-offs in this cover. On top of being put off by the cover art, I also haven’t gotten around to the author’s first duology; sadly the first book has been languishing on my TBR list for a few years now. But, I will say, after reading this book, that book has made a rapid climb to near the top! Let’s dive in.

Death has followed Signa for most of her life, with one guardian after another keeling over from various causes. But while near, Death cannot touch her. Instead, deadly poisons are swiftly recovered from, wounds heal quickly, and Signa moves on with her somewhat miserable life. But when her most recent guardian dies, some new, wealthy relatives come out of the woodwork. Now living a life she could only have dreamed of before, Signa lives in constant fear that Death will come for this family as well. And when one of the daughters falls ill, Signa is determined to do everything in her power to save her. Even if that means teaming up with Death himself.

This was another one of those books where I knew within the first few pages that I was really going to enjoy it. The writing immediately clicked with me, combining a fairytale-like fantasy story with a humorous and relatable leading lady. As the story continued, I was having such a blast reading it that I began to almost want to slow down my reading experience just to draw it out. That’s how you really know it’s good! In a lot of way, the general style of storytelling very much reminded me of Margaret Rogerson’s work. They both writes stories that have a fairytale feel but that aren’t derived directly from a fairytale itself. Both authors also have excellent leading ladies who are as funny as they are adventurous. And, of course, there are lovely romances at the heart of these stories that check all of my personal preference boxes.

Speaking of the romance, here is another example of a love triangle that really worked for me. I can’t go into any of the details of said love triangle, as that would spoil parts of the book. But I can say that both relationships felt believable and relatable. Signa’s feelings developed in a way that was natural and, as things came to a head, there was no prolonged drama on the “who will she choose” front, one of my biggest annoyances with this type of romance plotline. I also liked all three characters involved in the romance, too. As I’ve mentioned above, Signa is an all around great leading lady. But I really enjoyed Death and Sylas as well. Death, in particular, was an interesting character as he was speaking to a new experience in a millennia of sameness. Through his eyes, we also delved into the different ways that people think of and experience death and the afterlife.

I also really liked the mystery and fantasy elements in the story. What could have started out as a very simple “power,” the ability to live through deadly events, instead branched out into new and interesting avenues. These plot lines not only opened up new doors into what Signa’s abilities signify about herself, but also forcer her to grapple with truly understanding herself and adjusting the life she has imagined of herself. For its part, the mystery also took up a significant portion of the story. While I found a few of these elements to be a bit predictable, there were others that legitimately took me by surprise. For one thing, the story definitely didn’t shy away from some of the creepy imagery that would come with an ability like Signa’s to see and interact with ghosts. There are some very “Sixth Sense” vibes, but in all of the best ways.

This book was such a great surprise! Even more than picking up books by tried and true favorite authors, it’s simply the best to open a book with zero expectations and find yourself on an amazing ride. This book is definitely of the kind of “beach read” fantasy that is light-hearted, fun, and sure to appeal to fantasy readers who are simply looking to kick back their heels and be swept along.

Rating 9: Sweetly romantic, adventurous, and even creepy at times, this book has it all!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Belladonna” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on Fairytale Fantasy Books.

Serena’s Review: “Eversion”

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Book: “Eversion” by Alastair Reynolds

Publishing Info: Orbit, August 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher!

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: From the master of the space opera, Alastair Reynolds, comes a dark, mind-bending SF adventure spread across time and space, Doctor Silas Coade has been tasked with keeping his crew safe as they adventure across the galaxy in search of a mysterious artifact, but as things keep going wrong, Silas soon realizes that something more sinister is at work, and this may not even be the first time it’s happened.

In the 1800s, a sailing ship crashes off the coast of Norway. In the 1900s, a Zepellin explores an icy canyon in Antarctica. In the far future, a spaceship sets out for an alien artifact. Each excursion goes horribly wrong. And on every journey, Dr. Silas Coade is the physician, but only Silas seems to realize that these events keep repeating themselves. And it’s up to him to figure out why and how. And how to stop it all from happening again.

Review: I received an ARC of this book in the mail this month, and it really couldn’t have been more timely! While I love science fiction, of the genres I read, I probably know the fewest authors in this genres who are currently writing. It’s also a sweeping genre full of a lot of different types of stories, some of which appeal to me more than others. But I had heard good things about Reynolds in the past, and this story also seemed like an interesting combination of genres, including historical fiction and mystery/thrillers alongside the obvious science fiction. And man, what a pleasant surprise it was!

Doctor Silas Coates set out on what, for him, should have been a fairly straight forward job: to serve as the on-board doctor on an exploratory mission. The ship and crew have been hired to discover and research a mysterious foreign object located in the deepest, darker corners of the known world. But as the mission progresses, Silas begins to suspect that not only does he know very little about the nature of this mission, but that something greater is at work. Increasingly, what could at first be hand-waved as deja vu begins to feel like something more. As if…perhaps…he’s done this all before.

If my description of this book sounds vague (as does the official one), that’s because this is one of those great, but frustrating to review, books where much of the appeal and tension of the book is built around the mysteries at the heart of the story. That being the case, there’s not a whole lot that I can talk about that wouldn’t spoil some of the best aspects of the entire reading experience. I can say that while a primary mystery is at the heart of the story, there were definitely more than one to be found. In fact, the minute you think you’ve begun to piece together exactly what’s going on, the book would skip away, revealing yet another secret beneath the last. This made the reading experience incredibly fun and addictive; I definitely stayed up way to late finishing the book as it was almost physically impossible to put it down past a certain point.

There was also a great blend of historical fiction and science fiction. At various points in the book you could get lost on the page and feel as if you were fully immersed in a period piece following an old time sailing ship. At another, the ins and outs of space exploration and advanced technology take center stage. And the solid writing transitions smoothly from one scene and setting to another, never missing a step.

Silas was also an excellent main character. We feel his bewilderment and increasing fear as the story builds. But it’s his steadfast commitment to his job and his dedication to the friendships he has begun to build on this mission that really hold the story together. As he remains the only consistent aspect of the story, as a character, a lot is riding on his shoulders, and I thought he carried it well. I, for one, had a hard time not skipping ahead to the end of the book just to make sure everything worked out for him in the end. Something I can neither confirm nor deny!

The book was also a lot spookier than I had expected going in. Not only was the building tension of the entire situation incredibly stressful, but there were some significant fear factors involved in the story. The unknown, of course. But also claustrophobia, body horror, and the general fear of the strange and bizarre. That said, it’s definitely not a horror novel, and I found the scary aspects to be balanced well by the more sentimental moments.

Overall, I really liked this book! It was a fun, fast read that held more than one surprise at the heart of the story. You’ll be left guessing and frantically turning pages all through the night!

Rating 9: All the things: historical! thriller! science fiction! horror! And all at a clipping pace that will leave you breathless with anticipation.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Eversion” can be found on this Goodreads list: Science fiction & fantasy roundup, 2022

Serena’s Review: “The Drowned Woods”

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Book: “The Drowned Woods” by Emily Lloyd-Jones

Publishing Info: Little Brown Books for Young Readers, August 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: Once upon a time, the kingdoms of Wales were rife with magic and conflict, and eighteen-year-old Mererid “Mer” is well-acquainted with both. She is the last living water diviner and has spent years running from the prince who bound her into his service. Under the prince’s orders, she located the wells of his enemies, and he poisoned them without her knowledge, causing hundreds of deaths. After discovering what he had done, Mer went to great lengths to disappear from his reach. Then Mer’s old handler returns with a proposition: use her powers to bring down the very prince that abused them both.

The best way to do that is to destroy the magical well that keeps the prince’s lands safe. With a motley crew of allies, including a fae-cursed young man, the lady of thieves, and a corgi that may or may not be a spy, Mer may finally be able to steal precious freedom and peace for herself. After all, a person with a knife is one thing…but a person with a cause can topple kingdoms.

Review: I absolutely loved “The Bone Houses” when it came out a few years ago. Ever since, I’ve been practically stalking the author on Goodreads to see when she’d be releasing another book. So, it’s no surprise that when this one came up on Edelweiss+, I immediately requested it and devoured it. And now, I guess I’m back to the stalking??

With great power comes great responsibility, and all of that. So when Mer discovers the prince has been using her water powers to locate enemy wells and poison them to kill civilians, she makes herself scarce. Now, having lived in the shadows, disappearing from place to place, her long-ago handler has tracked her down with a proposition: a dangerous mission, but one that could cripple the prince and his power for good. Alongside a young man with incredible fighting abilities and some connection to the Fae and a strange little corgi who could be a spy, Mer sets off to topple a kingdom.

There was a lot to love about this book! I will say, it took me a bit longer to find myself fully drawn into this story, but I think part of the reason for that is this felt like a more serious story. Not to say it wasn’t an enjoyable read, but all of the characters we meet immediately held the weight of long personal histories that still burdened them. This left them all with incredible story arcs, but the story required a bit more time invested before you fully begin to feel pulled into the story. But once there, everything was amazing. The writing is also so solid that any slow start is immediately counterbalanced by the sheer joy of reading the prose.

The author described this book as “Welsh Atlantis” at one point, and what a cool idea that was! Apparently, there is some myth of a land that used to exist off Wales but was subsumed under the waves by the mistake of a young woman and her water magic. This story is that myth but told from the perspective of the water mage. Mer was an incredible character, and the more we learn about her tragic history of betrayal after betrayal, the more we understand the slow work it is for her to trust again. I also really liked her magic. When you hear “water magic” there are some pretty obvious examples that come to mind. But while those are included, the author was also so creative with how this ability could be used in other devastating ways.

Fane was also an excellent character. Again, his fighting magic could have been an overly familiar fantasy trope, but instead the author created unique boundaries and limits on how it could be used and the price it cost Fane. His story also slowly revealed the truths of his history and his own motivations and goals moving forward. There were a couple of surprises that I definitely didn’t see coming with his role in the story.

There were two romances in this book, one was a romance of the past between Mer and an heir to the thieves guild. And then the other was the slow-burn between the Mer of the current day with Fane. Both were lovely in their own right, and I enjoyed how Mer’s experiences with her first love shaped how her feelings developed for Fane.

This book will definitely satisfy those who enjoyed “The Bone Houses,” even if it was a bit slower of a read. The epilogue, especially, had some nice connections laid out between this story and that. Though it is no way necessary to have read that book before tis one. Fantasy fans, especially those looking for a solid stand-alone story based on myth, should definitely check this one out!

Rating 9: Definitely a favorite for the year, this story pulls together everything I like: a mythical fantasy story, a slow-burn romance, and excellent character-driven arcs.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Drowned Woods” is mostly on on rather boring Goodreads lists like this one YA Releases August 2022.

Kate’s Review: “Long Live the Pumpkin Queen”

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Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Long Live the Pumpkin Queen” by Shea Ernshaw

Publishing Info: Disney Press, August 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from the publisher at ALAAC22.

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: Jack and Sally are “truly meant to be” … or are they?

Sally Skellington is the official, newly-minted Pumpkin Queen after a whirlwind courtship with her true love, Jack, who Sally adores with every inch of her fabric seams — if only she could say the same for her new role as Queen of Halloween Town. Cast into the spotlight and tasked with all sorts of queenly duties, Sally can’t help but wonder if all she’s done is trade her captivity under Dr. FInkelstein for a different — albeit gilded — cage. But when Sally and Zero accidentally uncover a long-hidden doorway to an ancient realm called Dream Town in the forest Hinterlands, she’ll unknowingly set into motion a chain of sinister events that put her future as Pumpkin Queen, and the future of Halloween Town itself, into jeopardy. Can Sally discover what it means to be true to herself and save the town she’s learned to call home, or will her future turn into her worst… well, nightmare.

Review: Thank you to Disney Press for giving me an ARC of this novel!

This will come as a shock to absolutely no one, but when I was in high school I was obsessed with “The Nightmare Before Christmas” like any good Goth kid was. I loved the aesthetic, I loved the story, and I LOVED Sally Ragdoll, Jack Skellington’s love interest (voiced by the iconic Catherine O’Hara). As much as I love her, she admittedly doesn’t have a lot to do in the movie outside of being a sweet romantic foil who sees the downside to Jack’s Christmas vision. When I heard that Shea Ernshaw had written a new YA dark fantasy called “Long Live the Pumpkin Queen”, which starred Sally after her marriage to Jack, I was nervous. I like Ernshaw’s work, but Sally is near and dear to my heart. When it was available at ALA, I picked it up, and on my first day of post conference isolation I decided to read it. And read it I did. In one sitting. This is the exact kind of story a Sally Ragdoll lover wants to have in their life.

And yes also for the romantics who love this couple with all their heart. (source)

Shea Ernshaw has created a dark fairytale that has Sally at the very center of it. After marrying Jack and becoming the Pumpkin Queen of Halloween Town, Sally is uncomfortable in her new role as she doesn’t know how well she fits in in a role that she never thought she would have. It’s a great story for this character, given that the movie is really about Jack and his identity crisis. Why not put Sally in the spotlight and have her have to grapple with her identity? Pretty early on we establish her discomfort with her standing, and then we give her a journey of her own outside of Halloween Town that has her grappling with not only a threat upon Jack and all of Halloween Town, but also with what she thought she knew about herself and who she is. I loved seeing Sally have some agency here, and seeing her go on a journey that puts her in a position of being the hero without having to worry about being relegated to damsel in distress. It is a very satisfying plot for this character, that allows her to stand on her own and to flesh her out from her original role. Again, I love Sally in the movie. I related a lot to Sally back in the day. But this version of Sally does a good job of expanding upon that character while staying true to the things that make her endearing.

Ernshaw also creates some new worlds and mythologies here that fit in perfectly with the source material. For one, we get to explore a new holiday town, as Jack and Sally take their honeymoon in Valentine’s Town. The way this town is described is so effortlessly charming and adorable, with sweet confections and flowers and cherubs dazzling the two weirdos from Halloween Town, as well as creating a version of a ‘queen’ that influences Sally’s perception of what that means. We also find ourselves in a strange new place called Dream Town, which is the center of our conflict, as Sally inadvertently releases something from that realm that puts Halloween Town, and all the other realms, in danger. The way that Ernshaw creates this town and the magical systems that surround it, and how they connect to the other realms and the real world, reads like a dark fairy tale with well thought out working parts. It also feels like it can all fit into Tim Burton’s original visions of these worlds and how they relate to each other.

And yes, romantics, while this is Sally’s story, there are plenty of lovely, sweet moments between her and her husband, Jack Skellington. The sweet romance and love between these two characters always makes me smile, and Ernshaw definitely does justice for the couple. Jack just adores Sally, and her love for him is palpable, and given that they were one of my earliest ships I was VERY happy with how these two were written and how their relationship is portrayed.

As a huge “Nightmare Before Christmas” fan, I was very satisfied with “Long Live the Pumpkin Queen”. Sally has always deserved her own moment in the spotlight, and Ernshaw really delivered. I grabbed this with trepidation, but now I’m holding onto it and will certainly be revisiting in the future.

Rating 9: As someone who loves “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and Sally Ragdoll, this was just terrific.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Long Live the Pumpkin Queen” isn’t on many Goodreads lists yet, but it would fit right in on “Dark Fairy Tales”.

Kate’s Review: “Kismet”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Kismet” by Amina Akhtar

Publishing Info: Thomas & Mercer, August 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: From Amina Akhtar comes a viciously funny thriller about wellness—the smoothies, the secrets, and the deliciously deadly impulses.

Lifelong New Yorker Ronnie Khan never thought she’d leave Queens. She’s not an “aim high, dream big” person—until she meets socialite wellness guru Marley Dewhurst. Marley isn’t just a visionary; she’s a revelation. Seduced by the fever dream of finding her best self, Ronnie makes for the desert mountains of Sedona, Arizona.

Healing yoga, transcendent hikes, epic juice cleanses…Ronnie consumes her new bougie existence like a fine wine. But is it, really? Or is this whole self-care business a little sour?

When the glam gurus around town start turning up gruesomely murdered, Ronnie has her answer: all is not well in wellness town. As Marley’s blind ambition veers into madness, Ronnie fears for her life.

Review: I am not, nor have I ever been, someone who buys into influencer stuff, especially not ‘wellness’ influencers. Yes, my husband and I have a Peloton that I am constantly trying to get into a solid routine with, and yes, I’ve tried yoga, and meditation. But that’s about as far as I go. AND EVEN THEN I feel like I’m constantly stopping and starting, no matter how much I love having Cody Rigsby tell me that I’m fierce, babe! But I’m also super interested in the drama around influencers and some of the dirt you hear about the wellness community, but that’s just because I love a good mess. And that is probably why I was very interested in reading “Kismet” by Amina Akhtar. For one, the cover is gorgeous. I’m not as big into book covers as Serena, but this one just snagged my attention the moment I saw it. And then when I saw that it was a satirical thriller that pokes fun at the wellness movement, much like her previous book “#FashionVictim” did for the fashion industry, that just clinched it. I had to read it.

Me to this book as I clicked it open on my Kindle. (source)

In terms of working as a thriller, “Kismet” has all the elements to lead to general success. We have an engaging protagonist in Ronnie, a young woman who is trying to start a new leaf after years of living with her abusive aunt Shameem. She has recently found confidence thanks to her life coach turned friend Marley, an aspiring wellness influencer who convinced her to sell her home and move to Sedona, Arizona, a wellness based community. Ronnie has self doubt issues which makes it easy to care for her, and easy to believe that she may not trust her judgement as things start to take a turn for the strange, to the violent. We also have a mystery of a mysterious person murdering predatory wellness influencer superstars in the community, perhaps partially at the behest of the local raven population. Seeing Ronnie try to become her own person while starting to realize that she may be getting close to a murderer makes for a suspenseful mystery, though perhaps not in ways I was expecting. There were a lot of good moments of suspense, as well as some good twists and turns that I didn’t see coming, and the murders are both disturbing but also kind of tongue in cheek as some truly reprehensible people get picked off one by one. It really made it so I couldn’t put the book down as I charged forth to find out just what was going on.

But the aspect of this book that really hit it out of the park was how Akhtar so effortlessly satirizes and dismantles the idea of ‘wellness’ culture in our society, and how fraudulent, isolating, privileged, and, yes, racist it can be. The community Ronnie and Marley join has an open and body positive/health conscious demeanor and facade, but from the jump there are numerous problematic aspects to it. Be it people appropriating aspects of other cultures to make money, or disrespecting the environment around them, or hostility towards the Other (namely Ronnie, the only person of color in the community), Akhtar skewers the concepts that are thrown around by wellness influencers and has a very fun time making the community more and more unhinged whilst seeking out crystals, spiritual connection, and a like minded, albeit cult-like, group of neighbors. There is also a good exploration of white women weaponizing their race against women of color, as the friendship between Ronnie and Marley is codependent at best, and deteriorates into something far more toxic, with Marley hurling microaggressions, condescension, and then potential violence towards someone whom she supposedly loves like a sister. The community itself, with a few exceptions, is just as bad towards Ronnie, and it’s a very effective way of showing how this supposedly positive, wellness minded ethos is very much for a certain kind of person, all others to be either fetishized or looked upon with suspicion. It’s some great satire, and it has teeth.

I thoroughly enjoyed “Kismet”. And I think I will stick to my wellness routine of the exercise bike, quick meditation, and the occasional bath bombed soak in the tub.

Rating 9: Addictive, biting, funny, and genuinely surprising, “Kismet” is a hell of a fun read that satirizes an industry that could use a good ribbing.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Kismet” is included on the Goodreads list “Mystery & Thriller 2022”.

Book Club Review: “We Are Not Free”

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Read the full disclosure here.

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing book club running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Book Bingo” where we drew reading challenges commonly found on book bingo cards from a hat and chose a book based on that.  For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “We Are Not Free” by Traci Chee

Publishing Info: HMH Books For Young Readers, September 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Bingo Prompt: A book that takes place during a war.

Book Description: “All around me, my friends are talking, joking, laughing. Outside is the camp, the barbed wire, the guard towers, the city, the country that hates us. We are not free. But we are not alone.” 

We Are Not Free, is the collective account of a tight-knit group of young Nisei, second-generation Japanese American citizens, whose lives are irrevocably changed by the mass U.S. incarcerations of World War II.

Fourteen teens who have grown up together in Japantown, San Francisco. Fourteen teens who form a community and a family, as interconnected as they are conflicted. Fourteen teens whose lives are turned upside down when over 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry are removed from their homes and forced into desolate incarceration camps. In a world that seems determined to hate them, these young Nisei must rally together as racism and injustice threaten to pull them apart.

Kate’s Thoughts

This was actually my Book Bingo prompt, and I wanted to think a little bit outside of the box when it came to picking a book that took place during a war. Partially because I’m not super interested in military themed fiction, and partially because I wanted to kind of wanted to stay away from pro-militaristic themes. It quickly occurred to me that I hadn’t yet read Traci Chee’s YA historical fiction “We Are Not Free”, a book about a number of Japanese-American teens who are incarcerated during World War II because of the United States Government’s despicable Executive Order 9066. I’ve reviewed a lot of recent novels about the Japanese American Incarceration on this blog, and found this to be the perfect opportunity. And boy, what a book, and what a great book club discussion.

Chee approaches this story through the eyes of numerous characters, each one getting their own chapter with different perspectives and sometimes writing styles, and each character engages with a different fact or theme of the Incarceration. At first I was a little daunted by the idea of so many characters, but Chee does a really good job of not only letting us get into their heads and get to know them, but also touches on so many aspects of the Incarceration this way. Instead of finding the characters to be maybe less complex due to the one chapter approach, I ended up really caring for all of them as they mention each other and as we get into their heads, allowing us to see how they are perceived by others, but also how they see themselves. They all feel very authentic in their voices, either in how they are reacting to their ordeal and their trauma, or even just in moments of them having very relatable teenage moments that go beyond the Incarceration, like teen love, or school issues, or moments of joy that can still be found in spite of everything.

But we also are able to explore a number of aspects of the Incarceration through these characters that may have been a bit overstuffed had it just been one or two. Chee skillfully tackles things like having to leave everything behind, the cultural divide between the non-Amercain (by force of the government) Issei vs their American Citizen children Nisei, the loyalty oath that was given as a choice to sign or not to sign (and why some may sign and others may not), and the experience of those who enlisted in the war to try and prove their loyalty to their country. And many more. The book doesn’t shy away from any of it, and finds the nuance and complexity in some things while being unflinchingly honest about others. It is such a valuable book in that way for anyone who wants to learn about the Incarceration, as it has relatable and enjoyable characters whom the reader will attach to, and will therein learn through. Our book club had some awesome conversations about this book, and I have no doubt that classrooms would as well.

I’m glad I finally read “We Are Not Free”, and glad that this cycle’s theme got me off my butt to finally do so. It’s highly recommended, and necessary, historical fiction.

Kate’s Review 9: Powerful, engrossing, enraging, and hopeful, “We Are Not Free” is a valuable tool to learn about the Japanese American Incarceration that is must read for those interested in the subject.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of the structure of this novel? Did you like all the different perspectives? Why or why not?
  2. When did you first learn about the Incarceration? How was it approached when you did learn about it?
  3. Chee has an author’s note about the use of modern language sensibilities in this book? What were your thoughts on this choice?
  4. Did you have a chapter you liked best or that stood out from the others? What was it about that chapter that spoke to you?
  5. What were you thoughts on the way Chee portrayed the conflict between Nisei vs Issei in how they dealt with their ordeal?
  6. Do you think this would be a useful tool to teach the Incarceration to teenagers? Why or why not?

Reader’s Advisory

“We Are Not Free” is included on the Goodreads lists “Japanese American Internment in YA & Middle Grade Fiction”, and “Surviving in the Japanese Relocation Centers of WW2”.

Next Book Club Book: “The Ten Thousand Doors of January” by Alix E. Harrow

Kate’s Review: “Mademoiselle Revolution”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Mademoiselle Revolution” by Zoe Sivak

Publishing Info: Berkley Books, August 2022

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

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: A powerful, engrossing story of a biracial heiress who escapes to Paris when the Haitian Revolution burns across her island home. But as she works her way into the inner circle of Robespierre and his mistress, she learns that not even oceans can stop the flames of revolution.

Sylvie de Rosiers, as the daughter of a rich planter and an enslaved woman, enjoys the comforts of a lady in 1791 Saint-Domingue society. But while she was born to privilege, she was never fully accepted by island elites. After a violent rebellion begins the Haitian Revolution, Sylvie and her brother leave their family and old lives behind to flee unwittingly into another uprising–in austere and radical Paris. Sylvie quickly becomes enamored with the aims of the Revolution, as well as with the revolutionaries themselves–most notably Maximilien Robespierre and his mistress, Cornélie Duplay.

As a rising leader and abolitionist, Robespierre sees an opportunity to exploit Sylvie’s race and abandonment of her aristocratic roots as an example of his ideals, while the strong-willed Cornélie offers Sylvie safe harbor and guidance in free thought. Sylvie battles with her past complicity in a slave society and her future within this new world order as she finds herself increasingly torn between Robespierre’s ideology and Cornélie’s love.

When the Reign of Terror descends, Sylvie must decide whether to become an accomplice while a new empire rises on the bones of innocents…or risk losing her head

Review: Thank you to Berkley Books for sending me access to an eARC of this novel via NetGalley!

I remember a few years ago I was at a party that was thrown by a former work colleague, and I was sitting on the couch with my friend Scott as we played introverts and talked to each other for almost two hours as we caught up and enjoyed each other’s company. We ended up talking about the ills of society, and he made some comment about guillotines and the French Revolution, and as I sipped my mixed drink I said ‘yeah, but then you get Robespierre. I don’t want Robespierre!’ I’ve had a chip on my shoulder about Robespierre ever since we learned about the French Revolution in tenth grade. Like, what a dick! A timeless tale of someone who had good intentions but then was completely corrupted by power and then turned into a goddamn blood soaked monster in an effort to hold onto his power.

It’s a weird angry fixation I have, but it’s mine all the same. (source)

Needless to say, when I found an email from Berkley Books in my folder tempting me with “Mademoiselle Revolution”, a story about a biracial woman who fled Haiti during their Revolution only to find herself cozying up to Robespierre during the French Revolution, I was immediately on board. BRING ON THE ROBESPIERRE DISSECTION AND HOPEFULLY SLANDER!

But even better, “Mademoiselle Revolution” is a story that has a deeply resonant heart, centered by its protagonist Sylvie de Rosiers, a biracial woman who grew up in privilege due to her father’s status as a plantation owner, though her mother was one of the enslaved women he owned whom he raped and exploited. Sylvie was raised in her father’s home and treated like family, though her lineage and the color of her skin made it so she never truly belonged, even as she got to live in lavish luxury while other people who looked like her were being subjected to daily brutality and dehumanization. It is when the Haitian Revolution is at her doorstep and her family flees that Sylvie starts to grapple with the Otherness she has always dealt with, and her complicity to a system that she had the privilege to be mostly removed from. It makes for a complex and nuanced character from the jump, and it sets up to make all of her choices, once she and her loving brother Gaspard end up in Paris, make perfect sense. I really loved seeing Sylvie evolve in this story as she tries to make up for her complicity, and how she dives head first into the romanticism and justice seeking angles of the rumbling French Revolution as she gets close to Robespierre and his lover Cornélie, and how her guilt and optimism and naïveté send her into dangerous waters. Sivak tackles the racial politics and racism of the time and the cultures at hand with deftness, and shows the seeming contradictions of Sylvie’s experiences with ease and in a way that makes it very understandable. She is also that really well done main character who interacts with historical figures without feeling like it’s overdone or unrealistic. Sylvie’s role is well conceived enough that I totally bought into all of the scenarios and relationships that Sivak put her in, and that says a lot. Because Sylvie does a LOT.

I also really liked how Sivak shows that complexities of a group of true believers whose hearts start in the right place, and then become corrupted as time goes on. That’s my biggest issue with Robespierre at the end of the day; he wasn’t wrong about the corruption and the violence of the French Aristocracy. But when you start cutting the heads off of anyone you please because you THINK they may disagree with you, that’s when you become a whole other problem. And Sivak has a lot of horrifying moments in this book that really hit home how off point the message became, which led to a lot of suffering and then Napoleon friggin’ Bonaparte. There is one scene in particular that involved a severed head being put on display around town, specifically in a cafe, and used in a way that is SO dehumanizing and disgusting that it made my blood run cold. Sivak does a fantastic job of showing just how horrific the Reign of Terror, and the violence leading up to it, was, and how people like Robespierre are more than willing to exploit and use people like Sylvie to get what they want. It is intense and it makes for some very suspenseful moments, and that is why I am classifying this as a thriller as well as an historical fiction title. It’s absolutely harrowing at times, watching the walls close in on the circle of revolutionaries as they turn on each other.

I really enjoyed “Mademoiselle Revolution”. It is sure to wow fans of political thrillers and historical fiction alike. Go out and get your hands on this book!

Rating 9: Engaging, intense, and harrowing, “Mademoiselle Revolution” is a historical political thriller that explores identity, race, revolution, and the dangers of fanaticism.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Mademoiselle Revolution” is included on the Goodreads lists “Historical Fiction – The Caribbean”, and “Historical Fiction – France”.

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