Kate’s Review: “Untamed Shore”

Book: “Untamed Shore” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Publishing Info: Agora Books, February 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: A coming-of-age story set in Mexico quickly turns dark when a young woman meets three enigmatic tourists.

Baja California, 1979. Viridiana spends her days watching the dead sharks piled beside the seashore, as the fishermen pull their nets. There is nothing else to do, nothing else to watch, under the harsh sun. She’s bored. Terribly bored. Yet her head is filled with dreams of Hollywood films, of romance, of a future beyond the drab town where her only option is to marry and have children. Three wealthy American tourists arrive for the summer, and Viridiana is magnetized. She immediately becomes entwined in the glamorous foreigners’ lives. They offer excitement, and perhaps an escape from the promise of a humdrum future.

When one of them dies, Viridiana lies to protect her friends. Soon enough, someone’s asking questions, and Viridiana has some of her own about the identity of her new acquaintances. Sharks may be dangerous, but there are worse predators nearby, ready to devour a naïve young woman who is quickly being tangled in a web of deceit.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia is one of the most exciting voices in fiction, and with her first crime novel, UNTAMED SHORE, she crafts a blazing novel of suspense with an eerie seaside setting and a literary edge that proves her a master of the genre.

Review: It is probably becoming clear to all of you that this blog is very much a Silvia Moreno-Garcia Stan page. Given that she has been dipping her toes into all kinds of genres, there are things for both Serena and myself to love. This time I’m taking on a good old fashioned crime thriller novel called “Untamed Shore”, which promises suspense, secrets, death, and sharks. All while also being a coming of age story in 1970s Baja, Mexico. I mean my goodness, everything about this just screams ‘YOU SHOULD BE READING THIS KATE, AND HOW DARE YOU MISS IT THE FIRST TIME AROUND?!’

Me to my reading tastes. Also, holy “Detroit Rock City” gif, Batman! (source)

Something that has become very clear about Moreno-Garcia is that she can genre hop with ease, and that her stories will always be incredibly strong no matter what kind of themes that they take on. This is something that I have seen not very often with authors I like, as they either stick to one thing, or if they do branch out it doesn’t work as well. But for Moreno-Garcia, she makes it look easy. “Untamed Shore” is both a crime novel and a bildungsroman about Viridiana, an eighteen year old living in small town Baja who dreams of more for herself. She’s smart, she’s feisty, she’s misunderstood due to her ambition and her background, and she’s also naive, due to her youth and her lack of worldliness. All of these things make for an easy to root for character, and she’s well rounded and tenacious and everything I like to see in a female protagonist at that. You completely understand why she would be drawn to Ambrose, Daisy, and Gregory, three American tourists with money, privilege, and a somewhat dark dynamic that Viridiana sees when she becomes a live in assistant. Ambrose is cold, Daisy is magnetic and unpredictable, and Gregory is charming and seductive, and I love how we get a sense for all of them through Viridiana’s eyes, but also through the behaviors that she sees but may not quite catch. It’s Gregory’s wooing of Viridiana that feels the most dangerous, as her pie in the sky romantic nature and hopes for better things makes their romance feel sinister, even as she is led to believe that it’s real. So our suspense is ratcheted up because Viridiana may be in serious danger the closer she gets to them, and yet as the story goes on Viridiana takes a very interesting journey in which she adapts, grows, and makes moves of her own. Bottom line, I loved Viridiana, and her growth was fascinating to watch. Especially when she has to start figuring out if she has alliances to her supposed friends/the man she loves, or to those who may want to take her supposed friends down.

Moreno-Garcia has also set her story in a place that, once again, feels unique to me and my reading tastes. When I think of crime novels, I tend to think of New York, Los Angeles, maybe somewhere in Europe or MAYBE Asia. I am always trying to expand my horizons, however, so the setting of 1970s Mexico was very enjoyable. I felt like I knew the ins and outs of Desegaño, the small fishing town that is becoming more and more suffocating to Viridiana as days go by, and that doesn’t see TOO many tourists (which means the three she falls in with are all the more compelling). The setting is compelling, and it also is the perfect way to explore the way that American tourists take places like this for granted, thinking that they can waltz in, throw their weight around, and use the locals in whatever way they feel like. Ambrose, Daisy, and Gregory have their own preconceived notions about Viridiana, because of her youth and her ethnicity/nationality, and it all feels like a very ugly but apt metaphor that I greatly enjoyed.

And oh, the suspense! It’s pretty clear to the reader what happened when one of the Americans ends up dead, so the story there on out is wondering if Viridiana is going to realize what exactly she has been pulled into, or if she is going to be so desperate to leave Desegaño and so desperate to believe that she and Gregory are in love that she will believe anything that the two left alive will tell her. Her desperation is palpable and understandable, and I was barreling through to the end not necessarily wanting to know if all the garbage the Americans did would come to light, but if Viridiana would come out okay.

Overall, I loved “Untamed Shore”. I ran the gamut of emotions and am now even more excited to continue on my Silvia Moreno-Garcia journey.

Rating 9: A sizzling and suspenseful crime thriller with a likable, if not a little morally ambiguous, protagonist and a fun backdrop.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Untamed Shore” is included on the Goodreads lists “Mysteries/Thrillers by BIPOC Authors”, and “Historical Fiction Set in Latin America”.

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

Serena’s Review: “Dustborn”

Book: “Dustborn” by Erin Bowman

Publication Info: HMH Books for Young Readers, April 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Delta of Dead River has always been told to hide her back, where a map is branded on her skin to a rumored paradise called the Verdant. In a wasteland plagued by dust squalls, geomagnetic storms, and solar flares, many would kill for it—even if no one can read it. So when raiders sent by a man known as the General attack her village, Delta suspects he is searching for her. 

Delta sets out to rescue her family but quickly learns that in the Wastes no one can be trusted—perhaps not even her childhood friend, Asher, who has been missing for nearly a decade. If Delta can trust Asher, she just might decode the map and trade evidence of the Verdant to the General for her family. What Delta doesn’t count on is what waits at the Verdant: a long-forgotten secret that will shake the foundation of her entire world.

Review: This book was marketed as appealing to fans of “Mad Max.” That was probably enough for me right there. The cover also worked perfectly for this description, luring me in even further. It is super unique, kind of creepy, and sets a perfect tone for the type of brutal, wasteland existence the book’s description references. I hadn’t read anything else by this author, which is also exciting. And it all worked out perfectly for me here, as I ended enjoying the heck out of this book.

Delta has always been distrustful. On her back she carries a deadly secret, one that she’s been warned to always hide. But luckily for her, this distrust of strangers is not a great weight to carry as there are so few strangers in the first place. Her pack is barely surviving on the barren wastelands, anxiously watching their only water supply slow shrink back. When Delta returns from a brief mission away to find her home destroyed and her pack abducted by a powerful man calling himself the “General,” she knows she was and the secret she carries were the likely target. Now she must venture out into the wasteland to decrypt this ancient secret before it’s too late for those she loves.

Like I said, I really enjoyed this story. For one thing, the world-building is very strong. I was immediately able to picture the wasteland that Delta lives in and the powerful storms that plague it instantly felt like a viable and fearful threat. The story touches on many of the small elements of life that would be challenging living under these circumstances that the reader might not immediately think of. It made the entire thing feel very lived in and tangible. The ever-present dust, the constant underlying fear of running out of water, the emptiness stretching out in every direction. Too afraid to move, but unable to stay where you are. Delta’s descriptions of this all are matter-of-fact and blunt, occurring organically as the story rolls out.

Delta herself was very sympathetic, partly for just how hardened and rough she was with those around her. She’s definitely a product of the life she’s been raised into, one full of difficulty but with the added layer of fear surrounding the secret map on her back. Her story is one of learning to trust, sometimes against reason. It’s also one of faith, how one can lose it and how sometimes hope and faith are needed even in the face of terrible odds. I really liked Delta’s ponderings on truth and faith, and her attempts to strike the appropriate balance between the two.

I also really enjoyed the side characters. Asher was a fairly predictable love interest, without a lot that made him stand out from the pack. But there were a bunch of surprise side characters that the general description doesn’t even mention who play, arguably, even a bigger role than Asher does in Delta’s journey, both her physical trek across the waste and her personal journey of self-discovery. I don’t want to spoil any of the elements of the book, since these characters continue to pop up throughout the book, even fairly late into the story and each surprise is as good as the last.

Speaking of surprises, while I can definitely see the comparisons to “Mad Max” and I think that is an apt sum-up of the story, this is book is definitely its own thing. There was a really big surprise towards the end that I didn’t see coming at all. I always love when I come across books that can truly shock me with a twist like this. You don’t even realize how many elements have been laid down pointing towards this reveal until it suddenly comes.

Overall, I had a blast reading this book. It was action-packed, fresh, and had a tough-as-grits heroine to lead us through the story. It strikes the perfect balance between post-apocalyptic and country western, varying between its themes of hope in the face of terrible odds and the go-get ’em attitude of our leading lady. Fans of “Mad Max” and post-apocalyptic stories are sure to enjoy this one!

Rating 9: Dive into the dusty landscape and make sure to have a glass of water on hand. Not only will it help with the prevalent worry over water throughout the book, but you may not be able to put down this page-turner for quite a while!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Dustborn” is on these Goodreads lists: [ATY 2021] – Related to Past, Present, Future – FUTURE and Best Traveling Vicariously.

Find “Dustborn” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “You Love Me”

Book: “You Love Me” (You #3) by Caroline Kepnes

Publishing Info: Random House, April 2021

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

Book Description: Joe Goldberg is done with cities, done with the muck and the posers, done with Love. Now, he’s saying hello to nature, to simple pleasures on a cozy island in the Pacific Northwest. For the first time in a long time, he can just breathe.

He gets a job at the local library–he does know a thing or two about books–and that’s where he meets her: Mary Kaye DiMarco. Librarian. Joe won’t meddle, he will not obsess. He’ll win her the old fashioned way . . . by providing a shoulder to cry on, a helping hand. Over time, they’ll both heal their wounds and begin their happily ever after in this sleepy town.

The trouble is . . . Mary Kaye already has a life. She’s a mother. She’s a friend. She’s . . . busy.

True love can only triumph if both people are willing to make room for the real thing. Joe cleared his decks. He’s ready. And hopefully, with his encouragement and undying support, Mary Kaye will do the right thing and make room for him.

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

Long have I waited for Caroline Kepnes to continue the story of Joe Goldberg, my favorite literary psychopath/hopeless romantic/obsessive stalker. When I first encountered Joe back in 2016, in which I read “You” and “Hidden Bodies” almost in direct succession of each other, I was hoping we’d get more, but didn’t want to hold my breath lest I be disappointed. Well thank you, Netflix, for picking up the show “You” starring Penn Badgely, and making it a bonafide hit. Because now we are DEFINITELY getting more Joe stories, and the newest one is “You Love Me”. When I saw that I was approved to read it, I could have cried I was so happy (I may have a little bit, actually). I waited for five years, and it was pretty much worth the wait.

Hello again, creep. Oh how I’ve missed you. (source)

I missed Joe. And diving back into his mind was both fun and a bit jarring. “You Love Me” has similar traits to the previous books; we still have Joe obsessing, we still have a cast of over the top scumbag characters he encounters, and we still have the eerie and voyeuristic sensation of watching him as he stalks someone and worms his way into her life. But we also get some more complexity to Joe, complexity that certainly doesn’t let him off the hook for his misdeeds, but makes him a bit more semi-tragic than he was back in the early days of “You” and “Hidden Bodies”. Kepnes really dives into the darkness of his character here, and keeps mining out disturbing things, though at the same time she’s letting him grow in other ways that I found really interesting. I suppose it would be too repetitive to just keep him static, and that’s kind of a ballsy move given that this is a man who victimizes basically everyone he encounters. Even when he doesn’t mean to.

Since it’s from his POV again (and we’re back to the second person perspective in the unique way that Kepnes does it, in that it actually WORKS), we have to surmise that a LOT of what we’re getting from him is unreliable. But at the same time, I felt like that I did get a sense for many of the new characters this time around, from Mary Kay to her daughter Nomi (or “Meerkat” as Joe calls her), to Mary Kay’s obnoxious friends, to other thorns in his side. While I don’t know if anyone was going to live up to Love Quinn in my mind (more on that in a bit…..), Mary Kay felt like the exact kind of nuanced and complicated person that Joe would be drawn to. Kepnes manages to make all of these characters feel real, even though they are all a bit exaggerated just because of who the narrator is. 

The story itself has some of the same stumbling blocks that the previous books have. There are some moments or arcs that feel a little hastily tacked on to keep Joe a few steps away from his ultimate goal. There are a couple deus ex machinas. There are a couple of REALLY nutty moments of peril for Joe. My biggest issue was how the story wrapped up the L.A. storyline, as while I know we had to have Joe be able to move on to a new object of obsession, it felt VERY rushed. When we did revisit Love she felt a little stilted and out of character for my tastes, which was a shame because I felt like there was a FOUNT of depths, mostly dark, that we could have explored, so that was a disappointment. But ultimately these shortcomings I can pretty easily put aside, because it’s Joe. I read these books not for the believability of them, or to see how a plot will keep itself together, or to avoid over the top craziness. I read them because Joe Goldberg is scary, hilarious, and in some ways (not the killing ways) very relatable.

I don’t know where we’re going to go from here. I do know that a fourth book is going to happen. “You Love Me” is a welcome return to Joe Goldberg and his twisted obsessions. I’m happy to see him again.

Rating 9: A soapy, creepy, and funny return to one of my favorite series of all time, “You Love Me” brings Joe Goldberg back to freak us all out, and it goes splendidly.

Reader’s Advisory:

“You Love Me” is included on the Goodreads list “2021 Horror Releases” . That said, this is not a horror novel but it’s the ONLY list that is at all specific to theme. I may add more if more pop up that are more specific.

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

Previously Reviewed:

Serena’s Review: “The Broken Kingdoms”

Book: “The Broken Kingdoms” by N.K. Jemisin

Publishing Info: Orbit, November 2010

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

Book Description: In the city of Shadow, beneath the World Tree, alleyways shimmer with magic and godlings live hidden among mortal kind. Oree Shoth, a blind artist, takes in a homeless man who glows like a living sun to her strange sight. This act of kindness engulfs Oree in a nightmarish conspiracy. Someone, somehow, is murdering godlings, leaving their desecrated bodies all over the city.

Oree’s peculiar guest is at the heart of it, his presence putting her in mortal danger — but is it him the killers want, or Oree? And is the earthly power of the Arameri king their ultimate goal, or have they set their sights on the Lord of Night himself?

Previously Reviewed: “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms”

Review: Having re-familiarized myself with Jemisin’s first novel and after discovering the joy that is the audiobook version, it was a quick hop and skip over to the library website to check out the next book in the series. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, as I didn’t read a book description beforehand and it had seemed as if the first book wrapped up fairly neatly. But I’m pleased to report that while telling a wholly unique story focused on a new cast of characters, this sequel is just as wonderful as the first book.

Set several years after the events of the first book, Oree’s world looks very different than the one that existed before. Godlings walk among humans, a gigantic tree grows at the heart of what once was the most powerful city in the land, and dark new forces grow with the rumors that a new god, a new lady, has joined the pantheon. But for Oree, life is made up of small moments as she tries to lead a peaceful life selling her artwork. For, even without eyesight, able only to see magic and its users, Oree creates wonderous works that draw the eyes of many. But this simple life is interrupted when she finds herself drawn into a dark mystery: godlings are being murdered and Oree and her strange house guest, a man who shines bright as the sun, but only at dawn, are suspected as being behind it all.

“The Broken Kingdoms” is both a quieter novel and a more complex one. In many ways, it feels like Jemisin came more into her own in this second outing. While the first one was lovely and I might have preferred it as an overall reading experience, I think this was the stronger book. All of the little glimpses into this fantastical world that were laid down in the first story seemed to blossom and weave themselves into an interlocking tapestry here in the second. The history of the gods and godlings, the politics and cultures that have warred and formed alliances throughout history, and the smaller lives of those just trying to get by while cosmic battles wage around them. Oree’s story is very much that, the story of a young woman who quickly finds herself caught up in something stronger than she is…or so she believes.

As a character, Oree has the quiet strength and inner will of iron that I find so appealing in a leading lady. She has no grand desires and spends much of the book fighting against her own involvement in the mystery surrounding the godlings and her strange houseguest whom she has dubbed “Shiny.” Readers of the first book will be quick to identify this character, and I was pleased to see that Jemisin didn’t draw out the suspense too long for Oree, as well. As fun as it is to be in the know against the main character in a book, it’s a short-lived joy and one that can also end up working against itself very quickly if drawn out too long. The main character can often be left looking unnecessarily foolish or slow to pick up on clues that seem obvious to the better-informed reader. But here, Oree learns the truth in a timely manner, and, what’s more, her reaction to this discovery adds a new layer of interest to the story and the friendship building between these two.

I was also pleased with how Jemisin used this character. From the first book, it was easy to have strong opinions of him from the start. And Jemisin doesn’t undermine those, but she also develops layers beneath this surface version that draw a picture of a complicated, flawed individual who is none the less a worthy companion for our Oree.

I also really enjoyed the expanded world building and exploration of magic and the godlings. The world has certainly changed since the events of the first book, and it is interesting to see the many small and large effects that those events have inspired. The villains, in particular, were very interesting and appropriately threatening. What makes them all the more scary is how understandable some of their motivations are. The world has changed drastically and quickly, and everyone’s reactions to that sort of upheaval would be very different.

My only ding against the book was perhaps the ending. But this is a largely personal evaluation, and I think, narratively, it works quite well. I had my own hopes for how things would go, and the ending took me by surprise, both in a good way and, a bit, in a disappointing one as well. I’m curious to see if any of these events are revisited in the third and final book!

Rating 9: While I had more fun with the first book, this might be the stronger work of the two.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Broken Kingdoms” is on these Goodreads lists: Speculative Fiction by Authors of Color and Non-Caucasian Protagonists in Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Paranormal Romance.

Find “The Broken Kingdoms” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “She’s Too Pretty To Burn”

Book: “She’s Too Pretty To Burn” by Wendy Heard

Publishing Info: Henry Holt & Co. (BYR), March 2021

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

Book Description: An electric romance set against a rebel art scene sparks lethal danger for two girls in this expertly plotted YA thriller. For fans of E. Lockhart, Lauren Oliver and Kara Thomas.

The summer is winding down in San Diego. Veronica is bored, caustically charismatic, and uninspired in her photography. Nico is insatiable, subversive, and obsessed with chaotic performance art. They’re artists first, best friends second. But that was before Mick. Delicate, lonely, magnetic Mick: the perfect subject, and Veronica’s dream girl. The days are long and hot―full of adventure―and soon they are falling in love. Falling so hard, they never imagine what comes next. One fire. Two murders. Three drowning bodies. One suspect . . . one stalker. This is a summer they won’t survive.

Inspired by The Picture of Dorian Gray, this sexy psychological thriller explores the intersections of love, art, danger, and power.

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

While I have a vague working knowledge of the main themes of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde thanks to pop culture, I haven’t actually read the book, nor have I seen any source material stringent adaptations. I figure I should probably get on that at some point, but man, the To Be Read pile is so big that it just keeps falling by the wayside. That didn’t stop me, however, from being totally interested in “She’s Too Pretty to Burn” by Wendy Heard when I read the description. Sure, the “Dorian Gray” adaptation is already kind of a tantalizing detail, but when you throw in teenage girls, sapphic romance, AND what sounds like a “Velvet Buzzsaw”-esque pretentious art scene/bloodbath? Baby, you got a stew going.

This movie is a mess, but it’s a mess that I couldn’t stop watching. (source)

“She’s Too Pretty To Burn” has two perspectives. The first is Mick, a shy, awkward, friendless teenage girl who lives with her narcissistic mother. Her self esteem is low and she hates having any attention on her. The second is Veronica, a budding photographer from a privileged home who has dreams of art school after high school, and who pals around with Nico, a passionate political performance artist who is always on the edge with his art. After Mick and Veronica meet at a party, their connection is immediately forged in passion as well as boundary treading, in that Veronica takes Mick’s picture without her knowing. This, of course, sets off a disturbing and highly readable chain of events. I liked having both Mick’s and Veronica’s perspectives, as I feel like we got a really good sense for both their passions, their hopes, and their insecurities, as well as how they both are deeply into each other, but know how to hurt each other. There were moments where I loved each of them, and moments where I would get so mad at each of them, but I was wholly invested in them, their relationship, and their fates. I also really enjoyed how Heard explored their differing levels of privilege, be it based on race, class, home life, what have you, showing that while Mick may have the upper hand in one way, Veronica may have it in another, and neither of them can see past their own issues to REALLY understand how their varying advantages manifest. Nico is a bit of a wild card in all of this at first glance, until he starts to manipulate both girls in different ways to suit his own purposes, and as that slow burn threw in a whole other dynamic to this story, I went from hooked to lined and sunk as well (does this metaphor work? I don’t care, I was all in is what I’m saying).

The plot, which I’m going to keep a little vague, is a slow build of suspense and dread as to what is going to happen. The unease is apparent from the get go, but you aren’t totally certain as to why you feel that way. Is it because of Mick’s unease with everything around her? Is it because of Veronica’s obsession with that photo she took of Mick and what it drives her to do? Is it the two of them, is it something else? Since I haven’t read “Dorian Gray” I can’t tell you as to how well it fits the narrative of that story, or how it reinterprets those themes, but what I can tell you is that this book is just off and unnerving enough that you will be on edge even before things really start to go south for all of our characters. And then when it does go that way, the tension is massive. At least it was for me. I was ripping through the final chapters, nearly breathless as I waited to see what was going to happen. I don’t know what it was about this book, but it really laid its talons in my brain and I am still shaken up. The only reason that this didn’t get a ten out of ten is because I felt like it went a LITTLE long by the end, extending past the climactic events and laying a little last minute groundwork that I don’t think was fully explored. That said, if it was laying groundwork for a potential sequel? I would be chomping at the bit to see what happens next.

“She’s Too Pretty to Burn” is going to be on my mind for awhile. Deeply disturbing but compelling as hell. Definitely check this out if you like YA thrillers, or even just thrillers in general.

Rating 9: A twisted and unnerving thriller that had me hooked almost immediately.

Reader’s Advisory:

“She’s Too Pretty to Burn” is included on the Goodreads lists “2021 Sapphic Releases”, and “Dorian Gray”.

Find “She’s Too Pretty to Burn” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “The Bone Maker”

Book: “The Bone Maker” by Sarah Beth Durst

Publication Info: Harper Voyager, March 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Twenty-five years ago, five heroes risked their lives to defeat the bone maker Eklor—a corrupt magician who created an inhuman army using animal bones. But victory came at a tragic price. Only four of the heroes survived. 

Since then, Kreya, the group’s leader, has exiled herself to a remote tower and devoted herself to one purpose: resurrecting her dead husband. But such a task requires both a cache of human bones and a sacrifice—for each day he lives, she will live one less.

She’d rather live one year with her husband than a hundred without him, but using human bones for magic is illegal in Vos. The dead are burned—as are any bone workers who violate the law. Yet Kreya knows where she can find the bones she needs: the battlefield where her husband and countless others lost their lives. But defying the laws of the land exposes a terrible possibility. Maybe the dead don’t rest in peace after all.  

Five warriors—one broken, one gone soft, one pursuing a simple life, one stuck in the past, and one who should be dead. Their story should have been finished. But evil doesn’t stop just because someone once said, “the end.”

Review: Sarah Beth Durst has always been a bit of a hit or miss author for me. When she’s on her game, I really love her books. But there are others of her titles that have really not worked for me. So I never quite know which one I’m going to get when I pick up a new book by her. But this one, with its interesting premise and its focus on an older woman as its heroine, sounded like something that would be right up my alley!

What was a day of triumph to the nation was a day of horror to Kreya. While she and her four companions were successful in the heroic mission they set out upon, to take down the viscous bone maker Eklor, Kreya lost her husband in the process. Now, years later, Kreya is living as a recluse, desperately working forbidden magic to buy just one more day with her lost love. When she seeks out a method to work this magic on a more long-term basis, she discovers horrors that she thought were long ago settled. Now she and the others must grapple with the reality that their story may not actually be finished, and they’re not sure they can win this time.

This book checked two boxes of interest for me. Recently, I’ve really been enjoying stories that look at the “after” of heroic tales. Veronica Roth’s “Chosen” was one of my favorite reads last year and dealt with this very topic. While both that book and this one essentially present the same story, that the first “ending” wasn’t really the end at all but simply a pause on everything, they each tackle the topic of what life is like for these heroes in what they think is the end. While this book is mostly Kreysa’s story, Durst also offeres insights into the other heroes who fought alongside her. Through them all, we see the various methods each is using to handle an entire lifetime after such a momentous start. You save the world in your twenties…then what? Not only is the resulting PTSD and trauma something that must be carried afterwards, but the sense that one’s biggest moment in life is already behind one has to play with the mind. I really like the variety we see between the heroes and how they are all coping, nor not coping, with these challenges.

The second point of interest is its focus on an adult heroine. The book never specifies Kreya’s or her friends’ age, but we know their fight happened 25 years ago and that Kreya was married at the time. It’s like that she’s in her late forties or older. It’s always refreshing to read a book that focuses on older characters. By necessity, their lives look very different than the young adult heroes and heroines we so often see. Instead of new love, it’s often an established relationship or a second love. Instead of the challenges of coming into one’s power for the first time, it’s managing a life that has already contained a multitude of defining moments. Kreya and her friends have lived a quarter of a century’s worth of life since their grand adventure. During that time they’ve built lives and come to terms with the events of their youth. They also have to face these new challenges as the people they are now, not the people they were when they first fought their foe. There are both new strengths and challenges that come with taking up the mantle of heroism again later in life.

I specifically enjoyed the established romance between Kreya and her husband. We see all the strengths that have been built into it over the years of loving the same person. But there are also some unique challenges that come along with this. Specifically, of course, the fact that one member of the marriage has been dead on and off for the last 25 years…but it also speaks to the way that relationships grow and change alongside the individuals in them.

The only ding I have against the book is that the world-building and magic system are kind of simplistic and lack detail and depth. There are some cool monsters that live in a particular forest, some magically-operated cable cars, and a few other things. But none of them are described very fully or really made to feel like they are part of a fully-realized world. However, it was also clear that the focus of the book was meant to be largely about its characters, so while the world wasn’t very complex, I wasn’t necessarily feeling that it was lacking while I was reading. Fans of Durst’s work are sure to enjoy this, and fantasy lovers who prefer a more mature hero and stories focused on the “after” of the heroic journey should definitely check it out!

Rating 9: A very enjoyable, fast read that highlights the fact that no hero’s journey is every really over.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Bone Maker” isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2021.

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Serena’s Review: “The Ask and the Answer”

Book: “The Ask and the Answer” by Patrick Ness

Publishing Info: Candlewick, May 2009

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: We were in the square, in the square where I’d run, holding her, carrying her, telling her to stay alive, stay alive till we got safe, till we got to Haven so I could save her – But there weren’t no safety, no safety at all, there was just him and his men…

Fleeing before a relentless army, Todd has carried a desperately wounded Viola right into the hands of their worst enemy, Mayor Prentiss. Immediately separated from Viola and imprisoned, Todd is forced to learn the ways of the Mayor’s new order. But what secrets are hiding just outside of town? And where is Viola? Is she even still alive? And who are the mysterious Answer? And then, one day, the bombs begin to explode…

Previously Reviewed: “The Knife of Never Letting Go”

Review: Keeping on my read of Patrick Ness’s “Chaos Walking” trilogy, I was eager to pick up this next book after the massive cliffhanger we were left with in the first book! Warning, there will be spoilers for the first book in this review as it’s almost impossible to talk about this book without revealing some of the reveals we had there.

After desperately fleeing the Mayor and his growing army, Todd and a grievously injured Viola finally reach Haven to discover it is really nothing of the sort. Without even putting up a fight, the people of Haven have already surrendered to the Mayor, and it is he who now controls the town and Todd and Viola’s fate. The division between men and women, with men’s Noise and women’s lack of Noise at the heart of it, grows daily. Like all of the other men and women, Todd and Viola are separated and life is very different under the control of the Mayor (now the President.) But a resistance quickly emerges calling itself the Answer and waging a terrifying guerilla war against the Mayor and his men. No one knows when the next bomb will go off or how the Answer is even doing what its doing. Todd and Viola separately with the cruel decisions put before them, desperately trying to find their way back to one another at the same time.

I feel like this series is systematically expanding a central thought at its core: is violence ever justified? In the first book, we see Todd’s struggles with what he has been told makes a man, the ability to kill. Again and again he fails to kill even when it would spare his life. But then in a fit of anger and fear, he kills a Spackle violently and suddenly. And then we see this decision haunt him throughout the remainder of the book. By the end, Todd has come to his own decisions about what does and does not make a man and cold-blooded murder decidedly does not.

Here, however, the question of violence is expanded outwards. On one hand, we have the Mayor who insists that his army and tactics are necessary for dealing with the rising threat of the Spackle and to create a unified force for when Viola’s people arrive in their ships. The Answer, on the other hand, violently opposes the Mayor’s brutal tactics and cruel treatment of women and Spackle. For them, the “answer” is to fight back with everything they have, waging a terrorist bombing campaign against the town itself. They try to avoid casualties, but any accidental hits are simply put down to necessary losses in the grander scheme. And from a third perspective, Viola, who spends much of the first half of the book in a House of Healing, meets a healer woman who’s firm line that saving a life must always come first demonstrates just how hard this approach is, watching cruelty unfold but not responding other than to treat those who are injured, both friend and foe alike.

There is no clear “right” choice in any of it, other than the Mayor himself who is pretty clearly bad. Viola and Todd each have to tackle incredibly challenging situations that really make the reader stop and think about what they would do if presented these options in the circumstances. I was never really sure, other than to be glad I was reading about it and not experiencing it myself. But I find this type of story that really challenges its readers to be the best kind. It’s definitely not an easy book. There’s darkness throughout and some really terrible things happen, but it’s also one that shows the resilience of the spirit to go on through even the most impossible feeling events.

For his part, the Mayor is an excellent villain. Ness doesn’t overplay his hand here with any mustache-twirling or silly excess. Instead, the Mayor’s oozing manipulation is all to easy to understand. We see how even Todd can be influenced by it, a young many who has tackled more than many of the other men who fall under the Mayor’s sway. I also really liked that we got to see more from Davy, the Mayor’s son. His character is really rounded out here and shines a different light on the Mayor as well.

The narrative is also now split between chapters from Todd’s perspective and Viola’s. This is, of course, necessary to tell each of their stories as they spend so much of the book apart. But it’s also great to finally see into Viola’s head. In the first book, it was clear that even though Todd has grown up on this planet, he still had very little understanding of his own people’s history. But Viola is coming from a completely different life experience. She grew up on a colony ship with this planet as its destination. And then to be suddenly thrust into this situation after her parents die in the crash…It’s inevitable that she would see the decisions before her and the events around her through a very different lens than Todd.

I really enjoyed this book. Like I said, it’s not a light, fluffy read, but it’s darkness and challenge is what makes it stand-out. Ness doesn’t pull any punches when pushing his reader to tackle these tough topics. If you enjoyed the first book, I’m sure this is already on your radar (again, that ending!) So rest assured that while the pedal might have felt like it was to the metal in the first book, this is where it really gets started!

Rating 9: Tackling some really tough questions about violence and the rights and wrongs therein, this book is kept from being too dark by its incredibly compelling two main leads.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Ask and the Answer” is on these Goodreads lists: Fast-paced books with Redeeming social value to read in one-sitting and Deep Underrated YA.

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Serena’s Review: “The Knife of Never Letting Go”

Book: “The Knife of Never Letting Go” by Patrick Ness

Publishing Info: Walker, May 2008

Where Did I Get this Book: own it

Book Description: Prentisstown isn’t like other towns. Everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts in an overwhelming, never-ending stream of Noise. Just a month away from the birthday that will make him a man, Todd and his dog, Manchee—whose thoughts Todd can hear too, whether he wants to or not—stumble upon an area of complete silence. They find that in a town where privacy is impossible, something terrible has been hidden—a secret so awful that Todd and Manchee must run for their lives.

Review: I read this book way back when it first came out, but given that the movie adaptation, “Chaos Walking,” is coming out soon, I thought now was the perfect time for a revisit. As it has been over ten years since my first read, I only remembered a few very basic things about the overall plot and style of the book. So really, it was almost like an entirely new experience this go around! One thing stayed the same, however: I really like this book.

Todd’s world is one filled with Noise. Where animals speak their simple animal words and men project their every thought in blasts of emotion, there is no escape from the barrage. But so has life always been for Todd, the youngest member of a town of settlers who came to this planet hoping for a new life. Instead, what they found was tragedy and challenge. Or so Todd has been told. But only weeks before Todd is set to become a man and join the rest of the town as a full-fledged adult, he discovers something that shouldn’t exist: a spot of silence in a chaotic world. And with that discovery, his entire understanding of his world, his people, and his history is blown wide open, and he finds himself running for his life.

The first thing that stands out when reading this book is the style of writing. It’s first person perspective, which is unique enough, though less so in YA. But more notably, the narration is very much written in a stream of conscience style. Todd’s thoughts are hectic, incomplete, with short bursts of feeling, sprinkled with hints of description only when needed. It’s definitely the sort of style that takes a bit of time to get used to. By necessity, the world-building and history of the story comes out in small tidbits seemingly dropped in at random. Todd’s habit of often starting sentences only to stop them can be frustrating at times. But this also all adds to the tension and chaos that is inherent to this world. All on its own, this style of writing does more to convey what life would be like on this strange planet where men’s thoughts are projected out for all to see than any elaborate description ever could.

The short, quick style of writing also effectively illustrates the tension and drive that is at the heart of this story. Todd spends the majority of the book fleeing, and the hectic style of the sentences almost makes it read as if he is panting out these lines as he tries to catch his breath while running, always running. The story is a fast read, though, and I blew through the entire thing in almost a day.

It’s hard to talk about much in this book without revealing one secret or another. There are a few reveals that I think were projected well-enough that many readers will pick up on them. But there were others that served as legitimate surprises. By the end, there also seemed to be a decent about of history and reveals that were simply left to be discussed in the next book. Ness really doesn’t make much of an effort to even pretend that this book could be read as a standalone story, and it definitely ends on a big cliffhanger, so be warned that if you start it, you’re pretty much committing to the entire trilogy!

Todd is an excellent character in his own right. He can be just as frustrating as he is endearingly naïve. And alongside the reactions to extraordinary circumstances, we also see the fact that he’s just a teenage boy, with all of the conflicting motivations and emotions that come with that. Much of Todd’s narration is fixated on the fact that he will become a man, according to the traditions of his colony, in about a month’s time. So, too, then the story is focused on the messy, painful process of Todd actually making this transition in the story.

As I said, this story is definitely written as the first in a trilogy. It’s a fast read, full of action and heart-break, and I already have the next two books purchased and downloaded onto my Kindle. I’m also really excited to see what the movie version has to offer, and I think Tom Holland is perfectly cast (though what isn’t he amazing in??)

Rating 9: A deceptively action-packed story hides a emotional wallop behind its unique style of writing.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Knife of Never Letting Go” is on these Goodreads lists Books that should get more attention and Teenagers . . . IN SPACE!

Find “The Knife of Never Letting Go” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms”

Book: “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” by N.K. Jemisin

Publishing Info: Orbit, February 2010

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library

Book Description: Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north. But when her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the majestic city of Sky. There, to her shock, Yeine is named an heiress to the king. But the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not easily won, and Yeine is thrust into a vicious power struggle.

Review: Technically, this was a re-read for me. I picked it up originally right when it came out, so about ten years ago now. I really enjoyed it then, but for some reason didn’t continue on with the series. Well, I decided that now was a good time to revisit Jemisin’s first trilogy, so I picked up the second book from the library and started out. Whelp, turns out I remembered basically nothing from this first book and was super confused right out of the gate, so a re-read was definitely in order before continuing on. And I’m very glad I did! I had a few vague ideas about what this book was about, but I really had forgotten just how detailed and rich this story is.

Yeine Darr had only recently come into her role as the leader of her small sub-nation. Challenging as this new role is, it is nothing to the sudden upheavel to her life when she is summoned to the grand city of Sky and finds herself thrust into the middle of a political battle. From small provincial leader, she’s now one of three potential heirs to the ruler of the entire land. But there is much more going on than a simple political struggle: Gods are involved. As Yeine works to uncover the mysteries of her own past, she begins to unravel a complicated history of her own world that has been hidden for centuries. But what can a country nobody such as herself do in this grand opera of gods and magic?

What I remembered about this book could mostly be summed up as “girl goes to palace and falls in love with some sort of dark, magical being.” Which…is somewhat accurate but also so, so much less than what this book is really about! For one thing, I forgot just how skilled Jemisin’s writing and world-building was in this book. Having now read more of her work, this isn’t as surprising, I guess, but when I first read it, it’s a wonder I didn’t just immediately continue on!

In the midst of an action-packed story centered around a complicated mystery, Jemisin still somehow manages to introduce a large cast of characters, build up an intricate world full of an entire pantheon of gods and various nationalities, and create a magic system within which it all operates. And on top of all that, the story never falls into any “info dump” traps. Instead, our narrator casually introduces various aspects of this world and drops hints here and there that slowly begin to paint an intricate picture in the reader’s mind. Indeed, the image is almost fully complete before you even realize that one was being built in the first place!

I’ve also talked before about the challenges of writing first person narratives and how rare it is to find this style of writing in adult fiction. As challenging as it is to build a new fantasy world and magic system on its own without resorting to long, info-dumping paragraphs, it’s even harder to do it in a natural-seeming way coming directly from the mouth of a character who would already be familiar with all of these things and have no natural reason to be speaking it out loud. To tackle this challenge, Jemisin relies on a nice little trick where her narrator is recounting her own story to some unknown audience. While Yeine’s story largely plays out chronologically, it’s clear that the narrator herself is speaking after the fact in the recounting of this story. In this way, little tidbits of information and sneak peaks into events coming up are dropped throughout the narrative, building suspense in the story itself and building curiosity as to how the past Yeine whom we are following along with comes to be the one who is narrating and clearly has a different perspective on her entire world. It’s a really clever technique, and one that we see Jemisin utilize to great effect in many of her works.

I also really liked the cast of character Jemisin builds up around Yeine. The gods themselves are all very complicated, neatly balancing extreme charisma and appeal alongside an ever-present, trigger-haired sense of impending violence. And the humans aren’t much better. Indeed, in many ways, this book emphasizes just how much worse the humans are than the gods who are thought to not possess any sense of humanity themselves. Alongside the perils of power and the quest to retain it, the story explores the darker themes of love and the choices it will lead the unwary towards.

I really enjoyed revisiting this story. I really had forgotten most of it, and it was a joy to rediscover some of Jemisin’s earlier work. This is a fantasy novel that is fully reveling in being a fantasy novel. It checks all the boxes I look for in this sort of story. If you’re a fan of Jemisin’s work and haven’t gotten around to reading some of her earlier stuff, I definitely recommend checking this out!

Rating 9: Complicated and rich, Jemisin proves why she was a force to be reckoned with right from the very start!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” is on these Goodreads lists: Best “Strong Female” Fantasy Novels and Diversity in Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Find “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Rev-Up Review: “Fire”

Book: “Fire” by Kristin Cashore

Publish: Dial Books, 2009

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: It is not a peaceful time in the Dells. The young King Nash clings to his throne while rebel lords in the north and south build armies to unseat him. The mountains and forests are filled with spies and thieves and lawless men.

This is where Fire lives. With a wild, irresistible appearance and hair the color of flame, Fire is the last remaining human monster. Equally hated and adored, she had the unique ability to control minds, but she guards her power, unwilling to steal the secrets of innocent people. Especially when she has so many of her own.

Then Prince Brigan comes to bring her to King City. The royal family needs her help to uncover the plot against the king. Far away from home, Fire begins to realize there’s more to her power than she ever dreamed. Her power could save the kingdom.

If only she weren’t afraid of becoming the monster her father was.

Previously Reviewed: “Graceling”

Review: Unlike “Graceling,” I never got around to re-reading “Fire” closer to when I read it the first time. Not that I didn’t really enjoy it then, just that, like I said, the TBR list was just starting to get out of control around this time. So going into this re-read, I remembered even less about this book than that. That made it lots of fun to read now as it almost felt like an entirely new book, but one that I already knew I’d enjoy! Win win!

The Dells is a colorful land, marked by the bright, over-powering beauty of its monsters: blue horses, purple raptors, pink mice. But Fire is the only human monster after the death of her cruel father several years prior. Her extreme beauty inspires both wonder and hatred from those around her, so Fire’s life world has been small to stay safe. She also greatly fears the mind control abilities that come alongside her beauty. But when a prince arrives on her doorstep requesting her aide to save the king, Fire is obligated to venture out and put her abilities to the test.

While this is technically a prequel to “Graceling,” it most ways it stands a lone. We have one character (albeit an important one!) who crosses over, but their page time is limited so even there we’re left with mostly new material. I really loved the world-building that went into the Dells and the creativity around the native monsters and how their powers worked. The animals themselves are quite terrifying, especially the monster raptors that seem to constantly lurk in the sky. Though this was also the one point where I was confused. Are these regular raptors, like hawks and falcons that aren’t that big? Or are these some type of unique bird of prey that is bigger? They seemed to be discussed and treated as pretty severe threats to people which was confusing if we’re talking about smaller birds of prey. Not really a big deal, but it was something I kept getting caught up on throughout the story.

Fire herself is an incredible creation. It makes complete sense that extreme beauty would inspire both love and hatred, and seeing how this plays out in Fire’s every day existence was really intriguing. She has some strong abilities, but we also see how very vulnerable her monster looks are to her. She attracts monster animals who want to eat her, and humans aren’t much better, either becoming obsessed with her (often in the grabby, forceful kissing manner) or essentially go mad and want to kill her. Her life seems very challenging, full of fear and tension. This makes it all the more touching to see her begin to form real relationships with the other characters in this book, because we’ve been prepped to understand just how many challenges there are in this for Fire.

I really liked the romance in this book, perhaps even more than I did the one in “Graceling.” Everyone loves a good “enemies to lovers” romantic plot line, and as much as I liked Po, Brigan checked off more on my romantic hero wish list, like steady and a bit solemn. While Katsa and Po were all about the fiery drama, Fire and Brigan have a slow build that is beautiful to watch unfold.

This book was a bit slower than “Graceling,” and the villain(s) were also a bit underwhelming. We see the return of one evil character, and they’re good for the small amount of page time we get from them. But what accounts for the main antagonist and challenge was a bit to removed from the story to feel too invested in it. By the nature of her being, Fire’s work is mostly done from the safety of the castle and is largely passive with most of the action taking place off-page.

I really enjoyed re-reading this book. I really remembered very little of it, and I was pleased to find the romance, in particular, even better than I had remembered. Next up is “Bitterblue!”

Rating 9: A quieter, more introspective book than “Graceling,” but also a bit more heart-breaking (in a good way!) overall.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Fire” is on these Goodreads lists: Original Stories . . . a Breath of Fresh Air and Princes, Other Worlds and Future Lands.

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