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.

Find “Fire” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Superman Smashes the Klan”

Book: “Superman Smashes the Klan” by Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru (Ill.)

Publishing Info: DC Zoom, May 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: The year is 1946, and the Lee family has moved from Chinatown to Downtown Metropolis. While Dr. Lee is eager to begin his new position at the Metropolis Health Department, his two kids, Roberta and Tommy, are more excited about being closer to the famous superhero Superman!

Tommy adjusts quickly to the fast pace of their new neighborhood, befriending Jimmy Olsen and joining the club baseball team, while his younger sister Roberta feels out of place when she fails to fit in with the neighborhood kids. She’s awkward, quiet, and self-conscious of how she looks different from the kids around her, so she sticks to watching people instead of talking to them.

While the Lees try to adjust to their new lives, an evil is stirring in Metropolis: the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan targets the Lee family, beginning a string of terrorist attacks. They kidnap Tommy, attack the Daily Planet, and even threaten the local YMCA. But with the help of Roberta’s keen skills of observation, Superman is able to fight the Klan’s terror, while exposing those in power who support them–and Roberta and Superman learn to embrace their own unique features that set them apart. From multi-award-winning and New York Times bestselling author Gene Luen Yang comes an exciting middle grade tale featuring Superman. 

Review: Gene Luen Yang is no stranger to Superman. He’s written for Superman before, as well as creating an offshoot character Super-Man that is based in China (and that I have reviewed here on the blog). But I think that “Superman Smashes the Klan” is the Superman story of his that almost immediately caught my eye when I heard it was a thing. I had seen this bouncing around various book and comics circles, and bought it for myself as I love Yang’s work, and I am always in the mood to see a good smashing of racists and fascists. Especially these days.

“Superman Smashes the Klan” follows both Superman as he tries to come to terms with his own identity, as well as the Lee Family, a Chinese-American family that is moving from Chinatown to downtown Metropolis. Our main focuses are on charismatic and popular Tommy and his younger sister Roberta, who is a little more reserved and unsure of herself. While Tommy can seemingly easily code switch with the white kids in their new community, Roberta has a harder time reconciling her Chinese-American identity with this new environment. When the Lees become a target of the hate group The Klan of the Fiery Cross (more on this name in a bit), both Tommy and Roberta want to fight back in their own ways, while their parents are just trying to not make waves to keep themselves and their children safe. I liked how Yang not only addressed the full blown bigotry and violent racism of the Klan, but also the more subtle and systemic racism of society, mostly through Tommy and Roberta’s parents. Dr. Lee, their father, has taken a new job at the health department, and encourages his children and wife to assimilate (many a time does he tell his wife to speak English instead of Chinese), as well as wanting to fit in with his white colleagues and superiors and not be associated with other minorities. We also see Tommy playing down his Chinese identity by being self deprecating in hopes of fitting in too.

And as I mentioned earlier, Superman himself is dealing with his own identity crisis in this story, as he has been downplaying some of his powers that make it more clear that he isn’t just a very strong or gifted human. Specifically, he hasn’t allowed himself to really fly after an incident in his childhood where he lost control of that ability for a moment, and some people in Smallville nearly turned on him because they thought he was possessed. I LOVED this for two reasons. The first is that initially in the comics Superman couldn’t fly, he just could jump really, really high and far. It was genius for Yang to incorporate this character change into the story in this way. But the other reason is that it’s a great way to show kids who are reading this book that Superman, a strong, nearly perfect, ideal of a superhero, ALSO has struggles with his own identity, and that he too is from a group that could easily be Othered and discriminated against because he’s different.

I do want to talk about The Klan of the Fiery Cross as well. What I didn’t realize until we got to the super helpful author’s note at the end is that this is based on a story arc from the Superman Radio Show from the 1940s! That story was pretty similar, a Chinese-American family moves into a white neighborhood, and the Klan of the Fiery Cross (at the time the KKK was a powerful group after its second wave post “Birth of a Nation” with many members, and the radio show didn’t want to get sued for using their actual name) targets them, and Superman saves the day. Yang, of course, expands upon this within this new story, and it works very, very well. We see the Klan for the hate filled racists that they are, but he also touches on how some people who are really just looking for power and money will latch on to racist and fascist movements in hopes of getting the power and clout they crave (sounds familiar). You’d think that it would be hard to break this down in a kids book, but Yang does it and makes it super understandable for the audience the book has been written for.

And finally, the art work. Gurihiru has some clear manga influences and styles, and it works for the story. I also loved the use of colors and the character designs, be it body designs or period appropriate clothing.

“Superman Smashes the Klan” is a fast paced and charming story that has a lot to say without getting heavy handed or too bogged down. Yang’s story telling talents match perfectly with the story at hand, and fans of Superman should definitely read it!

Rating 9: An action-filled screed against racism that is filled with empathy and hope, “Superman Smashes The Klan” is no doubt an exciting read for children and adults alike.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Superman Smashes the Klan” is included on the Goodreads lists “Middle School Social Justice”, and “Paper Lantern Writers: Best Own Voices Historical Fiction”.

Find “Superman Smashes the Klan” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “We Keep The Dead Close”

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Book: “We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence” by Becky Cooper

Publishing Info: Grand Central Publishing, November 2020

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

Book Description: You have to remember, he reminded me, that Harvard is older than the U.S. government. You have to remember because Harvard doesn’t let you forget.

1969: the height of counterculture and the year universities would seek to curb the unruly spectacle of student protest; the winter that Harvard University would begin the tumultuous process of merging with Radcliffe, its all-female sister school; and the year that Jane Britton, an ambitious 23-year-old graduate student in Harvard’s Anthropology Department and daughter of Radcliffe Vice President J. Boyd Britton, would be found bludgeoned to death in her Cambridge, Massachusetts apartment.

Forty years later, Becky Cooper, a curious undergrad, will hear the first whispers of the story. In the first telling the body was nameless. The story was this: a Harvard student had had an affair with her professor, and the professor had murdered her in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology because she’d threatened to talk about the affair. Though the rumor proves false, the story that unfolds, one that Cooper will follow for ten years, is even more complex: a tale of gender inequality in academia, a “cowboy culture” among empowered male elites, the silencing effect of institutions, and our compulsion to rewrite the stories of female victims.

We Keep the Dead Close is a memoir of mirrors, misogyny, and murder. It is at once a rumination on the violence and oppression that rules our revered institutions, a ghost story reflecting one young woman’s past onto another’s present, and a love story for a girl who was lost to history.

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

During my college years at the U of MN I didn’t live on campus, so I wasn’t as in tune with the campus myths and rumors of the dorms and the community. I know that there were rumors that one of the dorms was haunted, and that the bridge that connects the campus across the Mississippi River was supposedly haunted as well (clearly I was into the ghost rumors). But nothing struck me as a college campus or community urban legend based in truth. “We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence” by Becky Cooper examines a Harvard story that sounds like generalized campus lore, but is in fact a true, and until recently, unsolved murder.

“We Keep the Dead Close” is very much a true crime story, involving the murder of Jane Britton, a Harvard student who was found murdered in her apartment in the late 1960s. Over the years this unsolved tale spun into its own campus mythology, with details tweaked and added and the main facts blurred to serve as a cautionary tale for women students. I had never heard of this murder, and I felt that Cooper was very respectful in how she both examined her personal investigation, as well as the investigation and fallout during the time, and the life that Jane led up until her death. Cooper made it so Jane was centered, all sides of her, the student, the woman, the friend, the lover, the difficult but funny person. Cooper ties all of these threads together in a way that made for a compelling narrative that keeps you reading, wanting to know who could have possibly done this as more suspects, scenarios, and possibilities are given. There are former lovers, jealous colleagues, and the main antagonist in the campus lore, the flamboyant professor she supposedly had an affair with. Cooper does her due diligence to explore all angles, and to try and find answers. Cooper also never centers herself, as some of these true crime/memoir books can stumble in. While it also concerns her curiosity and her own insecurities and fears as a woman student in a revered, but still male dominated, institution, this never feels like a ‘this could have been ME’ screed.

But what most fascinated me about “We Keep the Dead Close” was how Cooper so effortlessly examined the toxic undertones of academia, with oppressive forces and misogyny run amok in the 1960s when Britton attended. Not to mention how some of these themes are still quite present in academia today, being exposed by women who have had to live with it. You really get to see how Harvard was such a boys club at the time, and it truly paints a picture of how a professor, whose rumored involvement in the death of a female student, could still not only retain his position at the school, but become a big wig therein. While it’s true that not all is as it seems when it comes to the lore of the case and the actual facts of it, the fact that a potential murderer retains his job in this story and you think ‘oh, yeah, maybe’ instead of ‘preposterous!’ says a lot about the culture there at the time, and into today.

On top of that, Cooper has very insightful gleams into how lore can change and evolve as time goes on, and how Britton’s story has turned into a cautionary tale for students, particularly the women. While it’s true it definitely has a victim blamey feel at its core (don’t sleep with your professor or he will kill you and you just may deserve it! Keep your legs closed, ladies), it feels like the old fairy tales and monster stories that have been used over time to try and keep kids safe. It’s deeply fascinating to me as a true crime enthusiast and someone who loves a good horror story cum morality tale to see that kind of thing happening in the 20th century and into the 21st.

“We Keep the Dead Close” is a must read for true crime fans and those who are interested in the origins of modern myths and lore. I greatly enjoyed it, and it exceeded my expectations.

Rating 9: A well researched, poignant, and disturbing true crime novel about myth, misogyny, and the dark sides of Academia, “We Keep the Dead Close” is a must for true crime fans.

Reader’s Advisory:

“We Keep the Dead Close” is included on the Goodreads lists “Non-Fiction Family Secrets”, and I think it would fit in on “Campus Days”.

Find “We Keep the Dead Close” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue”

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Book: “The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue” by V.E. Schwab

Publishing Info: Tor Books, October 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: France, 1714: in a moment of desperation, a young woman makes a Faustian bargain to live forever and is cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets.

Thus begins the extraordinary life of Addie LaRue, and a dazzling adventure that will play out across centuries and continents, across history and art, as a young woman learns how far she will go to leave her mark on the world.

But everything changes when, after nearly 300 years, Addie stumbles across a young man in a hidden bookstore and he remembers her name. 

Review: I’ve been a fan of V.E. Schwab’s work for a while now, so whenever her books pop up, they’re instant requests for me. This one was all the more intriguing for the very unique-sounding description. A gift that turns out to be a curse. Time travel. Deep explorations of the meaning of self and what it is to exist in the world. Sign me up!

For a young woman growing up in the 1700s in a small village in France, the concept of “the world” is a small thing. Much if not all of her life will be lead in the same place, walking the same streets, meeting with the same people. But this isn’t enough for Addie LaRue, and in her desperation she makes a desperate bargain that turns her life on its head. Yes, she can now travel the world, free from the fear of death. But no one will remember her name, her face, her at all. A life like this comes with all kinds of challenges, but in the present year, we meet an Addie who has largely come to accept her transient existence only partly of the world she walks. That is until she meets a strange young man who sees her…and remembers.

I was completely right in my initial impression of this book: it was unlike anything I had read before! The story alternates between Addie’s past, as she makes her original deal and then checking in on her state at various point in the ensuing centuries, and Addie’s present in New York City. I think this was a really clever way of highlighting just how complicated her blessing/curse is. On one hand, it seems simple enough, and Addie herself clearly thought so when making it. But as the story travels through time, we see both the very large problems facing Addie as well as the small, daily challenges that come with not being remembered.

It’s not just romanticism and emotional consequences. What happens when you pay for a room in a hotel but five minutes after the clerk looks away, they forget you’ve paid for it? And that’s assuming Addie even has any money! I really liked the way the story was willing to fully engage with the harsh and sometimes brutal reality of what a life like this would look like, especially for a woman in the 1700s and through many of the following centuries.

The story in the present isn’t any less interesting. My one point of nervousness going into this story was that the young man who ultimately is able to remember Addie would just be some type of fluky, special snowflake type love interest where his ability is never really explored or explained. Not so! Instead, we get a good number of chapters from his perspective and his story was full of surprises, both leading up to his first meeting with Addie and going on well past it. The romance between the two was a bit on the aggressively quirky side at times, but overall, I think it was balanced out by the more weighty topics that were tackled in the rest of the story.

I’m not really into much of the art scene myself, but I did really enjoy this theme throughout the book and how Schwab used Addie’s curse to highlight the role that artwork and artists place in society. It’s much more than just creating pretty, fanciful pieces. It’s about a broader, grander conversation that is ongoing across centuries’ worth of individuals all speaking back and forth to one another.

And, of course, Schwab’s writing is solid and engaging throughout, and her mastercraft at creating deep characterization is on full display here. If you’re a fan of her past work, this is definitely worth checking out. And those new to her writing, this is a great an entry point as anyone could ask for!

Rating 9: Beautiful and heart-wrenching, I couldn’t put it down!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue” is on these Goodreads lists: “Heart Stopping Books” and “Best Books Set in New York City.”

Find “The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Plain Bad Heroines”

Book: “Plain Bad Heroines” by Emily M. Danforth

Publishing Info: William Morrow, October 2020

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

Book Description: The award-winning author of The Miseducation of Cameron Post makes her adult debut with this highly imaginative and original horror-comedy centered around a cursed New England boarding school for girls—a wickedly whimsical celebration of the art of storytelling, sapphic love, and the rebellious female spirit.

Our story begins in 1902, at The Brookhants School for Girls. Flo and Clara, two impressionable students, are obsessed with each other and with a daring young writer named Mary MacLane, the author of a scandalous bestselling memoir. To show their devotion to Mary, the girls establish their own private club and call it The Plain Bad Heroine Society. They meet in secret in a nearby apple orchard, the setting of their wildest happiness and, ultimately, of their macabre deaths. This is where their bodies are later discovered with a copy of Mary’s book splayed beside them, the victims of a swarm of stinging, angry yellow jackets. Less than five years later, The Brookhants School for Girls closes its doors forever—but not before three more people mysteriously die on the property, each in a most troubling way.

Over a century later, the now abandoned and crumbling Brookhants is back in the news when wunderkind writer, Merritt Emmons, publishes a breakout book celebrating the queer, feminist history surrounding the “haunted and cursed” Gilded-Age institution. Her bestselling book inspires a controversial horror film adaptation starring celebrity actor and lesbian it girl Harper Harper playing the ill-fated heroine Flo, opposite B-list actress and former child star Audrey Wells as Clara. But as Brookhants opens its gates once again, and our three modern heroines arrive on set to begin filming, past and present become grimly entangled—or perhaps just grimly exploited—and soon it’s impossible to tell where the curse leaves off and Hollywood begins.

A story within a story within a story and featuring black-and-white period illustrations, Plain Bad Heroines is a devilishly haunting, modern masterwork of metafiction that manages to combine the ghostly sensibility of Sarah Waters with the dark imagination of Marisha Pessl and the sharp humor and incisive social commentary of Curtis Sittenfeld into one laugh-out-loud funny, spellbinding, and wonderfully luxuriant read.

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

A few years ago I picked up the YA book “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” by Emily M. Danforth, as it had been put on a Pride display at the library I was working at at the time. I read it and liked it, and saw the movie and liked that as well. I told myself that I would be on the lookout for more books by Danforth, but admittedly didn’t really pay too close attention to her publications. When I saw the book “Plain Bad Heroines” on NetGalley and read the description, it caught my eye enough that I requested it and got a copy… and then when I put two and two together that this, too, was by Danforth, I was even more excited to read it!

“Plain Bad Heroines” is a mixed bag of genres, perspectives, themes, and narratives. It definitely has a horror story within its pages, but it also has some romance, some historical high strangeness, and some cheeky tongue in cheek humor, with a number of wry citations thrown in by a humorous narrator. The crux of this story is a former school estate called Brookhants, where at the turn of the 20th century a number of gruesome deaths occurred. We get to see the timeline of these deaths, and see the mysteries surrounding them, but we also get to see a modern narrative involving a movie set and crew that is trying to make a horror movie based upon a book written about the mysterious deaths and the supposedly haunted and/or cursed grounds. The past story has a focus on Libbie and Alex, two lovers who are running the school where a number of girls, who were also involved in various sapphic relationships and were obsessed with a book with lesbian themes, died in horrific ways. The modern tale focuses on three women involved in the production of a new horror movie about the school: Merritt, who wrote the book about Brookhants and framed it as a queer feminist history; Harper Harper, the superstar actress who champions her own queerness; and Audrey, a former child actress who is hoping to reinvent herself. The two timelines are interspersed together and unfold with tragedy, humor, longing, and Gothic horror.

But even with suspense, romantic drama, Hollywood nonsense, and some actual horror moments that set me on edge, “Plain Bad Heroines” is also a very earnest, charming, and funny tale. The narrative jumps between timelines but connects with a humorous and ever nudging Narrator, with citations, side comments, and the occasional period appropriate illustration ever at hand. It works so well, and while I was worried that it may take away from the ghost story (and the body horror elements, SO MANY BODY HORROR ELEMENTS), it never did. While I mostly liked the modern story more, I did like getting the background and context of the haunted school and seeing how the curse and its fallout was affecting Harper, Audrey, and Merritt in the modern day. Fair warning: if you have a thing about yellow jackets, content warnings ABOUND in this book. Danforth hits many a horror moment, which was great to see and something I didn’t necessarily expect from her given her other book. Yet she does it with ease, and pulls off lots of unsettling moments.

But it’s really the characters that propelled the story for me, both the ones from the past and in the present. Libbie, Alex, and the other characters in the past storyline were well described and grounded in historical truths that are very sad when it comes to lesbian relationships during that time period. You know that societal constraints are driving many things out of their control, and the sadness of the complications, and the doom you know is coming, made these characters very sympathetic, even when they were making decisions and choices that may have been damaging and hurtful. But (once again) it’s the modern women who really stood out, all of their complexities and nuances on display and perfectly drawn out. While Harper and Merritt have a lot of great moments of goodness and badness, it was Audrey who really captivated me, her desperation to move on from her old life and to find something new incredibly palpable. I loved watching all of them interact, and how Danforth put the power of womens’ relationships, be they romantic or platonic, at the forefront.

I really enjoyed “Plain Bad Heroines”. Danforth is such a dynamic writer, and if you want something spooky this season that isn’t too scary, this will surely captivate you as it did me.

Rating 9: A complex, wry, and genuinely creepy book about Gothic mysteries, untimely deaths, sapphic romance, and a whole lot of yellow jackets, “Plain Bad Heroines” is a pleasant surprise from Danforth and a fun Halloween read!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Plain Bad Heroines” isn’t included on many Goodreads lists as of yet, but I think it would fit in on “Sapphic Book Lists”.

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

Serena’s Review: “Murder on Cold Street”

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Book: “Murder on Cold Street” by Sherry Thomas

Publishing Info: Berkley, October 2020

Where Did I get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

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

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

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

Publishing Info: Vertigo, 1991

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

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

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

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

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Lucifer as he peaces out. (source)

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

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

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

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

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

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(source)

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

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

Previously Reviewed: 

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

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

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, February 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Everyone in Fairview knows the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

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

Kate’s Review: “Grown”

49397758Book: “Grown” by Tiffany D. Jackson

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, September 2020

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

Book Description: Korey Fields is dead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

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

Serena’s Review: “Driftwood”

9781616963460_b1ce2Book: “Driftwood” by Marie Brennan

Publishing Info: Tachyon Publications, August 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Who is Last?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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