Kate’s Review: “Bloom”

29225589._sx318_Book: “Bloom” by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau (Ill.)

Publishing Info: First Second, February 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Now that high school is over, Ari is dying to move to the big city with his ultra-hip band―if he can just persuade his dad to let him quit his job at their struggling family bakery. Though he loved working there as a kid, Ari cannot fathom a life wasting away over rising dough and hot ovens. But while interviewing candidates for his replacement, Ari meets Hector, an easygoing guy who loves baking as much as Ari wants to escape it. As they become closer over batches of bread, love is ready to bloom . . . that is, if Ari doesn’t ruin everything.

Writer Kevin Panetta and artist Savanna Ganucheau concoct a delicious recipe of intricately illustrated baking scenes and blushing young love, in which the choices we make can have terrible consequences, but the people who love us can help us grow.

Review: We’re getting near the end of summer (kind of?), and on the hot days sometimes you just need to have a cute, sweet, comfort read that you can enjoy in the sun… or air conditioning in my case. I saw “Bloom” by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau on a display at the library I was working at, and decided to pick it up on a whim. It had been a bit since I’d read a one shot graphic novel, and the look of it and the summer feeling the cover gave me stood out to me. I hadn’t heard of “Bloom” until I picked it up, and after reading it I wish I’d found it sooner. I really, really enjoyed “Bloom”!

The story involves two young adults who are both looking for some self discovery and paths for their future. Ari is determined to move away from his home and his family bakery to become a music star with his friends, while Hector is trying to wrap up his late grandmother’s affairs and move on from a needy relationship. While they are both starkly different, you can’t help but love both of them for what they are. Ari is over emotional and a little bit self centered, but also wrapped up in insecurities about those around him. You understand why he wants to go out and make his own life, but can’t help but feel for his parents, who want him to join the family bakery business. Panetta did a really good job of showing how people can be torn between by their individual dreams, and their familial expectations. Ari is complex and at times very frustrating, but he also is a character I think a lot of people can see themselves in. Hector, too, is a fascinating character, as while he isn’t as conflicted as Ari, he has his own insecurities, but is better at navigating them. That said, I liked the foil that he played, as his kindness and patience has led him to troubles in the past because of his compassion and empathy for people. I loved them both for who they were, and I loved seeing them interact with each other. The side characters were a bit more hit or miss for me. On the one hand you have Ari’s parents, who I really liked. Ari’s father was the strict and singleminded parent you tend to see in stories like this, who could have easily fallen into the box of being the ‘out of touch parent who doesn’t care about what their kid wants’. But instead, Panetta does a fantastic job of showing complexities there, and his worries and fears regarding his business, his livelihood, and his relationship with his son were definitely well defined, and brought tears to my eyes. Ari’s mother was a bit more of the supportive parent of the two parent dynamic, but I also liked that she had moments of stepping out of that box too and being stern and realistic. But while Ari’s parents were great and spot on, I thought that Ari’s and Hector’s friend groups were a little two dimensional. They tended to check off a lot of trope boxes (the aggressively quirky, the jerk, the snarky, etc), and while I didn’t mind seeing them I didn’t really get much interesting from them.

The romance and overall plot of this book was very sweet and rewarding. Ari and Hector get closer because of baking, and Panetta focuses as much on the slow burn of the love story as much as he focuses on the intricacies and art of baking. Passion, be it romantic passion of passions for hobbies, are a huge theme in this book, and you can see the passion of a number of characters, and how it drives them, and sometimes makes them forget about the potential consequences of said passions. You can’t help but root for Ari and Hector as their romance slowly blooms and comes to life. And you can’t help but think about the metaphors of baking and the patience that it takes, the time and care it can require, and how sometimes you have to restart when unanticipated problems arise. I loved every panel and every moment, and savored the story as it unfolded. And as I mentioned above, I definitely cried as I was reading it.

The artwork is understated and lovely. I loved the blue hues and the sketches, and how the art not only brings the people to life, but the food as well. The style sometimes looks like sketches that aren’t quite finished (with arrows denoting movement and bare boned sketches occasionally making appearances), but it only added to the charm of the story. Also, the occasional large splash panel would showcase both the people and their emotions, as well as the food that they were making.

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“Bloom” is an adorable and touching summer romance about finding yourself, finding love, and finding your passions. If you want a cute and satisfying love story, look no further than Ari and Hector!

Rating 9: A sweet, emotional, and mouth watering romance that has delightful characters, a lovely romance, and some tasty looking baked goods!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Bloom” is included on the Goodreads lists “Pride Month! The Teen Essentials List”, and “Graphic Novels Centered Around Food”.

Find “Bloom” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Turn of the Key”

40489648._sy475_Book: “The Turn of the Key” by Ruth Ware

Publishing Info: Simon & Schuster, August 2019

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

Book Description: From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of In a Dark, Dark Wood, The Woman in Cabin 10, The Lying Game, and The Death of Mrs. Westaway comes Ruth Ware’s highly anticipated fifth novel.

When she stumbles across the ad, she’s looking for something else completely. But it seems like too good an opportunity to miss—a live-in nannying post, with a staggeringly generous salary. And when Rowan Caine arrives at Heatherbrae House, she is smitten—by the luxurious “smart” home fitted out with all modern conveniences, by the beautiful Scottish Highlands, and by this picture-perfect family.

What she doesn’t know is that she’s stepping into a nightmare—one that will end with a child dead and herself in prison awaiting trial for murder.

Writing to her lawyer from prison, she struggles to explain the unravelling events that led to her incarceration. It wasn’t just the constant surveillance from the cameras installed around the house, or the malfunctioning technology that woke the household with booming music, or turned the lights off at the worst possible time. It wasn’t just the girls, who turned out to be a far cry from the immaculately behaved model children she met at her interview. It wasn’t even the way she was left alone for weeks at a time, with no adults around apart from the enigmatic handyman, Jack Grant.

It was everything.

She knows she’s made mistakes. She admits that she lied to obtain the post, and that her behavior toward the children wasn’t always ideal. She’s not innocent, by any means. But, she maintains, she’s not guilty—at least not of murder. Which means someone else is.

Full of spellbinding menace and told in Ruth Ware’s signature suspenseful style, The Turn of the Key is an unputdownable thriller from the Agatha Christie of our time.

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

For the most part, I have enjoyed all of the books that Ruth Ware has published since I discovered “In a Dark, Dark Wood”. True, “The Lying Game” was the weakest of the bunch, but I still liked it overall. I enjoy her mix of suspense and Agatha Christie-esque plots, and at this point she is someone I will always want to read whenever she writes a new novel. I was lucky enough to receive an eARC of “The Turn of the Key” from NetGalley, and I sat down one afternoon merely expecting to start the book. Little did I know that I would read it all in one go. “The Turn of the Key” has officially displaced “In a Dark, Dark Wood” as my favorite Ruth Ware story, which is something I thought would never happen.

While it isn’t exactly new for Ware to explore the Gothic elements of thrillers within her stories, “The Turn of the Key” goes full force, paying straight homage to Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw”. Rowan is our new governess, hired to watch over three children at an isolated country estate in Scotland called Heatherbrae House. You slowly get a sense of who Rowan is as a person, as the story is told through her POV as she writes to a lawyer while she awaits trail for the murder of one of her charges. It’s clear why she’s on edge as she’s writing, but those nerves were there long before her experiences at the job began to take their toll. Because of this, we have two mysteries to solve: what is going on at Heatherbrae House, and what is the deal with Rowan? I enjoyed both of the mysteries as they unfolded, and I thought that Ware did a good job of slowly building up the tension for both. Heatherbrae House already has a number of unsettling ‘quirks’, from a couple of bratty children, to the hyper Alexa-esque ‘smart’ capabilities of the house, to a grumpy housekeeper and a mysterious groundskeeper. Throw in strange noises at night, and a hidden room, and you have all the components for an effective Gothic story, but updated for a modern audience.

However, like “The Turn of the Screw”, Rowan may not be the most reliable of characters. She’s constantly on edge, putting up a facade for those around her to hide her anxiety and anger issues, and her desperation is palpable, desperation as she awaits her trial, and desperation as she hopes to do well at her new job. As she slowly tells the lawyer everything that happens, we get a very complex and unhinged character who could be capable of anything, even the murder of a child. I liked that I was kept guessing about her throughout the narrative. In terms of the other characters, I felt like Ware achieved the goal of making most of them interesting and well conceived. Mrs. Elincourt was saccharine and aloof, and while you get the sense that she does love and care for her children that she doesn’t feel a need to connect with them or bond with them. Jack Grant the handyman is charming and a calming presence for Rowan, but through small moments and actions you wonder if he has something he may be hiding. And as for the children, Maddie, the oldest of the three that Rowan is watching, is properly venomous and sociopathic, while still having a sense of the tragic around her personality so that she isn’t limited to “The Bad Seed” trope. While it may be the easy way out to just make her terrible, Ware decides to give her more, and to show her as a victim in her own right even when she’s going after Rowan in the most malicious ways.

“The Turn of the Key” is another home run for Ruth Ware. While it will probably please fans of old school Gothic themes, it is also a fresh and updated look at well worn territory. It’s the perfect read for the end of summer.

Rating 9: A tense and fun gothic thriller that has become my favorite book by Ware! The perfect read for the end of summer!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Turn of the Key” is included on the Goodreads lists “Mystery and Thriller 2019”, and “2019 Most Anticipated Releases – No YA”.

Find “The Turn of the Key” at your library using WorldCat!

Bookclub Review: “Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery”

35798022We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is ‘Books On Our To Read Shelf’, where we pick books that we’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten to.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery” by Mat Johnson, Warren Pleece (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Berger Books, February 2008

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: In the early 20th Century, when lynchings were commonplace throughout the American South, a few courageous reporters from the North risked their lives to expose these atrocities. They were African-American men who, due to their light skin color, could “pass” among the white folks. They called this dangerous assignment going “incognegro.”

Zane Pinchback, a reporter for the New York-based New Holland Herald, is sent to investigate the arrest of his own brother, charged with the brutal murder of a white woman in Mississippi. With a lynch mob already swarming, Zane must stay “incognegro” long enough to uncover the truth behind the murder in order to save his brother — and himself. Suspenseful, unsettling and relevant, Incognegro is a tense graphic novel of shifting identities, forbidden passions, and secrets that run far deeper than skin color.

Kate’s Thoughts

Two years ago when Serena and I were at the annual conference for ALA, we went to a panel that talked about graphic novels and how they convey stories. One of the panelists highlighted “Incognegro” by Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece, a story based on true accounts of a black news reporter who could pass for white, and would go undercover to expose racial violence in the deep South. I knew that I wanted to read it eventually, but filed it away and didn’t think about it. So when book club decided that our theme should be selections from the TBR pile, I decided that we were going to read “Incognegro”. I knew that it was going to be a very raw and emotional read, but also had a feeling it was going to be as interesting as I thought it would be.

“Incognegro” doesn’t hold back from the get go, as the first pages depict a violent lynching in graphic detail. While it is horrific and set me immediately on edge, Johnson clearly had every intention of making the reader feel abject horror at what was on the page. The injustice and violence perpetrated against black people during the Jim Crow years is something that we learn in school, but it can still get a bit lost as to just how awful it was. This book exposes all of it, and while it’s absolutely hard to read and take in, it never feels like it’s exploitative. It also shows that it was what we would potentially see as ‘regular people’ who participated in lynchings, not caricatures of racists that we may think of thanks to TV and movies. While a Klansman is the main named antagonist, it’s also ‘regular’ people who go to watch the lynchings and even get souvenirs to commemorate the murders and tortures they witness. It makes it so that the reader can’t see this as merely something only mustache twirling villains did, and that it could be anyone who held such toxic and violent ideals, including the people you’d see walking down the street or at a picnic. Johnson also has a note at the end of the ten year anniversary addition, in which he talks about how the rise of far right and white supremacist hate groups in the last few years makes this story feel all too relevant still.

Not only were the themes strong, so were the characters. It is clear that the work that Zane (who is based on a man named Walter Francis White), is doing is necessary and incredibly dangerous, and we see him as he is starting to feel his dedication run thin, not because he doesn’t believe in it anymore, but because of the various tolls it is taking. He has managed to make his job both personal, as he is a black man who would be targeted if he wasn’t able to pass, and yet impersonal, because he’s escaped the South for Harlem and is the famous ‘incognegro’ who is doing important and applauded work. But it becomes wholly personal when it’s his own brother Alonzo that could be the next target, after Alonzo is accused of murdering a white woman. I liked seeing his experience and weariness, especially when contrasted with that of the younger and less experienced Carl, someone who is probably going to be his replacement. The way that they react to the conditions that they see on Zane’s supposed last assignment show their different approaches and feelings regarding what their mission is supposed to be, and I liked that Johnson doesn’t really show either of them as being right or wrong in their ethos, but also naive in their own ways. You care for both of them, and that makes it all the more upsetting when the violence they’re meant to evade can’t be avoided.

I am so glad that I finally picked up “Incognegro”, and I urge people to read it, as challenging and upsetting as it may be. It’s a story that is still incredibly relevant, and has a lot to say about the society we are still living in.

Serena’s Thoughts

As Kate mentioned, I was at the same panel that discussed this book and was very intrigued by it. Unlike her, I was not organized enough to put it on my Goodreads TBR list and so had completely forgotten about it. Thank goodness, one of us had it together there!

I agree with every Kate has said, so I won’t repeat her on those same topics. In brief, I thought the characterization was excellent for most of the characters (there is one exception with a woman character who reads a bit caricature-ish at times, but this is a super minor point). And, while incredibly hard to read about, I too appreciated the eyes-wide-open approach to such a tough subject. There is no hand-holding or soft-selling the horrors of this point in history. And like Kate mentioned, it’s made clear that it wasn’t only “villains” the way we would like to think of them. It could be anyone. And more so, there’s a good commentary about mob mentality throughout the book. That even people who on their own might not be moved to such violence can be easily caught up in a swell of anger and hatred and then subside back into their ordinary lives, as if nothing had happened. This is the kind of anger that I think we are seeing more of today at protests and rallies. This book is a good reminder of just how far that behavior can go if not held in firm check by those reporting honestly on the issues and the unequivocal recrimination by society and leaders of society of those participating in ways that lead towards this type of hatred.

I also really enjoyed the artwork in this book. It is done in variations of black and white with some hints of browns. It does a nice job of keeping the reader focused on what is being said by the story itself, rather than being distracted by the very thing the book is discussing: the color of individuals. The art was used in a really strong way, both slapping readers in the face with some pretty tough images, but also playing well to a few comedic moments as well as portraying the action of the story and emotion of the characters quite effectively.

The last thing I want to discuss is the mystery itself. While yes, much of the book is a discussion of the themes we’ve discussed above, there’s also a compelling murder mystery at its heart. I felt that by having this plotline, the authors were able to prevent the reader from feeling too overwhelmed by the dark nature of the story. I also really liked how it pulled in the idea that Black individuals were not the only ones who were disenfranchised at this time and who might find the idea of going “incognito” as a white man appealing in order to pursue the life they want but that is denied them in their natural state.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. “Enjoyed” seems like a strange word, given the context, but I think that it is still appropriate. I did find the mystery fun at times, and the darker aspects of the book were important reminders of a period of history that often gets briefly touched upon and then quickly moved past.

Kate’s Rating 9: A raw, emotional, and suspenseful look at a dark time in our history, and a story that shows the importance of speaking up for the truth no matter what the risk may be.

Serena’s Rating 9: Excellent. A tough read, but one that speaks to a subject many would rather avoid, and one that is always relevant when we see ourselves beginning to be ruled by fear and hatred of an “other.”

Book Club Questions

  1. Were you familiar with the role that people like Walter Francis White played in exposing the facts about lynching in the South during this time period?
  2. Both Zane and Carl have different approaches to gathering intel when trying to infiltrate racist circles, and different approaches with how to approach conflict. Let’s say that Carl hadn’t been found out due to someone with outsider knowledge. Whose strategy do you think is more effective or appropriate when lives are at stake: Zanes more covert one, or Carl’s more direct one?
  3. This book has two stories about people passing for identities that they were not: Zane passing for a different race, and deputy Francis passing as a man. We know the consequences for Zane were he found out, but what do you think the risks and rewards would have been for Deputy Francis?
  4. Many people today see the concept of race as a societal construct. What are some ways that this concept is hinted at in this story?
  5. What do you make of Alonzo and Michaela’s relationship?
  6. Mat Johnson has said that he wanted to re-release “Incognegro” in the aftermath of the Charlottesville far right/ White Supremacist rally and the racial terrorism it inspired. In what other ways do you think “Incognegro” is relevant to social issues of today?

Reader’s Advisory

“Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery” is included on the Goodreads lists “History Through Graphic Novels”, and “#BlackLivesMatter Reading List”.

Find “Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Kindred” by Octavia Butler

Serena’s Review: “Age of War”

18052169Book: “Age of War” by Michael J. Sullivan

Publishing Info: Del Rey, July 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library

Book Description: The alliance of humans and renegade Fhrey is fragile—and about to be tested as never before. Persephone keeps the human clans from turning on one another through her iron will and a compassionate heart. The arrogant Fhrey are barely held in check by their leader, Nyphron, who seeks to advance his own nefarious agenda through a loveless marriage that will result in the betrayal of the person Persephone loves most: Raithe, the God Killer.

As the Fhrey overlords marshal their army and sorcerers to crush the rebellion, old loyalties will be challenged while fresh conspiracies will threaten to undo all that Persephone has accomplished. In the darkest hour, when hope is all but lost, new heroes will rise . . . but at what terrible cost?

Previously reviewed: “Age of Myth” & “Age of Swords”

Review: I’ve been loving this series ever since I discovered it. I read most every type of fantasy there is (urban, YA, contemporary, etc.), but I always have a soft spot for epic fantasy, especially well-constructed series that feature a well-rounded ensemble cast. With every book I read in this series, my appreciation for what Sullivan is crafting grows.

The war between humans and Fhrey is coming to a head. The battle lines are drawn and each side is shoring up their resources. While Persephone and her people hold a great fortress and have numbers on their side, the powers of the Fhrey are still unimaginable, especially against the only two magic users that humans have. Even if this battle is won, Persephone knows that wars last years and peace is always preferable to conquest. In this light, she struggles with the decision to marry a Fhrey, connecting their two peoples forever, knowing that she will give up her chance at love with Raithe. Suri, Brin, Roan, Gifford and so many others all have their own paths to walk and important roles to play if the humans are to survive this all.

If I’m picking, I often prefer stories that feature one, strong protagonist at the heart of it all. I enjoy getting to know the motivations, strengths, and weaknesses of an individual and follow their story through all of its outward action and inward character development. It’s not that I don’t like an ensemble cast; I just think it’s terribly hard to pull off and more often than not, one or more characters are short-shifted, thus weakening the story as a whole. Better to play it safe and stick to the one, well-drawn character. With all of that in mind, it’s a true pleasure when I find an author who knows how to properly develop and maintain an ensemble cast through a series of books. Sullivan is a master at this, so far.

His true strength seems to be understanding whose story needs to rise to the top in each book. Early in the series, we focused largely on Raithe and Persephone, but here, as the events grow greater and new challenges unfold, we see other characters come into their own and are thus given more page time. And, since even the first books still put in the work to develop these characters, when the story switches over to emphasizing their roles more, it is an easy adjustment. I don’t mourn the loss of time with Raithe and Persephone because I’ve become invested in Brin and Gifford already as well. And as certain characters’ stories begin to wane into the background, we’re slowly given a few new characters here and there.

I typically try to read and review books in a sort of vacuum from the other media forms I’m consuming. But given the raging debate and upheaval after the last season of GOT, it was almost impossible to read such a similar book without making comparisons. I won’t go into an entire rant about my feelings on GOT, but there are a few points of similarity between these two epic fantasies that can’t help but be connected.

The first one has to do, again, with the creation and use of an ensemble cast. “Game of Thrones,” be it book or tv series, is by no means the first of its kind to feature a large cast of characters. Almost all epic fantasy series do. In light of the character arcs we saw in “Game of Thrones,” Sullivan’s own powers of character building were only highlighted all the more. His characters, too, face complicated moral decisions. But when they reach decision points, whether we agree with their actions or not, we understand why they do what they do. The chapters and time that are given to each character reveal necessary information, either for the plot of the book or for the development of the character. Things are introduced for a reason and readers can feel confident that, while they may not be able to piece it all together now, we are working towards something.

And that works to my second point of comparison and it has to do surprising the audience and subverting expectations. It’s been clear from the very start that GOT has prided itself on surprising audiences and subverting typical story beats. And there’s a reason for that: it’s pretty entertaining! But what they seemed to lose along the way was the fact that audiences can still be surprised while making believable, slowly built arcs for stories.

Joffrey was a monster, so while we were surprised that he killed Ned and our expectations that the hero of the story would prevail were subverted, after the fact, it all made sense. Events leading up to it were built in along the way and were easy to trace for even the most casual consumer. But while GOT seems to have lost this process with the last few seasons, and most especially the last half of the last season, Sullivan has managed to do the same thing, without sacrificing the credibility of his story. There are legitimate surprises in this book and expectations of certain characters’ arcs are definitely subverted. This story gets dark and similar to GOT, not everyone is safe. But, like early seasons of the show/book, after the fact, everything that happens feels earned. Satisfying endings don’t require that they be happy, they require consistency and thoughtful construction. Sullivan has both, and it’s on display in this book especially.

There have been a lot of lists floating around since the end of GOT about what fantasy series to read next. I haven’t seen Sullivan’s “The Legends of the First Empire” on any of them, and it’s a real shame. At its most basic level, we know that the author has already finished the series so not only do we know that an end is coming, we know that the author built the entire series with clearly established plot lines for all of his characters in mind. And, given the darker nature of this book as compared to the first two, it’s definitely earning its stripes as an epic fantasy series.

Rating 9: Frankly, it was a relief to have this on hand as proof that ensemble casts and subverted expectations in fantasy fiction CAN be done well.

“Age of War” isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be “Popular Ensemble Cast Books.”

Find “Age of War” at your library using WorldCat!

 

 

Serena’s Review: “The Unbound Empire”

40618519Book: “The Unbound Empire” by Melissa Caruso

Publishing Info: Orbit, April 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher!

Book Description: While winter snows keep the Witch Lord Ruven’s invading armies at bay, Lady Amalia Cornaro and the fire warlock Zaira attempt to change the fate of mages in the Raverran Empire forever, earning the enmity of those in power who will do anything to keep all magic under tight imperial control. But in the season of the Serene City’s great masquerade, Ruven executes a devastating surprise strike at the heart of the Empire – and at everything Amalia holds most dear.

To stand a chance of defeating Ruven, Amalia and Zaira must face their worst nightmares, expose their deepest secrets, and unleash Zaira’s most devastating fire.

Previously Reviewed: “The Tethered Mage” and “The Defiant Heir”

Review: I have loved this series from the get-go, so it was with very mixed emotions that I picked up and started this book. On one hand, I was dying to know how everything would be wrapped up in one, admittedly long, book. And on the other hand, I didn’t want it to end and had some concerns about whether it would stick the landing. The last book really does make or break a series, and while so far the books have only gotten better and better…you just never know. Luckily, this was a solid landing, and now I’ll just have to wait to see what the author has up her sleeve for a next book/series!

Amalia is coming into her own, heading up her first political action with the introduction of a new law that would grant the magic-wielding Falcons unprecedented freedoms. On top of this all, she is still balancing her complicated feelings for Captain Marcello and the witch-lord Kathe, whom she has been courting for months now. Add to that the mad witch-lord Ruven who is making increasing threats to the Empire and may finally push things to the point where Amalia and Zaira will have to confront the harsh reality of using Zaira’s balefire in combat. But nothing is too great a challenge for a Cornaro. Or is it?

What makes this series special has been the sheer number of points of interest and enjoyment that have pulled me in throughout story. Not only have I enjoyed Amalia as a main character, but I’ve loved her relationship with Zaira. The balance between political and military action has always been on point. The romance has gone in unexpected directions, somehow avoiding gaping pitfalls that many series fall into. And throughout it all, the story tackles larger questions regarding duty, loyalty, and the balance between freedom and safety. This book continued to deliver in all of these areas.

To start with characters (because we all know how much I love character-driven stories), Amalia and Zaira have traversed quite a journey throughout this trilogy and we see the dividends of this slowly built relationship pay off big time in this book. On their own, they are each excellent characters. Amalia’s sense of duty and her clear-eyed vision of her role in the world and the privileges, sacrifices, and burdens that come with it has never been more clear. She is so blessedly free of angst regarding this all. She sees the true dangers of her role (the hardening of one’s heart that comes with making life and death decisions), but doesn’t get caught up in any self-pity or dramatic indecision of the kind that we see all too often from YA protagonists. Zaira, too, is still her prickly self. However, she’s also come to value the relationships she’s built with those around her, and with these connections, she sees her own role in the Empire in a different light. She is still terrified of her balefire and its seeming control over her, but now, with people she loves in danger, she’s willing to risk herself in a way that would never have been true of the self-focused Zaira from the first book.

And together, Amalia and Zaira have come so far. They don’t where BFF bracelets or anything, but the respect and genuine love and friendship between them feels earned and true after the struggles of the first two books. And it’s only through that slow-growth that the almost impossible choices they must face in this book can be believable.

Ruven is also an excellent villain. Not only is he fun to hate, but he is actually given a bit more depth to make him, well, not relatable, but a bit more understandable. And his abilities are legitimately challenging to the point that a way through the threat he presents is never quite clear until the very end, and even then readers are left on the edge of their seat.

And then, of course, we have the romance. In the second book, the author somehow managed to introduce a love triangle that I didn’t hate. I honestly didn’t think this was possible. Much of it comes down to, again, Amalia and her dramatic-free, pragmatic approach to her life and the requirements that come with it. It is believable that she would have feelings for both Kathe and Marcello, and that these feelings could exist at the same time and still be wholly separate from each other. I was incredibly nervous to see how this would ultimately play out, and I was so pleased to find that the resolution presented felt natural and satisfactory. I guess this goes to show that even the most hated tropes don’t always hold true!

This is a long book, however, and it is this length that forces me to drop it down from a perfect 10. There’s a bunch of story here, and it’s not that I was bored at any point. However, especially in the beginning with the ins and outs of Amalia’s political actions to get her Falcon bill approved, there were a few points where I feel like a bit of editing could have been done to streamline the story. When there are all of these greater factors swirling around, this beginning portion almost felt like it was from a different book at times. But not a bad book, even then! Just a different one.

Other than that small, very tiny quibble, I absolutely loved this book and this series as a whole! I so hope that it gets all the attention that it so rightly deserves, and if you haven’t read any of these books yet, just you wait! You have an excellent ride ahead of you!

Rating 9: Perfectly sticks the landing in what turned into one of my favorite trilogies to read in a long time!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Unbound Empire” is a new book so isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “Best Political Fantasy.”

Find “The Unbound Empire” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “A Dangerous Collaboration”

30518319Book: “A Dangerous Collaboration” by Deanna Raybourn

Publishing Info: Berkley, March 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: a copy from the publisher!

Book Description: Victorian adventuress Veronica Speedwell is whisked off to a remote island off the tip of Cornwall when her natural historian colleague Stoker’s brother calls in a favor. On the pretext of wanting a companion to accompany him to Lord Malcolm Romilly’s house party, Tiberius persuades Veronica to pose as his fiancée–much to Stoker’s chagrin. But upon arriving, it becomes clear that the party is not as innocent as it had seemed. Every invited guest has a connection to Romilly’s wife, Rosamund, who disappeared on her wedding day three years ago, and a dramatic dinner proves she is very much on her husband’s mind.

As spectral figures, ghostly music, and mysterious threats begin to plague the partygoers, Veronica enlists Stoker’s help to discover the host’s true motivations. And as they investigate, it becomes clear that there are numerous mysteries surrounding the Romilly estate, and every person present has a motive to kill Rosamund…

Previously reviewed: “A Curious Beginning,” “A Perilous Undertaking,” and “A Treacherous Curse”

Review: It was a long wait for this book. This is always the challenge when I find a new series to love! On one hand, yay, a reliable series that I can depend on to deliver both excellent characters and a fun story. But on the other hand, the dreadful count-down of days and months until the next one in the series finally arrives. But this count-down was blessedly cut a bit shorter than I had expected when I received a review copy from the publisher, and I was able to begin reveling in it a few weeks early!

Veronica is unsure, for the first time in her life. At the end of the last book, she and Stoker were on the brink of…something. And that “something” is more terrifying to her than any of the murderers and mysteries she’s come across over the last few years. Throwing herself into her work, she begins a campaign of denial and avoidance, before, upon finally returning to London, she ultimately finds herself caught up in yet another mystery. This one taking place on a remote island inhabited by a small village and its possibly haunted castle. Now, in the midst of this emotional turmoil, Veronica and Stoker are once again on the case to unravel the disappearance of a bride on her wedding day several years ago. Where did she go and why? And did she even make it off the island alive?

I really loved this book. It’s not a surprise given my feelings over the first three, but by the end of the last book, I was starting to have a few questions about where the series was ultimately headed. This book not only answered those concerns, but also flipped the scrip on a few aspects of the characters that was surprisingly refreshing. Yes, the basic equation at the heart of these stories has always been strong, but it was such a thrill to find in this book that the story could push past that and offer up even more.

For one, we see a new side of Veronica herself. She’s still her usual supremely self-assured and confident self, willing to take her own life in her hands, make decisions and follow through on them, regardless of the opinion of others. But we also get to see how these same traits can be failings. Her own self-assuredness works against her here, and she’s forced to confront some harsh realities about the very real fears that still exist within her. Her justifications and modes of operation suddenly take on a new light under these reflections and we see her have to confront and grow through some of these before-unknown personal hindrances.

In this same area, we see Stoker come more into his own, becoming more self-assured about what he wants and how to best interact with those around him. Up to this point, Veronica has been the more self-aware character, so it was refreshing to see that turned on its head here, where of the two, Stoker is the one with a firmer grasp on himself and the choices before him.

I also greatly enjoyed the mystery at the heart of this story. There’s a very “Jane Eyre-esque” feel to the whole thing, with a healthy dose of the Victorian obsession with the supernatural and gothic noir. The setting of the story could, at times, be legitimately creepy, something that also felt new to the series. Up to this point, the books have been fun, but comfortably so. This book was also a blast, but there were definitely a few spooks around corners, here. And not all of the secrets and potentially supernatural events are fully resolved at the end, leaving a nice hint of mysticism and mystery left behind, shrouded on the desolate island.

I was so satisfied with this book. It perfectly hit upon any of the possible burgeoning concerns I had been developing after the last book, and upped its game as far as the mystery went, leaving me with some legitimate chills at times. In some ways, it feels like the series could have been wrapped up entirely with this one, but I see that another one is slated for publication in the next year or so. So, alas, I return to my torment of a wait.

Rating 9: Even better than the last one!

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Dangerous Collaboration” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists. But it should be on “Best Victorian Historical Fiction Set In Britain.”

Find “A Dangerous Collaboration” at your library using WorldCat.

Serena’s Review: “Dark of the West”

32949202Book: “Dark of the West” by Joanna Hathaway

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, February 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Netgalley

Book Description: Aurelia Isendare is a princess of a small kingdom in the North, raised in privilege but shielded from politics as her brother prepares to step up to the throne. Halfway around the world, Athan Dakar, the youngest son of a ruthless general, is a fighter pilot longing for a life away from the front lines. When Athan’s mother is shot and killed, his father is convinced it’s the work of his old rival, the Queen of Etania—Aurelia’s mother. Determined to avenge his wife’s murder, he devises a plot to overthrow the Queen, a plot which sends Athan undercover to Etania to gain intel from her children.

Athan’s mission becomes complicated when he finds himself falling for the girl he’s been tasked with spying upon. Aurelia feels the same attraction, all the while desperately seeking to stop the war threatening to break between the Southern territory and the old Northern kingdoms that control it—a war in which Athan’s father is determined to play a role. As diplomatic ties manage to just barely hold, the two teens struggle to remain loyal to their families and each other as they learn that war is not as black and white as they’ve been raised to believe.

Review: I’m pretty sure I came across this book just by browsing through NetGalley one day and being intrigued by its rather simple cover. The fact that I couldn’t really guess what it was about based on the cover was mystery enough (this is a fun little game if you’re a book lover and have too much time on your hands: the match the cover with the general synopsis game). Then I read the description and became even more intrigued. Spies, and royalty, and…wait…fighter pilots? One of these does not go with the other!

The world is teetering on the brink, torn between a past that was ruled by a council of kings and queens who all regarded royal blood as the necessary component in leadership in their various countries, and a new world that, built on the back of technology, would suggest that leadership and charisma, regardless of the birthright of the one who carries these traits, are all that is needed. If the people follow you, your family history means nothing. Aurelia and Athan each come from opposing sides of this political stand-off. Aurelia has grown up a princess, confident in her place in the world, if still struggling to find a path forward that will fulfill her. Athan has had his life’s plan laid before his feet by his ambitious military leader father since the day he can remember. Neither fully understands the complicated history and political environment they have been thrust into, but in each other, they find a kinship that is as unexpected as it will be challenging.

This book took my so happily by surprise! Even with the book description, I had very little idea what I was getting into (part of the appeal, of course), so I turned to page one with a bit of hesitation. But immediately I was drawn in. For one, the writing in this is so solid. The very first chapter had me convinced that I had made the right choice in picking this one up. It’s one of those parts of reviewing books that I find most challenging: how to explain exactly what it was about the writing style that appealed to me.

For one, the book is a shared dual narrative between Aurelia and Athan. The challenge here, of course, is to effectively differentiate the voice between two characters who should read very differently. And right away, this is expertly handled. I think I ended up preferring Athan’s narrative style, but this potentially could have to do with his story being the one with the larger scale view of happenings in mind. Aurelia spends much of her time much more out of the loop. But either way, their voices were immediately distinct and their characteristics informed the way they spoke about and looked at the events unfolding around them.

From a more basic level, the writing is varied and complex. This is the weird part of evaluating writing where one feels tempted to start talking about the extent of the vocabulary used or the sentence structure. Again, not too sexy of a topic for book review material. But these are the kinds of things that you know when you see them, that make a book immediately pop out from the very first few pages.

All of this emphasis on writing is very important for a book like this. It’s a longer title and, as far as action goes, it’s a slow read. There’s a lot of complicated political and military tactics that are discussed, hidden, and revealed throughout the story. Our main characters are often only aware of the tip of the iceberg of it all, and that is felt by the reader. Schemes only become clear in the very end, and even then, one is never quite sure they have a finger on who all the players are in all of this. I believe there will be a map in the final version, but without that as well, the complicated geographical relationships between the various countries could also be overwhelming. To sum up: there’s a lot of talking and thinking in this book. Without strong writing, it could come across as pretty dull. But for me, it all came together perfectly.

This is also a strange book to assign to a genre. It’s technically referred to as a YA title and fantasy. But that said, I feel like this could easily be new adult or simply adult fiction; and any fantasy involved has to do with it being a made-up world. There aren’t any dragons or spells flying around here. Instead, the fascinating mixture of a completely invented world and history with very familiar, WWII level technology was refreshingly new.

There is, of course, a romance at the heart of the story. And I really enjoyed how this played out as well. Aurelia and Athan don’t simply fall instantly in love and all of their differences fade away. They come from different worlds, with different parental figures who have imparted very different lessons on their children. Throughout the story, no easy answers are provided and instead a slow sense of dread builds to what will be an inevitable clash.

As I said, this book took my completely by surprise. Luckily for me, it hit a lot of the tick boxes I look for in a story, but I can also see how the very unknown nature of it could leave other readers cold. If you go in with your typical YA/fantasy expectations in place, there’s a good chance this will feel like a slower, less interesting read. But for those looking for a more complicated, politically-focused story with a hard look at warfare and nationalism (with a dash of young love added in), this will be the perfect book for you!

Rating 9: Complicated and well-written, this book will appeal to fans of “Game of Thrones” who would be ok without all the dragons/white walkers stuff.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Dark of the West” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Books Marketed as Young adult that might be New Adult, Adult Fiction” and “YA Second World Fantasy.”

Find “Dark of the West” at your library using WorldCat!