Serena’s Review: “Spells for Forgetting”

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Book: “Spells for Forgetting” by Adrienne Young

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, September 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

Kate’s Review: “Returning to the Yakoun River”

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Book: “Returning to the Yakoun River” by Sarah Florence Davidson, Robert Davidson, and Janine Gibbons (Ill.)

Publishing Info: HighWater Press, September 2022

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

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | HighWater Press| Indiebound

Book Description: Based on author Sara Florence Davidson’s childhood memories, this illustrated story captures the joy and adventure of a Haida fish camp.

Every summer, a Haida girl and her family travel up the Yakoun River on Haida Gwaii, following the salmon. While their father fishes, the girl and her brother spend their time on the land playing and learning from Tsinii (Grandfather).

Review: Thank you to HighWater Press for sending me an eARC of this book!

We are wrapping up this HighWater Press event with a bit of a rarity on this blog. We don’t usually review children’s picture books, for a litany of reasons, and that general rule is one that we rarely stray from. But “I’m making an exception for this event, because goodness knows that “Returning to the Yakoun River” Sarah Florence Davidson is the perfect place to end this series, as it has a focus on generational traditions being shared with children of today, and to me that seemed like a good place to wrap up.

“Returning to the Yakoun River” is a simple story about a Haida girl and her family going fishing on the Yakoun River during the salmon season, and while her father fishes she and the other children spend time with their Tsinii (grandfather) at the fish camp. Throughout this time she learns about how to help set up for the cooking, plays with her cousins and brother on the river, and watches as her Tsinii prepares the salmon that is caught for eating in a traditional way. It’s a very simple story based on memories from Sarah Florence Davidson’s childhood, with memories of her father (who collaborated with her on this) and her grandfather during a visit to the fish camp. It’s a nice slice of life tale that highlights the way that children can learn from their elders, and how traditions from the past change and yet are maintained over the years. Given that Davidson is an educator who has a focus on the importance of intergenerational learning, it’s a simple story that has a lot of heart and a lot to say about these things, while also being tailored specifically for a younger age group. We also have a helpful map of the area where this story takes place, and some background on Davidson’s grandfather, whose role as a leader in the community, artist, and fisherman are laid out to show the reader who the Tsinii is based upon.

And the artwork is just fantastic. I am not certain the medium that Janine Gibbons used for the art, but it looks like some kind of paintwork and it is so lovely and artistic. It also somewhat, to me, conveys the dreaminess of memories in the design and aesthetic.

(source: HighWater Press)

“Returning to the Yakoun River” is a gentle and placid story about intergenerational learning and the importance of passing that learning down through the generations. I really enjoyed it, and found it to be a poignant way to wrap up this month long spotlight on Indigenous voices and stories.

Rating 8: A lovely story about a family respecting and practicing traditions of genertions past, “Returning to the Yakoun River” has a sweet plot and gorgeous illustrations.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Returning to the Yakoun River” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but I think that it would be complementary if you liked “On the Trapline” and would fit in on “Multicultural Children’s Books”.

Kate’s Review: “A Blanket of Butterflies”

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Book: “A Blanket of Butterflies” by Richard Van Camp, Scott B. Henderson (Ill.), & Donovan Yaciuk (Ill.)

Publishing Info: HighWater Press, September 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC and a print copy from the publisher.

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | HighWater Press | IndieBound

Book Description: No one knows how a suit of samurai armour ended up in the Fort Smith museum. When a mysterious stranger turns up to claim it, Sonny, a young Tłı̨chǫ Dene boy, is eager to help.

Shinobu has travelled to Fort Smith, NWT, to reclaim his grandfather’s samurai sword and armour. But when he discovers that the sword was lost in a poker game, he must confront the man known as Benny the Bank. Along the way, Shinobu must rely on unlikely heroes—Sonny, his grandmother, and a visitor from the spirit world. Together, they face Benny and his men, including the giant they call Flinch.

Will Shinobu be able to regain the lost sword and, with it, his family’s honour? Can Sonny and his grandmother help Shinobu while keeping the peace in their community?

Review: Thank you so, so much to Lohit Jagwani from HighWater Press for sending me an eARC and print copy of this graphic novel!

So today I am starting an ongoing series that is going to happen through the rest of September. I was approached by HighWater Press, and imprint of Portage & Main Press that focuses on Indigenous stories and voices by Indigenous authors, and it was decided that I would read and review a number of their graphic novels and middle grade books. So for the next few Thursdays there will be a decided theme, and honestly I am so excited to talk about and amplify these stories. So thanks again to Lohit Jagwani and to HighWater Press for this amazing opportunity! We are starting this series with “A Blanket of Butterflies” by Richard Van Camp, an author that I am familiar with due to not only the graphic novel collection “This Place”, but due to the picture books “Little You” and “We Sang You Home”, both huge hits with my toddler. I was very excited to check this graphic novel out, as I like Van Camp’s stories, and I was VERY intrigued by the premise of a Japanese man traveling to Canada to try and get his family Samurai armor back.

The plot to “A Blanket of Butterflies” is pretty simple and straightforward. A Japanese man named Shinobu has tracked down a family heirloom of Samurai armor and sword to a small community in the Northwest Territory in Canada, but when he arrives to reclaim it the sword has been lost in a poker game to a local heavy and his underlings. After he confronts Benny the Bank, he is beaten to a pulp, and is taken in by a boy named Sonny and his grandmother. I think that in a traditional Western tale, there are certain expectations as to how this would go, and I myself had my own thoughts on how this was all going to come together. But what I really loved about this book is that Van Camp takes these expectations and turns them on their head, instead focusing on Shinobu’s healing at the hands of Sonny’s ehtsi, and the things that he learns from her and how it shapes the rest of the story. I really liked how Van Camp did a lot of showing versus telling, whether it be regarding Shinobu’s tattoo’s to imply his dark past, or to use metaphorical visions in reference to the NWT’s involvement in the Manhattan Project. And, again, I enjoyed the more introspective way that the final conflict is approached, and how the examination of connections across families and cultures and the power of both can show similarities that may make us think twice about succumbing to more violent outcomes.

The most interesting part of this story, howeer, was the extensive bits of notes left at the end, talking about the experiences of Indigenous peoples in the modern and 20th century NWT, but also that of Japanese Canadians during WWII. I know a lot about the American Incarceration of Japanese Americans, but had no knowledge of the similar conditions of Japanese Canadians during this time. I really, really loved having the context there to explain how a Samurai armor and sword would be in a random possession of a Canadian person, and how the traumas of both Indigenous Canadians and Japanese Canadians intertwine a bit in this story because of colonialism, systemic disparities, and the Canadian government’s racist policies.

And finally, I really liked the artwork in this story. It has a realism to it, but it also has vibrant use of colors and tones, which makes it pop on the page.

Source: HighWater Press

I really liked this graphic novel. Richard Van Camp has a wide appeal across ages, and “A Blanket of Butterflies” moved me and explored other ways to solve conflicts for those who have been beaten down by conflict their whole lives. It was very enjoyable.

Rating 8: An informative but also moving story about connection, conflict, and shared thematic histories, “A Blanket of Butterflies” is a lovely graphic novel from Richard Van Camp.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Blanket of Butterflies” is included on the Goodreads lists “Canadian Indigenous Books”, and “Graphic Novels & Comics By The Aboriginal, Indigenous, and Native Peoples of the World”.

Book Club Review: “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing book club running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Award Winners”, in which we each picked a book that has won an award of some kind.

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: “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman

Publishing Info: Pamela Dorman Books / Viking, May 2017

Where Did We Get this Book: An audiobook from the library; print book from the library.

Award: Costa Book Award

Book Description: No one’s ever told Eleanor that life should be better than fine

Meet Eleanor Oliphant: she struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding unnecessary human contact, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy.

But everything changes when Eleanor meets Raymond, the bumbling and deeply unhygienic IT guy from her office. When she and Raymond together save Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen, the three rescue one another from the lives of isolation that they had been living. Ultimately, it is Raymond’s big heart that will help Eleanor find the way to repair her own profoundly damaged one. If she does, she’ll learn that she, too, is capable of finding friendship—and even love—after all.

Kate’s Thoughts

I am the type to try and spread my literary interests across multiple genres, and because of this I usually find myself reading buzzworthy or hyped books from contemporary and literary fields. But somehow, I missed “Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine”. I mean, I’d seen it around, of course, as it came out right at the tail end of my permanent hours library job where I did a lot of request processing and shelving. But I never really looked into it. So thanks to Serena for picking it for book club, as it landed on my book pile after not being at the forefront of my mind!

And I can see why this was hyped and buzzy, honestly. “Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine” surprised me a bit, as I expected one thing and got something that didn’t line up with those expectations. I thought that Gail Honeyman did a really good job of balancing a lot of things: an unreliable and kind of unlikable narrator (until you get to know her better), a humorous tone, and some really dark themes involving trauma and PTSD. But like I said, with a humorous tone! I think that it may have been a hard task for some authors, but Honeyman had me feeling just utter sadness for Eleanor, but then chuckling to myself about one thing or another, and it wasn’t ever in a discordant way, or a way that felt like the seriousness of the issues at heart was being undercut. Also, I loved Raymond, Eleanor’s first real friend. He is sweet and patient but not a pushover, and I thought he was just a delight (and kind of a fun swap of the usual way this kind of story works: it’s rare that a woman is allowed to be the surly and kind of unlikable protagonist while the man is the warm and caring one who helps the other grow. I liked the reversal). While it didn’t have any moments that totally wowed me or spoke to me overall, I enjoyed my time reading it.

Another thanks to Serena for picking “Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine” for book club! I thought that it was completely fine and a little bit more.

Serena’s Thoughts:

I must pass the thanks on, as it was my mom who raved about this book to the point that I selected it for book club. Unlike Kate, I rarely read outside of the three main genres I enjoy (mostly because I can’t keep up with books I want in even those genres, let alone more!), so this book was completely out of my wheelhouse. But in the end, my mom was completely right, and I really enjoyed this read!

I read the audiobook, and, if it’s available, I highly recommend checking that version of the book out. The narrator has a Scottish accent that does wonders to really bring Eleanor to life and ground the book in its setting. And as Eleanor is such a unique character, the narrator’s voice helped humanize some of her more odd antics and perspectives.

Like Kate mentioned, one of the most impressive things about this book was the balance the author was able to strike between humorous moments (think “Bridget Jones’s Diary”) and some really tough, grim topics. I was not at all prepared for how dark this book really got at times. But that said, when I closed the story, it left a hopeful, fun aftertaste, even more surprising considering some of these topics. I also really liked the exploration of mental health and therapy. Most books that deal with therapy have it happen off-page or don’t really go into how it really works for the character. Here, we get a very good look at an excellent therapeutic setting and outcome.

The book was also peopled with excellent characters. Eleanor herself is unlike any character I’ve ever read, and she makes a few friends along the way who stand out as well. I was also pleased that the story didn’t take a few of the more predictable turns, and on top of that, there are a number of fairly major surprises (or less surprising for some, our book club was a bit half/half on who predicted what).

Kate’s Rating 7: A nice story that balances a tragic foundation with humor and heart.

Serena’s Rating 9: I really liked this book! It was surprising in many ways and addressed some important topics without being overwhelmed with a grim tone.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you make of Eleanor in the beginning of the book? How (or did) your opinion of her change as the story went along?
  2. This book tackles some dark subjects. How do you think it handled these?
  3. What did you make of Eleanor’s relationship with Raymond? Where do you think it will go in the future?
  4. There are some surprises towards the final third of the story? Were you able to predict any of them? What clues were given early on that pointed to these outcomes?
  5. Many people around Eleanor shaped her journey through this book. Which ones stood out to you and why?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” is on these Goodreads lists: 2017 Librarian Recommended Books and Best Up Lit (uplifting reads).

Find “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” at the library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “Take A Hint, Dani Brown” by Talia Hibbert

Serena’s Review: “Wildwood Whispers”

Book: “Wildwood Whispers” by Willa Reece

Publishing Info: Redhook, August 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher!

Book Description: At the age of eleven, Mel Smith’s life found its purpose when she met Sarah Ross. Ten years later, Sarah’s sudden death threatens to break her. To fulfill a final promise to her best friend, Mel travels to an idyllic small town nestled in the shadows of the Appalachian Mountains. Yet Morgan’s Gap is more than a land of morning mists and deep forest shadows.

There are secrets that call to Mel, in the gaze of the gnarled and knowing woman everyone calls Granny, in a salvaged remedy book filled with the magic of simple mountain traditions, and in the connection, she feels to the Ross homestead and the wilderness around it.

With every taste of sweet honey and tart blackberries, the wildwood twines further into Mel’s broken heart. But a threat lingers in the woods—one that may have something to do with Sarah’s untimely death and that has now set its sight on Mel.

Review: I don’t often much magic realism fiction (or women’s fiction…not sure how I feel about that even being a subgenre category…), but the book description for this book was giving me major “Practical Magic” vibes, so I thought it was worth checking out. The cover art was also beautiful, and my mood fit well for a more quiet, reflective read. This one wasn’t a perfect fit for me, but I think it’s a solid entry for fans of these genres.

Growing up bouncing around in the system, Mel could never find her home. That is until she met Sarah, a young girl who had recently been orphaned. Together, the two made a home for one another in their enduring bond. Years later, Mel once again feels the sand shifting beneath her feet when Sarah dies. To fulfill a promise, she travels to Sarah’s childhood home. There, she discovers there was much more to Sarah than she had understood. And as the dark woods whispers and family secrets swirl through the town’s quiet streets, Mel begins to see a new place for herself.

I liked the idea of this book more than the book itself, in the end. Those familiar with the blog will know that I love a sisters book, which this is. I also really liked the imagery of a small, quiet town in the mountains, having grown up in one myself. There’s something compelling about the quirks and histories that come out in places like this, strange to all but those who have grown up with them. Mel’s exploration of the two, people, and woods was particularly poignant for me in this way.

I also liked Mel herself, especially the brief flash we see of her as a child when she first meets and bonds with Sarah. She was definitely started out on a strong note here, a defiant loner who discovers kinship with a younger girl. But the adult Mel was more difficult for me to handle. The flashes of defiance and strength seemed muted, and there were many early moments between characters that left me scratching my head. Mel comes to the town, a complete stranger, and then strikes up some really bizarre conversations with various locals. I couldn’t figure out what was going on here. Was it poor writing that made these portions of dialogue read as odd? Was it on purpose? Either way, it hurt Mel’s characterization as I couldn’t understand her lack of human reaction to these weird happenings.

I also struggled to identify with several other plot elements. The antagonist was easily spotted from the beginning of the story (even if the motives were left murky for a bit longer). And the romance felt tacked on and, again, unnatural. I didn’t feel any real chemistry between these characters other than the fact that the author simply designed them to be together, so they were. r

I liked the magical elements that were interspersed throughout the book, but was left wanting more. This is a point that is particular to my taste, however, as a lot of magical realism stories are light on the magic. The exploration of grief, family, and home had moments of depth, but, again, never struck any real chords for me. Ultimately, it was a bit too sentimental for me.

Readers who enjoy quiet, thoughtful books and magic realism will likely enjoy this story. If you’re looking for a fast plot, strong romance, or strong characterization, this might be more of a disappointment. I don’t regret reading it, but it’s enough to prove that a little goes a long way for me with this kind of stuff.

Rating 7: Decent for what it is, a sentimental story of a woman processing her grief and discovering a new sense of self and roots.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Wildwood Whispers” is on these Goodreads lists: Fantastic Women’s Fiction with Magical Elements and August 2021 Book Releases.

Find “Wildwood Whispers” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Black Water Sister”

Book: “Black Water Sister” by Zen Cho

Publishing Info: Ace Books, May 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Jessamyn Teoh is closeted, broke and moving back to Malaysia, a country she left when she was a toddler. So when Jess starts hearing voices, she chalks it up to stress. But there’s only one voice in her head, and it claims to be the ghost of her estranged grandmother, Ah Ma. In life Ah Ma was a spirit medium, the avatar of a mysterious deity called the Black Water Sister. Now she’s determined to settle a score against a gang boss who has offended the god–and she’s decided Jess is going to help her do it.

Drawn into a world of gods, ghosts, and family secrets, Jess finds that making deals with capricious spirits is a dangerous business. As Jess fights for retribution for Ah Ma, she’ll also need to regain control of her body and destiny. If she fails, the Black Water Sister may finish her off for good.

Review: I was obviously on a bit of a Zen Cho kick recently. In reality, I had requested this one from Edelweiss+ thinking it was part of her “Sorcerer Royal” series. And with that in mind, thought to myself “Oh, shoot! I need to read the second one before this one comes out!” So, off I went to read/review that book. Only to get to this one and discover that this is not, in fact, part of the series and is instead a modern, stand-alone fantasy. Little peak behind the oh, so exciting review process, and my own inability to properly research the books I request!

Sometimes the voices in your head are real. Sure, Jess figured it was just the stress of moving back to a homeland she doesn’t remember, not having two cents to rub together, and feeling locked away from her true self. But when mediums run in your family, there just might be another cause to strange voices. When Jess’s deceased grandmother begins speaking to her about feuds and powerful deities, Jess finds that uncovering her true identity may be much more complicated than she had thought.

First off, props to the cover artist. It’s a beautiful work of art, and it fits the overall feel of the book perfectly. Silly me should really have been able to pick up on the fact that of course this wasn’t in the “Sorcerer Royal” series just based on that, but…yeah, I have no excuses here.

It’s hard to evaluate this book because I was honestly a bit disappointed that it wasn’t part of her historical fantasy series. But that’s on me and not the book. I also don’t typically read a lot of contemporary fantasy. However, the story of a young woman getting tangled up in a feud between gang leaders and a centuries-old deity? Heck yeah! Like Cho’s work in her other series, the magical elements in this book were excellent. I particularly liked the god-like being at the heart, the titular Black Water Sister. I also liked the ghosts and how they were described/used in the story.

However, the characters and writing, two aspects of Cho’s “Sorcerer” series that I found particularly compelling, were less strong here. The tone and style used in that series, the type of “historical” writing that you see in Jane Austen novels and other books of that time, is incredibly challenging. It relies on long, drawn-out sentences and an extensive vocabulary. It’s hard to master, but Cho excelled. So, here, with the much more straight-forward style of writing found in any old contemporary book…it all kind of just fell flat. There were a few lines of dialogue that were witty and clever, but the descriptions, actions, general prose didn’t really stand out or capture me in any way.

I also had a really hard time liking Jess herself. There’s a reason I don’t typically read contemporary books. I’m not very interested in family dramas or the coming-of-age stories you often find in these types of stories. Jess is definitely going through one of these “needs to find herself” moments, and I really struggled to care. As a character, she didn’t feel very distinct or unique, and any actions she took were often forced upon her. Her relationship with her secret girlfriend flounders because of this very thing: Jess’s inability to take action in her own life and come out to her parents. That on its own is understandable, as it’s a very tough thing for those in the LGBT community. But when it is just one example of an ongoing, central trait for the main character in this book? It made for some dull reading.

In the end, this book wasn’t really my thing. Fans of contemporary fantasy will likely enjoy it more. The real strength to be found here was in Cho’s descriptions of Malaysia, and Jess’s experiences returning to a homeland she didn’t recognize. But the characters and writing felt a bit flat. Those looking for a book that is similar to Cho’s “Sorcerer” series should be warned that that is definitely not what’s in store here. Take it or leave it as to whether that’s a good thing for you or not!

Rating 6: An interesting look into Malaysia with a unique fantasy overlay, but the main character was too frustrating for me to fully enjoy this read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Black Water Sister” can be found on these Goodreads lists: 2021 Books by Women of Color and 2021 Queer SFF.

Find “Black Water Sister” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Concrete Rose”

Book: “Concrete Rose” by Angie Thomas

Publishing Info: Balzer + Bray, January 2021

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

Book Description: International phenomenon Angie Thomas revisits Garden Heights seventeen years before the events of The Hate U Give in this searing and poignant exploration of Black boyhood and manhood.

If there’s one thing seventeen-year-old Maverick Carter knows, it’s that a real man takes care of his family. As the son of a former gang legend, Mav does that the only way he knows how: dealing for the King Lords. With this money he can help his mom, who works two jobs while his dad’s in prison.

Life’s not perfect, but with a fly girlfriend and a cousin who always has his back, Mav’s got everything under control. Until, that is, Maverick finds out he’s a father.

Suddenly he has a baby, Seven, who depends on him for everything. But it’s not so easy to sling dope, finish school, and raise a child. So when he’s offered the chance to go straight, he takes it. In a world where he’s expected to amount to nothing, maybe Mav can prove he’s different.

When King Lord blood runs through your veins, though, you can’t just walk away. Loyalty, revenge, and responsibility threaten to tear Mav apart, especially after the brutal murder of a loved one. He’ll have to figure out for himself what it really means to be a man.

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

Back in 2019 when Angie Thomas’s “On The Come Up” made my Favorite Read list for the year, I promised myself that even though her genre isn’t usually one I cover, I would make exception for her books. Both that one and “The Hate U Give” made my lists, so when “Concrete Rose”, her newest novel, was announced I knew that it would be the first to keep the promise. I was STUNNED when I saw that it was available for request on NetGalley, but took advantage of that and downloaded it. We were finally going to get the backstory for Maverick Carter, Starr’s compelling father in “The Hate U Give”. And I was very interested to see where that backstory went.

While her previous works have tackled social justice themes and Black girlhood, “Concrete Rose” now has a focus on that of Black boyhood, and the difficulties it can entail in a racist society. When we met Maverick in “The Hate U Give”, he is a loving father and very well respected member in his community of Garden Heights. In “Concrete Rose” he’s seventeen, he’s a member of the King Lords (the gang his father was a high ranking member of), and he’s just found out that he’s the father of a three month old baby that had previously been believed to be his best friend’s (you may remember King from THUG). It’s a lot of change and a lot of pressure, and Maverick doesn’t know how to tell his girlfriend Lisa about the baby, and doesn’t want to sell weed anymore now that he is a father who needs to be there. Thomas, unsurprisingly, captures Maverick’s voice very well, as he feels like an authentic teenager who can make bad decisions, but has a lot of heart and determination. We also see the barriers that he has to face due to systemic and societal racism and the poverty that his community is dealing with. He wants to support his son, and stay in school, AND go straight so that he doesn’t end up like his own incarcerated father, but there are few opportunities, and dealing, though dangerous, feels like the only way to be successful. It’s a very empathetic look at why decisions are made to join gangs and to deal, as for Maverick, when things get really hard, it feels like the only support system he has. While I don’t think that it connected with me as much as THUG and “On the Come Up”, I do think that “Concrete Rose” will connect with other readers, especially boys who see themselves in Maverick.

In terms of being a prequel to “The Hate U Give”, “Concrete Rose” does stand well enough on its own. There are certainly a couple of references to the other book with characters and some other plot points that are mentioned, but if you go into this one without any knowledge you aren’t going to feel like you’re missing anything. I really like that Thomas decided to look more at Maverick, as he was definitely one of my favorite characters in THUG. I loved seeing Mav and Lisa’s relationship as well, as in THUG they are Starr’s parents, but in “Concrete Rose” they are a burgeoning teenage couple with ups and downs. As someone who used to dabble in fiction writing, and as someone who ALSO found herself wanting to go back and explore characters that were supposed to be supporting characters only, I definitely LOVE that we got to see Mav and Lisa go through these ups and downs with the spotlight on the two of them. Some reviews I’ve seen has questioned whether this love story needed to be explored, but so what if it didn’t ‘need’ to be? It’s a great story regardless of ‘need’.

“Concrete Rose” is another well done book by Angie Thomas, whose voice and skills are undeniable and so, so important to YA fiction right now. I’ll be curious to see what comes next. While I wouldn’t mind a whole new tale, this book proves that she could go back and explore other characters and give them rich and emotional back stories.

Rating 8: A heartfelt and emotional prequel to one of the most important YA novels of the 21st Century, “Concrete Rose” gives a great backstory to a compelling character.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Concrete Rose” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Books for BLM Movement”, and “Contemporary Books with Black Leads”.

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

Serena’s Review: “Truly, Devious”

Book: “Truly, Devious” by Maureen Johnson

Publishing Info: HarperCollins, January 2018

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

Book Description: Ellingham Academy is a famous private school in Vermont for the brightest thinkers, inventors, and artists. It was founded by Albert Ellingham, an early twentieth century tycoon, who wanted to make a wonderful place full of riddles, twisting pathways, and gardens. “A place,” he said, “where learning is a game.”

Shortly after the school opened, his wife and daughter were kidnapped. The only real clue was a mocking riddle listing methods of murder, signed with the frightening pseudonym “Truly, Devious.” It became one of the great unsolved crimes of American history.

True-crime aficionado Stevie Bell is set to begin her first year at Ellingham Academy, and she has an ambitious plan: She will solve this cold case. That is, she will solve the case when she gets a grip on her demanding new school life and her housemates: the inventor, the novelist, the actor, the artist, and the jokester. But something strange is happening. Truly Devious makes a surprise return, and death revisits Ellingham Academy. The past has crawled out of its grave. Someone has gotten away with murder. 

Review: As is probably pretty evident by now, Kate is the true crime aficionado on our blog. I’ve casually looked into a few cases based on her recommendations, but my penchant for mysteries often falls into the historical, detective fiction more than anything. I also don’t read too many contemporary YA novels. So in a lot of ways, this book didn’t really meet many of my usual criteria for picking a new book. But it had fabulous ratings on Goodreads and happened to show up on my audiobook list right when I was between reads. And here we are!

Stevie Bell is shocked when she’s accepted into the exclusive, expensive private school of Ellingham Academy. It’s most highschoolers’ dream, but only accepts a handful of applicants per year. At that, they don’t even specify what they’re looking for! But apparently Stevie interest in and proficiency with true crime investigations hit some mark. What’s more, Ellingham Academy itself is the location of one of history’s most notorious unsolved crimes, the abduction of the founders wife and infant daughter. The only clue was an enigmatic riddle that has been poured over and pondered now for decades. But Stevie Bell is determined that once she’s on the grounds, she will solve this cold case. What she doesn’t expect is for this cold case to suddenly warm up with a new murder and the return of “Truly, Devious.”

So there were things I enjoyed about this book, and there were things I didn’t. Before I even get to the things I didn’t, I’ll just say again that this book has really high ratings on Goodreads, so there’s a fairly decent chance that most of the things that didn’t work for me were due to the fact that the book was way outside my usual genres of choice. But on to the good!

For one thing, I was not expecting the format that this book is told from. It’s not simply Stevie’s story while at Ellingham trying to solve this cold case. Instead, the story is told in alternating chapters between the present, which follows Stevie as she works a new murder as well, and the past, where we see various characters’ perspectives on the events that lead up to and during the abduction of Mr. Ellingham’s wife and infant daughter. I really enjoyed these chapters in the past. They really helped bring to life this cold case and avoided what otherwise would have had to be a pretty info-dumpy style of writing to give the reader the same information that Stevie would have already had. It also leaves readers free to begin making their own connections and theories, outside the influence of Stevie’s own thoughts on the mystery.

I also really liked Stevie herself. She’s your typical highschooler, in many ways, but I liked the way the story incorporated her struggles with anxiety and the differences she feels between herself and her parents. She deals with a lot of the fears and challenges that any new student comes across at a new school, but it’s made all the more interesting by the eccentric friends she meets there. The way Ellingham is described, it’s definitely the kind of school I would have loved to attend as a highschooler myself!

My problems with the book, however, also come from the modern timeline of the book. I wasn’t into the romance at all. I felt like it came out of nowhere but was also so entirely predictable that it landed flat immediately. The book tries to insert some more tension and mystery towards the end, but I just didn’t care enough about this couple to have any strong feelings about the drama or reveals. I also thought that the modern mystery was fairly predictable. The motive and history of the victim were especially obvious which just undermined Stevie’s own prowess as a burgeoning detective.

Lastly, I wasn’t expecting this book to not solve the mystery of the cold case. So there’s definitely a cliff-hanger sort of ending as far as that goes. If this book was up your alley, maybe this wouldn’t bother you as much. But for me, who enjoyed it for the most part but wasn’t in love by any means, I was just annoyed that I’d be forced to continue reading to get more answers to the one part of the book that really intrigued me. As it is, we’ll see if I get around to it or not. I’m guessing it will be a similar story, that if I do read it, it will be more a matter of happy chance than anything else. Fans of contemporary mysteries and true crime, however, will likely really like this. Just a bit too far out of my genres of choice to really hit home for me.

Rating 7: A tale of two stories: one of the past, which was excellent, and one of the future, which was more meh.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Truly, Devious” is on these Goodreads lists: Young Adult Crime/Murder Mysteries and Dark Academia.

Find “Truly, Devious” at your library using WorldCat!

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: “Giant Days (Vol.1)”

25785993Book: “Giant Days (Vol.1)” by John Allison & Lissa Treiman (Ill.)

Publishing Info: BOOM! Box, December 2015

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Susan, Esther, and Daisy started at university three weeks ago and became fast friends. Now, away from home for the first time, all three want to reinvent themselves. But in the face of handwringing boys, “personal experimentation,” influenza, mystery-mold, nu-chauvinism, and the willful, unwanted intrusion of “academia,” they may be lucky just to make it to spring alive. Going off to university is always a time of change and growth, but for Esther, Susan, and Daisy, things are about to get a little weird.

Review: I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but I look back at my time in college and get overwhelmed with a massive wave of nostalgia. I really came into my own in college, I made friendships that I cherish to this day, and I have lots of fond memories of the various misadventures my friend group and I got into while on and around campus. When my friend and fellow librarian Jenny told me about “Giant Days”, I looked into it and knew that it was something I definitely wanted to check out. A university setting starring quirky and snarky girls could be a bit of a gamble for me (given that TOO quirky can put me off), but I trusted Jenny, and requested the first volume of the series. And boy oh boy, did I immediately miss college.

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Let me take this moment to say GO GOPHERS! (source)

“Giant Days (Vol.1)” is more of a collection of vignettes as opposed to a large, overarching plot at this point, and said vignettes focus on three unlikely friends just starting out at University. There’s Susan, an ill tempered and cynical tomboy who puts on a tough facade even though she’s actually fairly sensitive. There’s Esther, a dramatic and emotional beauty who is goth to the core and rather impetuous. And finally there’s Daisy, the sweet and somewhat naive kind soul who is loyal and hard working. They all share a dorm, and while they seem like they wouldn’t get along, it’s their differences that make them totally suited for each other. They find themselves dealing with a new home, the flu, perverted boys, and the ups and downs of romance, usually with very snide and hilarious results. Author John Allison is certain to make all three of the characters flawed and awkward as they try to navigate their new path, and is never unkind towards them, even when putting their sometimes bad behavior on display. Their banter and their interactions made me smile and laugh a large number of times, and it felt refreshing to see a college story focusing on predominantly women characters and the foolish shenanigans that they get into. I feel like that’s afforded far more often to dudes, and seeing some of the bullshit that Susan, Esther, and Daisy get into made me think of the lady friends I had in college and some of the dumb things we did. All of them are relatable and fun to follow, and super easy to root for even when they’re being ridiculous.

As I mentioned above, as of now “Giant Days” is mostly separate vignettes, though the stories have had some overlap between each other. One segment would focus on a specific arc, then the next segment would be a different arc that might have been hinted at in segment one. I liked that it meant that they could stand on their own, and then we could go into a fresh story with new possibilities and stakes. It also meant that each of our three main characters got to deal with the conflict of the segment in their own ways, and got basically equal time to navigate the plot (the only example I can think of where this wasn’t necessarily the case was when Esther ended up on a ‘hot or not’ website run by a bunch of cretins, but even then we saw how Susan and Daisy reacted as well). I am curious to see if this format continues into the later volumes, or if larger plot starts to form. As of now, I like the vignettes, but I don’t know how long my investment would hold if it continued.

Finally, I really REALLY love the artwork by Lissa Treiman! She has done work for a number of recent Disney movies, and you can definitely see the similarities between those styles and the ones you see in this. It makes for very vibrant and expressive faces and designs, and part of the humor comes from the imagery.

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“Giant Days (Vol.1)” is a fun and humorous read, and those of you who are feeling extra nostalgic for friendships from your formative years will find so much to like here. I’m definitely going to continue on with this series, because I can’t get enough of Susan, Esther, and Daisy.

Rating 8: A snarky and witty graphic novel involving three irreverent college women, “Giant Days (Vol.1)” will make you nostalgic for college, and will remind you of the joys of friendships in your young adult years.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Giant Days (Vol.1)” is included on the Goodreads lists “Girls Read Comics”, and “Female Power Comics”.

Find “Giant Days (Vol.1)” at your library using WorldCat!

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