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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(source)

“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!

Kate’s Review: “Pumpkinheads”

40864790Book: “Pumpkinheads” by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks (Ill.)

Publishing Info: First Second, August 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Deja and Josiah are seasonal best friends.

Every autumn, all through high school, they’ve worked together at the best pumpkin patch in the whole wide world. (Not many people know that the best pumpkin patch in the whole wide world is in Omaha, Nebraska, but it definitely is.) They say good-bye every Halloween, and they’re reunited every September 1.
But this Halloween is different—Josiah and Deja are finally seniors, and this is their last season at the pumpkin patch. Their last shift together. Their last good-bye.

Josiah’s ready to spend the whole night feeling melancholy about it. Deja isn’t ready to let him. She’s got a plan: What if—instead of moping and the usual slinging lima beans down at the Succotash Hut—they went out with a bang? They could see all the sights! Taste all the snacks! And Josiah could finally talk to that cute girl he’s been mooning over for three years . . .

What if their last shift was an adventure?

Beloved writer Rainbow Rowell and Eisner Award–winning artist Faith Erin Hicks have teamed up to create this tender and hilarious story about two irresistible teens discovering what it means to leave behind a place—and a person—with no regrets.

Review: Halloween has come and gone (pardon me while I sigh deeply over this fact), but it’s still technically Fall, even if in Minnesota our weather starts to trend towards Winter a bit earlier than other places. Given that Fall is such a short season here, I cherish it as long as we get to experience it. “Pumpkinheads” is the perfect Autumn story. It has a pumpkin patch, it takes place on Halloween, and it brings to life all of the best Autumn sights, games, and treats. Rainbow Rowell has always been great at creating charming and relatable characters and settings, and therefore she was probably the perfect person to create a story about two pumpkin patch workers on their last shift ever. Highjinx, nostalgia, and candy apples galore ensue!

Josiah (or Josie) and Deja are our seasonal BFF protagonists, coworkers who only interact when they are working at DeKnock’s World Famous Pumpkin Patch & Autumn Jamboree. Josiah is shy and pragmatic, while Deja is effervescent and free spirited. They work at the succotash stand together (this concept alone was so ridiculously endearing) and are besties until the season ends. This is their last night working at the patch, as it’s Halloween and they are both graduating in the spring and moving on. Their friendship was the beating heart of this book, and Rowell is superb at showing why they are such a good friend match through one night of misadventures. It reminded me of the classic film “American Graffiti”, as both in that film and in this book we really get a sense of these two people based on one seemingly random night. But we get to see through the happenings of that night so much about both of these characters that I felt like I knew everything about them by the time I was finished and their last shift had come to an end. I loved both of them for different reasons, and found them both to have lots of layers that were well explored. Josiah is sweet and shy, but also filled with hesitation that has prevented him from talking to his crush Marcy for three years. Deja is kind and adventurous, but she also can be capricious and impulsive. They balance each other out and their relationship is fun to see as she drags him around the patch in hopes of making his romantic dreams come true (and in hopes of finding all the delicious food to munch on. SO relatable). There is also the always looming bittersweet reality that once their night is done, they aren’t sure if they will ever see each other again. It’s light hearted and yet bittersweet.

Rowell also nails the joys of the Autumn season. This is certainly a kinder and gentler way to spend one’s Halloween, but the pumpkin patch is filled with all the fun things you want from this kind of thing: hayrides, candied apples, pumpkin picking, a corn maze, you name it, this place has it. I could practically smell the hay and the apple cider, and it felt like I was seeing a number of my favorite Autumn festivals come to life on the page. I WANTED TO VISIT DEKNOCK’S WORLD FAMOUS PUMPKIN PATCH & AUTUMN JAMBOREE!

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And I can’t guarantee I would leave unless I was dragged away. (source)

And the icing on this pumpkin cake is that the illustrations by Faith Erin Hicks perfectly complement Rowell’s story. They are expressive and detailed, but also have this coziness to them that just evokes feelings of Autumnal nostalgia.

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(source)

I really enjoyed reading “Pumpkinheads”. Rainbow Rowell is such a delightful author who always writes such pleasing stories. Keep that Fall spirit alive and grab this one to read over some hot apple cider and something pumpkin-y!

Rating 8: A very cute seasonal story with fun characters, a cheerful setting, and an adorable plot.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Pumpkinheads” isn’t on very specific Goodreads lists as of yet, but it would fit in on “Best Books to Read in Autumn”, and “Black Girl Comics”.

Find “Pumpkinheads” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “In the Woods”

46650269._sy475_Book: “In the Woods” by Carrie Jones and Steven E. Wedel

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, July 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: It should have been just another quiet night on the farm when Logan witnessed the attack, but it wasn’t.

Something is in the woods.
Something unexplainable.
Something deadly.

Hundreds of miles away, Chrystal’s plans for summer in Manhattan are abruptly upended when her dad reads tabloid coverage of some kind of grisly incident in Oklahoma. When they arrive to investigate, they find a witness: a surprisingly good-looking farm boy.

As townsfolk start disappearing and the attacks get ever closer, Logan and Chrystal will have to find out the truth about whatever’s hiding in the woods…before they become targets themselves. 

Review: This was kind of a whim request on my part. The description itself sounds more like the kind of book Kate would typically read than me. But I knew I’d need to have a few scary-ish stories lined up for October to at least pretend to be in the season of things, so here we are! However, it turned out that this book was more closely aligned to my reading habits than I had thought. Alas, that didn’t necessarily translate into increasing my enjoyment of it.

Something or someone is attacking things in Logan’s rural hometown. First it was cattle, but now people are beginning to be attacked as well. And the killer is only growing more bold, coming literally out of the shadows to attack in broad daylight. When Chrystal and her father, a man who chases adventure, arrive on the scene, they team up with Logan and his family to try and catch whomever or whatever is behind these mutilations. And as Logan and Chrystal grow steadily closer to each other romantically, and closer to the truth of the mystery, they soon find themselves no longer the hunters, but now the hunted.

So this was a tricky book for me. It’s so different than what I thought it would be that it’s hard to know how much of my experience was due to my expectations and how much was due to the book just not hitting the mark for me. It’s a strange twist, however, when the fact that I had thought I was intentionally reading out of my preferred genre somehow backfired when I found out I was actually reading more within it. I’m not quite sure what the marketing decisions were behind why this book was presented as it was, but I definitely went in thinking it was going to be some type of creepy, YA, serial killer story. Nope! Much more aligned with monster horror and cryptozoology stories. And yeah, on the face of it, those are my thing, but something about the way it was presented here just didn’t click for me.

Really, I don’t think it had anything to do with the monster angle. Yeah, I was looking for serial killer, but let’s face it, I’m not super dedicated to that or anything. My bigger problems had to do with the story itself and its two main character. There are hints of good characters here, but the writing itself let them down. The dialogue was almost laughable at times, and their relationship falls into the worst traps of instalove. They literally first meet and “feel a connection.” Not only is this not interesting, but it’s the laziest kind of romance building. No need to establish why two characters come together when they both “just know” instantly! Done, hard work finished. Now onto the mushy stuff! Ugh. My feelings about instalove have been well-established, so I’ll stop there.

The plot itself was rather lackluster. Sure, there were some fun, tense scenes sprinkled here and there, but there were too many moments where things happened that didn’t make sense or stretched my sense of plausibility beyond enjoyment. Much of the mystery is telegraphed to the reader pretty early in the story, so the reader is often ahead of the characters in terms of reveals. This is all made harder due to the writing which was just kind of banal. As I mentioned before, the dialogue was the real problem; didn’t read as natural which made it a constant distraction.

In the end I think it was six of one as to why this book didn’t click for me. On one hand, it wasn’t what I expected and contemporary stories featuring instalove have to be up there on my “most disliked” list. On the other hand, the strained writing and lackluster plot didn’t recommend it to me either. Readers who are more interested in contemporary YA and monster stories (notably NOT serial killers) might enjoy this. But I also think there are better options out there doing similar things.

Rating 5: Right down the middle of my rating system and largely forgettable.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“In the Woods” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Cryptofiction.”

Find “In the Woods” at your library using Worldcat!

Serena’s Review: “Heartwood Box”

41541611Book: “Heartwood Box” by Ann Aguirre

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, July 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley!

Book Description: In this tiny, terrifying town, the lost are never found. When Araceli Flores Harper is sent to live with her great-aunt Ottilie in her ramshackle Victorian home, the plan is simple. She’ll buckle down and get ready for college. Life won’t be exciting, but she’ll cope, right?

Wrong. From the start, things are very, very wrong. Her great-aunt still leaves food for the husband who went missing twenty years ago, and local businesses are plastered with MISSING posters. There are unexplained lights in the woods and a mysterious lab just beyond the city limits that the locals don’t talk about. Ever. When she starts receiving mysterious letters that seem to be coming from the past, she suspects someone of pranking her or trying to drive her out of her mind. To solve these riddles and bring the lost home again, Araceli must delve into a truly diabolical conspiracy, but some secrets fight to stay buried…

Review: This was an impulse request mostly because I was in the mood for something creepy and the title/cover art combo seemed to fit those criteria pretty well. The description of a teenager discovering the mysteries of a strange, small town just cemented by interest. But while the book does deliver on what it sets out to do, it didn’t quite match up with what I was looking for.

Araceli doesn’t know what to expect when she shows up at the small town where her great-aunt lives. But a town full of missing people and mysterious happenings in the woods surrounding it is not what she had in mind for her visit. Soon enough these mysteries end up knocking on her own door and curiosity and bewilderment quickly turn into fear and a fight for not only her future, but those who have been lost before her.

This is a tough book to evaluate, mostly due to the fact that it’s just not the type of book I read often. And for the reason that I typically don’t enjoy them as much as others. I’m not sure where the line is between “contemporary fantasy” and “urban fantasy,” but there definitely is one and it’s enough to make me greatly prefer the latter to the former. In this book’s case, there were a few aspects of the former that didn’t quite fit with what I was looking for.

First, our main character, Araceli. Most of the fantasy fiction that I read that features young protagonists is set in a world or time period where a young age doesn’t mean the same thing it does here. Teenagers often find themselves in very adult situations and it is perfectly normal that they be there. And, in fact, they have often been raised to expect to operate in an adult fashion by this age. This makes many YA fantasy novels essentially read as adult fantasy novels (I won’t start up again on the marketing mechanisms behind these choices).

So in part I’m simply not used to reading teenagers that, well, act like teenagers. It’s not really the fault of the book that Araceli is a believable teen and thus often makes poor decisions. But I won’t concede some of the dialogue. Teenage characters don’t have to sound immature in their speaking, and there were often bits of both her actual voiced comments as well as the commentary in her head that read as even more juvenile than necessary for belivablilty.

My other main struggle came down to genre confusion. Simply put, there are too many genres and genre conventions vying for page time in this book. I had a hard time settling in to any one type of story. Some genre blending is to be expected, but this one had a bit too much on its hands with fantasy, thriller, horror, and mystery all packed in. I think it was more a fault of blending than anything. It felt a bit too obvious when the story switched from one genre focus to another, reading as bumpy and jarring rather than a smooth, unnoticeable transition.

The mystery of the story is good, though the comparison to “Stranger Things” is a bit too on the nose. I mean, creepy woods. Dudes in bio-hazard outfits. People disappearing. We get it. But still, I was intrigued enough about discovering what exactly was going on that I was able to get through my general frustration with the main character and some bumpy writing.

Essentially, if you’re a fan of contemporary YA fiction and enjoy a fantasy/horror aspect to your tale, you might really like “Heartwood Box.” Most of my complaints for this one are purely my own preference, so take that with what you will. I do think the writing lacks a bit to be desired overall, but that’s not a deal breaker if this kind of story is your thing.

Rating 6: Not for me. “Realistic” teenagers apparently annoy me too much.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Heartwood Box” is  a new title and isn’t on many Goodreads lists. But it should be on “YA Fantasy Set in the Real World.”

Find “Heartwood Box” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Missing Season”

39937609Book: “The Missing Season” by Gillian French

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, May 2019

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

Book Description: Whenever another kid goes missing in October, the Pender kids know what is really behind it: a horrific monster out in the marshes they have named the Mumbler.

That’s what Clara’s new crew tells her when she moves to town: Bree and Sage, who take her under their wing; spirited Trace, who has taken the lead on this year’s Halloween prank war; and magnetic Kincaid, whose devil-may-care attitude and air of mystery are impossible for Clara to resist.

Clara doesn’t actually believe in the Mumbler. But as Halloween gets closer and tensions build in the town, it’s hard to shake the feeling that there really is something dark and dangerous in Pender, lurking in the shadows, waiting to bring the stories to life.

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

I’ve been racking my brain, but given that I lived in a fairly large metro area when I was a kid (and still do for that matter) I can’t think of any ‘urban legends’ that were prevalent in my hometown during my childhood. The closest I can come is when two mean girls in first grade tried to convince me that at midnight if you looked up at the sky you’d see a star that would automatically kill you and everyone you loved, and yes, I totally fell for it. But in terms of rumors turned folklore, I can’t recall any. But I’ve always been fascinated with localized urban legends, even back then, so finding books that have those themes are always going to grab my interest. That’s why I was so eager to read “The Missing Season” by Gillian French, a YA mystery thriller that includes tales of a mysterious figure called “The Mumbler” that supposedly snatches teens up during Halloween season. I went in expecting a mystery thriller with ambiguous horror elements. But instead, I got… a mishmash of themes that didn’t work for me.

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Me as I was reading this book and I still wasn’t clear in regards to its intent… (source)

“The Missing Season” takes place in the smallish town of Pender, and our protagonist Clara has just moved there due to her father’s somewhat nomadic career in construction. As our main character, I will say right off the bat that I liked Clara and I liked following her story and point of view. She lacks the luxury of being able to make connections because of the chance she might be moving again, so when she does make these connections there is a palpable fear of losing them, even if it isn’t outright said. The biggest conflict of this kind is the friendship between her and a girl named Bree. Bree, along with another girl named Sage, takes an immediate shine to Clara, and their friendship is a mix of the rush of having a girl pal, and the angst of competing with that girl pal in ways that were unanticipated. I know this familiar feeling all too well from my adolescent years, and I thought that French did a great job of showing it instead of telling it. The conflict in this case is the competing affections for local mysterious outsider Kincaid, who is the deepest in The Mumbler mythology of all the friends that Clara makes. The underlying tension and hurt between the two friends was the strongest aspect of this book, and the ways that Clara did, or in some cases didn’t, deal with that conflict felt very realistic.

But here is the problem with “The Missing Season”: it is very much marketed as a mystery thriller, and the description makes it sound like a new missing kid case is the center of the novel. But it’s very much not. The center of the novel is Clara’s relationships with the kids in town, and how she navigates her friendship with Bree and her need to fit in as those things come in conflict with the relationship she wants with Kincaid. Sure, another kid goes missing, and sure, there’s a question of what happened to her, but it wasn’t focused on nearly as much as I thought it was going to be. Instead, most of the conflict was Clara worrying about what Kincaid’s deal was, and what was going to happen to her new friendship with Bree if Clara and Kincaid did pursue their mutual feelings for each other. It wasn’t until the last fifth of the book that a full conflict with another child kidnapping raised the tension and thriller stakes, and even by then it was wrapped up VERY quickly, so quickly it almost felt like the author realized that oh yes, this was supposed to be a mystery thriller, better toss in a climax and wrap it up as quickly as possible. Even the ultimate solution felt tossed in there, with a couple of hints and clues scattered early on in the book, but not in a way that felt cohesive to a mystery. I kept waiting for the mystery and tension to build, but it plateaued very early at a level that wasn’t terribly high. I would be more inclined to call this book a contemporary realistic YA fiction book with some mysterious elements, but not enough for it to be considered an actual ‘thriller’. And because of that, I was totally let down by “The Missing Season”. If I had gone in with the expectations of this  being about a teenage girl’s bildungsroman I think I would have enjoyed it much more than I actually did, but as it was I couldn’t enjoy the story. I felt too duped.

I hesitate to write off “The Missing Season” for everyone, because my expectations were in a completely different place than they should have been. If you go in without the supposition that it’s a thriller, it may be more appealing. But, given that it’s trying to portray itself that way, I don’t feel comfortable recommending it as it’s presented.

Rating 5: While I liked the protagonist, the description of this being a ‘thriller’ did not fit the content of the story, and because of that I was pretty disappointed with “The Missing Season”.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Missing Season” is included on the Goodreads lists “Halloween in YA and Middle Grade Fiction”.

Find “The Missing Season” at your library using WorldCat!