Serena’s Review: “To Kiss a Wallflower”

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Book: “To Kiss a Wallflower” by Jen Geigle Johnson, Heather B. Moore, & Anneka R. Walker

Publishing Info: Mirror Press, June 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publicist!

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

Book Description: THE WALLFLOWER’S DANCE by Jen Geigle Johnson

Lottie Hughes likes people, as long as they aren’t too close. Does it bother her that no one asks her to dance? Yes, but she’s not sure how to drum up dance partners when she has almost no dowry, no title, and freezes up when anyone tries to talk to her. When she suddenly inherits a huge amount and is the new center of attention all over London, her secret dreams might come true but also her worst nightmares. Suddenly everyone wants to talk to her. Men ask her to dance. And she is inundated with interested suitors. She fights to stay close to the few friends she knows are true. One man saw her before her life changed forever. But does she want to accept his help when he, too, might be insincere?

LETTERS TO A WALLFLOWER by Heather B. Moore

Ellen might be beautiful and considered a diamond of the first water by Society, but she is so very tired of the pressure to marry a titled gentleman so that her beauty won’t go to waste. When her cousin Dinah dares Ellen to attend a ball with no frills and to stand with the wallflowers, Ellen takes on the dare. What’s in the wager for her? The prize cuttings of her aunt’s extraordinary roses. But what Ellen isn’t expecting is Lord Ravenshire to engage her in the most interesting conversation. When she confesses to him of her opposition in marrying for a title, he confesses his distaste of the London scene. They strike a bargain together, one which will either push them apart or lead to a future sweeter than either of them could have imagined.

TO MARRY A WALLFLOWER by Anneka R. Walker

Charlotte Winters is destined to spinsterhood until she turns down an unwanted proposal and everything changes. With gossip rampant, her father attempts to salvage her reputation by betrothing her to another. Soon she is sent off to her aunt’s to meet Lord Templeton, her intended. Anxiety-ridden, Charlotte begs her aunt to let her observe Lord Templeton from afar before their introduction. She never planned to pretend to be her fictional cousin to learn more about him, or to fall in love with Lord Templeton’s friend in the process. Lord Templeton dreads returning to the empty halls of Newcliff Manor. When his father’s old friend, Mr. Winters reaches out for assistance, Lord Templeton finds himself returning home engaged to a woman he has never met. Desperate to learn more about Miss Winters, he befriends her cousin. He wouldn’t have spoken to her, or lied about his identity, if he’d known the quiet woman would sneak into his heart.

Review: A few months ago, I participated in a blog tour for this book and posted an excerpt here on the blog. Well, today I’m back with my full review of the collection. Since there are three entirely separate stories contained within this book, I thought I’d split my review into three mini reviews, one for each story.

“The Wallflower’s Dance”

This is your classic friends-to-lovers romance, and it covered every base you want to see in this type of story. The friendship between the hero and the heroine was believable, as was the fact that it seemed understandable that each was so caught up in this type of interaction that it would take a certain sort of jolt to shock their systems into seeing each other in different ways.

I did struggle a bit towards the end of this story, however. It seemed that that solid foundation of friendship was easily undercut with doubts about the other’s intentions. This would have felt believable with other characters, but with two people who have known each other for so long, it was a bit hard to buy their sudden decision to believe complete strangers over a longtime friend. There was also one last shot of complete insanity on the heroine’s part after the truth was made known to her. It was only one paragraph, which honestly made it all the more frustrating. Just take that one bit out and nothing would change in the story, except a better opinion of your heroine!

That said, I still had a fun time reading this story.

“Letters to a Wallflower”

This was another classic romance trope: the fake dating/courtship romance. As is implied by the title, there’s a brief (luckily very brief!) period of time when our hero and heroine set-up a correspondence to get them each out of the eyes of pestering mothers and society and back to their beloved country abodes.

To be fair, this one plays fast and loose with the whole “wallflower” theme. Ellen is in fact a very beautiful, sought after young lady who tires of getting asked to dance too many times. So she makes a deal with her friend to try to hide as a wallflower and see if she is asked to dance at all. Unfortunately for her, Lord Ravenshire sets out with the purpose of dancing with all of the wallflowers. But through this mishap they hit on the idea to fake a relationship.

There were a few anachronisms early in this book (the word “hairdo” and an ordering of earl as one of the highest ranks, which is incorrect), but overall I think the writing in this book was the best. After I got past the first few errors, I really enjoyed this one, and it was probably my favorite of the three.

To Marry a Wallflower”

We wrap up our regency romances with the “secret identity” trope. For all that this is the trope I picked in our recent romance tropes bookclub theme, it’s probably one of my least favorite. All too often I have a hard time believing the essential lie at the heart of these kind of confusions wouldn’t do more lasting damage than they seem to. So, I was the most nervous going into this one of the three.

Honestly, I did struggle a bit with this story. There was a lot of terrible advice given out, and I thought the excuse to pose as different people was a bit weak for both Charlotte and Luke. Their interactions were sweet and I did become invested in their relationship as the story continued. But I could never fully get past the secret identity thing that tinged every moment. The reveal itself was a nice payoff, but I think I would have enjoyed this one more if it hadn’t been this trope to begin with. But that’s a purely subjective opinion, and fans of “secret identity” romances may love this one!

As a whole, I think this is a really solid compilation of clean, sweet Regency romances. This is part of a very long series of Regency romances made up of short stories, so fans of those are sure to enjoy this. Readers who are also looking for a low commitment, sweet romance read should also check this out. They’re the perfect reads for someone looking to whip through a romance story in one night’s time!

Rating 7: I was left wanting just a bit more from all three of these stories, but they were also fun and satisfying reads on their own which are sure to appeal to fans of clean historical romance stories!

Reader’s Advisory:

“To Kiss a Wallflower” is part of the Timeless Regency Collection Series.

Joint Review: “The Witch and the Tsar”

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Book: “The Witch and the Tsar” by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore

Publishing Info: Ace, September 2022

Where Did We Get This Book: We received eARCs from NetGalley and Edelweiss+.

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: As a half-goddess possessing magic, Yaga is used to living on her own, her prior entanglements with mortals having led to heartbreak. She mostly keeps to her hut in the woods, where those in need of healing seek her out, even as they spread rumors about her supposed cruelty and wicked spells. But when her old friend Anastasia—now the wife of the tsar, and suffering from a mysterious illness—arrives in her forest desperate for her protection, Yaga realizes the fate of all of Russia is tied to Anastasia’s. Yaga must step out of the shadows to protect the land she loves.

As she travels to Moscow, Yaga witnesses a sixteenth century Russia on the brink of chaos. Tsar Ivan—soon to become Ivan the Terrible—grows more volatile and tyrannical by the day, and Yaga believes the tsaritsa is being poisoned by an unknown enemy. But what Yaga cannot know is that Ivan is being manipulated by powers far older and more fearsome than anyone can imagine.

Olesya Salnikova Gilmore weaves a rich tapestry of mythology and Russian history, reclaiming and reinventing the infamous Baba Yaga, and bringing to life a vibrant and tumultuous Russia, where old gods and new tyrants vie for power. This fierce and compelling novel draws from the timeless lore to create a heroine for the modern day, fighting to save her country and those she loves from oppression while also finding her true purpose as a goddess, a witch, and a woman

Kate’s Thoughts

This was a little bit of a gamble for me, as I knew that it was fantasy, and I knew that it was going to be pretty heavy on Russian mythology for inspiration. And given that I’m not a huge fantasy person, and my book of Russian myths and fairytales has sat on my shelf unopened for years, I was rolling the dice. BUT, it also follows Yaga, a witch, and I DO LOVE WITCHES. So I took a chance on this one, and the bag was… pretty mixed.

The positives are definitely ample! For one, I liked Yaga as our protagonist. She’s a healer who is half immortal and has done her best to keep people around her safe, including her old friend Anastasia who is the Tsar’s wife, and who is being poisoned. Yaga, unfortunately, has to learn that not everyone has the same noble heart, and most of this book is her trying to survive not only against a spiraling Ivan the Terrible (who is doing unthinkable things in Russia; what a time to be reading this, given the guy in charge of Russia right now), but also other immortals and gods and demi gods. I liked how Gilmore subverted some of the mythologies to reflect lies and propaganda that the Orthodox Russian Church was spewing to undercut the non-Christian theologies of the time. I know that the fact Yaga has been de-aged from crone to young woman has frustrated some readers, which I definitely get, but I kind of like the idea of her reputation of being a cruel crone is actually a lie to make people distrust a woman who is actually a midwife, healer, and powerful woman in a community.

But overall, I think that I didn’t have enough working knowledge of the mythology (and even the history! I don’t know much about Russian history, honestly), and that meant that I couldn’t fully appreciate what Gilmore was trying to do. I also thought that it was a little ambling at times as the story went on. It wasn’t really a slog, but I did sometimes find myself skimming a bit to get through specific scenes.

So overall, “The Witch and the Tsar” was an okay read, but I’m not sure I got everything I could have gotten from it. Maybe I need to go grab that unopened book of Russian folklore off my shelf.

Serena’s Thoughts

Me, I’m the reader frustrated by the aged-down Yaga! But before I get to that, let’s start with my general impression. Unlike Kate, everything about this book is directly up my alley, so it was a bit of a no-brainer that I was going to read it either way. But I was happy she suggested we joint review it, since I think that has left us in an interesting position now. Since…the very fact that this was up my alley might be why I wasn’t this book’s biggest fan? More precisely, I feel like I’ve read this book before and better versions of it.

For example, while I generally appreciate the commentary on wise women and healers and how these women were undercut by the incoming Christian church in its various forms, I’ve also read many, many fantasy novels that have covered this very thing. And in very similar, unfortunately better, ways. So for me, many aspects of this book just struck chords that were too familiar to other, better stories, leaving me in a constant state of comparison. A big one was “The Bear and the Nightingale” and that trilogy, a series that is also Russian history/folklore inspired and tackles these same conversion points between Christianity, old world religion, and the demonization of women who were healers or stood out in any other way.

Beyond that, I had a hard time connecting to Yaga. Yes, part of me was simply disappointed that she was a young woman because I’ve read a million and one novels about young women in fantasy and it’s always refreshing to read about different age groups (people over 30 exist! especially older women! things happen to them and there is a unique power and experience to be mined there!). But beyond that, Yaga, while still young-looking, is in fact meant to be quite old. And yet she routinely seemed to be quite naive in a way that I found hard to reconcile with the amount of lived experience she should have under her belt at this point.

I also wish we had gotten a bit more from the Russian folklore, as Kate mentioned. I’m pretty familiar with a lot of it, simply due to the fact that it’s had a bit of a run recently as a go-to in fantasy fiction. But there were certain elements that I felt were just plunked down into the story without much thought or creativity. Like the house with chicken legs just kind of appears? I’ve read some pretty interesting takes on this entire concept (Orson Scott Card’s “Enchantment” probably has the most creative one I’ve seen at this point), but this book just seemed to skip over some of these opportunities.

All in all, my conclusion is the same as Kate’s. This wasn’t a slog of a read by any means, but by the time I finished it, I realized I spent most of the book thinking about other, similar stories and wishing this was more like those.

Kate’s Rating 6: I liked Yaga as a protagonist and I liked the way Gilmore subverted Russian myth and folklore, but it felt ambling at times, and I think I would have gotten more if I were more familiar with the mythology.

Serena’s Rating 6: If you haven’t read much Russian fantasy folklore, this might appeal to you. But there are better examples out there that left this one feeling uncomfortably derivative at times.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Witch and the Tsar” is included on the Goodreads lists “Mythological Re-Imaginings” and “Wise Women, Witches, Midwives, Healers, and Strong Girls”.

Kate’s Review: “Pīsim Finds Her Miskanaw” and “Amō’s Sapotawan”

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Books: “Pīsim Finds Her Miskanaw” and “Amō’s Sapotawan” (The Six Seasons Vol. 1 & 2) by William Dumas, Leonard Paul (Ill.), and Rhian Brynjolson

Publishing Info: HighWater Press, August 2020 (Vol.1) & September 2022 (Vol.2)

Where Did I Get These Books: I received eARCs from the publisher.

Where You Can Get These Books: WorldCat (1) (2) | Portage and Main Press (1) (2) | Indiebound (2)

Book Descriptions:

“Pīsim Finds Her Miskanaw”: In 1993, the remains of a young woman were discovered at Nagami Bay, South Indian Lake, Manitoba. Out of that important archeological discovery came this unique story about a week in the life of Pisim, a young Cree woman, who lived in the Mid 1600s. In the story, created by renowned storyteller William Dumas, Pisim begins to recognize her miskanow – her life’s journey – and to develop her gifts for fulfilling that path. The story is brought to life by the rich imagery of Leonard Paul, and is accompanied by sidebars on Cree language and culture, archaeology and history, maps, songs, and more.

“Amō’s Sapotawan”: Rocky Cree people understand that all children are born with four gifts or talents. When a child is old enough, they decide which gift, or mīthikowisiwin, they will seek to master. With her sapotawan ceremony fast approaching, Amō must choose her mīthikowisiwin. Her sister, Pīsim, became a midwife; others gather medicines or harvest fish. But none of those feel quite right.

Amō has always loved making things. Her uncle can show her how to make nipisiwata, willow baskets. Her grandmother can teach her how to make kwakwāywata, birchbark containers and plates. Her auntie has offered to begin Amō’s apprenticeship in making askihkwak, pottery.

What will Amō’s mīthikowisiwin be? Which skill should she choose? And how will she know what is right for her?

Reviews: Thank you so, so much to Lohit Jagwani from HighWater Press for sending me eARCs of these books!

We are on our second week of my month long HighWater Press Blog Series, and we shift from traditional graphic novel to look at the first two books of a Middle Grade historical fiction series called “The Six Seasons” by storyteller and asiniskaw īthiniw Knowledge Keeper William Dumas. These books are part of a greater project known as the Six Seasons of the Asiniskaw Īthiniwak, which hopes to work towards preserving Indigenous languages and knowledge bases of the Asiniskaw Īthiniwak, or Rocky Cree. Honestly it sounds like a fantastic project (read more HERE), and part of it is this series, with the first two books being “Pīsim Finds Her Miskanaw”, and the second being “Amō’s Sapotawan”. Both books follow teenage girls who are going on journeys of self discovery, while also teaching kids about life and culture of the Rocky Cree before significant European contact.

I’ll start with the first in the series, “Pīsim Finds Her Miskanaw”, which follows a teenage Rocky Cree girl who is learning the ways of becoming a midwife. As her family group an community is preparing to journey to a communal gathering, Pīsim is trying to determine if she has the skills and drive to be a midwife. As the community travels to the Spring Gathering, stories are shared, bonds are strengthened, and Pīsim finds herself having to use her skills and knowledge in an unexpected situation. I really loved watching this young woman connect with those around her and hear the various stories that everyone tells, and how she rises to the task of delivering a baby on her own when she and her uncle and pregnant aunt are separated from the rest of the group during a storm on the water. But what stands out the most in this book (and similarly in “Amō’s Sapotawan”) are the rich and intricate details about all types of aspects of Rocky Cree life and culture. We get translations of various vocabulary, maps of the water that Pīsim and her family are traveling upon for the Spring Gathering, and various facts about life for the Rocky Cree during this time period. I was very, very enthralled by the great information and how detailed it was, and my former historical society employee heart was all aflutter. There is such good information in this book, and it’s incredibly accessible to the audience it is catered towards. I really enjoyed seeing the story of Pīsim come into her own.

“Amō’s Sapotawan” is another story about a young girl, though this time it is in summer and this time we follow Pīsim’s sister Amo. In this story, Amō is a teenager who is trying to decide on her mīthikowisiwin, her craft that she wishes to hone, as her ceremony to celebrate that gift, or her sapotawan, is about to happen. Coinciding this is the berry picking that the community does in the summer, as well as an ever present threat of wild fires that tend to kick up during this time of year and that can drive a community to have to flee on a moment’s notice. As Amō contemplates what she wants to choose, she experiences fairly typical moments in what the culture and life was like for the Rocky Cree, though there are, admittedly, some significant beats that may help drive her to choose her ultimate gift. I liked this story a lot as well, and like Pīsim’s story before there were a lot of great notes and facts interspersed within the story.

In terms of the artwork, the stories are accompanied by two different artists and two different styles. Leonard Paul provided the art for Pīsim’s story, while Rhian Brynjolson did for Amō’s. I think that of the two I preferred that of Paul, as that kind of style just speaks to me more, but they are both aesthetics that match the tales at hand pretty well, and I think that they would both connect with a middle grade audience as they read these books.

The importance of knowing the life and culture for the Rocky Cree pre-significant European contact can’t be stressed enough given the genocide Indigenous and First Nations peoples were (and still are) subjected to, and I think that these books by William Dumas are such rich resources and tools to help preserve this knowledge, and very necessary. I greatly enjoyed both “Pīsim Finds Her Miskanaw” and “Amō’s Sapotawan” as great information resources and coming of age tales.

Rating 8: Incredibly rich in detail, historical notes, and culture, “Pīsim Finds Her Miskanaw” and “Amō’s Sapotawan” are both great introductions to Rocky Cree history and culture as well as gentle, heartwarming stories about finding oneself.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Pīsim Finds Her Miskanaw” and Amō’s Sapotawan” are not on many Goodreads lists, but I think they would fit in on “Indigenous Children’s Literature”.

Book Club Review: “The Ten Thousand Doors of January”


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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 “Book Bingo” where we drew reading challenges commonly found on book bingo cards from a hat and chose a book based on that.  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: “The Ten Thousand Doors of January” by Alix E. Harrow

Publishing Info: Redhook, September 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Bingo Prompt: A book with a misleading title

Book Description: In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artifacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored, and utterly out of place.

Then she finds a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds, and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page turn reveals impossible truths about the world and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.

Kate’s Thoughts

We’re back to a familiar statement from me during a Book Club post and discussion: I am not really a fantasy reader outside of a few specific exceptions, be it titles (“The Lord of the Rings”; “The Neverending Story”) or sub-genres (dark fantasy). So going into my review of “The Ten Thousand Doors of January”, you need to take all of this with a grain of salt. Maybe a teaspoon or two. I am almost never going to be able to vet a fantasy title super well because as a genre it’s not my bag, baby (a phrase that was tossed around in book club during the discussion).

What I will say about this book that I did like was the way that Harrow incorporated social issues of the time period into the book. We see the struggles of life in Edwardian-era England for not only women, but also women of color within a certain social stature. While January is somewhat shielded from some of this because of her placement with Locke, she is still kept in a gilded cage, and eventually put in an asylum under guise of hysteria when in actuality she is more inconvenient for Locke and his contemporaries when she becomes a perceived threat. And then once she is more outside of Locke’s ‘protection’ (you can’t REALLY call it that), her race is suddenly something she also has to contend with in a more direct and overt fashion. I also liked the way that Harrow addresses aspects of Imperialism and Colonialism through the character of Jane, a woman born in Africa who was being subjected to a missionary school, and eventually finds a door that helps her find freedom. And really, her door, where she encounters a world with a matriarchal cheetah society, was SUPER interesting! But we didn’t really get to see much of that. We didn’t get to see as many doors as I anticipated.

So yeah, I liked the social aspects of this book, as it’s great to see fantasy address these themes. But it’s still fantasy, which just isn’t my genre. So this is very much a ‘your mileage may vary’ situation.

Serena’s Thoughts

Don’t worry fantasy lovers! As the resident fantasy reader, I am happy to step up to vet titles in this genre. And, all told, I found a lot to like in this book. This is definitely one of those fantasy novels that leans heavily on subgenres like historical and literary fiction. While there is definite magic involved in the story and it is surely a portal fantasy, the pacing and overall feel of the book falls more in line with literary fantasy and historical fiction than anything else. As Kate mentioned, the book focuses a lot on the realities of life in this time period for both women and people of color. Even though there are fantastical doorways into different worlds, there is no magic wand to wave away the very real challenges facing many during this time.

The pacing of this book is also on the slower side, spending much more time developing the overall feel of the story and the realities that January is facing. But to balance this slower pace, the story is broken up into two primary stories: one that of January herself, and the second following another young woman born a few decades before January who also found doorways and used them to redirect the pathway laid before her. I really enjoyed the way these two stories came together. I was also surprised by a few twists and turns that were given a long the way. For all the dire circumstances and reality that makes up so much of January’s life, the story includes a hefty dose of hope right when things could begin to feel a bit too bleak.

Overall, I really liked this book. It’s definitely on the slower side and errs towards the lyrical over the action-packed. Like some book club members pointed out, for a book about a thousand doorways between worlds, the story spends most of its time in our old familiar world. But I think that worked for the balance that was being struck between fantasy story and a larger reflection on this period of history and its people.

Kate’s Review 6: It’s fantasy. I liked some of the social themes presented and the small tastes of some of the worlds. But it’s just not my genre.

Serena’s Review 8: A lyrical fantasy novel that makes up for its slower pacing with its lovely character work.

Book Club Questions

  1. What were your thoughts on January as a protagonist of this book? Did you connect with her as a main character?
  2. Did you find it to be a nice change of pace when the book would transition to the Adelaide story arc?
  3. Which side characters did you find the most compelling in this story? Were there any side worlds through the doors you liked reading about?
  4. What were your thoughts on how this book tackled and addressed various social aspects like imperialism, racism, and sexism?
  5. Were there any moments that stood out in particular in this novel?
  6. Who would you recommend this book to?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Ten Thousand Doors of January” is on these Goodreads lists: Portal Fantasy Books and Best Books with a Month in the Title.

Next Book Club Book: “Old Man’s War” by John Scalzi

Serena’s Review: “Death at the Manor”

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Book: “Death at the Manor” by Katharine Schellman

Publishing Info: Crooked Lane Books, August 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: Regency widow Lily Adler is looking forward to spending the autumn away from the social whirl of London society. When she arrives in Hampshire with her friends, Lord and Lady Carroway, she doesn’t expect much more than a quiet country visit and the chance to spend time with her charming new acquaintance, Matthew Spencer.

But something odd is afoot in the small country village. A ghost has taken up residence in the Belleford manor, a lady in grey who wanders the halls at night, weeping and wailing. Half the servants have left in terror, but the family is delighted with the notoriety that their ghost provides. Piqued by this spectral guest, Lily and her party immediately make plans to visit Belleford.

They arrive at the manor the next morning ready to be entertained—but tragedy has struck. The matriarch of the family has just been found smothered to death in her bed.

There was no one else in her room, and the door was locked from the inside. The dead woman’s family is convinced that the ghost is responsible. The servants are keeping secrets. The local magistrate is flummoxed. Lily is determined to learn the truth before another victim turns up—but could she be next in line for the Great Beyond?

Previously Reviewed: “The Body in the Garden” and “Silence in the Library”

Review: I’ve really been enjoying this historical mystery series. There are a few others I’ve been reading recently, but they’ve all featured a heroine/hero combination that, while enjoyable, begins to feel familiar very quickly. This book stands out not only with Lily serving as the primary detective herself, but in the fact that her cast of supporting characters not only includes, yes, the hero character, but also some of her fellow lady friends. This has allowed the series to remain feeling fresh and unique as compared to contemporaries. So, of course, when I saw the new one coming out this summer, I was on top of things!

Lily Adler’s friend, Captain Jack, is heading back to sea. And while he is glad to be returning to his beloved ship, he worries that Lily has had quite the penchant for stumbling upon dead bodies recently. She, however, assures him that she will be heading to the country to spend time with her dear aunt. What body could possibly be found in these circumstances? Alas, Jack’s worries are all too astute. For Lily, accompanied by her friend Lady Carroway, not only stumbles upon another murder victim, but the primary suspect is none other than a manor house ghost. But when Lily stumbles upon some revelations she had never suspected, she begins to question her own abilities. Will she be able to solve yet another mystery?

So, unfortunately, this book didn’t quite live up to my expectations for it. Admittedly, they were quite high, so the book was by no means objectively bad. Just not as good as the two that came before. But first, there are a few things that definitely stood out in the positive category. For one, I liked Lily’s struggles with her own limitations. Up to this point, while Lily has struggled to garner the respect from her peers for her observational skills, she’s never suffered from any great crisis of faith in herself. Here, after a secret that has been sitting right under her nose for years finally comes to light, Lily must grapple with her own limitations and biases. It’s a great internal arch for the character, and one that you rarely see in detective mysteries such as this that rely on their main character’s almost supernatural ability to know all.

I also liked the addition of Lady Carroway. While we’ve seen the character quite a bit in other books, here, she is allowed a few of her own chapters and perspectives. These were excellent on their own, but also worked well as a balance point to Lily’s ongoing internal struggles. Lady Carroway has a very different view of society, both because of the challenges she faced as a biracial noblewoman, but also because of her differing temperament. Their friendship is not without its own ups and downs, and I liked this more honest depiction of female friendships, one where the waters are not always smooth.

I also liked the nods to the gothic novels that were popular during this period of time. This was a fun theme to explore in the story, and served as a nice change of pace from the more straight-forward murder mysteries at the heart of the previous two books.

That said, there are two major points where the book struggled, in my opinion. One of them is more subjective than the other, so let’s start with that one. One of the nice things about these books so far has been the very, very slow burn of any romance that may (or may not) be developing between Lily and Jack. On one hand, I very much like this. But on the other, when it became clear that Jack was going to cede his position in this book to Matthew Spencer, a gentleman who was introduced as a potential romantic interest in the previous book, I have to say I was a bit disappointed. I just couldn’t become invested in this character or this romance. It does seem like this might be setting the stage for Lily’s slow growth through her grief over her husband. And, objectively, the decision for her to not necessarily jump from one “great love” to another but instead have other interests between makes sense. But as a reader, I just spent most of the time missing Jack and rolling my eyes at Lily’s obtuseness (at least I had Lady Carroway right there with me on #TeamJack).

My second problem, sadly, came with the mystery itself. Because I don’t want to spoil it, there’s not a whole lot I can go into as far as details. It’s a closed-door mystery, so that lays out the stakes well enough right there. However, I found the way in which the murder took place incredibly obvious from the very first inspection of the murder scene. What’s worse, later in the book, Lily happens upon a particular happenstance in this same locked room that even more clearly illustrates the solution. And it still didn’t click! It was so blatantly obvious that it had the unfortunate effect of making Lily’s obliviousness increasingly at odds with her reputation for solving complicated mysteries. I also was able to identify the killer and a decent portion of their motivations fairly early, too. All in all, while I still enjoyed the process of reading about this mystery, it was incredibly anticlimactic given some of the obvious clues and red herrings.

However, I still very much enjoyed Lily as a character. And I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of viewpoints from Lady Harroway herself. So, in conclusion, this book was a bit hit and miss. I still think the writing is strong, and Lily’s long term arch holds a lot of potential. Fans of the previous books will likely enjoy this one, but be warned that the mystery was not as compelling as previous entries.

Rating 7: Has a bit of a “middle book” feel to it with a lackluster mystery at its heart, but Lily herself is still an interesting enough character on her own to carry the story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Death at the Manor” can be found on this Goodreads list: Historical Mystery 2022

Serena’s Reivew: “The Monsters We Defy”

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Book: “The Monsters We Defy” by Leslye Penelope

Publishing Info: Orbit, August 2022

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

Book Description: Washington D. C., 1925

Clara Johnson talks to spirits, a gift that saved her during her darkest moments in a Washington D. C. jail. Now a curse that’s left her indebted to the cunning spirit world. So, when the Empress, the powerful spirit who holds her debt, offers her an opportunity to gain her freedom, a desperate Clara seizes the chance. The task: steal a magical ring from the wealthiest woman in the District.

Clara can’t pull off this daring heist alone. She’ll need help from an unlikely team, from a jazz musician capable of hypnotizing with a melody to an aging vaudeville actor who can change his face, to pull off the impossible. But as they encounter increasingly difficult obstacles, a dangerous spirit interferes at every turn. Conflict in the spirit world is leaking into the human one and along D.C’.s legendary Black Broadway, a mystery unfolds—one that not only has repercussions for Clara but all of the city’s residents.

Review: I was super excited when I received a copy of this book from the publisher. Not only is the cover very eye-catching, but it looks to be covering a unique time period and perspective for historical fantasy. I’ve read a million and one Regency fantasy novels (not that I’m complaining, I’ve read three excellent ones just this summer!), but it’s always refreshing to see authors pushing the boundaries on what we expect from this particular sub-genre. On the other hand, heists with a quirky group of people has also been done to death. So….I let’s see what this book had to offer!

Anyone pestered by spirits would be a little testy. And Clara, cursed/gifted with this ability for her entire life, has only barely begun to reign in her fiery temper. But she can’t stop herself from getting involved when people begin to act strangely and then go missing. Together with a band of other magically-afflicted individuals, Clara must work to pull off a heist to steal a magical ring. But the spirits won’t go easy, and they all will need to band together to pull of this feat!

I’ve read several other books by this author before, but they’ve all been second world fantasy, complete with magic systems and long, epic histories of warring gods. So I was curious to see how she would handle this change of pace. However, it is always a bit steadying to go into a new book knowing that, at the very least, the author has the writing chops to pull of her story. Whether this change in subgenre would work or not, I knew that Penelope would craft a well-told, descriptive story. And I was definitely right about that! I really enjoyed this version of Washington, D.C. in the 1920s that she imagined. There was enough recognizable history and culture to center the reader in the setting, but the introduction of magic and cultural folktales layered over it all to bring us something fresh and new.

Clara herself was an excellent character. I enjoyed her spirit (ha, bad pun) and determination to break through all of the barriers placed before her. But as this is a heist story, we, of course, also have a band of other players to follow as well. Penelope did a good job of laying out each of their histories and motivations in such a way that, for the most part, I felt invested in all of their individual outcomes. I will say, my initial reaction to large casts of characters is typically hesitance, as it’s not my preferred reading style. So while I personally wasn’t blown away by all of these characters, the author did a better job than most in introducing them and using them in such a way as to retain my interest.

The author includes an excellent note at the end about the history of the young woman who served as an inspiration for Clara (a young black woman who spent two years in prison for manslaughter after killing a policeman who enter her home and began shooting). She also explains her use of African American folktales through out the story. It was clear that this book was well-researched, and I think it was an exciting new entry of historical fantasy fiction, which, all too often, can begin to blend together with similar-sounding stories.

I’m running a giveaway for an ARC of this book, so don’t for get to enter! The giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and ends Aug. 31.

Enter to win!

Rating 8: A fresh, new historical fantasy story that introduces an excellent cast of characters and highlights African American folklore.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Monsters We Defy” is on this Goodreads list: Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2022.

Giveaway: “The Monsters We Defy”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “The Monsters We Defy” by Leslye Penelope

Publishing Info: Orbit, August 2022

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

Book Description: Washington D. C., 1925

Clara Johnson talks to spirits, a gift that saved her during her darkest moments in a Washington D. C. jail. Now a curse that’s left her indebted to the cunning spirit world. So, when the Empress, the powerful spirit who holds her debt, offers her an opportunity to gain her freedom, a desperate Clara seizes the chance. The task: steal a magical ring from the wealthiest woman in the District.

Clara can’t pull off this daring heist alone. She’ll need help from an unlikely team, from a jazz musician capable of hypnotizing with a melody to an aging vaudeville actor who can change his face, to pull off the impossible. But as they encounter increasingly difficult obstacles, a dangerous spirit interferes at every turn. Conflict in the spirit world is leaking into the human one and along D.C’.s legendary Black Broadway, a mystery unfolds—one that not only has repercussions for Clara but all of the city’s residents.

Giveaway Details:

I was super excited when I received a copy of this book from the publisher. Not only is the cover very eye-catching, but it looks to be covering a unique time period and perspective for historical fantasy. I’ve read a million and one Regency fantasy novels (not that I’m complaining, I’ve read three excellent ones just this summer!), but it’s always refreshing to see authors pushing the boundaries on what we expect from this particular sub-genre. On the other hand, heists with a quirky group of people has also been done to death. So….I guess we’ll have to see what this book has to offer!

This is another pen name for the author L. Penelope. I’ve read a decent number of her books in the past, and have reviewed some of them here (“Song of Blood and Stone”, “Whispers of Shadow and Flame”, and “Cry of Metal and Bone”). She’s a solid fantasy author who also writes excellent romances into her stories. All of the books I’ve listed above were set in a fictional world, so I’m also excited to see what she can do with a historical book.

Per the usual, my review for this book will be up Friday. But don’t wait until then to get in on the chance to win a copy of this book! This giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and will end on August 31.

Enter to win!

Serena’s Review: “Longshadow”

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Book: “Longshadow” by Olivia Atwater

Publishing Info: Orbit, August 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher!

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

Book Description: The marriageable young ladies of London are dying mysteriously, and Abigail Wilder intends to discover why. Abigail’s father, the Lord Sorcier of England, believes that a dark lord of faerie is involved – but while Abigail is willing to match her magic against Lord Longshadow, neither her father nor high society believe that she is capable of doing so.

Thankfully, Abigail is not the only one investigating the terrible events in London. Mercy, a street rat and self-taught magician, insists on joining Abigail to unravel the mystery. But while Mercy’s own magic is strange and foreboding, she may well post an even greater danger to Abigail’s heart.

Review: I’ve been having a blast this summer working my way through Atwater’s historical fantasy romances. I was so blown away by “Half a Soul,” and then the follow-up, “Ten Thousand Stitches,” was just as fun. That being the case, I wasted no time in picking up this book once my ARC arrived. And, while it probably is my least favorite of the three, it was still a solid, fun read.

Abigail has never felt a keen interest in dancing with the gentlemen at the various balls and parties she attends with her family. However, she recognizes that it holds appeal for many of the other marriable young ladies. But then those same ladies begin to mysteriously die, and Abigail discovers that while dancing may not be her thing, solving a murder mystery sure seems to be. When she teams up with self-taught magician who comes from a very different rung of society, Abigail begins to understand that she may not know herself as well as she thought.

Much of the appeal from the first two books was present again here. The writing was fun, clear, and fast moving (even if the plot was less so at times). In a word, these books have all been very “readable.” It was also a blast getting to see several of the characters from the first two books as well. I love it when authors manage to write stand alone stories but then weave in familiar faces in follow-up works. You get the returning-faces-appeal of sequels without having to forfeit a new main character and new overall story. It was nice to see these characters, but the balance was also appropriate, as it remained Abigail and Mercy’s story throughout.

However, didn’t find myself quite as attached to either of these characters as I did the ones in the first two books. I think in some ways this was just my own preference for the type of characters/romances that I most enjoy. The first book, especially, had the exact sort of romance I love. Here, while I enjoyed the uniqueness of Mercy and Abigail’s story, I didn’t find myself swept away by their romantic arc. Mercy had a few reveals later on that added to her story, but overall, she wasn’t the sort of love interest that I most enjoy.

I did like the murder mystery, overall. This definitely falls over several of my preferred genres. But again, here, I found the pacing of the story and mystery to be a bit more off than in the first two books. The story takes a decent amount of time to really get going. And by the time we get to the reveals around the mystery, it begins to highlight the fact that for the reader, the mystery was pretty much unsolvable. Again, there’s a delicate balance to be found between making a mystery so obvious that the reader immediately guesses the solution before the sleuth themselves does, and going to far the other way, where the mystery is totally unsolvable on its own.

Overall, this book delivered on much of what I expected from it: a fun story, a slow-burn romance, and a lovely balance of fantasy and history. That said, it’s probably my least favorite of the three. But fans of the first two will likely still enjoy this one and should definitely give it a go!

Rating 8: A bit slower than the first two books, but still a fun beach read that is sure to be a hit, especially for those looking for a sapphic love story in historical fiction.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Longshadow” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but, like the others, it should be on Regency Fantasy Books.

Book Club Review: “We Are Not Free”


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Read the full disclosure here.

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 “Book Bingo” where we drew reading challenges commonly found on book bingo cards from a hat and chose a book based on that.  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: “We Are Not Free” by Traci Chee

Publishing Info: HMH Books For Young Readers, September 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Bingo Prompt: A book that takes place during a war.

Book Description: “All around me, my friends are talking, joking, laughing. Outside is the camp, the barbed wire, the guard towers, the city, the country that hates us. We are not free. But we are not alone.” 

We Are Not Free, is the collective account of a tight-knit group of young Nisei, second-generation Japanese American citizens, whose lives are irrevocably changed by the mass U.S. incarcerations of World War II.

Fourteen teens who have grown up together in Japantown, San Francisco. Fourteen teens who form a community and a family, as interconnected as they are conflicted. Fourteen teens whose lives are turned upside down when over 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry are removed from their homes and forced into desolate incarceration camps. In a world that seems determined to hate them, these young Nisei must rally together as racism and injustice threaten to pull them apart.

Kate’s Thoughts

This was actually my Book Bingo prompt, and I wanted to think a little bit outside of the box when it came to picking a book that took place during a war. Partially because I’m not super interested in military themed fiction, and partially because I wanted to kind of wanted to stay away from pro-militaristic themes. It quickly occurred to me that I hadn’t yet read Traci Chee’s YA historical fiction “We Are Not Free”, a book about a number of Japanese-American teens who are incarcerated during World War II because of the United States Government’s despicable Executive Order 9066. I’ve reviewed a lot of recent novels about the Japanese American Incarceration on this blog, and found this to be the perfect opportunity. And boy, what a book, and what a great book club discussion.

Chee approaches this story through the eyes of numerous characters, each one getting their own chapter with different perspectives and sometimes writing styles, and each character engages with a different fact or theme of the Incarceration. At first I was a little daunted by the idea of so many characters, but Chee does a really good job of not only letting us get into their heads and get to know them, but also touches on so many aspects of the Incarceration this way. Instead of finding the characters to be maybe less complex due to the one chapter approach, I ended up really caring for all of them as they mention each other and as we get into their heads, allowing us to see how they are perceived by others, but also how they see themselves. They all feel very authentic in their voices, either in how they are reacting to their ordeal and their trauma, or even just in moments of them having very relatable teenage moments that go beyond the Incarceration, like teen love, or school issues, or moments of joy that can still be found in spite of everything.

But we also are able to explore a number of aspects of the Incarceration through these characters that may have been a bit overstuffed had it just been one or two. Chee skillfully tackles things like having to leave everything behind, the cultural divide between the non-Amercain (by force of the government) Issei vs their American Citizen children Nisei, the loyalty oath that was given as a choice to sign or not to sign (and why some may sign and others may not), and the experience of those who enlisted in the war to try and prove their loyalty to their country. And many more. The book doesn’t shy away from any of it, and finds the nuance and complexity in some things while being unflinchingly honest about others. It is such a valuable book in that way for anyone who wants to learn about the Incarceration, as it has relatable and enjoyable characters whom the reader will attach to, and will therein learn through. Our book club had some awesome conversations about this book, and I have no doubt that classrooms would as well.

I’m glad I finally read “We Are Not Free”, and glad that this cycle’s theme got me off my butt to finally do so. It’s highly recommended, and necessary, historical fiction.

Kate’s Review 9: Powerful, engrossing, enraging, and hopeful, “We Are Not Free” is a valuable tool to learn about the Japanese American Incarceration that is must read for those interested in the subject.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of the structure of this novel? Did you like all the different perspectives? Why or why not?
  2. When did you first learn about the Incarceration? How was it approached when you did learn about it?
  3. Chee has an author’s note about the use of modern language sensibilities in this book? What were your thoughts on this choice?
  4. Did you have a chapter you liked best or that stood out from the others? What was it about that chapter that spoke to you?
  5. What were you thoughts on the way Chee portrayed the conflict between Nisei vs Issei in how they dealt with their ordeal?
  6. Do you think this would be a useful tool to teach the Incarceration to teenagers? Why or why not?

Reader’s Advisory

“We Are Not Free” is included on the Goodreads lists “Japanese American Internment in YA & Middle Grade Fiction”, and “Surviving in the Japanese Relocation Centers of WW2”.

Next Book Club Book: “The Ten Thousand Doors of January” by Alix E. Harrow

Kate’s Review: “Mademoiselle Revolution”

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Book: “Mademoiselle Revolution” by Zoe Sivak

Publishing Info: Berkley Books, August 2022

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

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: A powerful, engrossing story of a biracial heiress who escapes to Paris when the Haitian Revolution burns across her island home. But as she works her way into the inner circle of Robespierre and his mistress, she learns that not even oceans can stop the flames of revolution.

Sylvie de Rosiers, as the daughter of a rich planter and an enslaved woman, enjoys the comforts of a lady in 1791 Saint-Domingue society. But while she was born to privilege, she was never fully accepted by island elites. After a violent rebellion begins the Haitian Revolution, Sylvie and her brother leave their family and old lives behind to flee unwittingly into another uprising–in austere and radical Paris. Sylvie quickly becomes enamored with the aims of the Revolution, as well as with the revolutionaries themselves–most notably Maximilien Robespierre and his mistress, Cornélie Duplay.

As a rising leader and abolitionist, Robespierre sees an opportunity to exploit Sylvie’s race and abandonment of her aristocratic roots as an example of his ideals, while the strong-willed Cornélie offers Sylvie safe harbor and guidance in free thought. Sylvie battles with her past complicity in a slave society and her future within this new world order as she finds herself increasingly torn between Robespierre’s ideology and Cornélie’s love.

When the Reign of Terror descends, Sylvie must decide whether to become an accomplice while a new empire rises on the bones of innocents…or risk losing her head

Review: Thank you to Berkley Books for sending me access to an eARC of this novel via NetGalley!

I remember a few years ago I was at a party that was thrown by a former work colleague, and I was sitting on the couch with my friend Scott as we played introverts and talked to each other for almost two hours as we caught up and enjoyed each other’s company. We ended up talking about the ills of society, and he made some comment about guillotines and the French Revolution, and as I sipped my mixed drink I said ‘yeah, but then you get Robespierre. I don’t want Robespierre!’ I’ve had a chip on my shoulder about Robespierre ever since we learned about the French Revolution in tenth grade. Like, what a dick! A timeless tale of someone who had good intentions but then was completely corrupted by power and then turned into a goddamn blood soaked monster in an effort to hold onto his power.

It’s a weird angry fixation I have, but it’s mine all the same. (source)

Needless to say, when I found an email from Berkley Books in my folder tempting me with “Mademoiselle Revolution”, a story about a biracial woman who fled Haiti during their Revolution only to find herself cozying up to Robespierre during the French Revolution, I was immediately on board. BRING ON THE ROBESPIERRE DISSECTION AND HOPEFULLY SLANDER!

But even better, “Mademoiselle Revolution” is a story that has a deeply resonant heart, centered by its protagonist Sylvie de Rosiers, a biracial woman who grew up in privilege due to her father’s status as a plantation owner, though her mother was one of the enslaved women he owned whom he raped and exploited. Sylvie was raised in her father’s home and treated like family, though her lineage and the color of her skin made it so she never truly belonged, even as she got to live in lavish luxury while other people who looked like her were being subjected to daily brutality and dehumanization. It is when the Haitian Revolution is at her doorstep and her family flees that Sylvie starts to grapple with the Otherness she has always dealt with, and her complicity to a system that she had the privilege to be mostly removed from. It makes for a complex and nuanced character from the jump, and it sets up to make all of her choices, once she and her loving brother Gaspard end up in Paris, make perfect sense. I really loved seeing Sylvie evolve in this story as she tries to make up for her complicity, and how she dives head first into the romanticism and justice seeking angles of the rumbling French Revolution as she gets close to Robespierre and his lover Cornélie, and how her guilt and optimism and naïveté send her into dangerous waters. Sivak tackles the racial politics and racism of the time and the cultures at hand with deftness, and shows the seeming contradictions of Sylvie’s experiences with ease and in a way that makes it very understandable. She is also that really well done main character who interacts with historical figures without feeling like it’s overdone or unrealistic. Sylvie’s role is well conceived enough that I totally bought into all of the scenarios and relationships that Sivak put her in, and that says a lot. Because Sylvie does a LOT.

I also really liked how Sivak shows that complexities of a group of true believers whose hearts start in the right place, and then become corrupted as time goes on. That’s my biggest issue with Robespierre at the end of the day; he wasn’t wrong about the corruption and the violence of the French Aristocracy. But when you start cutting the heads off of anyone you please because you THINK they may disagree with you, that’s when you become a whole other problem. And Sivak has a lot of horrifying moments in this book that really hit home how off point the message became, which led to a lot of suffering and then Napoleon friggin’ Bonaparte. There is one scene in particular that involved a severed head being put on display around town, specifically in a cafe, and used in a way that is SO dehumanizing and disgusting that it made my blood run cold. Sivak does a fantastic job of showing just how horrific the Reign of Terror, and the violence leading up to it, was, and how people like Robespierre are more than willing to exploit and use people like Sylvie to get what they want. It is intense and it makes for some very suspenseful moments, and that is why I am classifying this as a thriller as well as an historical fiction title. It’s absolutely harrowing at times, watching the walls close in on the circle of revolutionaries as they turn on each other.

I really enjoyed “Mademoiselle Revolution”. It is sure to wow fans of political thrillers and historical fiction alike. Go out and get your hands on this book!

Rating 9: Engaging, intense, and harrowing, “Mademoiselle Revolution” is a historical political thriller that explores identity, race, revolution, and the dangers of fanaticism.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Mademoiselle Revolution” is included on the Goodreads lists “Historical Fiction – The Caribbean”, and “Historical Fiction – France”.

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