Serena’s Review: “Under the Whispering Door”

Book: “Under the Whispering Door” by TJ Klune

Publishing Info: Tor Books, September 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: When a reaper comes to collect Wallace Price from his own funeral, Wallace suspects he really might be dead.

Instead of leading him directly to the afterlife, the reaper takes him to a small village. On the outskirts, off the path through the woods, tucked between mountains, is a particular tea shop, run by a man named Hugo. Hugo is the tea shop’s owner to locals and the ferryman to souls who need to cross over.

But Wallace isn’t ready to abandon the life he barely lived. With Hugo’s help he finally starts to learn about all the things he missed in life.

When the Manager, a curious and powerful being, arrives at the tea shop and gives Wallace one week to cross over, Wallace sets about living a lifetime in seven days.

Review: First off, props to the publisher for another awesome cover for one of Klune’s books. Does it subtly imply that it’s a sequel to the massively successful “House on the Cerulean Sea” with its similarities? Yes. Is it in fact that? No. However, as it’s still a neat cover in its own right, I’ll give it a pass. The fact that there are so few good standalone adult fantasy novels also supports that pass. Let’s dive in!

Young and successful, Wallace never dreamed the end could be so close. But when a reaper shows up for him, he realizes it must be so. Angry and confused, he meets Hugo, a magical being who helps ferry souls to the beyond. Soon Wallace begins to discover that the life he had thought was fulfilling had been an empty thing, bereft of all that makes life well-lived in the end. With only a few precious days remaining to him, Hugo and Wallace set out to give Wallace that last chance at discovering a true life and his true self.

There was a lot to like about this book, but it also wasn’t the high I had been expecting after enjoying Klune’s previous book so much. To begin with what did work, however, Klune’s flair for comedic moments was on point. In particular, the beginning of the story and the flames thrown towards corporate drones were hilarious and apt. As the book progressed, there were several other laugh-out-loud moments. However, as the story continued, even these sometimes began to feel a bit repetitive.

The characters were also quirky and compelling. This is largely a story of Wallace’s transformation from said corporate drone into an emotionally-realized individual, so nailing his character was key to the book working. And for the most part, this works. His interplay with Hugo is well done, and the two characters and their relationship is heartwarming.

However, as I went along, I kept wanting more. The characters were ok, but really just ok. The romance was sweet, but lacked the true heart that I was looking for. And most disappointingly, the message of the book, that of living one’s best life, felt at times trite and repetitive. There were a few times even when the moralizing fell completely flat, with Klune trotting out platitudes that have been overused many times before. Given the general set-up of the book, I knew what I was getting into. But I had hope that Klune would shine a new light on the topic. Or at least offer up some unique ways of looking at a common topic. Alas, not so.

Overall, the book was by no means bad. It just wasn’t what I had hoped to find. It’s perfectly acceptable in what it sets out to do, but knowing Klune’s previous work, I can’t help thinking he could have done better. There were parts of this book that almost felt phoned in, and the story started to drag towards the middling, struggling to keep up its pacing and momentum. Fans of Klune’s work will be pleased to see his trademark humor and strong characters, but he’s also had stronger outings in the past.

Rating 7: A bit disappointing, relying too heavily on tried and true platitudes instead of carving its own space.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Under the Whispering Door” is on these Goodreads lists: 2021 Queer SFF and 2021 Contemporary/Romance Releases.

Find “Under the Whispering Door” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “She Who Became the Sun”

Book: “She Who Became the Sun” by Shelley Parker-Chan

Publishing Info: Tor Books, July 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: “I refuse to be nothing…”

In a famine-stricken village on a dusty yellow plain, two children are given two fates. A boy, greatness. A girl, nothingness…

In 1345, China lies under harsh Mongol rule. For the starving peasants of the Central Plains, greatness is something found only in stories. When the Zhu family’s eighth-born son, Zhu Chongba, is given a fate of greatness, everyone is mystified as to how it will come to pass. The fate of nothingness received by the family’s clever and capable second daughter, on the other hand, is only as expected.

When a bandit attack orphans the two children, though, it is Zhu Chongba who succumbs to despair and dies. Desperate to escape her own fated death, the girl uses her brother’s identity to enter a monastery as a young male novice. There, propelled by her burning desire to survive, Zhu learns she is capable of doing whatever it takes, no matter how callous, to stay hidden from her fate.

After her sanctuary is destroyed for supporting the rebellion against Mongol rule, Zhu takes the chance to claim another future altogether: her brother’s abandoned greatness.

Review: This book has been extremely hyped since news of it began circulating a few months ago. Comparisons to “Mulan” and “Song of Achilles” only helped a plot that sounded dark, tragic, and full of explorations into the themes such as personhood and the tragedies of war. I don’t have a ton of knowledge of about the real historical period of time and place being referenced (1300s China), but that was just another appeal of the book. And for once, the hype seems pretty well-founded!

Zhu’s fate is one of nothing. Neither tragic nor heroic, her life is predicted to fade from thought almost as soon as it arrives. Perhaps, for an impoverished family, this fate is not so extraordinary. However, her brother’s destiny of greatness very much is. After tragedy strikes, Zhu’s own prediction comes true as she sheds her identity, leaving it behind like so much nothing, and takes up the mantle of her deceased brother. Is this truly what fate had in mind? Can she rise to the greatness that had been assigned to another identity? Or has she simply become who she was always meant to be.

I really enjoyed this book. I’m always in for books that are compared to “Mulan” and, while I haven’t read “Song of Achilles” I know that it’s well-regarded. However, now having read this book, I’d say that a better marketing campaign would have directed readers to “The Poppy War” as the best comparison. Many of the themes are similar, and the dark, grim tone of a war-focused novel is very much the same in each of these books. Like “The Poppy War,” “She Who Became the Sun” doesn’t shy away from the bleak and challenging aspects of war. Many “Mulan” stories are so focused on the heroism of the main character, that war itself fades into the background, almost only a stagnant tool used to elevate the hero into her role. Not so here. Instead, greatness is shown to be perhaps its own burden, not any easier to carry than the nothingness that Zhu left behind.

The writing was incredibly strong, and I particularly enjoyed the well-blended mix of historical China with the fantastical elements. The story also managed to not get lost under its action-packed plot, instead giving ample time to exploring its themes of identity. Zhu’ own journey of self-exploration and acceptance is very powerful. The story doesn’t simply whip out the well-trodden lines, but instead dives into a very nuanced discussion, subtly exploring the many angles involved.

It wasn’t a perfect read, however. The book starts out with only Zhu’s POV and is very much a coming-of-age story. I really enjoyed this portion of the book, which perhaps is why I found it hard to readjust halfway through when the story suddenly expands outwards and adds in other POV characters. It was definitely a gutsy call on the author’s part, as it must has been suspected that readers would be fairly invested in Zhu by that point in the story and might struggle becoming attached to others later in the game. Luckily, the writing is strong enough to largely pull it off. But I did find myself thrown out of the book for a bit and needed some extra time to re-establish myself. This, then, threw off the pacing of the story as well, overall.

I really liked this book. The writing was confident and lyrical, truly impressive from a debut author. The themes were also well-explored and Zhu was a fantastic main character. I was a bit put-off by the sudden switch from one POV to two, but I think it ultimately did help create a more nuanced look at the overall conflict.

Rating 8: While “Mulan” is an adequate comparison, I think this is a better read-alike for fans of “The Poppy War” who are looking for a darker war-focused story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“She Who Became the Sun” is on these Goodreads lists: 2021 Queer SFF and Asian Authored Books in 2021.

Find “She Who Became the Sun” at your library using WorldCat!

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!

Serena’s Review: “The Light of the Midnight Stars”

Book: “The Light of Midnight Stars” by Rena Rossner

Publishing Info: Redhook, April 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher!

Book Description: Deep in the Hungarian woods, the sacred magic of King Solomon lives on in his descendants. Gathering under the midnight stars, they pray, sing and perform small miracles – and none are more gifted than the great Rabbi Isaac and his three daughters. Each one is blessed with a unique talent – whether it be coaxing plants to grow, or predicting the future by reading the path of the stars.

When a fateful decision to help an outsider ends in an accusation of witchcraft, fire blazes through their village. Rabbi Isaac and his family are forced to flee, to abandon their magic and settle into a new way of life. But a dark fog is making its way across Europe and will, in the end, reach even those who thought they could run from it. Each of the sisters will have to make a choice – and change the future of their family forever.

Review: I really enjoyed the first book by this author I read. It was a similar tale of sisterhood, fairytale-like magic, all couched around the persecution the Jewish people have faced throughout history. On the surface, this book looks like it could be almost the exact same story, only add one more sister to the bunch. Am I complaining about that? Heck no!

Each possessed of their own natural, magical talent, three sisters have grown up performing minor miracles beneath the night skies of their forest home deep in Hungary. While wonderous and fantastical, not all view the abilities of the Solomandar sisters as signs of goodness. Instead, their faith and their practices attract dark forces to their once peaceful home. Each must contend with these evil workings intruding on their lives, and each must come to their own path forward, living in a world that is not as good as the believe it can or should be.

There are many things to like about this book. First, as I mentioned, there are a lot of similarities in themes and style of storytelling between this and the first book, so if you enjoyed that story, you probably don’t need to read much further in this review before picking this book up. But this is not a series, and this book does stand on its own with its own unique characters and arcs.

With three sisters’ stories now to tell, I was a bit concerned that I would find myself gravitating towards one more than other, thus rending large chunks of the story as less-interesting. Indeed, even with the ‘The Sisters of the Winter Wood,” I found myself becoming more invested in Liba’s story over Laya’s. Here, I think the author has improved on that and made each of the three sisters compelling in her own right. Each travelled very distinct paths and had to overcome their own specific challenges and experience their own growth. I could probably still pick a favorite if you forced it out of me, but as I don’t have to, I wont!

I also really liked the tone of this book. Last month, I wrote a post on “literary fantasy” and how hard a sub-genre that is to categorize and/or even find to read. But I think this book is a perfect example of a multi-faceted fantasy title that spans genres. Not only would I consider it a “literary fantasy” novel, but it could also be shelved under historical fantasy and fairytale fantasy. These are a lot of subgenres to balance, and I applaud the author for managing all three so well! I particularly enjoyed the intersections of historical events and the fairytale-like style of writing. The author includes an excellent note at the end detailing the various pieces of folklore she pulled from when writing this book. And it’s truly impressive how neatly she has lain these fantasy elements on top of a time and place in real history.

I continue to really enjoy books by this author. Fans of historical fiction who also enjoy a good fairytale are sure to enjoy it. The story is full of magic and wonder, all overlain across a darkly-real threat. It is sure to pull at your heartstrings.

If you’re interested in reading this book, don’t forget to check out the giveaway I’m hosting for an ARC copy!

Rating 8: Dark and beautiful, the woods and starlight feel almost real in and of themselves.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Light of the Midnight Stars” is on these Goodreads lists: Midnight and Historical Fiction 2021.

Find “The Light of the Midnight Stars” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Magic Fish”

Book: “The Magic Fish” by Trung Le Nguyen

Publishing Info: Random House Graphic, October 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Tiến loves his family and his friends…but Tiến has a secret he’s been keeping from them, and it might change everything. An amazing YA graphic novel that deals with the complexity of family and how stories can bring us together.

Real life isn’t a fairytale. But Tiến still enjoys reading his favorite stories with his parents from the books he borrows from the local library. It’s hard enough trying to communicate with your parents as a kid, but for Tiến, he doesn’t even have the right words because his parents are struggling with their English. Is there a Vietnamese word for what he’s going through?

Is there a way to tell them he’s gay?

A beautifully illustrated story by Trung Le Nguyen that follows a young boy as he tries to navigate life through fairytales, an instant classic that shows us how we are all connected. The Magic Fish tackles tough subjects in a way that accessible with readers of all ages, and teaches us that no matter what—we can all have our own happy endings.

Review: I will be the first to admit that outside of my re-read of “The Sandman”, I’ve been slacking on the graphic novels as of late. But after dropping the ball on that, I have promised myself that I will try to be better, and make an effort to get some more in the review rotation. And let me tell you, I have a good one to start with, by a local author no less! I hadn’t heard of “The Magic Fish” by Trung Le Nguyen until I saw it pop up on my Goodreads feed, and once I felt comfortable getting physical library books again after our Fall/early Winter surge I requested it. I went in with little knowledge and expectations, and was thoroughly impressed with what I found.

“The Magic Fish” has a number of themes that swirl in its pages, and all of them connect through the importance and power of stories, namely fairy tales. The plot follows Tiến, a middle school boy who is the son of Vietnamese immigrants who left Viet Nam as refugees, and who don’t speak much English. To practice mother Hiền will have Tiến check out fairy tales from the library and they will read them together. We follow Tiến as he starts to accept his sexuality, and as he wonders and worries about what his parents will think when he tells them that he’s gay. This takes place in the 1990s, and while Tiền’s friends seem to be accepting, people at school, and society at large, is not as much, which makes him feel Othered. Meanwhile, Hiền left her home in the aftermath of the Viet Nam War, and hasn’t returned to see her family in many years. She and her husband are doing their best to raise their son in Minnesota, but being away from the home he had to leave is hard, and when she does go back it’s due to a very significant loss. I liked seeing both the themes of identity and immigration being addressed in the ways that they were, through some subtle and bittersweet longings, anxiety, and hope.

And then, the fairy tales. Both Hiền and Tiền bond through and are drawn to fairy tales, which intersperse within the narrative. The first two are various takes on the “Cinderella” story, one being the German “Allerleirauh”, and the other being the Vietnamese “Tấm Cám”. Story one is shared between Hiền and Tiền at their home, while the second is one that Hiền is revisiting while she is back in Vietnam. Both interpretations and presentations play into what we’re seeing in the moment, be it Tiền hiding his true self from his mother, or Hiền being reminded that sometimes fairy tales don’t have the happily ever afters that everyone seeks. But it’s the re-telling of “The Little Mermaid” that I liked the best, another shared between Hiền and Tiền, and subverted in a way that shows that we tell our own stories, and that we get to choose how they end. It’s all so seamless and lovely, and I greatly enjoyed it.

And the artwork. THE ARTWORK. Different stories have different designs, and again, they tie into what is going on in the moment on the surface and beneath it. For example, the three fairy tales all had different aesthetic designs for the art styles (my personal favorite was “Tấm Cám”, influenced by a 1950s Viet Nam French Colonial style), while moments in reality may have different colors depending on time and place. It always works, and all of it is beautiful.

“The Magic Fish” is a charming story that reads and feels like a modern fairy tale. I highly recommend that you read it if you love graphic novels.

Rating 8: A lovely coming of age story with magical moments and gorgeous artwork, “The Magic Fish” is a joyful and emotional tale of family and the power of stories.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Magic Fish” is included on the Goodreads lists “Queer Graphic Novels”, and “Comic Book Club Recommendations”.

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

Serena’s Review: “A Desolation Called Peace”

Book: “A Desolation Called Peace” by Arkady Martine

Publishing Info: Tor Books, March 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher and Edelweiss+!

Book Description: An alien armada lurks on the edges of Teixcalaanli space. No one can communicate with it, no one can destroy it, and Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is running out of options.

In a desperate attempt at diplomacy with the mysterious invaders, the fleet captain has sent for a diplomatic envoy. Now Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass—still reeling from the recent upheaval in the Empire—face the impossible task of trying to communicate with a hostile entity.

Whether they succeed or fail could change the fate of Teixcalaan forever.

Previously Reviewed: “A Memory Called Empire”

Review: I made the mistake of waiting over a year after “A Memory Called Empire” was published before reading it. Not this time! The second I saw the sequel pop up on Edelweiss I requested it. And then I had to diligently wait to read it so that I could cover more recent books in a timely fashion. That took some self-control, let me tell you. But the time finally came, and the payoff was definitely worth it! I think I may have enjoyed this book even more than the first.

The war that Mahit started to save her station has begun. Back home at Lsel Station, however, she thinks her part in this story is over, even with the reminder of what she’s done flying past in the form of Teixcalaan war ships. But soon enough, she’s called back into action. Three Seagrass arrives with a request: join her in making first contact with these strange aliens. With no coherent language and the mysterious ability to appear suddenly, these creatures are nothing like the Teixcalaan Empire has faced before. Maybe a barbarian is the only one who will understand them?

In the way of good second novels, “A Desolation Called Peace” is bigger than “A Memory Called Empire” in pretty much every way. Not only does the story expand outwards from the single city/planet that it was localize within in the first book, but the narrative itself expands to encompass not only Mahit’s storyline, but also Three Seagrass’s and several other new (and familiar) characters. These efforts to broaden the scope of the story result in an expansion that feels leaps and bounds ahead of the first book. And this is particularly impressive given how detailed and precise the world-building was there, already.

The culture, language, history, etc., of Teixcalaan felt fully realized in all of the little ways one doesn’t think about but that stand-out when you really step back to appreciate an author’s work. From its emphasis on poetry and literature in its speech and protocol, to the cloudhook technology that seems a natural extension from where our own smartphones are headed. And here, Martine takes that strong foundation, and blows it up to add not only a more detailed look at Mahit’s home, Lsel Station, but adds in an entire new species/culture of the aliens our main characters are interacting with. All while still exploring the ins and outs of the Empire itself, with a closer look at the different religions within it and at the inner workings (both technological and political) of Teixcalaan’s powerful military. Frankly, it’s incredible.

The expansion of character POVs was also really impactful. I loved Mahit in the first book, but in this one, she was probably the least interesting character. Now, don’t read that wrong! I still loved her and her arc, it’s more to say that the additional characters were just that interesting that the more familiar Mahit faded a bit into the background in comparison. I particularly enjoyed getting to see into Three Seagrass’s mind. She was a huge character in the first book, so getting to see finally through her eyes was amazing. Beyond her own interesting story, I was particularly impressed by the duel views that Mahit and Three Seagrass brought to similar issues. Three Seagrass is clearly not a malicious character, but being in her head was a great opportunity to witness a character recognizing and confronting their own privilege and biases.

Beyond Three Seagrass, we also had chapters from the leader of the military front, a powerful, female general, and from Three Antidote, the young partial clone of the previous emperor who we met in the first book. I won’t go into much regarding either of their stories as there are some spoilers there, but, needless to say at this point, I really loved them both. Perhaps, particularly, Three Antidote’s chapters were impressive for how well they capture the thinking of a young boy approaching maturity but still a child at heart. With all the complicated, fleshed out adults, it can be hard to write a compelling child character alongside them, but Martine perfectly captured the thinking and actions of a kid in Three Antidote’s unique position. Again, incredible.

I also really loved the twisty way the story unfurled, with pieces that you didn’t even realize were pieces falling together in the end to resolve many mysteries all at once and illuminate themes you thought were only brought up as passing anecdotes. This review is already long, but if I let myself, I could probably go on and on. Fans of the first book are sure to love this one, too, and any sci-fi reader who hasn’t jumped on board this train, really needs to!

Rating 10: A masterpiece of a space opera! All the more impressive for expanding so effortlessly from the highs of the first novel.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Desolation Called Peace” is on these Goodreads lists: Adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2021 and 2020/21 Space Opera.

Find “A Desolation Called Peace” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “She’s Too Pretty To Burn”

Book: “She’s Too Pretty To Burn” by Wendy Heard

Publishing Info: Henry Holt & Co. (BYR), March 2021

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

Book Description: An electric romance set against a rebel art scene sparks lethal danger for two girls in this expertly plotted YA thriller. For fans of E. Lockhart, Lauren Oliver and Kara Thomas.

The summer is winding down in San Diego. Veronica is bored, caustically charismatic, and uninspired in her photography. Nico is insatiable, subversive, and obsessed with chaotic performance art. They’re artists first, best friends second. But that was before Mick. Delicate, lonely, magnetic Mick: the perfect subject, and Veronica’s dream girl. The days are long and hot―full of adventure―and soon they are falling in love. Falling so hard, they never imagine what comes next. One fire. Two murders. Three drowning bodies. One suspect . . . one stalker. This is a summer they won’t survive.

Inspired by The Picture of Dorian Gray, this sexy psychological thriller explores the intersections of love, art, danger, and power.

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

While I have a vague working knowledge of the main themes of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde thanks to pop culture, I haven’t actually read the book, nor have I seen any source material stringent adaptations. I figure I should probably get on that at some point, but man, the To Be Read pile is so big that it just keeps falling by the wayside. That didn’t stop me, however, from being totally interested in “She’s Too Pretty to Burn” by Wendy Heard when I read the description. Sure, the “Dorian Gray” adaptation is already kind of a tantalizing detail, but when you throw in teenage girls, sapphic romance, AND what sounds like a “Velvet Buzzsaw”-esque pretentious art scene/bloodbath? Baby, you got a stew going.

This movie is a mess, but it’s a mess that I couldn’t stop watching. (source)

“She’s Too Pretty To Burn” has two perspectives. The first is Mick, a shy, awkward, friendless teenage girl who lives with her narcissistic mother. Her self esteem is low and she hates having any attention on her. The second is Veronica, a budding photographer from a privileged home who has dreams of art school after high school, and who pals around with Nico, a passionate political performance artist who is always on the edge with his art. After Mick and Veronica meet at a party, their connection is immediately forged in passion as well as boundary treading, in that Veronica takes Mick’s picture without her knowing. This, of course, sets off a disturbing and highly readable chain of events. I liked having both Mick’s and Veronica’s perspectives, as I feel like we got a really good sense for both their passions, their hopes, and their insecurities, as well as how they both are deeply into each other, but know how to hurt each other. There were moments where I loved each of them, and moments where I would get so mad at each of them, but I was wholly invested in them, their relationship, and their fates. I also really enjoyed how Heard explored their differing levels of privilege, be it based on race, class, home life, what have you, showing that while Mick may have the upper hand in one way, Veronica may have it in another, and neither of them can see past their own issues to REALLY understand how their varying advantages manifest. Nico is a bit of a wild card in all of this at first glance, until he starts to manipulate both girls in different ways to suit his own purposes, and as that slow burn threw in a whole other dynamic to this story, I went from hooked to lined and sunk as well (does this metaphor work? I don’t care, I was all in is what I’m saying).

The plot, which I’m going to keep a little vague, is a slow build of suspense and dread as to what is going to happen. The unease is apparent from the get go, but you aren’t totally certain as to why you feel that way. Is it because of Mick’s unease with everything around her? Is it because of Veronica’s obsession with that photo she took of Mick and what it drives her to do? Is it the two of them, is it something else? Since I haven’t read “Dorian Gray” I can’t tell you as to how well it fits the narrative of that story, or how it reinterprets those themes, but what I can tell you is that this book is just off and unnerving enough that you will be on edge even before things really start to go south for all of our characters. And then when it does go that way, the tension is massive. At least it was for me. I was ripping through the final chapters, nearly breathless as I waited to see what was going to happen. I don’t know what it was about this book, but it really laid its talons in my brain and I am still shaken up. The only reason that this didn’t get a ten out of ten is because I felt like it went a LITTLE long by the end, extending past the climactic events and laying a little last minute groundwork that I don’t think was fully explored. That said, if it was laying groundwork for a potential sequel? I would be chomping at the bit to see what happens next.

“She’s Too Pretty to Burn” is going to be on my mind for awhile. Deeply disturbing but compelling as hell. Definitely check this out if you like YA thrillers, or even just thrillers in general.

Rating 9: A twisted and unnerving thriller that had me hooked almost immediately.

Reader’s Advisory:

“She’s Too Pretty to Burn” is included on the Goodreads lists “2021 Sapphic Releases”, and “Dorian Gray”.

Find “She’s Too Pretty to Burn” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Flamer”

Book: “Flamer” by Mike Curato

Publishing Info: Henry Holt and Co. BYR-Paperbacks, September 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Award-winning author and artist Mike Curato draws on his own experiences in Flamer, his debut graphic novel, telling a difficult story with humor, compassion, and love.

I know I’m not gay. Gay boys like other boys. I hate boys. They’re mean, and scary, and they’re always destroying something or saying something dumb or both.

I hate that word. Gay. It makes me feel . . . unsafe.

It’s the summer between middle school and high school, and Aiden Navarro is away at camp. Everyone’s going through changes—but for Aiden, the stakes feel higher. As he navigates friendships, deals with bullies, and spends time with Elias (a boy he can’t stop thinking about), he finds himself on a path of self-discovery and acceptance.

Review: I never did the whole summer camp thing as a kid. As far as I got was the YMCA Day camp program, but I was such an anxious kid with separation anxiety issues like whoa, overnight sleep away camp was NEVER going to work. I do feel like I missed something, especially since my sister did do one and really enjoyed it. So I do like reading stories that take place at summer camp. I stumbled upon “Flamer” by Mike Curato on Goodreads, and the themes sounded very much in my wheelhouse.

In some ways, “Flamer” feels a bit like the graphic memoir “Honor Girl” in that it has a teenager at camp struggling with their sexuality in the mid 90s. But for me the difference is that Aiden, our main character and fictionalized portrayal of Curato, has a lot more self loathing and and a lot more fear about his sexuality. Aiden is an outsider already, in that he’s bi-racial, he’s on the chubbier side, and he’s an easy target at his middle school, as well as for his emotionally abusive father. So while he has usually felt like he fits in at Scout Camp, his burgeoning sexuality starts to drive his anxiety up, especially as the micro aggressions and flat out bigotry of the time start to become more and more apparent. The story is mostly the last week at Scout Camp, as his safe space starts to feel less safe, and he moves towards an unknown future of high school and self discovery. Curato doesn’t shy away from the ugliness that Aiden has to deal with, be it because of his heritage, because of how he presents as more femme than his fellow Scouts, and how these stresses and the bullying is taking a toll on him and driving him to dark places. Aiden could be a mirror for many kids who are dealing with their own identity discoveries, and how the world around them can make those discoveries hard. The cruelty isn’t limited to fellow Scouts, but also pops up with Leaders who seem supportive, but have their own prejudices that they are harboring and that aren’t as hidden as they may think.

There is also a prevalent theme about Aiden’s Catholic Faith, and how he has always been drawn to certain aspects of the religion and the rituals. I know VERY little about Catholicism, but I thought that Curato really evoked the appreciation that Aiden has, from being an Alter Boy to having a favorite Saint that he relates to, to the struggles he has with his sexuality because of what he believes his religion says about LGBTQIA people. It’s a really fine line that Curato walks in that he definitely condemns the bigotry of those who may practice the religion, but never points fingers at the religion itself, nor does he say that the religion is ‘bad’ in this situation. I think that it would be easy to either condemn the religion as a whole, or to let it and all of its adherents off. but Curato finds a balance in the middle, and it works very well, and makes some of the moments near the end of the story all the more heartbreaking and powerful.

Along with those aspects, Curato also has a great author’s note in the back, as well as a list of resources for kids who may be dealign with the same things that Aiden is dealing with. I love it when books do this, and it feels like a really great resource to have in this story in particular.

And finally, the art work. LOVED it. It’s black and white, but there are splashes of color, specifically those of reds, oranges, and yellows. All of those work for passion, for fire, for anger, for love, and it makes the moments they are used pop and all the more powerful.

“Flamer” is a bittersweet and hopeful graphic novel that I hope people get in kids hands. You never know who is going to need a story like this.

Rating 8: Evocative, emotional, and necessary reading, “Flamer” is a touching and hopeful story about learning to love and accept yourself.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Flamer” is included on the Goodreads lists “Summer Camp Teens”, and “Guides and Scouts”.

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

Kate’s Review: “Surrender Your Sons”

45154800Book: “Surrender Your Sons” by Adam Sass

Publishing Info: Flux, September 2020

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

Book Description: Connor Major’s summer break is turning into a nightmare.

His SAT scores bombed, the old man he delivers meals to died, and when he came out to his religious zealot mother, she had him kidnapped and shipped off to a secluded island. His final destination: Nightlight Ministries, a conversion therapy camp that will be his new home until he “changes.”

But Connor’s troubles are only beginning. At Nightlight, everyone has something to hide from the campers to the “converted” staff and cagey camp director, and it quickly becomes clear that no one is safe. Connor plans to escape and bring the other kidnapped teens with him. But first, he’s exposing the camp’s horrible truths for what they are— and taking this place down. 

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

Let’s give some high praise to the 1990s cult lesbian dramedy “But I’m a Cheerleader” starring literal goddess on Earth Natasha Lyonne. Natasha plays Megan, a naive cheerleader who is sent to a conversion therapy camp because her parents are convinced she’s gay. There the very idea of conversion therapy is lampooned and satirized, and Lyonne is able to discover and accept herself, as well as her eventual love for camp bad girl Graham (played by 90s Goth Queen Clea Duvall). It’s great. It’s very 1990s. It has RuPaul as a counselor. It’s witty and big hearted. It makes fun of conversion therapy and how ridiculous the concept is, and hits that point home hard.

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(source)

But I do think that one aspect that gets a little lost in this movie is just how truly horrifying and evil conversion therapy is. Children are traumatized, abused, and tortured because of their sexuality and/or gender identity, and parents willingly send their children to this kind of treatment that can be incredibly damaging. “Surrender Your Sons” by Adam Sass sends conversion therapy to another extreme (though honestly, probably not too unrealistic), and produces both a rightfully horrifying story…. as well as, ultimately, an uplifting one at its heart.

Adam Sass starts this book off with a content warning and contextualization of the content in this book, noting that while it very much is a story of queer pain, he isn’t promoting that kind of thing and is trying to handle it as best he can. Normally these kinds of spoon fed disclaimers rub me the wrong way, as I think that a work should speak for itself and a reader should have their own interpretations, but in the case of “Surrender Your Sons” I think that it’s probably a good idea. The “Bury Your Gays” trope is damaging and all too present, and this book could absolutely be triggering for the intended audience. But heavy and upsetting content is necessary in this tale as our protagonist, Connor Major, is kidnapped and taken to a conversion therapy camp in the Costa Rican jungle. The things that Connor and his ‘campmates’ go through are horrifying, ranging from physical abuse to mental abuse to emotional abuse, it really runs the gamut, and it is a VERY hard and emotional read. It really needs to be hit home that conversion therapy is torture, plain and simple. Connor is a very relatable, realistic, and in some ways incredibly funny main character, and his sharp wit helps make this story a little easier to handle in its unflinching portrayals of conversion therapy. I really loved Connor’s voice, and I also liked how Sass slowly built him up and fleshed him out as his life is thrown into turmoil. It never felt unrealistic or unearned, and his voice still felt true to him as he evolved. I also really appreciated that Sass points out that the act of ‘coming out’ is still very dangerous for some people. Connor is pressured to come out to his religious zealot of a mother by his boyfriend Ario, who says that coming out will set him free. I do think that there is a well intentioned belief that coming out means that you get to speak your truth, and that that in itself is the best thing that you can do for your own happiness. For some people that’s absolutely true. But for people like Connor, coming out puts a target on one’s back, and Sass did a really good job of bringing up how complicated it can be.

And with these themes we also get a well plotted and interesting mystery thriller! Connor soon discovers that the recently deceased man he was doing Meals on Wheels for, Ricky, has a connection to the Nightlight program, and to it’s leader, The Reverend. It never feels like this mystery is tossed in for good measure, as Sass lays out the clues in a deliberate and careful way. As Connor and his fellow campers begin to investigate, the stakes get higher and higher, and they may need to start plotting a revolt and escape not just because they are being tortured for their sexualities and gender identities, but because they may now know too much. Mixed in with the mystery are the backstories of some of the higher ups at the camp, and how some of them were campers there at one point, which therein leads to the very sad reality that sometimes people who suffer from trauma and abuse end up abusing and traumatizing others later in life. Sass is sure to never excuse the actions of these characters, he does grant them a little bit of empathy, and hammers the point that conversion therapy is truly horrendous because of many unforeseen consequences and outcomes even beyond the violent and abusive root of it.

“Surrender Your Sons” is by no means an easy read, but I think that it’s one that brings up very important conversations. After all, conversion therapy, while perhaps falling out of favor, is still legal in many states in the U.S. Hopefully the more light that is shed on the practice, the more states will ban it until it’s no longer legal anywhere.

Rating 8: An emotionally gut wrenching and suspenseful thriller, “Surrender Your Sons” explores the evils of conversion therapy, the dark side of families when they don’t accept their children for being themselves, and the strength we sometimes have to find within ourselves.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Surrender Your Sons” is included on the Goodreads lists “Queer Fiction Set on an Island”, and “2020 YA Books with LGBT Themes”.

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

Serena’s Review: “Girl, Serpent, Thorn”

51182650._sx318_sy475_Book: “Girl, Serpent, Thorn” by Melissa Bashardoust

Publishing Info: Flatiron Books, July 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley!

Book Description: There was and there was not, as all stories begin, a princess cursed to be poisonous to the touch. But for Soraya, who has lived her life hidden away, apart from her family, safe only in her gardens, it’s not just a story.

As the day of her twin brother’s wedding approaches, Soraya must decide if she’s willing to step outside of the shadows for the first time. Below in the dungeon is a demon who holds knowledge that she craves, the answer to her freedom. And above is a young man who isn’t afraid of her, whose eyes linger not with fear, but with an understanding of who she is beneath the poison.

Soraya thought she knew her place in the world, but when her choices lead to consequences she never imagined, she begins to question who she is and who she is becoming…human or demon. Princess or monster.

Review: Here was another book I requested based mostly on cover lust. But the description itself, particularly the original fairytale-ness of it all, was another sure a attraction. It’s also yet another book that seems to feature siblings, though this one is only from Soraya’s POV, which is a nice change of pace in my reading lately. The story took a few twists and turns that I wasn’t expecting, but most of them turned out for the good, and I enjoyed this read!

Soraya is a forgotten princess. With a power that kills at her touch, she’s spent her life sequestered in shadows, separated from her family, friends, and people. She’s spent her life watching her brother pass all of the milestones that she herself has missed out on. And now it is coming to a head with his marriage to a lost friend from Soraya’s childhood. In unexpected places she begins to find new allies and new pathways, opening doors that she never dreamed possible. Some of them lead into the light, and some further into the dark. Which will she choose?

I ended up really enjoying this book. It was an original fairytale, something I always love, and it took a few unexpected twists and turns as it was told. On top of all of that, it’s a standalone novel. One small criticims there, however, was the story did feel like it had to distinctive arcs that may have been better suited to their own books, making the story into a duology. But even typing that feels wrong as I love standalone books so much and they’re hard to find! It’s kind of a mixed bag thing, here, I guess. The two storylines work well enough, and I don’t feel like either was truly lacking much. Just that as a complete work, it did feel oddly balanced with the first half telling one tale and the second another.

I really liked Soraya herself. She had a great narrative voice, and she was easy to become immediately invested in. This was important as the book took a twist down an antihero path that I hadn’t seen coming from the book description. Looking back now, yeah, it’s kind of there. But it was another nice surprise for me when going through this book. It’s always tough to sell a true antihero story, as often your main character is doing some pretty questionable things and walking a very narrow line. This made the likablity of Soraya’s character incredibly important. It was easy to understand her struggles and even some of her more questionable decisions, especially in the context of the life she had lived prior to this story.

Another surprise for me was that Soraya was a bisexual and the main romance ends up being a f/f one. For the book itself and its story, I really enjoyed this romance. I’ve read a bunch of f/f/ stories recently, and really liked them! Just last week, I reviewed a book by Django Wexler who is known for almost always giving his heroine a female love interest. My problem with it being a surprise here isn’t the book’s fault. It’s the marketing.

Looking over the book description, it’s clear that it’s intentionally deflecting away from using gendered pronouns in places, and then goes out of its way to place interest on the male love interest. The male love interest is a thing, so that’s fine. But there should be mention, clearly, of the female option. I really dislike these type of marketing techniques. It seems clear that its done out of mistrust of one’s audience, and that’s never going to work. Either your reader is game for a f/f romance, in which case readers like me would like to know ahead of time what to expect without having to delve into Goodreads reviews to get basic information like this. Or your reader is not down and once it becomes clear that you tried to hoodwink them with your marketing, they’ll put the book down. It’s bad faith marketing, and we need to get past this.

Overall, I really liked this book. If you’re looking for an original fairytale story with a morally grey main character, this is definitely the book for you!

Rating 8: A great standalone fantasy novel featuring an interesting anti-heroine!

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Girl, Serpent, Thorn” is on these Goodreads lists: “2020 YA LGBT+ Sci-Fi/Fantasy” and “Magical Realism.”

Find “Girl, Serpent, Thorn” at your library using WorldCat!