Kate’s Review: “Assignment”

42956158Book: “Assignment” by Angela Howes

Publishing Info: Fine Tuned Editing, December 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The author provided me with a PDF copy.

Book Description: In a city divided between the workers who keep the economy going and the families who bolster the population, eighteen-year-old graduate Phoebe Ray is assigned to a solitary life as a newspaper delivery girl, forbidden from marrying, seeing her family more than twice a year, or ever having children.

But when childhood flame Noah and charming neighbor Sky enter the picture, Phoebe must decide whether a chance at love is worth risking imprisonment, banishment from society, and ultimately, death. And when a city-wide strike breaks out leaving everyone vulnerable, Phoebe has an even greater decision to make.

Should she turn her back on the fight to save her friends and family, or is it finally time to make a stand?

Review: First I want to extend a special thank you to Angela Howes for reaching out and sending me a copy of this book!

For better or for worse, my extensive list of not-so-guilty-reading-pleasures includes dystopic YA fiction. While I admittedly haven’t read the entire gamut, I’m always looking out for new titles. So when Angela Howes approached us and asked if we would be interesting in reading and featuring her book “Assignment” on the blog, I jumped at the chance.

The premise of “Assignment” is a fairly familiar one. A teenage girl named Phoebe lives in a society where people can be assigned to two facets of the community: you can be a One, who works and creates and keeps society and the economy going, or a Two, who doesn’t work but marries and reproduces to bolster the population. But what I liked about “Assignment” was that while the set up is familiar, I enjoyed the path that was taken for most of the narrative. Phoebe, who didn’t expect/ want to end up as a One, has to learn to adjust to a life she never saw coming. While you get the sense that things aren’t right in Cerenia, with the hints of corruption and strict, oppressive rules, most of this book is watching Phoebe start to find self-actualization, and how that eventually puts her in a place where she starts asking questions. I liked seeing her work her way up in her career, seeing her learn to take care of herself, and liked seeing her have to interact with people she wouldn’t necessarily interact with. Watching her character change and grow was a real fun treat, and I really liked how her path took her and where she ended up. Seeing the world she was in grow around her as the story went on was also enjoyable. The focus right now in the books is building the world, and I felt like we got a really good sense of why Cerenia has become the society that it is, and in turn how conflicts are handled within the society because of its core ethos. This is seen in a couple of ways. The first is the ‘strike’ that the Ones partake in, and how Phoebe and her fellow Ones become targets of violence, intimidation, and raids. This was a creative plot device, and it not only made the suspense fly high, it also laid out the stakes. But the second is far more personal to Phoebe, as her brother Milo became a One before she did, and now she’s having a hard time getting a hold of him. The question of where her brother is, and what it means that he’s seemingly disappeared, is every present and effective.

That said, there is one big trap that “Assignment” falls into, and this is perhaps based more in personal preference than anything else. We have The Love Triangle, a trope that I cannot stand. Our two players are pretty typical in their roles. There’s Noah, the boy that Phoebe has known since childhood and whom she has loved for a long time. They assumed they would both be Twos and get married and have a family. But since Ones and Twos cannot fraternize, their love in a star crossed one. The other is Sky, a One that Phoebe meets at the assignment ceremony and ends up being her neighbor. Noah is sweet and loyal, whereas Sky is cocky with a heart of gold. I’m just going to put out there I am Team Sky, because Noah not only has a lady friend named Darya he’s been matched up with who is super sweet and understanding, but he is a complete coward who wants to have his cake and eat it too. In this case, that means shacking up with Darya and fulfilling his responsibility with her, but sneaking around with Phoebe when she drops off his newspaper every day. PHOEBE, YOU CAN DO BETTER. I liked Sky because while he did checkbox a number of familiar bad boy tropes, I DID appreciate that he respected Phoebe’s wants and needs, so when she just wanted to be friends, he was satisfied with that. It’s a healthier love triangle moment to be sure. But it’s still going strong by the end of the book. On top of that, we get a very HUGE cliffhanger right at the end. I can handle a cliffhanger ending if it ends with ambiguity, but when it’s a smash cut in the middle of a scene or conversation, that’s a choice I don’t particularly care for.

Those qualms aside, I enjoyed “Assignment”! I will definitely be looking out for the next book in the series, because Phoebe has me fully invested at this point. Fans of dystopia romance should give it a whirl!

Rating 7: While love triangles aren’t my cup of tea and cliffhangers rankle me, “Assignment” was an addictive dystopia with some sound and well done world building, and likable characters!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Assignment” isn’t included on any Goodreads lists, but if you like books like “Divergent”, “Matched”, or “The Testing” you will probably find this one fun as well!

“Assignment” isn’t in very many libraries as of now, but you can find it in WorldCat, and on Amazon.

Book Club Review: “Sky in the Deep”

34726469We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is ‘genre mash-ups’, where we pick two random genres and try to find a book that fits both. 

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: “Sky in the Deep” by Adrienne Young

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, April 2018

Where Did We Get This Book: Kate got it from the library,

Genre Mash-Up: Fantasy and Romance

Book Description: Raised to be a warrior, seventeen-year-old Eelyn fights alongside her Aska clansmen in an ancient rivalry against the Riki clan. Her life is brutal but simple: fight and survive. Until the day she sees the impossible on the battlefield—her brother, fighting with the enemy—the brother she watched die five years ago.

Faced with her brother’s betrayal, she must survive the winter in the mountains with the Riki, in a village where every neighbor is an enemy, every battle scar possibly one she delivered. But when the Riki village is raided by a ruthless clan thought to be a legend, Eelyn is even more desperate to get back to her beloved family.

She is given no choice but to trust Fiske, her brother’s friend, who sees her as a threat. They must do the impossible: unite the clans to fight together, or risk being slaughtered one by one. Driven by a love for her clan and her growing love for Fiske, Eelyn must confront her own definition of loyalty and family while daring to put her faith in the people she’s spent her life hating.

Kate’s Thoughts

I went into this book with hesitance, if only because it’s described as ‘fantasy’ and you all know how I am about fantasy books. I had remembered that Serena had read it and enjoyed it, and I do have to admit that the idea of Viking based mythology was a tantalizing thought. Still, I was nervous. But it turned out that I had nothing to be nervous about, because “Sky in the Deep” ended up being a really fun read for me!

The greatest appeal of this book was Eelyn, as not only is she a fierce and strong warrior, she is also a complex character who is still a relatable teenage girl. She loves her family and she is very set in her beliefs, and when her belief system is questioned she has to reconcile that life isn’t as black and white and straightforward as she previously thought. But even in the face of these changes to her opinions and realizations of nuance, she still remained true to her self, and it didn’t feel like she strayed from her character in ways that seemed unbelievable. I also really enjoyed seeing how she had to relearn about, and learn to forgive, her brother Iri after his perceived betrayal. I felt that while her relationship and eventual romance with Fiske was an interesting dynamic, I was more invested in whether or not Eelyn would be able to reconcile with Iri.

The world that Young built also kept me interested in the story. I have very little working knowledge of Viking lore and history, so I went into this with little to no expectations. This worked in my favor in two ways: one, I had no idea of anything stood out as ‘inaccurate’ (though as a fantasy that doesn’t necessarily need to enter into it), and it was still exciting enough that it  kept me going. I liked the world building and the explanations of the different cultures and how they were similar and dissimilar, and felt like they were distinct from each other. The action sequences and conflicts were also very well written, and I found myself on the edge of my seat with worry for all the characters I liked. Investment in characters is always a huge plus!

“Sky in the Deep” was a really fun read and a great exception to my usual lukewarm feelings towards fantasy. It makes me feel like people who may not like fantasy will find things to like here!

Serena’s Thoughts

I was excited when I heard that this book was chosen for one of our bookclub picks. Yes, I had already read it, but I had liked it the first go around and was more than happy to revisit it. On a second read-through, my feelings remain pretty much the same. The short and sweet of it: I liked the main character quite a lot, the story could be predictable at times, but the awesome action and subdued romance all hit the right marks for me.

Again, this re-read, the thing that really stood out to me was just how badass Eelyn is. This book is the epitome of showing and not telling as far as warrior skills go. All too often, readers are simply informed that the main character is “such and such incredible fighter” but we either never see it in action, or only get a brief glimpse. This could partly be due to the fact that writing good fight/battle scenes simply isn’t as easy as one would think. But Young rises to the challenge and again and again we see Eelyn’s abilities on display, both in larger battles scenes (like the ones at the beginning of the book) to the smaller skirmishes that Eelyn gets in throughout the story. What’s more, we’re free from having to read through any moral hand-wringing about all of this violence. This is the culture and world that Eelyn has grown up in. It’s brutal and bloody and it simply never occurs to her to question her own role in taking part in this. Through a modern lens, we can have our questions. But through a realistic portrayal of a character living in this world, she wouldn’t have these same thoughts.

Beyond this, one thing that did stand out more for me this re-read was just how beautiful some of the turns of phrase were. Much of the book is action, but there are a few quieter moments throughout the story that are really quite gorgeous, either in the depth of the reflections taking place (especially Eelyn’s struggles to understand her brother and his choices) or simple descriptions of a winter-y scene. The title of the book draws from one of these moments. I think these quieter moments really worked well to balance out what was otherwise a very fast-paced story.

Obviously, re-reading this, I knew what was coming when, so my original criticism of its being a bit predictable is harder to evaluate a second go-around. I do think that that thought remains true, however. Much of this probably has to do with the length of the book. It’s a standalone (yay!), but it also doesn’t have a terribly long page count on its own. Within these restrictions, plot points need to be gotten through fairly efficiently, and the manner in which this is accomplished is, yes, fairly predictable to readers familiar with this type of story.

Overall, however, I still very much enjoyed this book, and it’s definitely one worth checking out if you’re looking for a standalone story that mixes fantasy, history, and romance in an action-packed book.

Kate Rating 8: An action packed adventure with a compelling set of characters and distinct world building, “Sky in the Deep” was a fun surprise!

Serena Rating 8: I’m going to actually up my rating a point after this re-read. I think the strength of the writing as a whole stood out even more this go-around, and it deserves that edge up.

Book Club Questions

  1. This story mixes several different genres all together: fantasy, historical fiction, romance. Did one of these areas standout for you?
  2. Eelyn must grapple with a lot of prejudices and preconceptions in this book. How well do you think her growth in this area was handled?
  3. There are two primary relationships at the heart of this story: Eelyn and her brother, Iri, and Eelyn and Fiske? Were you more invested in one or the other and why?
  4. The book covers a host of dark themes and can be quite violent at times. What did you think about how these aspects of the story were handled?
  5. The story also focuses a lot on found families. Were there any notable elements in this area that stood out for you?

Reader’s Advisory

“Sky in the Deep” is on these Goodreads lists: “YA Vikings” and “YA Fantasy Standalones.”

Find “Sky in the Deep” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Radiance”

24473763Book: “Radiance” by Grace Draven

Publication Info: self-published, January 2015

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: THE PRINCE OF NO VALUE

Brishen Khaskem, prince of the Kai, has lived content as the nonessential spare heir to a throne secured many times over. A trade and political alliance between the human kingdom of Gaur and the Kai kingdom of Bast-Haradis requires that he marry a Gauri woman to seal the treaty. Always a dutiful son, Brishen agrees to the marriage and discovers his bride is as ugly as he expected and more beautiful than he could have imagined.

THE NOBLEWOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE

Ildiko, niece of the Gauri king, has always known her only worth to the royal family lay in a strategic marriage. Resigned to her fate, she is horrified to learn that her intended groom isn’t just a foreign aristocrat but the younger prince of a people neither familiar nor human. Bound to her new husband, Ildiko will leave behind all she’s known to embrace a man shrouded in darkness but with a soul forged by light.

Two people brought together by the trappings of duty and politics will discover they are destined for each other, even as the powers of a hostile kingdom scheme to tear them apart.

Review: This book showed up on some list or another that focused on lesser know romantic fantasy stories. I had already read many of them but was intrigued by the list author’s description of this one which focused on the incredibly positive romantic pairing at the heart of the story. All too often with romance novels, I find myself having to hold back my eyerolls or intentionally speed read through sections where one member of the central pairing (or both) is exhibiting behaviors that are pretty unhealthy and sometimes border on abusive. It’s one of the main reasons that I tend to avoid books where romance is too much of the focal point at the heart of the story. But since its healthy romance was at the heart of the list author’s reason for including “Radiance,” I thought that this one was worth giving a shot!

Brishen and Ildiko come from to very different races. Ildiko is a human, born to live during the day. Brishen is a Kai, a human-like being who lives at night, possesses certain magical powers, and looks terrifying to most humans with his dark skin, white eyes, and sharp teeth. Unlike the book description above would imply, both know they are destined for a marriage that would align their people and have resigned themselves to this fate. Together, they face the challenges of skepticism from their own people who resist seeing a bond such as theirs and threats of violence from outside nations who feel threaten by the increased tie between human kind and the Kai.

It was difficult to write even that short synopsis above because this book is definitely a character-driven story. There is a story arc, but it is one that is only sprinkled in here and there and comes into play only at the very end of the book. Instead, most of the story is devoted solely to getting to know Ildiko and Brishen and portraying their blessedly realistic (and devoid of instalove!) relationship.

Through them, we get some interesting world-building. Ildiko’s people seem to be standard humans. We don’t spend much time in her world, however, as the story quickly shifts to the land of the Kai, as Ildiko and Brishen travel their to establish their home. I really enjoyed the descriptions of Kai culture, their dress, food, and lifestyle. It was all very different from humanity, but also struck closely enough that a marriage between the two peoples still makes sense.

Some of the more intriguing portions of these descriptions, the cultural norms and the physical appearance of each race, came from the blunt evaluations offered up by Brishen and Ildiko. In the very first few chapters, they establish a strong, trust-based style of communication that allows them to express their bewilderment and sometimes fear at the other’s way of life and looks. See, right off the bat, healthy relationship norms! Communication, it will do wonders! These descriptions and conversations also highlight the witty dialogue that makes up much of the book and was incredibly enjoyable. Brishen teases Ildiko about her “horse-like teeth” and Ildiko points out some the disturbing aspects of Brishen’s all-white eyes.

As I said, much of the story is simply focused on these two characters and how they slowly build a friendship and romance over the course of the book. They are also, at the heart of things, both just very good people. It seems like a weird thing to have to highlight, but this aspect of the story, their inherent goodness and the healthiness of the relationship they build, is what makes this book stand out as so satisfying. There are real challenges they face and neither simply brushes off the disturbance they feel at the other’s physical appearance, but mutual respect, friendship, and trust is slowly laid out as the foundation of their growing attachment. It’s just a lovely example of how you can write a romance novel without having to make your main characters brooding, bizarrely non-communicative, or just constantly misunderstood.

It looks like there are follow up books to this story, but it can also mostly be read as a standalone novel. It’s definitely a light, romantic read, so don’t go in expecting epic world-building or elaborate magical systems. The fantasy elements are all clearly there as support systems for the character-driven story at its heart. I very much enjoyed this book, and I agree with the author of the original list (I can’t seem to find it or I would link it!): this book is rare for what it is doing right with its romance.

Also, a quick note. This is a self-published novel, but I was able to check out an ebook at the library. Just another plug for all self-published authors out there: libraries are often willing to stock your ebooks, especially if you’re local and can point to some interest in your story. There’s definitely no harm in asking!

Rating 8: A magical unicorn of a romance novel where the main pairing is based on healthy relationship norms!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Radiance” is on these Goodreads lists: “Slow-burn romance” and “Fantasy Romance.”

Find “Radiance” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel”

37638211Book: “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel: A Story of Sleepy Hollow” by Alyssa Palombo

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Griffin, October 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: When Ichabod Crane arrives in the spooky little village of Sleepy Hollow as the new schoolmaster, Katrina Van Tassel is instantly drawn to him. Through their shared love of books and music, they form a friendship that quickly develops into romance. Ichabod knows that as an itinerant schoolteacher of little social standing, he has nothing to offer the wealthy Katrina – unlike her childhood friend-turned-enemy, Brom Van Brunt, who is the suitor Katrina’s father favors.

But when romance gives way to passion, Ichabod and Katrina embark on a secret love affair, sneaking away into the woods after dark to be together – all while praying they do not catch sight of Sleepy Hollow’s legendary Headless Horseman. That is, until All Hallows’s Eve, when Ichabod suddenly disappears, leaving Katrina alone and in a perilous position.

Enlisting the help of her friend – and rumored witch – Charlotte Jansen, Katrina seeks the truth of Ichabod Crane’s disappearance, investigating the forest around Sleepy Hollow using unconventional – often magical – means. What they find forces Katrina to question everything she once knew, and to wonder if the Headless Horseman is perhaps more than just a story after all. In Alyssa Palombo’s The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel nothing is as it seems, and love is a thing even death won’t erase.

Review: I’ve had a deep affection for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” ever since I was a little girl. My first exposure to it was the Bing Crosby Disney vehicle, with it’s jaunty music and admittedly all too terrifying Headless Horseman. My favorite adaptation is the utterly faithless but still WAY fun and interesting Tim Burton film “Sleepy Hollow”, as while Johnny Depp is a creep his portrayal of Ichabod Crane as an earnest and logical detective is a preferable contrast to the original superstitious gold digger Washington Irving imagined. But something that cannot be denied in either version, from the fairly true to the quirky retelling, is that the female love interest, Katrina Van Tassel, really isn’t given much to do outside of being an object of affection. While it’s certainly true that Christina Ricci’s version of Katrina is perfectly adequate (hell, she gets to be a witch, which is pretty neat), it is mostly Ichabod’s story. So when I read about “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” by Alyssa Palombo, I knew that I had to read it, as it is a retelling of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” but from a female centered perspective.

This isn’t so much a ghost story this time around as it is a romance and mystery, and it’s certainly presented through a feminist lens. Like in the original tale, Katrina is the daughter of wealthy farmer Baltus Van Tassel, but instead of being merely a point in a love triangle she is a sharp and independent woman who sees life beyond Sleepy Hollow and the path that is planned out for her. While her father does encourage her studies and her interests, ultimately he sees her marrying her childhood friend Brom Van Brunt, aka Brom Bones, who remains the WORST. Katrina has other ideas, as she has come to despise him because of his treatment of her best friend Charlotte, the daughter of the town midwife. Brom is very much the macho and of the time ideal of a man, popular and the son of another successful (and therefore land owning) farmer, though his misogyny and bigotry turns Katrina off. It’s a solid portrayal of a timeless villain, and while he remains antagonistic, Palombo does a good job of making him a little more complex than merely the town brute. But don’t get me wrong, he’s still awful.

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It has to be done. (source)

Katrina’s loyalties are to Charlotte because Charlotte is one of two profoundly meaningful female relationships she has in this book, the other being Nancy, her former nursemaid. I loved that not only do we get Katrina to steer the ship of feminist interpretations, but that Charlotte and Nancy provide examples of positive and supportive female friendship that could otherwise have been completely waylaid. It also is a good way to address horrific realities of the time in organic ways. It brings up the distrust people had towards women like Charlotte and her mother, who are midwives and herbalists who are seen as potential witches, and the evil that was chattel slavery, as Nancy is a former slave who is now employed by the Van Tassels. While it is made clear that she is  given a wage and has her freedom, her past as property is not ignored, and it is addressed in a way that shows the privileges that women like Katrina and Charlotte DID have during this time because of their skin that were not afforded to Nancy. These three women band together and support each other, and it felt fairly even handed, as neither Charlotte nor Nancy felt like props there merely to hold Katrina up.

The romance between Katrina and Ichabod was very satisfying as well. Since it is through Katrina’s eyes, her agency and intent are always present, as Ichabod is portrayed as a man of intellect who sees Katrina as an equal in all ways. Her self worth and independence are only bolstered by him, and their love affair is not only on even footing, it’s also VERY romantic. And smutty. My GOODNESS is this book heavy on the love scenes during the first part. Palombo manages to make these love scenes feel fairly real for the time and place, and the romance is a slow burn that really makes you root for Katrina and Ichabod, even if the original story has mapped out a very clear, and tragic, path for it to take. Unlike “Sleepy Hollow”, “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” doesn’t completely throw the source material out the window, and while I knew that going in there would absolutely be bittersweetness, I wasn’t prepared for how emotional Katrina and Ichabod’s romance, and his ultimate disappearance, was going to be. Palombo constructs a love that feels timeless and complex, and makes Ichabod far more than a gold digging schemer, as well as more than a deep thinking hero. Yet ultimately, this IS Katrina’s story, and while her love for Ichabod sets it in motion she is the one fully in control beyond her relationship with him. She has to make some tough choices in the wake of his disappearance, choices that she doesn’t want to make and yet must because of the time period, and her drive to find out what did happen to the love of her life, be it him running off or Headless Horseman taking him, make her an all the more intriguing heroine. Because while love is a huge theme, there is also a lot of grief, and what grief can do to a person.

But given the ambiguity of the original source material (was it a Horseman who was responsible for Ichabod’s disappearance, or a very mortal man?), “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” would be missing something if the supernatural aspect wasn’t there. Luckily, Palombo does have eerie elements. Katrina is haunted by visions of the Headless Horseman her entire life, her gift for Sight being a main theme in this book. She and Charlotte both have seemingly otherworldly powers, though they are never overdone or overshot. Given that I LOVE The Headless Horseman as a ghost and antagonist, I was worried that he was going to be more of an afterthought in this story. But while he does play a smaller role, and a more opaque one at that, there was enough of him and the idea of him that still gave him a presence throughout the narrative. Palombo brings in other folklore from the original tale and region (and provides handy author’s notes at the end about it), as Katrina collects and tells the stories of ghosts and spectres through the area. After all, she too is haunted by things, though they are perhaps more of this Earth. By the end of this book I really liked how the ghostly tales were woven into the overall story arc, and how they could serve as metaphors for the things that Katrina was going through. And yes, The Headless Horseman does have one pretty damn satisfying moment, as ambiguous as it may be. After all, he himself is an ambiguous character in the original tale, so this time around it feels extra sweet to see the big moment that is given to him.

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#teamhorseman (source)

Overall, I really liked “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel”. It retold a story that I love in a unique and female centered way. I’m setting this book on the shelf next to my copy of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” so they can coexist in the way the two tales really ought to.

Rating 9: A lovely romance with a bittersweet mystery “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” re-tells an old classic with a female focused lens, and brings it satisfying new characterizations.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “The Best Fairytales and Retellings”.

Find “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Toil and Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft”

36426163Book: “Toil and Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft” by Tess Sharpe (Ed.), and Jessica Spotswood (Ed.)

Publishing Info: Harlequin Teen, August 2018

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

Book Description: A young adult fiction anthology of 15 stories featuring contemporary, historical, and futuristic stories featuring witchy heroines who are diverse in race, class, sexuality, religion, geography, and era.

Are you a good witch or a bad witch?

Glinda the Good Witch. Elphaba the Wicked Witch. Willow. Sabrina. Gemma Doyle. The Mayfair Witches. Ursula the Sea Witch. Morgan le Fey. The three weird sisters from Macbeth.

History tells us women accused of witchcraft were often outsiders: educated, independent, unmarried, unwilling to fall in line with traditional societal expectations.

Bold. Powerful. Rebellious.

A bruja’s traditional love spell has unexpected results. A witch’s healing hands begin to take life instead of giving it when she ignores her attraction to a fellow witch. In a terrifying future, women are captured by a cabal of men crying witchcraft and the one true witch among them must fight to free them all. In a desolate past, three orphaned sisters prophesize for a murderous king. Somewhere in the present, a teen girl just wants to kiss a boy without causing a hurricane.

From good witches to bad witches, to witches who are a bit of both, this is an anthology of diverse witchy tales from a collection of diverse, feminist authors. The collective strength of women working together—magically or mundanely–has long frightened society, to the point that women’s rights are challenged, legislated against, and denied all over the world. Toil & Trouble delves deep into the truly diverse mythology of witchcraft from many cultures and feminist points of view, to create modern and unique tales of witchery that have yet to be explored.

Review: I want to thank NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book!

As I’ve made abundantly clear on this blog numerous times, I am a huge fan of witches and witchcraft in my stories. Basically, if there is a witch, I want to read it. So imagine how genuinely thrilled I was when I heard about “Toil and Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft”, a short stories collection edited by Tess Sharpe. Not only is it a collection of witch stories, it has a feminist centered theme of witchcraft. On top of THAT, there are also DIVERSE stories involving these witches, from authors like Zoraida Córdova, Robin Talley, Brandy Colbert, and more! My goodness did the description of this book get me in a witchy mood, and make me want to break out “The Craft”/relive my 8th grade Wicca phase.

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Hail to the guardians of the watchtowers of YA feminist witch fiction…. (source)

There are some really great stories in here, and I want to give them credit where credit is due. I will talk about my favorites and what it is about them that made them stand out.

(NOTE: Yes, this book originally had 16 stories in it, but after Tristina Wright was accused of sexual harassment her story was removed from the final product. My ARC had her story, but knowing that it wasn’t going to be in the final work I skipped it completely.)

“Starsong” by Tehlor Kay Mejia

A young witch named Luna has garnered a social media following because of her posts about star charts, fate, and magic. One evening she starts a conversation with a science minded girl who is very much a skeptic. As they start to chat over messages, Luna realizes that she’s starting to fall for her spirited intellectual nemesis. In terms of just sweet and calm stories, “Starsong” fit the bill. The first reason is that it feels very relatable with the social media bent that it had as it’s base. I liked the idea of a teen witch giving guidance to her followers and coming into herself in a medium she is comfortable with. And while I’m not so much into the romance genre in general, this one was super charming and didn’t feel overwrought or melodramatic as these two girls get to know each other and start to feel the first pangs of attraction. It’s just super cute, and since it’s the first story in the collection you get to ease into it with an upbeat first course.

“The Legend of Stone Mary” by Robin Talley

This one felt the most like the kind of witch story that I wanted from this collection, and it’s probably my favorite of the lot. A town has been long haunted by the urban legend of Stone Mary, a witch who was murdered a couple centuries prior and has supposedly put a curse on the town. Now there are legends and myths surrounding the gravesite of Stone Mary, a popular spot for teens to goof off at. Wendy is a descendent of Mary, and her family has long had an unspoken stigma about them because of the family line she is a part of. When she starts to start a romance with a new girl in town, she just wants to be seen as normal, but her lineage may have more of an effect on her relationship than she could have imagined. From the ghostly legend of Stone Mary to the actual real life consequences of small town small mindedness, Talley delivers a strong, somewhat bittersweet, story about what it’s like to be an outsider. The Mary legend is tragic and upsetting, and Wendy’s present day obstacles feel real and very much placed in Othering, be it because of her lineage, or because of her sexuality. There is also something of a twist that took me by surprise, and I think that it gave the story a little more depth. As someone who has memories of urban legends regarding graveyards (specifically the Black Angel in my aunt’s home of Iowa City), “The Legend of Stone Mary” was a treat in all regards.

“The One Who Stayed” by Nova Ren Suma

This is one of the darkest and saddest stories in the book (though just wait, we’ll be getting to the other one), but I didn’t expect any less from Nova Ren Suma. A coven of witches, brought together by trauma and pain, are preparing to bring in another member to their group as the same trauma is about to befall her. Suma is one of those authors who knows how to make the darkness in humanity twisted and blistering, but still present it in a bittersweet way. This story definitely has some strong implications in regards to sexual assault, so I have to give it a trigger warning, but the eeriness and the sadness is written in a flowing and haunting prose that I greatly enjoyed. While a large number of these books had very feminist roots, this one felt like a riot act towards those who do women wrong, and how victims can find their own voices and power by finding each other and coming together to support one another. This is also one of the shorter stories in the collection, though it packs a huge emotional punch that had me enthralled the entire time reading it.

“Why They Watch Us Burn” by Elizabeth May

This is the last story in the collection, and boy oh boy is it a strong note to end it on. Women accused of witchcraft are taken to a forest work camp and are made to ‘repent’ for their actions, though they are not witches, but victims of society. Shamed and silenced, abused and mistreated, a group of women come together to support, endure, and find their voices again. This story absolutely weaves together the idea of witch hunts and trials and applies it to modern social mores such as rape culture and misogyny, and it brings forth a powerful read that struck hard and hit home. Especially given the current social climate, where sexual abusers in the highest offices of Government get off without consequence and someone can be sentenced to THREE MONTHS for rape (AND STILL FEEL LIKE THE CONVICTION WAS TOO HARSH), “Why They Watch Us Burn” strikes a chord. It’s angry, it’s raw, but it’s also hopeful.

Another positive is this book is chock full of Own Voices authors and a lot of great diversity in it’s characters. Not only are a number of the witches in these stories LGBTQIA+, there is also a wide range of racial representation, with varying cultures having a huge influence on the types of witches that these characters are. The witches in our stories need not be wholly influenced by Anglo-Saxon mythology alone, and “Toil and Trouble” takes cues from all around the world.

And yet, if you take the collection’s stories as a whole, a large number of them didn’t really stand out to me. None of them were BAD, per se, but they were either a bit muddled, or a little too bland for my tastes. Some of the stories felt stilted and dragging, and with others I found my eyes glazing over (and I’ll admit it’s probably because of the high emphases on romance in those ones). So because of that, “Toil and Trouble” wasn’t the consistently satisfying collection that I expected it to be. The stories that were good were VERY good, but I wanted more of them to be as appealing to me as the four that I mentioned.

But in terms of important, diverse, and feminist anthologies, “Toil and Trouble” is absolutely noteworthy. The stories I mentioned are worth a look by themselves, and you may find more value in the ones I struggled with. And hey, Halloween isn’t too far away. This is the perfect read for the upcoming Season of the Witch.

Rating 6: While the strong stories in this collection are very strong and the representation is top notch, “Toil and Trouble” didn’t have the consistent strength across all of its tales of witches and witchery.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Toil and Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Anthologies”, and “2018 Queer Sci-Fi and Fantasy”.

Find “Toil and Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Ones Who Got Away”

34569847Book: “The Ones Who Got Away” by Roni Loren

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: e-ARC from the publisher

Book Description: It’s been twelve years since tragedy struck the senior class of Long Acre High School. Only a few students survived that fateful night—a group the media dubbed The Ones Who Got Away.

Liv Arias thought she’d never return to Long Acre—until a documentary brings her and the other survivors back home. Suddenly her old flame, Finn Dorsey, is closer than ever, and their attraction is still white-hot. When a searing kiss reignites their passion, Liv realizes this rough-around-the-edges cop might be exactly what she needs…

Review: Yes, you’re reading that right: this is a romance book review here on The Library Ladies. I think it’s probably the first strictly romance book we’ve featured! Neither Kate and I are avid romance readers, but I will admit that I’ve picked up one or two over the years. When I do read them, typically, I gravitate more towards the historical romances ala Julia Quinn and such. I think I’ve maybe read one or two Nora Roberts here and there, and that’s probably about it for contemporary romance. But when I was sent this e-ARC, I thought why the heck not?

After surviving a school shooting, Liv and her classmates have went on to live very different lives than the ones they had planned for themselves. Plagued with lingering PTSD and in a job that consumes her life and time, Liv barely recognizes the budding photographer that was her younger self. What’s more, when re-united at a documentary covering the aftermath of the shooting, she barely recognizes Finn, her secret high school fling whom she lost contact with after the tragedy. Together again, Liv and Finn find that some things haven’t changed, like their attraction for one another. But will they be able to find a balance between their old selves and their new, much more broken, current lives?

All romance novels have a “hook,” especially ones that are set up as a series where multiple women may be connected some how and each will go on to lead their own story and happily ever after. With this series, that hook is the shared trauma from a school shooting at the characters’ high school prom. I think a lot of romances live and die around the strength of any given series’ hook. Most historical romance novels use family ties, but I’ve read other contemporary romances where the ties are shared businesses and such. This one is perhaps particularly effective as it is a shared tragedy that would affect all of the main characters differently, leaving a plethora of avenues for the author to explore.

With Liv, it is her ongoing PTSD and her feelings of betrayal and abandonment by Finn, who left her in the closet they had been making out in when the shooting started. He went on to save another girl, Rebecca (whom I’m sure will get her own book) and be heralded a town hero. Finn, too, has his own fallout from this choice, going on to pursue a life as an FBI agent working to prevent killers from hurting more innocents. Both characters had a legitimate arc to build upon as the story progressed, and I appreciated the exploration of shared tragedy and the various coping (or lack of coping) methods that can be utilized by survivors of such events. Further, neither character is completely defined by this event, even though it changed the directions of their lives. The story highlights paths of healing and reclaiming ownership over the direction of life.

Of course, it’s a romance novel, so much of the story was based around the re-kindling romance between Finn and Liv. They had fairly solid chemistry, though I didn’t prefer their particular stereotype: reunited ex-lovers. I always enjoy romances where new characters are coming together for the first time versus stories like these where half of their conversations are relating back to moments during their highschool days. Sure, those were cute scenes, but it’s more interesting to me to see what’s going on now.

There’s also probably a reason I prefer historical romances if I’m going to read one. I don’t think of myself as prudish by any means, but there are some limits on just what I want to read about, particularly when we get into the man’s mind in some of these books. There’s nothing offensive or anything like that, but, more like, I have a hard time taking the man seriously when some of his train of thought is so juvenile sounding. I think the restraints on language and word choice help the historical fiction heroes sound a bit less like pubescent teenagers in a locker room. This isn’t to say that I disliked Finn, particularly. It’s just a general dislike that I often run into with contemporary romance.

As far as characters go, I did like both Finn and Liv. I liked that Finn, too, was still clearly dealing with things. It wasn’t just him protecting and comforting Liv, which I would have found tiresome very quickly. But he, too, needs the support of Liv to deal with the ongoing emotional fallout of his job as an FBI agent and the grueling requirements of his role there.

Without much knowledge of the genre or a good baseline for contemporary romance, I thought that this book was perfectly good for what it was trying to do. It’s “hook” was decent, and the supporting characters who are being set up for their own stories also seemed interesting. Finn and Liv were also solid. I didn’t love this book, by any means, but that could largely be due to the fact that this just isn’t my preferred genre. If you, though, like romance fiction, particularly of the contemporary type, I recommend checking out “The Ones Who Got Away.”

Rating 6: Perfectly solid for what it was, just never going to be a favorite of mine due to simple genre preferences.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Ones Who Got Away” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Best friends/childhood best friend falling in love” and “Best Second Chance Romance.”

Find “The Ones Who Got Away” at your library using WorldCat.

Serena’s Review: “Keeping the Castle”

12871232Book: “Keeping the Castle” by Patrice Kindl

Publishing Info: Viking Childrens Books, 2012

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Seventeen-year-old Althea is the sole support of her entire family, and she must marry well. But there are few wealthy suitors–or suitors of any kind–in their small Yorkshire town of Lesser Hoo. Then, the young and attractive (and very rich) Lord Boring arrives, and Althea sets her plans in motion. There’s only one problem; his friend and business manager Mr. Fredericks keeps getting in the way. And, as it turns out, Fredericks has his own set of plans . . .

Review: This book has been hanging around on my Goodreads TBR pile for quite a while. Like, years. Between all the new releases and series that I’ve been reading so far, it’s never made its way to the top. Until last month when I was heading out on vacation and realized I had nothing on my Kindle that was particularly calling to me. Not to mention, I’ve been reading a heavy dose of fantasy/sci fi books recently, it was about time I got back to good, old historical fiction. So without further ado, I checked it out and raced through it.

The castle that Althea, her mother, her brother and her two snobby (but rich!) step-sisters live in is falling apart around them. Literally. Pieces of the ceiling pose a danger at any moment and the family must carefully arrange chairs when they have guests over to limit the risk of said chairs caving in from sheer age and decrepitude. Althea knows her duty: to save the castle by marrying well. Luckily, while fortune is not on her side, she does have a good amount of looks. Armed with this and a healthy dose of determination, Althea sets her eyes on their new neighbor, Lord Boring. But can she even get at him when the ever present, ever annoying Mr. Fredericks is always by his side?

From that description alone, you can probably guess the majority of the story. That, or having read/been exposed to any Jane Austen in your lifetime. I’m not leading with this as a criticism of the book (though it did have its downsides, which I’ll get into later), but as a general description of what this book sets itself up to be from the very beginning. There are no illusions of creating a completely distinct work. Instead, the story walks a line between parodying other classic works while also trying to work in a few surprises of its own. Some pieces of this were more successful than others.

Many of the characters had similarities to other stereotypical characters one usually finds in historical romance. Althea was an entertaining blend of Emma from “Emma” and Elizabeth from “Pride and Prejudice.” At her core, she’s a good-willed, smart woman. But she also has a healthy dose of foolishness that leads to all of the some-what expected shenanigans one could hope for from a light-hearted story like this. The two step-sisters were, of course, terrible, each exhibiting comical combinations of idiocy, selfishness, and petty cruelty.

The characters I was a bit more surprised with were Althea’s mother and the two gentlemen who are introduced. The mother was neither foolish nor absent! That alone is kind of shocker for stories like this. Instead, Althea’s mother is a very compassionate character and had her own mini arc throughout the book. As for the men, it’s not a spoiler to reveal that OF COURSE Althea has it all wrong about both of them. But their backgrounds and motivations where different than one might expect. This played to varying success. I liked the evaluation of Lord Boring and the choices he makes, revealing that in some ways, men and women in this time are not all that different.

But, while I liked Mr. Fredericks for the most part, I still struggled a bit with his “change” and the romance between him and Althea. Her frustrations with him are, largely, completely valid. And while he does make up for some his errors, I wasn’t quite convinced that I saw a discernible change in their relationship as the book progressed. Althea just kind of suddenly realizes that she has feelings. But it several of the better traits about Mr. Fredericks haven’t even been revealed! It isn’t a huge complaint, as I still enjoyed their scenes and dialogue together. But I also never really felt the chemistry between them either, which is a problem for a book like this where the romance is key.

As for the plot, like I said earlier, there are a lot of references to plot points from Jane Austen novels and the like in this book. While I enjoyed these for the most part, there were also moments when the book simply felt predictable because of how closely it was following the storyboard of those types of books. There were very few real surprises in here.

But, again, this is a book that one reads for the light, fluffy romance and for the writing style itself. There, the author very much succeeded. She did manage to neatly grasp the way of talking and writing that is common to stories set in this time period, and there were several turns of phrase that had me laughing out loud and highlighting bits.

All in all, it was a very pleasing book. It didn’t push any boundaries or surprise me, but it was just what it claimed to be: a light historical romance with some witty banter.

Rating 7: A fun, easy read, but don’t expect to be surprised or challenged in any way.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Keeping the Castle” is on these Goodreads lists: “Teen novels related to Jane Austen” and “Clean Regency (or around then) Romance Novels.”

Find “Keeping the Castle” at your library using WorldCat!