Serena’s Review: “All of Our Demise”

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Book: “All of Our Demise” by Amanda Foody & Christine Lynn Herman

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, August 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: For the first time in this ancient, bloodstained story, the tournament is breaking. The boundaries between the city of Ilvernath and the arena have fallen. Reporters swarm the historic battlegrounds. A dead boy now lives again. And a new champion has entered the fray, one who seeks to break the curse for good… no matter how many lives are sacrificed in the process.

As the curse teeters closer and closer to collapse, the surviving champions each face a choice: dismantle the tournament piece by piece, or fight to the death as this story was always intended.

Long-held alliances will be severed. Hearts will break. Lives will end. Because a tale as wicked as this one was never destined for happily ever after.

Previously Reviewed: “All of Us Villains”

Review: “All of Us Villains” was one of those rare beasts for me last year where it was a very hyped book that I felt actually lived up to the hype. More surprising still, it was a multi-POV fantasy story that actually managed to create a cast of characters all of whom felt unique and whose stories I was interested in reading individually and collectively. All of this to say, I was very excited about this second half of this duology to release this year (especially given that my main gripe about the first book was the cliffhanger it all wrapped up on).

The stakes could not be more high. What once was a brutal, secretive battle royale has had all of its mysteries torn away with the fall of the veil that used to separate the city of Ilvernath and the harsh landscape where the contestants fought. But, while much may be different, many things are still the same, like the deathly importance of alliances and the fear that one never knows friend from foe. For some, however, the goal is no longer to win this most brutal of tournaments, but to destroy it once and for all.

Well, while there was a lot to like about this book, I feel a controversial review coming on! But first let’s get into the parts of my review that will probably line up nicely with everyone else’s reaction. For one thing, there’s no denying the general quality of this duology. The writing remains one of its strongest aspects, across both dialogue and descriptive portions. There were several pieces that I re-read and several moments where I knew that the high quality of the writing was helping assuage some of my annoyances at what I felt were missed opportunities, story-wise.

I also still like the overall concept of the story. Though, I do have to say that this was one of the places where this book began to fall short of the first. There was such a feeling of a breath of fresh air in that first book. Not only did I find all of the characters’ stories interesting, but in a world where I’ve read a million and one “magical competition” fantasy novels, this one managed to stand out from the crowd. But that being the case, this book had a higher task at hand since that initial good will based purely on a new world and concept had already been spent. And while I still enjoyed returning to this world, I did start to feel as if some of the alliances and character drama was beginning to overtake the enjoyment that could have been found in continued world-building.

And really, this is where I was really held up: the characters. While I enjoyed almost all of them in the first book, here I began to feel that several of their storylines began to fall apart, especially when you looked back over the two books together. There were character decisions and betrayals that began to feel more like they were driven by the authors wanting to create shock value than in any organic change in the characters themselves. More and more, I found myself feeling frustrated by some of the characters and the lack of consistency in their reactions to other characters and other plot points.

My biggest annoyance comes with a plot point that I can’t really talk about without some major spoilers. I wasn’t against this particular point in a vacuum, but specifically in the story we see here, it began to represent my overall frustration with the character arcs overall. I felt like the authors not only set the reader up in the first book in a way that was misleading (this second-book-switch could have worked if a bit more effort had been laid down to hint at this change of path, but I don’t feel that was the case), but I also felt like one of the biggest emotional cliffhangers from the first book was kind of wasted. In other words, I feel like I was really revved up to be invested in certain things and then…those things weren’t anything, ultimately. This will be the most unpopular opinion in this review, I’m sure, as I know that the outcome seen here is going to appeal to a lot of fans. And I feel like I could have been on this train too, but I was left frustrated by the feeling that the authors intentionally wound me up into an emotionally invested situation that they were using purely as misdirection. And, as a reader, this kind of thing at best, doesn’t work for me. And at worst, annoys me. And here it really annoyed me because I thought that the abandoned storyline had been set up in a really interesting way.

I also have to say I was a bit let down by the lack of brutality in this book. Maybe I’m just sadistic, but I didn’t feel like any of the big moments in this book really landed and that most of the decisions that would have felt like true gut punches were avoided. But, like I said, the writing was still excellent, and I know this will be seen as an excellent end to the story for many readers. Just not as much for me, sadly.

Rating 7: Unpopular opinion from me in that I felt like a lot of the build up of the first book was wasted here in the second.

Reader’s Advisory:

“All of Our Demise” is on this Goodreads list: YA Releases August 2022

Kate’s Review: “I’m The Girl”

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Book: “I’m The Girl” by Courtney Summers

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, September 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from the publisher at ALAAC22.

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

Book Description: The new groundbreaking queer thriller from New York Times bestselling and Edgar-award Winning author Courtney Summers.

When sixteen-year-old Georgia Avis discovers the dead body of thirteen-year-old Ashley James, she teams up with Ashley’s older sister, Nora, to find and bring the killer to justice before he strikes again. But their investigation throws Georgia into a world of unimaginable privilege and wealth, without conscience or consequence, and as Ashley’s killer closes in, Georgia will discover when money, power and beauty rule, it might not be a matter of who is guilty—but who is guiltiest.

A spiritual successor to the 2018 breakout hit, Sadie, I’m the Girl is a masterfully written, bold, and unflinching account of how one young woman feels in her body as she struggles to navigate a deadly and predatory power structure while asking readers one question: if this is the way the world is, do you accept it?

Review: Thank you to Wednesday Books for giving me an ARC of this novel!

Ever since I read “Sadie” by Courtney Summers, I knew that she was going to become one of my must read authors. “Sadie” kicked me in the gut, but I loved every minute of it because of it’s rawness. I was lucky enough to snag her newest book “I’m The Girl” at the Annual ALA Conference (well, Serena snagged it for me on our first night strategic ‘split up and find all the ARCs’ mission), but I knew that I would probably drag my feet on reading it for a bit. Just because I knew that she wasn’t going to pull punches in her newest thriller. She never does, you see. But I also knew that this one, with its haunting cover and somewhat vague description, was going to be something else. And when I did finally sit down and read it, it had my attention, even if it was another kick in the gut.

I will first and foremost say that this book, like most of Courtney Summers’s books, is a rough one. We do not shy away from pretty bleak but realistic issues, like grooming, sexualization of children, trauma, and rape, and it makes for a book that is filled to the brim with content warnings that should be heeded by those who have sensitivities. I am a fairly steely reader for the most part, but even this one had me deeply uncomfortable at a number of moments. But I think that it’s also important to be frank and candid about these things, especially if they are handled in a way that isn’t exploitative or titillating, and I think that Summers achieves that. If we are going to explore beauty as power and how, in turn, powerful people wish to exploit and own beautiful things and people, it’s important to look at what all that means, and I think that we do that here. Even when it’s dark and very disconcerting to do said exploration.

The mystery is the main artery of this story, as our protagonist Georgia stumbles upon the dead body of thirteen year old Ashley James, who was the missing daughter of the local deputy sheriff, after she herself was hit by the car of the potential perpetrator. George is recruited by Ashley’s sister Nora to help solve what happened, but there is a lot more to this story than a teenage murder mystery, and the complexity is deftly handled. George is also hoping to start working at the small town’s elite resort and social club Aspera, where celebrities, politicians, and other big wigs come from far and wide to experience the luxury provided by Matthew and Cleo Hayes and their done up employees, the women known as ‘Aspera Girls’. George’s mother was an Aspera girl until a scandal left her without a job, and while George has always been beautiful her mother, now deceased, always told her she wouldn’t belong. George is a very complicated character, whose foray in amateur detective-hood is overshadowed by her quest to fit into the opulence of Aspera, no matter the cost and no matter the sacrifice. Summers takes her time in unveiling bits and pieces of the plot, be it the mystery of what happened to Ashley, or the reasons that George is so desperate to join Aspera, and what she has tried to do to make herself stand out from the crowd in an effort to wield her beauty as the only power she feels she has. I did like the mystery overall, and I liked seeing George delve into the secrets of Aspera in connection to Ashley as she worked there, given that small town secrets are always okay in my book as a theme, and mysterious organizations are as well. I kind of figured out what was going on in regards to Ashley, but ultimately that isn’t the point of this book. This is more an exploration of the ways that girls are told they can be powerful, but how those in power can also take that power away in insidious ways. Especially if there is wealth and disenfranchisement involved between the players. And it all set me on edge, even as I tore through it over the course of a couple nights.

“I’m The Girl” is another triumph by Courtney Summers that looks into the void and doesn’t sugar coat what it sees. People will need to steel themselves for this one, but I think it’s powerful reading all the same.

Rating 9: Dark, powerful, and gritty to the bone, “I’m The Girl” is another unnerving YA thriller from Courtney Summers.

Reader’s Advisory:

“I’m The Girl” is included on the Goodreads lists “If You Love Veronica Mars… YA Books”, and “#MeToo”.

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

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Read the full disclosure here.

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing book club running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Book Bingo” where we drew reading challenges commonly found on book bingo cards from a hat and chose a book based on that.  For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

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

Publishing Info: Redhook, September 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

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

Book Bingo Prompt: A book with a misleading title

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

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

Kate’s Thoughts

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

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

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

Serena’s Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

Book Club Questions

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

Reader’s Advisory

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

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

Serena’s Review: “The Last of the Talons”

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Book: “The Last of the Talons” by Sophie Kim

Publishing Info: Entangled: Teen, September 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from ALA convention!

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

Book Description: After the destruction of her entire Talon gang, eighteen-year-old Shin Lina—the Reaper of Sunpo—is forced to become a living, breathing weapon for the kingdom’s most-feared crime lord. All that keeps her from turning on her ruthless master is the life of her beloved little sister hanging in the balance. But the order to steal a priceless tapestry from a Dokkaebi temple incites not only the wrath of a legendary immortal, but the beginning of an unwinnable game…

Suddenly Lina finds herself in the dreamlike realm of the Dokkaebi, her fate in the hands of its cruel and captivating emperor. But she can win her life—if she kills him first.

Now a terrible game of life and death has begun, and even Lina’s swift, precise blade is no match for the magnetic Haneul Rui. Lina will have to use every weapon in her arsenal if she wants to outplay this cunning king and save her sister…all before the final grain of sand leaks out of the hourglass.

Because one way or another, she’ll take Rui’s heart.

Even if it means giving up her own.

Review: So, I mostly grabbed this book at ALA with very little thought other than “oooh, is that a dragon on the cover??” Cuz you all know I’m always down for another dragon book! If I had read the book description more fully I might have been a bit more wary. Let’s just say, me and YA assassins have a bit of a checkered history. Beyond numerous other problems I regular find with this plotline, I’m beginning to question whether the two concepts, “assassin” and “young adult fiction,” aren’t just oxymorons that can never work well together by the very natures of their differences. “Assassin” would lead you to believe that your leading character is pretty morally compromised and things will get bloody. “Young adult fiction,” on the other hand, has at least a passing commitment to keep stories approachable for younger audiences. So….what’s to be done? Let’s see what this book has to say.

Shin Lina had once lived a blessed life, or what she considered one at least. Perhaps most people wouldn’t think making up ones family of gang members and gaining a reputation as the city’s most deadly assassin would count as “blessed,” but to Lina, it was enough. But now that has all been ripped away, and she has been forced to work for the very enemy who massacred this family, all to protect the life of her younger sister. When a job goes bad, however, Lina finds herself at odds with a powerful magical being. But more could be at stake than just her life. Perhaps even her heart.

Well, this book is not the one to disprove the theory I had in my intro paragraph. In fact, it exemplified many of the other factors that I think add to the uncomfortable pairing of assassin characters leading up YA stories. But before we get to that, let’s talk about the positive. If I zoom way, way out, there are the bones of an interesting story here. Unfortunately, any closer look renders these larger strokes pretty unsatisfactory. But the world-building itself had potential, with a fairly intricate political and magical system. And there were some genuinely funny moments with the dialogue, though, admittedly, these were few and far between for me.

However, again, when you dive even shallowly (let alone a deep dive) into how any of this works it begins to get murky. For one thing, because this is YA, Lina is, of course, a teenager herself. And yet, through a series of flashbacks, we see that she only joined the gang and learned her skills to be an assassin when she was an older kid. And then this story starts out several years after the death of everyone in said gang. Soooo, in a period of like 4 years she somehow became the most skilled assassin ever, even more so than the adults who trained her. It’s these time-related things that just really irk me about YA characters who derive their “specialness” through some skillset that is esteemable purely because of the sheer quantity of time and effort needed to excel at it. Not only does it stretch past my ability to suspend disbelief, but it also waters down what makes the skill impressive to begin with, if a regular farm girl can become the absolute best in two years.

Beyond that, we have yet another assassin who doesn’t really kill anyone? I mean, honestly, what’s the point of having a character like that if all we get is a lot of “telling” that they’re some amazing assassin, but no actual evidence of it (both in the actual skills of killing someone or the mental/emotional state of a character who makes a living dealing out death regularly)?

This book adds to the challenge of this particular qualm by the very nature of the main conflict of the story. For absolutely no apparent reason, Rui sets Lina the task of…killing him? In order to spare her life? I’m not going to even get into the weirdness of that situation to begin with and what it says about Rui that this is what he wanted. But it also creates a plotline that sets up our big bad assassin Lina to fail. Obviously, she can’t succeed at killing Rui or it would defeat the entire point of the story. That then leaves us with a character who has been toted as the best assassin ever having to fail again and again to kill someone through the entire book.

I’ll stop venting about this now. But I think the lackluster writing style and very bland leading characters left me with really nothing else to focus on than my annoyances in these areas. I do think there are YA readers who will like this, especially given the popularity of other YA assassin books. But this wasn’t for me. And if you’re looking for anything new in this particular subgenre, I don’t think this is it.

Rating 6: More of the same, with an assassin whose much more talk than action.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Last of the Talons” can be found on these Goodreads lists: SF/F Assassins! and 2022 Book Releases by Asian Authors.

Kate’s Review: “A Blanket of Butterflies”

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

Publishing Info: HighWater Press, September 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: HighWater Press

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

Serena’s Review: “Belladonna”

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Book: “Belladonna” by Adalyn Grace

Publishing Info: Little Brown for Young Readers, August 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from ALA convention!

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

Book Description: Orphaned as a baby, nineteen-year-old Signa has been raised by a string of guardians, each more interested in her wealth than her well-being—and each has met an untimely end. Her remaining relatives are the elusive Hawthornes, an eccentric family living at Thorn Grove, an estate both glittering and gloomy. Its patriarch mourns his late wife through wild parties, while his son grapples for control of the family’s waning reputation and his daughter suffers from a mysterious illness. But when their mother’s restless spirit appears claiming she was poisoned, Signa realizes that the family she depends on could be in grave danger and enlists the help of a surly stable boy to hunt down the killer.
However, Signa’s best chance of uncovering the murderer is an alliance with Death himself, a fascinating, dangerous shadow who has never been far from her side. Though he’s made her life a living hell, Death shows Signa that their growing connection may be more powerful—and more irresistible—than she ever dared imagine.

Review: Here’s another case of me almost missing out on another great title because I didn’t like the cover. In this instance, there’s something striking of the worst 90s romance novels and the worst YA knock-offs in this cover. On top of being put off by the cover art, I also haven’t gotten around to the author’s first duology; sadly the first book has been languishing on my TBR list for a few years now. But, I will say, after reading this book, that book has made a rapid climb to near the top! Let’s dive in.

Death has followed Signa for most of her life, with one guardian after another keeling over from various causes. But while near, Death cannot touch her. Instead, deadly poisons are swiftly recovered from, wounds heal quickly, and Signa moves on with her somewhat miserable life. But when her most recent guardian dies, some new, wealthy relatives come out of the woodwork. Now living a life she could only have dreamed of before, Signa lives in constant fear that Death will come for this family as well. And when one of the daughters falls ill, Signa is determined to do everything in her power to save her. Even if that means teaming up with Death himself.

This was another one of those books where I knew within the first few pages that I was really going to enjoy it. The writing immediately clicked with me, combining a fairytale-like fantasy story with a humorous and relatable leading lady. As the story continued, I was having such a blast reading it that I began to almost want to slow down my reading experience just to draw it out. That’s how you really know it’s good! In a lot of way, the general style of storytelling very much reminded me of Margaret Rogerson’s work. They both writes stories that have a fairytale feel but that aren’t derived directly from a fairytale itself. Both authors also have excellent leading ladies who are as funny as they are adventurous. And, of course, there are lovely romances at the heart of these stories that check all of my personal preference boxes.

Speaking of the romance, here is another example of a love triangle that really worked for me. I can’t go into any of the details of said love triangle, as that would spoil parts of the book. But I can say that both relationships felt believable and relatable. Signa’s feelings developed in a way that was natural and, as things came to a head, there was no prolonged drama on the “who will she choose” front, one of my biggest annoyances with this type of romance plotline. I also liked all three characters involved in the romance, too. As I’ve mentioned above, Signa is an all around great leading lady. But I really enjoyed Death and Sylas as well. Death, in particular, was an interesting character as he was speaking to a new experience in a millennia of sameness. Through his eyes, we also delved into the different ways that people think of and experience death and the afterlife.

I also really liked the mystery and fantasy elements in the story. What could have started out as a very simple “power,” the ability to live through deadly events, instead branched out into new and interesting avenues. These plot lines not only opened up new doors into what Signa’s abilities signify about herself, but also forcer her to grapple with truly understanding herself and adjusting the life she has imagined of herself. For its part, the mystery also took up a significant portion of the story. While I found a few of these elements to be a bit predictable, there were others that legitimately took me by surprise. For one thing, the story definitely didn’t shy away from some of the creepy imagery that would come with an ability like Signa’s to see and interact with ghosts. There are some very “Sixth Sense” vibes, but in all of the best ways.

This book was such a great surprise! Even more than picking up books by tried and true favorite authors, it’s simply the best to open a book with zero expectations and find yourself on an amazing ride. This book is definitely of the kind of “beach read” fantasy that is light-hearted, fun, and sure to appeal to fantasy readers who are simply looking to kick back their heels and be swept along.

Rating 9: Sweetly romantic, adventurous, and even creepy at times, this book has it all!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Belladonna” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on Fairytale Fantasy Books.

Kate’s Review: “The Weight of Blood”

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Book: “The Weight of Blood” by Tiffany D. Jackson

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegan Books, September 2022

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

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

Book Description: When Springville residents—at least the ones still alive—are questioned about what happened on prom night, they all have the same explanation . . . Maddy did it.

An outcast at her small-town Georgia high school, Madison Washington has always been a teasing target for bullies. And she’s dealt with it because she has more pressing problems to manage. Until the morning a surprise rainstorm reveals her most closely kept secret: Maddy is biracial. She has been passing for white her entire life at the behest of her fanatical white father, Thomas Washington.

After a viral bullying video pulls back the curtain on Springville High’s racist roots, student leaders come up with a plan to change their image: host the school’s first integrated prom as a show of unity. The popular white class president convinces her Black superstar quarterback boyfriend to ask Maddy to be his date, leaving Maddy wondering if it’s possible to have a normal life.

But some of her classmates aren’t done with her just yet. And what they don’t know is that Maddy still has another secret . . . one that will cost them all their lives.

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

I’ve reviewed Stephen King’s “Carrie” on the blog before, and in my review I mentioned how much I love that book. Like, I LOVE it and have loved it since I was in middle school. I have also come to love the books of Tiffany D. Jackson, one of my favorite YA authors writing today, as her stories are always rife with well done tension as well as great examinations of social issues about race in the U.S. So when it was announced that Jackson was going to write a book that was a reimagining of “Carrie”, I just about lost my mind with glee. Suffice to say, I had been looking forward to “The Weight of Blood” ever since the publishing notice fell across my Twitter feed. When I finally sat down to read it, I told myself to go slow and savor it… and immediately burned through it in two days time. She’s done it again, folks, and this time she took one of my favorite horror novels along for the ride.

I really, really enjoyed this book, so buckle up for a long review.

First and foremost, this is a “Carrie” re-telling/re-imagining, and Jackson really does a good job of making it her own while still drawing clear connecting lines to the original plot, themes, and characters. But I really love how she takes it a few steps further and bolder and makes it not only a story about bullying, but racial bullying and systemic racism that fosters and creates environments where racial bullying thrives. Maddy is our protagonist, who is a biracial teenage girl that has been able to pass as white in her small southern town, mostly due to her fanatical father and his insistence that she do so. Once she is outed as Black due to a rain storm having a reaction with her hair, her white classmates, already using her as a target because of her social awkwardness, amp up the bullying in ways that become far more vicious. It’s biting commentary and it works really, really well, as plot points from the source material are tweaked to take on more complex meanings. The Prom that Maddy ends up going to (to disastrous results of course) is the first desegregated Prom the high school has ever had. Her tyrannical parent this time is her white father, and his zealotry is as much Christian Evangelism as it is worshiping at the altar of whiteness in America. Our Sue Snell analog, Wendy, is a white girl with a Black quarterback boyfriend named Kenny, and her motives for getting Kenny to take Maddy to Prom are more a white savior complex at work than a nice girl feeling bad about being an accessory to bullying. And so forth. It all feels like “Carrie” but it goes further and feels like a different kind of gut punch as racism is at the forefront, and it works incredibly well.

The story is told through a third person narrative between a few different characters, as well as podcast transcripts, official police reports, and articles and book excerpts, and they all come together in ways to slowly show not only what disaster happened the night of Prom, but also to show the racist history of Springville, and how the town has been fostering racial animosity and inequity up through the events of the book. I really liked learning about the town and the people in it in this way, as it really does drive home the greater point that the the ugly truths about race and racism have rotted the town through, and by the time we get to the story at hand, it all comes to a head on Prom night. Again, a direct line to the story that the book is paying homage to with the transcripts and interviews, but expanding upon it to make the story at hand all the richer.

And finally, and this is probably one of the less important points of this re-telling (mild spoiler alerts here too), but I loved, LOVED that Jackson fully leans into the romance between Maddy and popular quarterback turned prom date Kenny. I have always been a huge proponent of the Tommy Ross and Carrie White romance, as the book and both movies make it clear, at least to me, that had the Prom not ended up with Carrie burning it all down and Tommy being killed by a falling bucket, they absolutely would have ended up together PROBABLY FOREVER, OKAY? So when it became clear that Maddie and Kenny were absolutely falling in love with each other, I was hooting and hollering, and then, of course, preparing for the worst given how the source material ends for them both. Though, all that said, Jackson definitely makes this tale her own in spite of the great homage, and that is all I am going to say about THAT, so….

Did I put my kindle down for a moment during my read just to rewatch the ‘Someone Like Me’ scene in this movie and then cry a little bit to myself? You’re DAMN RIGHT I DID! (source)

“The Weight of Blood” is a great remix of one of my favorite books, and Jackson knows how to draw the comparisons out while making her own points and plot. I really enjoyed this one as a fan of her work, and a fan of “Carrie”. Just stupendous.

Rating 10: A fantastic re-imagining of “Carrie” that takes on social issues of racism and bigotry that are, unfortunately, still all too relevant, “The Weight of Blood” is another page turner from Tiffany D. Jackson!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Weight of Blood” isn’t on many Goodreads lists as of yet, but it would fit in on “Popsugar 2022 #33: A Social Horror Book”.

Kate’s Review: “The Honeys”

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Book: “The Honeys” by Ryan La Sala

Publishing Info: PUSH, August 2022

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

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

Book Description: Mars has always been the lesser twin, the shadow to his sister Caroline’s radiance. But when Caroline dies under horrific circumstances, Mars is propelled to learn all he can about his once-inseparable sister who’d grown tragically distant.

Mars’s genderfluidity means he’s often excluded from the traditions — and expectations — of his politically-connected family. This includes attendance at the prestigious Aspen Conservancy Summer Academy where his sister poured so much of her time. But with his grief still fresh, he insists on attending in her place.

What Mars finds is a bucolic fairytale not meant for him. Folksy charm and sun-drenched festivities camouflage old-fashioned gender roles and a toxic preparatory rigor. Mars seeks out his sister’s old friends: a group of girls dubbed the Honeys, named for the beehives they maintain behind their cabin. They are beautiful and terrifying — and Mars is certain they’re connected to Caroline’s death. But the longer he stays at Aspen, the more the sweet mountain breezes give way to hints of decay. Mars’s memories begin to falter, bleached beneath the relentless summer sun. Something is hunting him in broad daylight, toying with his mind. If Mars can’t find it soon, it will eat him alive.

Review: Thank you to PUSH for sending me an ARC of this novel!

There is something about bees and horror that just kind of goes together. From the classic horror film “Candyman” to the recent “Umma” (I quite enjoyed this one, I don’t agree with the critics scores), there are things you can do with bee imagery that just work in a scary context. I’m actually surprised I haven’t encountered it more in horror fiction, but luckily we have “The Honeys” by Ryan La Sala to tap into this imagery! I hadn’t heard of this book before it ended up on my doorstep, but the premise was definitely eye catching. It sounded a bit like “Heathers” meets folk and prep school horror, and if that isn’t an interesting combination I don’t know what is.

I will say that “The Honeys” is a little slow to start up and really get going, at least in my reading experience it was. We start with a bang, but then it takes its sweet time to build up the unease and high strangeness that is going on at Aspen, and to explore what it has to do with Mars, Caroline, and the Honeys. It just felt a bit like the pacing was uneven, and it had a hard time holding my attention at first because of it. But I will say that once we got into the thick of it, and stuff started happening, it had an iron grip on my attention and it really picked up. The horror elements to this book are so profoundly unique, and also have some really, REALLY creepy and upsetting imagery that felt straight out of an Ari Aster horror movie (funnily enough I mean that in a positive way, given that I don’t really like Aster’s movies too much, but the guy does know how to deliver on horror aesthetic). There was one moment in particular that practically broke my brain for a few moments and I just kind of froze up.

Like Jesus. What the fuck? (source)

What worked even better for me was how La Sala used this story to take on and deconstruct toxic gender norms within a rigid social setting, as Mars is genderfluid and Aspen, while pastoral and somewhat chill, has VERY stringent gender norms, some okay, others quite toxic. The Honeys themselves kind of break stereotypes of femininity, as they are hyper feminine but don’t meet the preconceived and sexist notions of what that means (aka, just because they’re girly it doesn’t mean they are weak, as femininity isn’t a weakness). On the flip side, the hyper masculine boys group at the school is seeping in toxic masculinity, and Mars being genderfluid makes them a target of animosity, but also a target of those who would prefer they go along to get along, given their prestigious status as the child of a Senator. I liked seeing how La Sala explores this through Mars’s eyes, and how even those who mean well towards them and their social acceptance at Aspen are still putting the onus on Mars as opposed to the people who are being cruel. And I don’t want to give spoilers here, but I will say that even the larger plan at the horror thematic center constrains itself to such societal mores, and it is up to Mars and their allies to take their power back. I thought all of this was well done.

So all in all, a slower start but a unique and worthwhile horror read! “The Honeys” is sure to get people talking in YA horror circles.

Rating 7: Kind of a slow start, but once it gets going “The Honeys” is a twisted and creepy horror novel that takes on corrupt powers that be and toxic societal gender constraints.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Honeys” is new and isn’t included on many Goodreads lists, but it would fit in on “Queer Dark Academia”.

Kate’s Review: “Bloody Fool for Love”

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Book: “Bloody Fool for Love” by William Ritter

Publishing Info: Disney Hyperion, August 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from the publisher at ALA.

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

Book Description: Bloody Fool for Love from New York Times best-selling author William Ritter marks the beginning of an all-new series that explores prequel stories about fan-favorite Buffy characters.

Spike just wants to enjoy the spoils of his new badass reputation. He’s now a legendary slayer-killer, and he’s returning to London―the greatest city in the world. Unfortunately, his new abode is far from ideal (mostly a dank basement), and the rest of his strange little “family” is reeling from the fact that their patriarch, Angel, abandoned them. Spike’s love, Drusilla, seems especially heartbroken over the loss and spends her time lost in her tarot cards and planning their next gruesome family dinner when they all can be reunited.

Desperate to break Dru out of her melancholy, Spike vows to steal a powerful relic that will help her focus on their dark future together. It’s the perfect plan―that is until a monster named Gunnar, leader of the demon underworld of London, steals the relic first. Forced to form his own ragtag group of mercenaries, Spike plans an epic heist against a ruthless gang of undead criminals. Confronted with paranormal plots, royal black ops, and tea (they may be abominations, but they’re British abominations, thank you very much), Spike soon realizes that his homecoming is about to get bloody.

This rompy, action-packed novel inspired by one of Buffy’s most infamous bad boys is part Bonnie and Clyde, part Sherlock and Watson, with just a bit more bloodsucking.

Review: Thank you to Disney Hyperion for giving me an ARC of this novel!

When Serena and I were wrapping up our time at the ALA Annual Conference, we were making a last pass at each publisher booth to see if there were any new ARCs to be had. I spotted one at Disney Hyperion called “Big Bad”, which is a “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” book that showcases a lot of the villains from the show (we may see that in the near future on the blog, we will see!). I picked it up and said an offhanded remark along the lines of ‘well, if it has Spike in it I HAVE to pick it up’. Spike was my very favorite character on the show. He was funny, sarcastic, a bit of a dork, punk to the bone, and had a very interesting character arc that changed him from throw away villain to hero. I had a MASSIVE crush on him, he was probably my first TRUE teenage celebrity crush, the kind of crush that just sets the scene for a lot of crushes afterwards. So when the rep at the table said ‘We have a Spike book too. Do you want that as well?’, you can probably imagine how I reacted.

I was fifteen again, emotionally. (source)

And that is how I stumbled upon “Bloody Fool for Love” by William Ritter. A historical fantasy-horror heist story featuring Spike, aka William the Bloody, on a quest to get a magical artifact for his fellow vampire lady love Drusilla in early 20th Century London.

[Let’s stop here to talk about an elephant in the room: Joss Whedon. Joss Whedon is an abusive asshole, and I haven’t revisited any of his works in a very long time. Partially because of the newish information about him, partially because of my own frustration with how he wrote some of his shows, partially because there had been whisperings of his terribleness for a LONG time and it had already made me uncomfortable revisiting (like, I’m pretty sure I was aware of the disgusting Charisma Carpenter situation around the time it happened because of rumors online shortly after it all went down). I was super happy to see a lot of “Buffy” actors speak out about the toxic set, including James Marsters, who played Spike, and while I have given up on Whedon’s creative visions with his direct involvement, I want to see what other people do with these characters.]

“Bloody Fool for Love” is, as I said, a historical fiction fantasy-horror heist story, and while I am not SUPER into heist stories, it’s Spike. We established I would probably follow him through a trip to the post office, so I will happily follow him through a heist. Ritter does a really good job of picking up in the show’s lore and setting the right tone that falls between action thriller and tongue in cheek. We have a very specific moment, after Spike has killed his first slayer and after he, Drusilla, and Darla have returned from China, sans Angel. Spike is riding high on his new reputation, while Drusilla is aching for her sire and Darla is having her own existential crisis. The story captures all of these characters pretty handily, and I believed all of them in terms of voice and actions. Spike is such a fun character who, even without a soul at this point, has his moments of being complicated in his actions while still coming off with a swagger and devil may care persona, and Ritter nails it. Having him stupidly attempt to heist an ancient artifact for Drusilla, even though it will surely put a target on his back, is so on point for the character in his impulsivity and his RIDICULOUS loyalty and love for Dru, it just spot on, and I loved seeing him fly by the seat of his pants. Like I said above, Spike could really do anything and I’d be entertained, but Ritter really had a good grasp on the character and all his complexities. I also liked the rag tag group of weirdos that he recruits to help go up against the demon kingpin he’s trying to rip off, from other demons to a werewolf, as they felt like they fit into the story and the universe really well. I could see this plot line being an extended arc on the show it fits in so well.

But what I liked the most about this book, interestingly enough, had less to do with the character of Spike and more to do with the character of Darla. For those unfamiliar with the show, Darla was part of the “Fanged Four”, which included Spike, Drusilla, and Angellus/Angel. Darla was Angellus’s sire, and she served a few purposes during both the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” series and the “Angel” series. Darla is always a bit left behind in the stories on the show, even if she was the first of the group. First she was an evil ex girlfriend who basically was killed as a way to prove Angel’s new, reformed ways. Then on “Angel” she was brought back as a human with torment, only to be turned back into a vampire for ANGEL’S torment, and then she was there to be a uterus so Angel could have a son named Connor (and that whole storyline is a SHIT SHOW), who then sacrificed herself for her baby. As one can imagine, I have a lot of notes about all of this, because through the flashback sequences we do see of her throughout the two shows during their “Fanged Four” time, Darla had a LOT of potential to be super interesting, but was instead relegated to a LOT of misogynistic tropes (I reiterate my up-page point: Joss Whedon sucks). But in “Bloody Fool for Love”, Darla has her OWN storyline that gets to explore these complexities, as she is privately reeling from the loss of Angel, and having to be the ‘mom friend’ to Drusilla, a very unstable waif, and Spike, who is, bless him, a reckless dolt. Darla doesn’t want to leave these two far younger and impulsive vampires to fend for themselves, but she also wants to have her life back, and you see the mechanisms and dealings that she is making in hopes of securing a new future for herself, while also keeping her loved ones safe. I loved seeing her interact with various players, as it shows her charm, her diplomacy, her cunning, and her resiliency.

About fucking TIME this badass queen gets the respect she deserves! (source)

I will be very curious to see what other ‘fan favorite’ characters get the prequel story treatment. Spike was the clear winner to start with, as he is such a dynamic and interesting player in the “Buffy” universe, and I think that William Ritter did him right. “Bloody Fool for Love” will probably be most fun for “Buffy” fans, and as a Spike fangirl through and through I had a blast with it.

Rating 8: A truly fun standalone tale with a vampire who means SO much to me, “Bloody Fool for Love” not only brings Spike to life, it also gives another of my favorites a great romp of a story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Bloody Fool for Love” is included on the Goodreads list “Best Buffy the Vampire Slayer Books”.

Serena’s Review: “The Drowned Woods”

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Book: “The Drowned Woods” by Emily Lloyd-Jones

Publishing Info: Little Brown Books for Young Readers, August 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: Once upon a time, the kingdoms of Wales were rife with magic and conflict, and eighteen-year-old Mererid “Mer” is well-acquainted with both. She is the last living water diviner and has spent years running from the prince who bound her into his service. Under the prince’s orders, she located the wells of his enemies, and he poisoned them without her knowledge, causing hundreds of deaths. After discovering what he had done, Mer went to great lengths to disappear from his reach. Then Mer’s old handler returns with a proposition: use her powers to bring down the very prince that abused them both.

The best way to do that is to destroy the magical well that keeps the prince’s lands safe. With a motley crew of allies, including a fae-cursed young man, the lady of thieves, and a corgi that may or may not be a spy, Mer may finally be able to steal precious freedom and peace for herself. After all, a person with a knife is one thing…but a person with a cause can topple kingdoms.

Review: I absolutely loved “The Bone Houses” when it came out a few years ago. Ever since, I’ve been practically stalking the author on Goodreads to see when she’d be releasing another book. So, it’s no surprise that when this one came up on Edelweiss+, I immediately requested it and devoured it. And now, I guess I’m back to the stalking??

With great power comes great responsibility, and all of that. So when Mer discovers the prince has been using her water powers to locate enemy wells and poison them to kill civilians, she makes herself scarce. Now, having lived in the shadows, disappearing from place to place, her long-ago handler has tracked her down with a proposition: a dangerous mission, but one that could cripple the prince and his power for good. Alongside a young man with incredible fighting abilities and some connection to the Fae and a strange little corgi who could be a spy, Mer sets off to topple a kingdom.

There was a lot to love about this book! I will say, it took me a bit longer to find myself fully drawn into this story, but I think part of the reason for that is this felt like a more serious story. Not to say it wasn’t an enjoyable read, but all of the characters we meet immediately held the weight of long personal histories that still burdened them. This left them all with incredible story arcs, but the story required a bit more time invested before you fully begin to feel pulled into the story. But once there, everything was amazing. The writing is also so solid that any slow start is immediately counterbalanced by the sheer joy of reading the prose.

The author described this book as “Welsh Atlantis” at one point, and what a cool idea that was! Apparently, there is some myth of a land that used to exist off Wales but was subsumed under the waves by the mistake of a young woman and her water magic. This story is that myth but told from the perspective of the water mage. Mer was an incredible character, and the more we learn about her tragic history of betrayal after betrayal, the more we understand the slow work it is for her to trust again. I also really liked her magic. When you hear “water magic” there are some pretty obvious examples that come to mind. But while those are included, the author was also so creative with how this ability could be used in other devastating ways.

Fane was also an excellent character. Again, his fighting magic could have been an overly familiar fantasy trope, but instead the author created unique boundaries and limits on how it could be used and the price it cost Fane. His story also slowly revealed the truths of his history and his own motivations and goals moving forward. There were a couple of surprises that I definitely didn’t see coming with his role in the story.

There were two romances in this book, one was a romance of the past between Mer and an heir to the thieves guild. And then the other was the slow-burn between the Mer of the current day with Fane. Both were lovely in their own right, and I enjoyed how Mer’s experiences with her first love shaped how her feelings developed for Fane.

This book will definitely satisfy those who enjoyed “The Bone Houses,” even if it was a bit slower of a read. The epilogue, especially, had some nice connections laid out between this story and that. Though it is no way necessary to have read that book before tis one. Fantasy fans, especially those looking for a solid stand-alone story based on myth, should definitely check this one out!

Rating 9: Definitely a favorite for the year, this story pulls together everything I like: a mythical fantasy story, a slow-burn romance, and excellent character-driven arcs.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Drowned Woods” is mostly on on rather boring Goodreads lists like this one YA Releases August 2022.

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