Serena’s Review: “Blade of Secrets”

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Book: “Blade of Secrets” by Tricia Levenseller

Publishing Info: Square Fish, June 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Bookish First!

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

Book Description: Eighteen-year-old Ziva prefers metal to people. She spends her days tucked away in her forge, safe from society and the anxiety it causes her, using her magical gift to craft unique weapons imbued with power.

Then Ziva receives a commission from a powerful warlord, and the result is a sword capable of stealing its victims secrets. A sword that can cut far deeper than the length of its blade. A sword with the strength to topple kingdoms. When Ziva learns of the warlord’s intentions to use the weapon to enslave all the world under her rule, she takes her sister and flees.

Joined by a distractingly handsome mercenary and a young scholar with extensive knowledge of the world’s known magics, Ziva and her sister set out on a quest to keep the sword safe until they can find a worthy wielder or a way to destroy it entirely.

Review: I don’t have great luck with the BookishFirst giveaways; I swear, I enter so many of them and rarely win! But I was happy when I was selected to receive this book, as the description sounds right up my alley. I never got around to reading the author’s other popular duology, starting with “Daughter of the Pirate Queen,” so I thought this would be a great opportunity to check out her work and see if it was a good fit.

With people, Ziva finds she can barely manage to get a few words out. But with metal, ah, there Ziva is in her element, creating masterpieces of workmanship, each weapon imbibed with a magical trait. With her sister running the front of her stop, Ziva sees a simple life ahead of her, saving up her money until she and her sister can retire in peace, far from the bustle of the city. But when Ziva creates a weapon that forces the truth from those it makes bleed, she finds herself privy to dangerous knowledge that forces her on the run, hoping to find safe hands for such a powerful weapon.

So, while I liked the general concept of the book, it ultimately didn’t quite work for me. First off, I found the writing incredibly simplistic. This style of writing can work for some stories (and for some YA audiences, alas I no longer fit in that category), but I think it’s a particularly hard style of writing to pair with fantasy. In fantasy books, there’s often some heavy lifting needed in the world-building and the fantastical elements, all things that require skillful, descriptive writing. Here, I couldn’t describe practically anything about the setting, magic, or much at all. Without being able to form a picture in my head of what world I was meant to be inhabiting, it was very challenging to feel connected to the book at all. It was also just boring to read, with a very repetitive “noun verb pronoun” pattern to every sentence.

I also found myself feeling let down on the character front. Ziva had a lot going for her, and heaven knows I always like a sister story, too! But right off the bat I began to struggle with this representation of a character living with social anxiety. Some of her panic attacks felt as if they were described point by point from a medical definition. Beyond that, instead of Ziva feeling like a fully realized character who happens to deal with social anxiety, it instead began to feel like her social anxiety was the entire point of her character. As if her social anxiety was all that made up her entire personality and being. I applaud what the author was trying to do, but I just don’t think it worked. It doesn’t help that I have also recently read another book, “Wind Daughter,” that features a character who struggles with anxiety, and I liked that depiction much better (review to come in July!)

I also didn’t find myself caring much about any of the relationships Ziva had formed. I usually love sisters stories, but this one felt overly familiar and didn’t seem to have much new to offer. The romance was also incredibly predictable. And, again, Ziva often mentioned in her inner dialogue that she struggles to say the right thing at the right moment, and yet, at all the important (or arguably, not even that important), she’s quick to sling out the perfect verbal quip.

So yeah, this was a very disappointing read for me. Really, nothing about it worked for me. Some of this, however, is definitely because I’m not in the right audience for this, as the shorter, more simple writing style is likely to appeal to a lot of actual YA readers. But I also don’t think it was a great example of a character living with social anxiety either. Fans of this author will probably like this, but other readers can probably find better reads with similar themes.

Rating 6: A bit of a disappointment, with lackluster worldbuilding and a rather flat main character.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Blade of Secrets” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be Blacksmith/Mason/Builder Heroes.

Kate’s Review: “Never Coming Home”

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Book: “Never Coming Home” by Kate Williams

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, June 2022

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

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

Book Description: The beach read you have been dying for! When ten of America’s hottest teenage influencers are invited to an exclusive island resort, things are sure to get wild. But murder isn’t what anyone expected. Will anyone survive?

Everyone knows Unknown Island—it’s the world’s most exclusive destination. Think white sand beaches, turquoise seas, and luxury accommodations. Plus, it’s invite only, no one over twenty-one allowed, and it’s absolutely free. Who wouldn’t want to go?

After launching with a showstopping viral marketing campaign, the whole world is watching as the mysterious resort opens its doors to the First Ten, the ten elite influencers specifically chosen to be the first to experience everything Unknown Island has to offer. You know them. There’s the gamer, the beauty blogger, the rich girl, the superstar, the junior politician, the environmentalist, the DJ, the CEO, the chef, and the athlete.

What they don’t know is that they weren’t invited to Unknown Island for their following—they were invited for their secrets. Everyone is hiding a deadly one, and it looks like someone’s decided it’s payback time. Unknown Island isn’t a vacation, it’s a trap. And it’s beginning to look like the First Ten—no matter how influential—are never coming home.

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

I have various weaknesses in my entertainment, and one of those weaknesses is how I love to revel in schadenfreude of people who are kind of assholes. Especially if said assholes have influence and power and could stand to be knocked down a few pegs. I absolutely devoured both Fyre Festival documentaries and thoroughly enjoyed watching start up scam dramas like “The Dropout” and “WeCrashed”. So when I read about “Never Coming Home” by Kate Williams, and how it was taking a number of influencers, luring them to a remote island with a promise of luxury and a status resort, and then picking them off one by one because of their secrets, I was so interested. But once I started reading it, I realized that this wasn’t going to be what I wanted it to be. Which was super disappointing.

I’ll start with the positives. Namely, as someone who appreciates a good slasher movie with some creativity under its belt, “Never Coming Home” has some really gnarly kills. Why limit oneself to mere poisonings and moments that could be accidents when you could use bees (VERY “Sleepaway Camp”), or full on mutilation, or explosive bodily fluids out of various orifices (admittedly, I did not care for this one as it was way gross)? Williams clearly had a fun time thinking of nasty deaths for the various nasty players, and that I can and will tip my hat off to. And there is so much potential here. The whole concept of Influencers being taken to a Fyre Festival-esque hoax that is really a trap to pick each of them off is just SO tantalizing!

God DAMMIT I wanted this to rock SO BADLY! (source)

But now let’s talk about the negatives. Firstly, the characters. I know that there are definitely limitations on how much attention you can pay to each character in a “And Then There Were None” kind of story, since you have a big victim pool and only so many pages unless you want to go “War and Peace” in terms of length. But in “Never Coming Home”, I didn’t feel like I got to know anyone very well, and what we did see were very two dimensional and tropey characterizations for almost everyone. You had the cartoon villainy of a scheming CEO to the poor little princess rich girl to the superstar with more depth than people realize, and with maybe one or two exceptions, none of them stretched beyond their archetypes. No one was very likable or even fun to hate, and since they all get picked off one by one it felt like a slasher movie cast but without the suspense. Even a good slasher movie will give you something in SOME of the characters so that you have investment in them while others are just there to be meat sacks. This book didn’t give us much of that. I know that I’m absolutely not the target audience, but I would like to give teen readers a little more credit than this.

I also had a hard time suspending a lot of my disbelief when it came to some of these characters and their influencer, well, influence. They’re all under twenty but are wunderkinds in one way or another in ways that feel half baked. Be it the woman-centric email start up to the character who was listed as being a former Minneapolis City Council member on the ‘cast of characters’ reference page (and he’s under twenty?! IN WHAT WARD I ASK YOU? There’s been a LOT about the Minneapolis City Council and its dynamics and members in the news here in the Metro as of late and I just don’t believe this kid pulled a Ben Wyatt in MINNEAPOLIS), I couldn’t swallow it. I just couldn’t. Perhaps had they been aged up a bit it would have rang more true, but then it wouldn’t fit as a YA novel, I suppose.

And finally, I hate it when a book feels a need to just write the entire solution out instead of showing us the way. And “Never Coming Home” has an entire last section that does exactly that. It just spells out who the killer is, how they got away with it, and what their motivation was. I’m not saying that I needed a villain monologue or anything like that, but this is the second “And Then There Were None” retelling that did this. Given that I haven’t read “And Then There Were None” I could be missing something. Is that how the solution comes through in “And Then There Were None”? That could be more forgivable if so, but the problem is that it still feels like a great big info dump that brings the story’s pacing to a screeching halt.

“Never Coming Home” was a big ol’ let down. Again, I’m not the target audience so I very well may be missing the mark here, and it may go over better with others. But I was just disappointed by this one.

Rating 4: This just didn’t work for me. Between the underdeveloped characters and the overdone premise it failed to capture my interest.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Never Coming Home” isn’t on many Goodreads lists yet, but it would fit in on “‘And Then There Were None’ Trope Novels”.

Kate’s Review: “Burn Down, Rise Up”

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Book: “Burn Down, Rise Up” by Vincent Tirado

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Fire, May 2022

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

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

Book Description: Stranger Things meets Get Out in this Sapphic Horror debut from nonbinary, Afro-Latine author Vincent Tirado.

Mysterious disappearances.
An urban legend rumored to be responsible.
And one group of teens determined to save their city at any cost.

For over a year, the Bronx has been plagued by sudden disappearances that no one can explain. Sixteen-year-old Raquel does her best to ignore it. After all, the police only look for the white kids. But when her crush Charlize’s cousin goes missing, Raquel starts to pay attention—especially when her own mom comes down with a mysterious illness that seems linked to the disappearances.

Raquel and Charlize team up to investigate, but they soon discover that everything is tied to a terrifying urban legend called the Echo Game. The game is rumored to trap people in a sinister world underneath the city, and the rules are based on a particularly dark chapter in New York’s past. And if the friends want to save their home and everyone they love, they will have to play the game and destroy the evil at its heart—or die trying.

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

If I had a dollar for every moment I saw firsthand someone kvetch about the horror genre ‘becoming woke’ or other such nonsense, I don’t think I’d have a LOT of money, but it would be enough to buy me a nice dinner downtown. I do know that people have been complaining about how more and more horror stories seem to be bringing social issues into plots, but that’s just a dumb frustration because horror has always had its political and sociological angles, for better or for worse. I haven’t heard any such beef with Vicent Tirado’s new teen horror novel “Burn Down, Rise Up”, though I wouldn’t be shocked if it was out there. But the political and sociological possibilities in the horror genre are things that I am always on the look out for, so when read the description for this book I was VERY intrigued. This country has a lot to reckon with when it comes to racist policies and ideals, and putting some of those issues within The Bronx at the forefront WHILE mixing in a deadly Internet game horror story was too interesting to miss. And hey, there’s nothing wrong with a solid history lesson for readers of any age. “Burn Down, Rise Up” has that to be sure.

Given that I am a huge fan of Internet Creepypastas that have these urban legend game factors (such as The Elevator Game or Hide and Seek Alone), there was a lot to like about “Burn Down, Rise Up”. I thought that Tirado did their due diligence when it came to inventing an Internet urban legend game, with nods to real life inspirations while still feeling fairly unique and fresh. I liked the rules, I liked the eerie creepiness of the game itself, and I liked how Tirado worked history of racist policy, violence, and destruction of the Bronx into the game. It’s the history of the Bronx and the violence directed towards Black and Latine people that has the most horrors here, as the beings in this Echo are victims of the fires that plagued the Bronx in the 1970s and 1980s and were the result of redlining, inadequate infrastructure, slumlords, and other systemic oppression that made for a dangerous situation in which many buildings burned and many Black and brown people were displaced. Some of the creatures and ghouls that Raquel and her friends meet in The Echo are very clear representations of this, with many burned entities wandering around to a Slumlord antagonist to black mold-esque infections ravaging people beyond the Echo into our world. In terms of actual action and mythos of the Echo, I thought that those points were a bit underdeveloped, with the metaphors being really strong and interesting but the actual supernatural parts being undercooked. I also would have loved a bit more exploration into Raquel’s father’s connections and devotions to Santeria, and more exploration of her own psychic abilities.

As for the characters, I liked Raquel a lot, as she is trying to navigate a sick mother, a despondent friend/crush, and the conflict between her and her best friend Aaron as they both have a crush on Charlize (though he doesn’t know of her feelings). A lot of the obstacles and conflicts she faces of being a teenager, especially an Afro-Latine teenager at that, felt pretty well thought out. Whether it’s anxiety about her feelings for Charlize and whether they are reciprocated or the understandable skittishness of dealing with the NYPD as they investigate Charlize’s cousin Cisco’s disappearance, I knew Raquel as a character and understood her motivations and feelings in the moments of the plot. I was also very interested in one of the entities in the Echo that has been connecting with Raquel referred to as a Man in Corduroy, as while he is creepy and mysterious there is an intriguing essence to him through his dialogue and actions, a morally grey feel that I really liked. Everyone else was serviceable, though perhaps not as well rounded.

All in all, “Burn Down, Rise Up” had some good mythos and some well thought out connections to some dark and racist social history in the Bronx. I liked how Tirado examined this while showing how vibrant and close knit her characters, and the Bronx itself, are. A fun horror that I will definitely be recommending to teens.

Rating 7: A fun horror tale that takes Internet urban legends into politically conscious territory, though some of the supernatural elements are a bit underdeveloped.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Burn Down, Rise Up” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Black Lives Matter”, and “Horror/Thriller Books by Black Authors”.

Serena’s Review: “Echo North”

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Book: “Echo North” by Joanna Ruth Meyer

Publishing Info: Page Street Publishing Co., January 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

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

Book Description: Echo Alkaev’s safe and carefully structured world falls apart when her father leaves for the city and mysteriously disappears. Believing he is lost forever, Echo is shocked to find him half-frozen in the winter forest six months later, guarded by a strange talking wolf—the same creature who attacked her as a child. The wolf presents Echo with an ultimatum: If she lives with him for one year, he will ensure her father makes it home safely. But there is more to the wolf than Echo realizes.

In his enchanted house beneath a mountain, each room must be sewn together to keep the home from unraveling, and something new and dark and strange lies behind every door. When centuries-old secrets unfold, Echo discovers a magical library full of books-turned-mirrors, and a young man named Hal who is trapped inside of them. As the year ticks by, the rooms begin to disappear, and Echo must solve the mystery of the wolf’s enchantment before her time is up, otherwise Echo, the wolf, and Hal will be lost forever.

Review: I’ve always loved the fairytale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” but for some reason, it’s one of those stories that has proven difficult to adapt and reimagine. I’ve read quite a few re-tellings over the years but have never found one that really clicked for me. But hope springs eternal, so I’ve had my eyes on this one for a bit. When I saw that there was a companion book coming out in May, I knew now was the time so that I’d have a chance to read that one, too, if I ended up liking it. Well, I have my ARC in hand for book two, so there’s your spoiler for what I thought of this book ultimately!

Echo believes her father is lost forever when he leaves home and doesn’t return for six months. So she is shocked to discover him one day in the woods, near death. More surprising still, he is guarded by a talking wolf who promises to save her father if Echo comes and lives with him for a year. She agrees and so starts a year filled with magical wonders and horrors, all found in a mysterious house within a hill. There, Echo grows closer and closer to the wolf and a mysterious man found in the magical library. But she strains against some of the magical rules of this realm, and when she breaks one near the end of her time, she begins an entirely new adventure.

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve read a decent number of adaptations of this fairytale. One of the particular challenges of this story, I think, is the turn it takes about halfway through the tale. The heroine is instructed to never look at the face of the man who sleeps beside her every night. And then, of course, she does, and this is what sets off the second act of the story where she must travel north to battle the troll queen to save her love. So it’s a bit challenging to write a heroine who is doomed to make what seems like a really silly mistake. Of all the magical challenges that you see heroes/heroines tasked with in fairytales, simply not looking at someone at night is about as easy as it gets. And the reasoning for these heroines making this mistake is often weak and hard to recover from. But that’s one of the best things this book did!

Echo’s story is different than the classic tale in a few ways, and I don’t want to spoil them all here. But I do think the author did a much better job than her contemporaries have for providing Echo with a reason for making this mistake. It’s both understandable and doesn’t harm our perception of her going forward. Instead, it’s easy to understand making the exact same decision she does, given the circumstances of her year in the magical house and her connection with the wolf and mysterious man she meets in the library regularly.

The story also took a very surprising twist in the final third of the book. I don’t want to spoil it, so I can’t say much about it. But it was an aspect of the story that I didn’t see coming at all, and one that also managed to tie up a few loose ends that I had been wondering about previously. There was, however, another revelation that came about in this twist that I thought impacted the romance in a pretty negative way. The book works through Echo’s thoughts and feelings pretty well, but as a reader, I was less forgiving of the fall-out of this twist than she seemed to be. It left a kind of sour note in my mouth, all the more disappointing because it came right at the end as the story seemed to be ready to end on a super high note.

Overall, despite this last second reveal that I disliked, the book was an excellent retelling of this fairytale. Definitely the best one I’ve read so far (I’ll just scrub my mind of that last little bit). That being the case, I’m very excited to read the second book! We briefly meet the protagonist of that story here, and her situation seems just as compelling. Fans of fairytale retellings should definitely check this one out!

Rating 8: Despite a misstep at the end (a very subjective one, at that), the best “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” story I’ve read so far!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Echo North” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Polar Fantasy and East of the Sun and West of the Moon.

Serena’s Review: “Hotel Magnifique”

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Book: “Hotel Magnifique” by Emily J. Taylor

Publishing Info: Razorbill, April 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: All her life, Jani has dreamed of Elsewhere. Just barely scraping by with her job at a tannery, she’s resigned to a dreary life in the port town of Durc, caring for her younger sister Zosa. That is, until the Hotel Magnifique comes to town.

The hotel is legendary not only for its whimsical enchantments, but also for its ability to travel—appearing in a different destination every morning. While Jani and Zosa can’t afford the exorbitant costs of a guest’s stay, they can interview to join the staff, and are soon whisked away on the greatest adventure of their lives. But once inside, Jani quickly discovers their contracts are unbreakable and that beneath the marvelous glamour, the hotel is hiding dangerous secrets.

With the vexingly handsome doorman Bel as her only ally, Jani embarks on a mission to unravel the mystery of the magic at the heart of the hotel and free Zosa—and the other staff—from the cruelty of the ruthless maître d’hôtel. To succeed, she’ll have to risk everything she loves, but failure would mean a fate far worse than never returning home.

Review: Sometimes, it really doesn’t take much to lure readers in. And publishers know that! For example, look at the number of times something was compared to “Six of Crows” in YA fiction over the last few years? Unfortunately for book marketers, that particular tactic has backfired for me and now I tend to avoid books that are marketed with this tag like they’re the plague. But I still have a weak spot for my beloved “The Night Circus,” as do a lot of readers I think. So, well played marketers, well played. Luckily for me (and good for them!), this book actually deserves the comparison. It might not be on the same level of quality as “The Night Circus,” but it’s a solid comparison, especially for a YA audience.

Jani has been working hard to achieve one goal and one goal only: to return her sister and herself to their homeland which they left on impulse after their mother died. So when a magical hotel known for its exclusive and fantastical experiences appears in town and places a “help wanted” ad, Jani sees this as a welcome opportunity to not only secure employment but see the world at the same time. You see, this hotel skips from location to location every night, exposing its guests to sights barely imagined. But when Jani and her sister secure themselves a position, Jani begins to suspect there may be a darker side lingering beneath the feats of incredible magic. Now, with her sister trapped in a magical bargain, Jani teams up with the strange doorman to attempt to free them both from powerful forces that may have been at work in the world for much longer than she ever could have imagined.

So, I was actually surprised by how much I enjoyed this book! I’ve been starting to think recently that I may have outgrown YA fantasy, having more often than not found myself not enjoying these books as much as their adult counterparts. But along came this book to prove that, while there were still elements here that are representative of some of the problems I have with YA fantasy, I can still enjoy this subgenre pretty thoroughly!

I think it started out with Jani herself. And her sister, of course. I obviously have a weak spot for sisters stories, and while Zosa is off page for large chunks of this story, she’s never far from Jani’s mind. Indeed, it is reinforced throughout the book that it is Jani’s determined love for her sister that makes her willing to challenge dangers that others have not dared to face. That love is such a strong force that the villainous elements behind the hotel have worked against love itself for decades. It’s a lovely message, and Jani’s strength and determination, even in the face of almost impossible challenges, makes her a great main character.

I also really liked the idea of the Hotel Magnifique itself. There was an interesting twist here with regards to the typical “outlawed magic” trope that one sees so much of. Here, while magic is considered too dangerous to exist in society, the world has found this one outlet: a magical hotel that contains all of the wonder, and danger, within its walls, allowing people to experience magic without worrying about it in their day-to-day life. There was also a very interesting history built up around how the Hotel came to exist and the stories behind those who work within it.

I do think the writing began to fail the concept a bit with some of the descriptions of these fantastical wonders. I couldn’t quite picture how a number of these things looked or worked. Obviously, it’s magic, so I don’t need the physics to work or anything like that. But there were several instances where I actually couldn’t picture how these things looked or how the guests of the hotel were able to interact with them. It got so distracting that by a certain point in the book, I started skim reading some of these descriptive passages. They weren’t overly important and since I couldn’t really understand what I was supposed to be picturing, it was better to just focus on the plot portions.

The love story was also hit and miss. Objectively, there was actually a lot to like about this. It wasn’t instalove by any means, so huge props just on that fact alone. And then I liked how, even well into the book, Bel and Jani are very much their own characters with their own motivations and lines in the sand. Their burgeoning feelings for each other don’t magically overrun the years of previous lived experience they both have had. But for some reason, I also was never super invested in this romance. Looking back, I think I’m fine with that, though, especially considering how nice it was to see a romance that was not all-consuming of its participants.

I also really liked the magical mystery and threat. I was able to predict a number of aspects here, but the story definitely managed to shock and surprise me at times. There were a number of instances where the story was a lot more dark than was I expecting. Again, I think some of the descriptive failings watered down the final confrontation scene a bit. But I was still mostly pleased with how it played out.

I think this was a pretty solid entry in YA fantasy. Like I said, while it’s no “The Night Circus,” there are definitely similarities, and I think this will be a hit with a lot of YA fantasy fans.

Rating 8: A bit weak in its descriptive qualities, but an inspiring main character and compelling magical mystery make it well worth a read!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Hotel Magnifique” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Debuts in 2022 and Judging Books by Their Covers.

Kate’s Review: “Himawari House”

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Book: “Himawari House” by Harmony Becker

Publishing Info: First Second, November 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

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

Book Description: Living in a new country is no walk in the park.

When Nao returns to Tokyo to reconnect with her Japanese heritage, she books a yearlong stay at the Himawari sharehouse. There she meets Hyejung and Tina, two other girls who came to Japan to freely forge their own paths. The trio live together, share meals, and even attend the same Japanese-language school, which results in them becoming fast friends. But will they be able to hold one another up as life tests them with new loves, old heartbreaks, and the everyday challenges of being fish out of water?

Review: One of my big regrets from my youth is that I never did a study abroad program through school. My anxiety was too big of a hurdle to overcome, as was my mild separation anxiety from my loved ones when we’re apart for extended periods of time. So I like to read stories about people who take the leap, even if it makes me feel a certain sense of melancholy. So reading “Himawari House” by Harmony Becker was one of those books where I enjoyed seeing others do what I never did, even if their reasons and experiences would have been wholly different from my own had I taken the leap.

“Himawari House” follows three young women who are living in a house share in Japan. Nao is a Japanese born American who has come back to try to reconnect to her roots. Tina is from Singapore and was looking for a change. And Hyejung is from Korea and was looking for a new start. All of them end up at Himawari House as they do their schooling, and a strong friendship forms. We get to know each of them, as well as their growing pains, their motivations, their struggles, and their triumphs. While most of the focus is on Nao, Becker is sure to give a lot of page time to both Tina and Hyejung, and to explore how self discovery can span across cultures for young people. I loved seeing all of them get to know each other, and come to terms with the things that have happened in the past, and how they support each other through and through. There is a little bit of romance in this story for the three of them, but it never feels forced or unnecessary, nor does it feel like it takes focus off of their other threads.

I also liked some of the issues that Becker touched upon, specifically that of Nao who has been living in America for most of her life but was born in Japan. We see that because of her race and country of origin she never felt like she fit in in the U.S., as those around her saw her Japanese heritage first and foremost. But when she arrives in Japan, she is seen as an American first and foremost, and therefore she doesn’t feel like she really fits in anywhere when it comes to her greater cultural experiences. This made her found family in Himawari House all the more touching, and following her year with her new friends and loved ones is joyful, as well as bittersweet in some ways as the story moves forward. I also liked Hyejung’s backstory exploration, as being from Korea her experience was different from Nou’s, but had similar themes as well. For Hyejung her decision to go to Japan has put a rift between her and her parents, and seeing her struggle with missing them but also knowing that she may not be welcomed by them due to her decision is just heart-wrenching.

And I really loved the artwork. I’ve seen Becker’s artistry before, as she did the illustrations for George Takei’s graphic memoir “They Called Us Enemy”, and the style once again paired perfectly with the content, as different as it was from that previous work. I loved the influence of manga styles into the story during various moments of emotion, along with the more traditional and realistic artwork. I also REALLY liked how Becker did the speech bubbles, having both the language that the character is speaking in as well as the English translation in moments where that was what was going on.

(source: First Second)

I found “Himawari House” funny, relatable, joyful, and sweet. This tale of friendship and self discovery is a must read for graphic novel fans.

Rating 8: A charming and sweet coming of age tale about finding yourself as a stranger in a strange land.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Himawari House” isn’t included on many Goodreads lists, but I think it would fit in on “Let’s Japan!”.

Kate’s Review: “Very Bad People”

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Book: “Very Bad People” by Kit Frick

Publishing Info: Margaret K. McElderry Books, April 2022

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

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

Book Description: In this dark academia young adult thriller for fans of The Female of the Species and People Like Us, a teen girl’s search for answers about her mother’s mysterious death leads to a powerful secret society at her new boarding school—and a dangerous game of revenge that will leave her forever changed.

Six years ago, Calliope Bolan’s mother drove the family van into a lake with her three daughters inside. The girls escaped, but their mother drowned, and the truth behind the “accident” remains a mystery Calliope is determined to solve. Now sixteen, she transfers to Tipton Academy, the same elite boarding school her mother once attended. Tipton promises a peek into the past and a host of new opportunities—including a coveted invitation to join Haunt and Rail, an exclusive secret society that looms over campus like a legend. Calliope accepts, stepping into the exhilarating world of the “ghosts,” a society of revolutionaries fighting for social justice. But when Haunt and Rail commits to exposing a dangerous person on campus, it becomes clear that some ghosts define justice differently than others.

As the society’s tactics escalate, Calliope uncovers a possible link between Haunt and Rail and her mother’s deadly crash. Now, she must question what lengths the society might go to in order to see a victory—and if the secret behind her mother’s death could be buried here at Tipton.

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

I had some pretty grand plans for myself nearing the end of March. I secured a solo trip up to the North Shore, bringing a book stack and my Kindle and thinking that I’d spend my days in nature and my evenings reading… Well, my faith in good weather was foolhardy, as that first day it was snowing and the wind chill made the temperatures outside feel like it was 18 degrees. I don’t know why I didn’t consider that, being Minnesota and all. But it DID mean that I got a LOT of reading done, and when I sat down with Kit Frick’s newest book “Very Bad People”, I found myself tearing through my eARC. The pacing was great! The mysteries were appropriately engaging! We had a secret society with some potentially nefarious members! Spending all the time inside was turning out okay for me…. Until we once again hit the dreaded ‘and it all falls apart in the last third of the book’ situation.

As per my usual strategy, I’m going to start with what I liked. And the potential for this story just oozes off the page. It has so many things that work for me on paper. I love boarding school thrillers, I love people who get in over their heads in frog in the boiling water situations, and I love moral ambiguity and questions. I also really liked Calliope as our main character, as she felt rounded and real and like someone who would be completely into being included in a secret society like Haunt and Rail. I also liked the school history and history of the secret society as a whole. On top of that, it was so fast paced and engaging that I was eager to see what was going to happen next, and how the connection of Haunt and Rail across the generations was going to come into play.

But I just didn’t like how a couple of the big arcs shook out. Like, at all. And I’m not certain if it had to do with the structure and set up feeling unbalanced with the conclusions, or straight up personal preference on my part and my own sore spots and biases coloring my judgement. I’m half tempted to go on a rant here, but am also kind of not wanting to spoil anything because I think that people would probably do better with it than I did…. What the hell, let’s just go half and half and throw in a

Skip to the next paragraph if you so choose (source)

The book opens with a recounting of the tragedy that has haunted Calliope for a few years: the car accident that killed her mother and nearly killed her and her two sisters. There has always been question as to what happened, as Calliope was asleep, and her two sisters either couldn’t remember what happened or was two young to do so. Calliope sees a man in town during a trek from the Tipton grounds, has her memory jumped, and is convinced she saw him the day of the accident. She starts trying to piece together who he was, as well as his connection to her mother, AS WELL AS her mother’s connection to the Haunt and Rail Society, which leads to the supposedly accidental death of another student during her mother’s time in the club. Calliope starts to surmise that perhaps the Haunt and Rail members had something to do with the student’s death, and her mother’s death was actually someone trying to shut her up. It’s a great premise….. But it isn’t the case. What IS the case is that Calliope’s mother was ACTUALLY LEAVING HER HUSBAND FOR HER HIGH SCHOOL BOYFRIEND AND TAKING THE KIDS WITH HER ON THE DAY OF THE CRASH. It’s all coincidence. And it’s awful. It immediately turned me off from the mother as a character who was, until that point, a formative and powerful drive for Calliope and her connection to the Haunt and Rail assholes. I get what Frick was trying to do, to say that some things are random and terrible (and it does have another connecting point, ultimately), but it left such a sour taste in my mouth. I don’t even think of myself as some kind of Puritanical scold, but once it was revealed how profoundly selfish the mother was being in wanting to uproot her kids from the life they knew with their father (with no indication that he’s a bad or even emotionally incompatible guy; HE SEEMS LIKE A REALLY GOOD LOVING GUY?), with NO actual exploration into her motivations outside of ‘oh, my high school boyfriend is back in my life and THAT’S EXCITING’, it wrecked that entire thread. Okay, I’m not going to elaborate further into the other reveals and twists and turns, but that was just too much. It derailed the emotional crux.

And then a lot of the other characters were frustrating and shrill in their characterizations, especially some of the Haunt and Rail members. It wasn’t even that their motivations and thoughts were things I disagreed with. I found myself quite sympathetic to the matter at hand, as a matter of fact! But I didn’t think that Frick did the due diligence to show enough complexity to their ‘arbiters of justice in their own minds’ themes until too far into the narrative. By then I had kind of stopped caring about their motivations and was more blinded by how their zealotry was damaging to those who didn’t deserve it, and I don’t think that it was properly grappled with.

Talk about running off the rails. There was so much promise with this book for the first two thirds. I don’t want to discourage anyone from reading it too much because it could just be a ‘me’ thing.

Rating 5: Lots of built up momentum and promise ends with a couple of clunker reveals.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Very Bad People” is included on the Goodreads lists “2022 YA Mysteries and Thrillers”, and would fit in on “Academia, Magic, and Secret Societies”.

Kate’s Review: “My Dearest Darkest”

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Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “My Dearest Darkest” by Kayla Cottingham

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Fire, March 2022

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

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

Book Description: WILDER GIRLS meets THE CRAFT in this Sapphic horror debut that asks: What price would you be willing to pay to achieve your deepest desires?

Finch Chamberlin is the newest transfer student to the ultra-competitive Ulalume Academy… but she’s also not what she seems. Months before school started, Finch and her parents got into an accident that should have left her dead at the bottom of a river. But something monstrous, and ancient, and terrifying, wouldn’t let her drown. Finch doesn’t know why she woke up after her heart stopped, but since dying she’s felt a constant pull from the school and the surrounding town of Rainwater, like something on the island is calling to her.

Selena St. Clair sees right through Finch, and she knows something is seriously wrong with her. But despite Selena’s suspicion, she feels drawn to Finch and has a sinking feeling that from now on the two will be inexplicably linked to one another.

One night Finch, Selena, and her friends accidentally summon a carnivorous creature of immense power in the depths of the school. It promises to grant every desire the girls have kept locked away in their insecure hearts―beauty, power, adoration―in exchange for a price: human body parts. But as the cost of their wanting becomes more deadly, Finch and Selena must learn to work together to stop the horror they unleashed, before it consumes the entire island

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

As someone who loves horror as well as soapy academic settings, it’s probably not a big surprise that “My Dearest Darkest” by Kayla Cottingham grabbed by attention based on that summary alone. She also had me at the promise of a Sapphic romance with hints of “The Craft”, a film that I hold near and dear to my heart (and which will be referenced again soon on this blog…). I hopped into this horror novel with certain expectations, and while there were a couple stumbles here and there, there was a lot of potential and lot that was well executed.

I’m actually going against my usual process and will opt to start with the negative first, mostly because I feel like the positives are greater in the long run and I want to tackle them second. In terms of characterization, “My Dearest Darkest” is a little more on the weaker side than I was hoping for. I really liked misunderstood ‘bad’ girl Selena St. Clair, as her inner conflicts regarding toxic friendships, fear of rejection due to her bisexuality, and hardened spirit due to a traumatic event at the hands of someone she trusted makes for a complex character. She’s rough around the edges, but you also see just how big her heart is. Selena is the exception to the following critique. Everyone else is just kinda dull, from Selena’s mean girl friends to Finch, the new girl who has a strange connection to Nerosi, a strange being that has awakened on the school grounds who can grant favors to those who ask, if only for something in return. Finch has tragic background and a connection to a supernatural threat, but compared to Selena she fades a bit, falling back on meek characteristics we’ve seen many times before. I liked Selena and Finch as a burgeoning pair, but that, again, may have more to do with Selena. And don’t even get me started on various side characters, who are just there to provide exposition when convenient and little else.

But the horror elements. My GOSH the horror elements! Cottingham is not messing around here, bringing in multiple subgenres like body horror, Gothic horror, and Cosmic horror with some ghosties for good measure, and it all works really well. I wasn’t really sure of what to expect in this regard, as sometimes YA authors err on the side of caution and make horror moments a little less intense, hedging their bets in case there are readers who may need some restraint. Not this book. There were multiple moments where I was like ‘oh shit!’, from people pulling their teeth out, to descriptions of cosmic limbs in all their tentacled disgustingness, to a VERY creepy moment with a ghostly being that moved in jerky, uneven spurts. Which is totally one of the things in horror movies that really freaks me out.

It certainly didn’t help that I had just rewatched “Kairo”, the movie with this scene which nearly gave me a panic attack the first time I saw it. (source)

I also liked the Nerosi mythology and mystery, from an eight eyed stag familiar that brings nothing but trouble to an urban legend about a band that may be based in truth who disappeared years prior. At the end of the day, I pick up a horror novel because I want to be scared in some way, shape or form, and there isn’t any question that “My Dearest Darkest” was super creepy, with knowing nods to Lovecraftian ideas as well as the likes of “The Craft” and “Jennifer’s Body”. And what a glorious amalgamation it makes.

So while I thought that a lot of the characters were pretty cardboard in their execution, I really did like the horror elements, which elevated the book over all. I am very interested to see what Kayla Cottingham comes out with next, because their horror prowess is pretty solid!

Rating 7: While some of the characters felt a bit two dimensional and stiff, there was plenty of gnarly body and cosmic horror to make up for it!

Reader’s Advisory:

“My Dearest Darkest” is included on the Goodreads lists “Spooky Books with Bi Characters”, and “Queer Horror”.

Serena’s Review: “A Thousand Steps into Night”

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Book: “A Thousand Steps into Night” by Traci Chee

Publishing Info: Clarion Books, March 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: In the realm of Awara, where gods, monsters, and humans exist side by side, Miuko is an ordinary girl resigned to a safe, if uneventful, existence as an innkeeper’s daughter. But when Miuko is cursed and begins to transform into a demon with a deadly touch, she embarks on a quest to reverse the curse and return to her normal life. Aided by a thieving magpie spirit and continuously thwarted by a demon prince, Miuko must outfox tricksters, escape demon hunters, and negotiate with feral gods if she wants to make it home again. But with her transformation comes power and freedom she never even dreamed of, and she’ll have to decide if saving her soul is worth trying to cram herself back into an ordinary life that no longer fits her… and perhaps never did.

Review: I’ve had really good luck recently with Asian fairytales (see: “The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea”). Not only have the stories been knock-outs, but the covers have been to die for! And this cover is right up there with the rest; just lovely. And while it didn’t quite hit the highs I was looking for, it was still a solid read and a definite recommendation for those looking for fairytale-like stories not based on Western myths or set in the West.

While Miuko has never fit into her small, dying village (too loud, too honest, too willing to push the limited boundaries given to women), she has resigned herself to life as an innkeeper’s daughter. Her father, at least, is loving if a bit bemused by his extraordinary daughter. However, when she comes across a demon one late night on the road who curses her to slowly turn into a demon herself, Miuko is forced to flee in search of a cure. On the way, she picks up a magpie shape-shifter friend and learns that she may not be the only one suffering a detrimental curse.

While this book wasn’t quite what I hoped it would be, it was still a fast, fun read. What stood out to me immediately when starting this book was just how funny it was! I wasn’t really expecting that at all, but the book had me laughing out loud at times. What was especially clever about these amusing aspects were that they were strewn across the story and characters, not simply restricted to dialogue, something you often see with authors who rely on their characters’ sarcasm to carry the comedy load. Instead, the narration itself was funny, and you would even find jokes imbedded in the footnotes.

Yes, footnotes. That was a very unique aspect of the story. At first, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the style choice to include footnotes in an otherwise fairly straightforward fantasy story. But in the end, I think they really worked. For one thing, they allowed the author to use much more of the original language without worrying that readers were not picking up on important aspects of the story or nuances between concepts. Some readers may find them distracting, but for me, they worked very well. And, like I said before, the author was smart enough to continue her light-hearted tone even into these parts of the story.

I also really liked our main character, Muiko, and her pal, the magpie shapeshifter, Geiki. Muiko was immediately relatable, but it was really when Geiki came onto the scene that the characters fell into place for me. The two had a great rapport, and Geiki himself was the funniest part of the entire book. There’s no romance in this book (something that I always want to see, but that’s purely subjective). But I do think that these two and their friendship served as a solid stand-in for a romantic plotline. And it’s always good to see books that focus on different relationships as their central relationship, like friendships and sibling relations.

My main critiques of the story comes down to the pacing and some of the choices made in the middle of the book. It does take a bit for the story to get going, but I found that I was invested enough in Muiko to wait out this slow start. On the other hand, towards the middle of the book, the story started to feel a bit formulaic and predictable. Muiko and Geiki seem to go on a near-endless number of side quests essentially. Not only did these begin to add up, but the theme of them all began to feel a bit too predictable at times, with capital “L” lessons. I get that the society found in this book is very patriarchal and the author was looking to explore the various ways that women and others suffer under such a limited culture, most particularly in their very ability to live safely. But at a certain point, it began to feel like the author had a checklist that she was working through, so much so that the plot began to feel more like a device than an organic story that explored these concepts in a natural way.

Overall, however, I thought this was a really fun read. Even if I had a few critiques about it, it’s very likely that other fantasy fans will find it perfectly enjoyable as is. Honestly, the footnotes will probably be the biggest controversial item in the book, with some readers loving them and others hating them.

Rating 8: A fun, unique fantasy novel with an excellent leading character and one of the best side-kicks I’ve read in a while!

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Thousand Steps into Night” can be found on this Goodreads list: 2022 Book Releases by Asian Authors

Serena’s Review: “Gallant”

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Book: “Gallant by V.E. Schwab

Publishing Info: Greenwillow Books, March 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: Everything casts a shadow. Even the world we live in. And as with every shadow, there is a place where it must touch. A seam, where the shadow meets its source.

Olivia Prior has grown up in Merilance School for girls, and all she has of her past is her mother’s journal—which seems to unravel into madness. Then, a letter invites Olivia to come home—to Gallant. Yet when Olivia arrives, no one is expecting her. But Olivia is not about to leave the first place that feels like home, it doesn’t matter if her cousin Matthew is hostile or if she sees half-formed ghouls haunting the hallways.

Olivia knows that Gallant is hiding secrets, and she is determined to uncover them. When she crosses a ruined wall at just the right moment, Olivia finds herself in a place that is Gallant—but not. The manor is crumbling, the ghouls are solid, and a mysterious figure rules over all. Now Olivia sees what has unraveled generations of her family, and where her father may have come from.

Olivia has always wanted to belong somewhere, but will she take her place as a Prior, protecting our world against the Master of the House? Or will she take her place beside him?

Review: Though some of her books have been a bit of a miss for me, V.E. Schwab is firmly on my “must read” list. Even those books that I didn’t love still always had superb writing and creative fantastical ideas. And then there’s the fact that these less liked books are far and away the more rare for me. Typically, I’ve really adored her writing and own several of her books outright. But when a book hasn’t hit for me, it’s typically come from her YA fare. So, while I was super excited to see a new book coming out, I was a bit more nervous than I typically would be when I saw that this was marketed as YA. Luckily, that wasn’t an issue here! Is that because I’d argue this might not be YA?

Olivia dreams of what every orphan child dreams of: a home and a family who want her. But at age 14, she’s well aware that all she has left in this world, truly, is her mother’s cryptic journal. So no one is more surprised than she when a letter suddenly arrives at her orphanage calling Olivia home to Gallant. But when she arrives, though she does discover family, she realizes that not only did her unwelcoming cousin Mathew not send the letter, but that he seems almost desperate for her to leave as soon as possible. When she stumbles into a shadowy world mirroring Gallant itself, she begins to suspect that there is more to the old house and her family’s history than she ever could have imagined.

This book was marketed as a Gothic “The Secret Garden,” and I can definitely see that all over this book. It’s also notable that V.E. Schwab is something of an old hand at penning these type of overlaying, mirrored worlds. This same concept is at the heart of her popular “Shades of Magic” trilogy, so it was fun seeing her return to that same fantasy element. But, true to her being a very talented author, she does so in a way that it is original and stands completely separate from that trilogy.

For one thing, I’d argue that this book is more Middle Grade than YA. The protagonist, Oliva, is definitely on the younger side of teenage-dom. And, not that all YA books require romance by any means, but the story itself is fully devoid of any love story, something that is rare in typical YA fantasy fare. The themes of the story, family, home, the understanding of choosing the way we move forward into a more adult world, are all of the sort that I think would appeal greatly to Middle Grade audiences. Some of the fantasy elements are a bit dark, but I’d think the average middle grader would be up for it.

Olivia was an excellent main character. She is a character who has grown up without the ability to communicate verbally. She can hear but must use sign language or writing to speak with those around her. It’s telling of Schwab’s abilities that she was able to write such a complex character and story while relying on minimal dialogue. Instead, she finds a variety of ways for Olivia to communicate. But while doing this, the author also explores the way that those without a voice can be easily silenced and dismissed, speaking to a power imbalance that many may not even be aware of.

I really liked Gallant and its shadow-world as well. The Gothic overtones were high, with secret passages, moldering rooms hinting of past grandeur slowly sinking into decrepitude, and haunted forms flitting in and out of rooms. The history of the house and Olivia’s family was also very interesting. I especially appreciated the use of a selection of abstract artwork that is sprinkled throughout the story to add another layer to the story unfolding on the page.

I did have to drop the rating down a bit by the time I got to the end, however. While the quality of the storytelling, world-building, and characterization were high throughout, by the time I finished the last page I was left with a sense of feeling a bit unmoored. When I think back on the book, I’m not sure I can see a real point to the story. That, and the fact that I feel like the ending didn’t so much conclude a story as re-set the board. I’m not quite sure what to make of it, honestly. But I feel like Schwab somehow missed the mark a bit here.

Overall, however, I really enjoyed this book. I definitely think it’s worth checking out for fans of Gothic fantasy. It’s also a great stand-alone story and one that doesn’t include a love story at its heart. I think it probably veers closer to Middle Grade than YA, but at a certain point that distinction blends to a point where both would likely enjoy it equally.

Rating 8: Splendidly creepy while also reflecting on deeper topics such as the choice involved in home and family.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Gallant” is on these Goodreads lists: 2022 Gothic and 2022 Anticipated Fiction Fantasy Reads.

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