Serena’s Review: “And Break the Pretty Kings”

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Book: “And Break the Pretty Kings” by Lena Jeong

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, June 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher!

Where Can You Get this Book: | Amazon | IndieBound

Book Description: A crown princess. A monster the gods fear. A destiny no one can outrun. Inspired by Korean history and myths, the first book in the Sacred Bone series is a rich and evocative high-stakes fantasy that is perfect for fans of Gallant and Six Crimson Cranes . Mirae was meant to save her queendom, but the ceremony before her coronation ends in terror and death, unlocking a strange new power within her and foretelling the return of a monster even the gods fear. Amid the chaos, Mirae’s beloved older brother is taken—threatening the peninsula’s already tenuous truce. Desperate to save her brother and defeat this ancient enemy before the queendom is beset by war, Mirae sets out on a journey with an unlikely group of companions while her unpredictable magic gives her terrifying visions of a future she must stop at any cost.  

Review: Another awesome, dramatic cover! I love bright colors and the overall theme; I feel like I knew exactly the sort of book I was picking up with once glance at this cover. I was also drawn in by the intriguing description and the mention that it was inspired by the historical time period of the three kingdoms of Korea, a time and place I know very little about. I’ve loved how many fantasy novels recently have pulled in Asian folklore and mythology, greatly diversifying a SFF landscape that has re-told a small selection of fables ad nauseum.

Just a note before we start, I’m going to rework my review style so that it matches what Kate has been doing more closely. Obviously, we each have our own distinct tones, but I’ve been writing my own summary of the book here in the second paragraph, and I’m now going to forego doing this. The summary is always included, and I did this more out of habit from my old review style before I was working in a blog format that already includes a summary. More and more often I find that I am spending too much time trying to find ways to re-word information that can be found directly above. So, like Kate, I’m now just going to dive straight into the reviews themselves!

So, this book was a strange read for me. It was definitely a case where I felt like there was potential around every corner. But then it never quite reached the highs I was hoping for. One thing that is unquestionable, however, is that this is a fast-moving romp of a story. The story gets off to a fairly quick start and never really lets up. But, on the other hand, due to the fast pace of the plotting, I never felt like we really settled into any of these character, either our main character or the side cast. Mirae had a potentially interesting arc where she is forced to confront that her unwillingness to compromise can be both a strength, but also a weakness. But I don’t think the story every really settled enough for her to really express any of this growth. Instead, the reader is left to just bounce along and understand that inner reflection is happening.

There was also no romance in this story. I personally prefer to have a romantic plotline in my story (though I have to say, I’ve now read three other books back to back where the romance ended in some form of tragedy, and I’m SUPER over this tendency to need to make these stories bittersweet or grimdark to somehow justify them as “serious fantasy.” Ok, rant over.), but there have been plenty of stories I’ve really enjoyed without a hint of romance to be found. Just recently, I rated “Witch King” a 10 and there’s zero romance in that book. But here it was confusing because fairly early on the author seems to be setting up a romantic plotline. And then…it just goes nowhere. It kind of felt like a bait and switch and left me more frustrated than had there been nothing even hinted at.

I also really liked the idea of the time-switching, but I don’t feel like it was really used to the extent that it was hyped. The world-building also felt a bit all over the place, and the motivations, both for why these countries were at war, and why individual characters choose to do certain things, were lacking. I am curious to see if there is a second book planned and whether that would clarify some of this. Particularly, the strange non-love/love interest. Like, is this something that is going to be followed up on later? Overall, this was a bit hit and miss for me as a read. Like I said, I think there is a lot of potential here, and I do think that some fantasy readers will enjoy it. But it’s not as tightly knit or carefully constructed as I would prefer.

Rating 7: Lots of potential that did feel a bit squandered by a lack of attention to character and world-building.

Reader’s Advisory:

“And Break the Pretty Kings” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should be on Asian Mythology, Legends, and Folklore .

Serena’s Review: “The Grimoire of Grave Fates”

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Book: “The Grimoire of Grave Fates” by Hanna Alkaf and Margaret Owen

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, June 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher!

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

Book Description: Professor of Magical History Septimius Dropwort has just been murdered, and now everyone at the Galileo Academy for the Extraordinary is a suspect.

A prestigious school for young magicians, the Galileo Academy has recently undergone a comprehensive overhaul, reinventing itself as a roaming academy in which students of all cultures and identities are celebrated. In this new Galileo, every pupil is welcome–but there are some who aren’t so happy with the recent changes. That includes everyone’s least favorite professor, Septimius Dropwort, a stodgy old man known for his harsh rules and harsher punishments. But when the professor’s body is discovered on school grounds with a mysterious note clenched in his lifeless hand, the Academy’s students must solve the murder themselves, because everyone’s a suspect.

Told from more than a dozen alternating and diverse perspectives, The Grimoire of Grave Fates follows Galileo’s best and brightest young magicians as they race to discover the truth behind Dropwort’s mysterious death. Each one of them is confident that only they have the skills needed to unravel the web of secrets hidden within Galileo’s halls. But they’re about to discover that even for straight-A students, magic doesn’t always play by the rules. . . .

Review: I was definitely intrigued when I heard about this upcoming fantasy anthology. Not only was it a collaboration between a huge number of famous authors, but the idea of a murder mystery taking place in a school of magic as the foundation upon which the anthology is built upon is compelling as heck. Add an eye-popping cover, and you’ve got me! This is definitely a change of pace from the types of fantasy stories that I typically read, so I was very excited and curious to see what it had to offer.

I’m going to skip over my usual summary paragraph here, as I think the description given by the publisher is more than enough, and it’s hard to add more with anthologies that are, by their nature, built upon many layers of different characters, themes, and stories. So let’s get right to the review! First of all, I’d like to state how impressive of a project I think this book is. Collaborations are always tricky, but I have to imagine the more authors you include, the harder it is to ensure that the finished product feels complete and even. This is all the more difficult when you’re writing a murder mystery, a specific genre that requires careful plotting, close regulation of what information is made known and when, and a neat balance of pace to keep the reader engaged while not also losing them as the book builds to its final conclusion. But I think, overall, this aspect of the book came together very well, and none of the individual stories stood out as ill-fitting with the larger story as a whole.

That said, I didn’t wholly love this read. On one hand, this is purely a subjective opinion as I’m not a huge fan of anthology stories, in general. I have a long record here on the blog of my struggles with a book rising at the exact rate at which an author adds POV characters. The more you have, the more I’m going to have a difficult time connecting to the story. Obviously, that is unavoidable here. I did like several of the individual chapters, but this then lead me to become increasingly frustrated as, again and again, I lost these characters just when I was beginning to become invested in them. And even in multi-POV stories, there’s always the anticipation of returning to a beloved character, which isn’t the case here. I also liked the level of diversity that is included, but there were also moments where it began to feel a bit like “diversity Bingo” and less like a natural and organic collection of individuals.

I did like the magical elements we had in the story as well. There were a few particular characters who had very unique ways of practicing their magic that I was especially interested in. But, again, I was always left wanting just a bit more. And, while every chapter did move the murder mystery along, bit by bit, the overall experience did begin to feel a bit tedious. However, as I said, I struggle with this approach to story-telling in general, so this could definitely be more of “me” problem than an actual problem with the book itself. On top of that, the writing style did err towards the younger side of YA; again something that is really subjective to the preferences of the reader. If you’re a fan of anthologies or love any of the authors involved in this project, this is likely a book you’ll enjoy. If you tend to enjoy adult fantasy more, this might not work quite as well.

Rating 7: A cool concept and an impressive feat of collaboration, but the large cast of characters and the slow pace of the larger mystery itself left me struggling to fully connect to the book.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Grimoire of Grave Fates” can be found on this Goodreads lists: YA Releases June 2023

Kate’s Review: “We’ll Never Tell”

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Book: “We’ll Never Tell” by Wendy Heard

Publishing Info: Little, Brown/Ottaviano, May 2023

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

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

Book Description: An ambitious and juicy whodunit doused in Hollywood lore, perfect for readers of sexy summer thrillers like The Twin by Natasha Preston and The Agathas by Kathleen Glasgow and Liz Lawson.

No one at Hollywood High knows who’s behind We’ll Never Tell—a viral YouTube channel where the anonymous creators trespass behind the scenes of LA’s most intriguing locales. The team includes CASEY, quiet researcher and trivia champ; JACOB, voice narrator and video editor, who is secretly dating EDDIE, aspiring filmmaker; and ZOE, coder and breaking-and-entering extraordinaire.

Now senior year is winding down, and with their lives heading in different directions, the YouTubers vow to go out with a bang. Their last episode will be filmed at the infamous Valentini “murder house,” which has been left abandoned, bloodstained, and untouched since a shocking murder/suicide in 1972. When the teens break in, they capture epic footage. But someone trips an alarm, and it’s a mad dash to get out before the police arrive—at which point they realize only three of them escaped instead of four. Jacob is still inside, slain and bleeding out. Is his attack connected to the historic murder, or is one of their crew responsible?

A week of suspicions and cover-ups unfolds as Casey and her remaining friends try to stay alive long enough to solve murder mysteries past and present. If they do, their friendship may not survive. If they don’t, the house will claim more victims.

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

I had been waiting for a bit (it wasn’t really that long, but anticipation can make things feel long) for a new Wendy Heard book. I had enjoyed “She’s Too Pretty To Burn” so much for it’s weirdness, it’s sapphic love story, and the satire of art as ethos and the ramifications of that. When I read that she had a new YA thriller coming out called “We’ll Never Tell” I was excited, and when I read that the premise involved an abandoned notorious crime scene and four teens caught up in something far more dangerous than they realized, I was practically vibrating with glee. And while there are a lot of great ideas with this book, and while it was a quick read that kept me going, the anticipation leading up to it kind of slammed the breaks with what we got.

But first the good. Wendy Heard is an author I have really enjoyed in the past, and I think that part of it is that she really knows how to bring seedy and shiny aspects of Los Angeles to life. There is so much potential in this story, and I loved seeing four teens with a YouTube channel focus in on what is clearly an homage to the Los Feliz Murder Mansion, a piece of Los Angeles true crime lore as the basis for a book. I also liked that we could get a few different ways to tell the story. These include protagonist Casey, some flashbacks from Jacob leading up to the night he is attacked, and some epistolary pieces of newspaper articles involving the Valentini murder, the fallout, and some other things that involve the family and the victims. I am a huge sucker for books that use newspaper articles or other found footage or information devices. And mystery wise, I did like the twists and turns of the story, as well as the mystery of who attacked Jacob in the house. Heard does a pretty okay job of laying out clues and bringing in various potential motives and means. It’s ultimately a pretty straight forward thriller, and while I didn’t totally guess what was going on, I wasn’t totally blown away by various solutions as the puzzle pieces all started falling into place.

However, I think that one of the things that didn’t quite connect for me was our protagonist, Casey. To me it felt like there were so many things about her that weren’t quite fully explored or elaborated upon. We have her as the cynical, sullen girl with the tragic past, given that her mother was murdered and it went unsolved, and she has been living with her grandmother and they have been barely holding on financially. She has a chip on her shoulder about some of her friends (mostly Zoe; Zoe is wealthy and, while well meaning, is sometimes clueless about her financial situation versus Casey’s), she really hates ‘true crime’, and she doesn’t always feel like she totally fits in with her peer group. It tended to creep a bit towards ‘not like other girls’, as there were a lot of first person perspective reminders about how no one else GETS it. I wasn’t super invested in her as a character, nor was I interested in the potential relationship she has with Dallas, a descendent of the Valentini family whose mother is owner of the Murder House property. I also didn’t quite understand what the purpose of her tragic background was, as it’s there to make her tragic but doesn’t really apply to the plot as a whole. It felt a lot like backstory was trying to do a lot of character development heavy lifting, and that just doesn’t quite work in this book.

I had higher hopes for “We’ll Never Tell”. The set up was pretty great, but the execution didn’t really reinvent any wheels. Certainly not something I regret reading, but I wanted more.

Rating 6: Lots of potential and a great set up, but ultimately it’s pretty run of the mill with a bland main character.

Reader’s Advisory:

“We’ll Never Tell” is included on the Goodreads list “Most Anticipated May 2023 Young Adult Releases”.

Kate’s Review: “Warrior Girl Unearthed”

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Book: “Warrior Girl Unearthed” by Angeline Boulley

Publishing Info: Henry Holt 7 Co. (BYR), May 2023

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

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

Book Description: Perry Firekeeper-Birch was ready for her Summer of Slack but instead, after a fender bender that was entirely not her fault, she’s stuck working to pay back her Auntie Daunis for repairs to the Jeep.

Thankfully she has the other outcasts of the summer program, Team Misfit Toys, and even her twin sister Pauline. Together they ace obstacle courses, plan vigils for missing women in the community, and make sure summer doesn’t feel so lost after all.

But when she attends a meeting at a local university, Perry learns about the “Warrior Girl”, an ancestor whose bones and knife are stored in the museum archives, and everything changes. Perry has to return Warrior Girl to her tribe. Determined to help, she learns all she can about NAGPRA, the federal law that allows tribes to request the return of ancestral remains and sacred items. The university has been using legal loopholes to hold onto Warrior Girl and twelve other Anishinaabe ancestors’ remains, and Perry and the Misfits won’t let it go on any longer.

Using all of their skills and resources, the Misfits realize a heist is the only way to bring back the stolen artifacts and remains for good. But there is more to this repatriation than meets the eye as more women disappear and Pauline’s perfectionism takes a turn for the worse. As secrets and mysteries unfurl, Perry and the Misfits must fight to find a way to make things right – for the ancestors and for their community.

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

One evening I was perusing NetGalley, looking to see what new books were going to be coming out across my various favorite genres, when I saw something that made me gasp. Like full on gasp. I stumbled upon “Warrior Girl Unearthed”, the new YA thriller from Angeline Boulley. I loved Boulley’s debut “Firekeeper’s Daughter”, naming it my favorite read of 2021, and when I read the description of “Warrior Girl Unearthed” I gasped again. We were going back to Sugar Island, and were going to revisit some of the characters from that book, including main character Daunis. Elation. Pure elation. While I was worried that this follow up may have a lot to live up to, I’m happy to report that overall it was (mostly) everything I hoped it would be!

Given how much I connected to Daunis in “Firekeeper’s Daughter”, I was hopeful that we would have another layered and easy to root for main character, and we absolutely got that with Perry. When we first met Perry and her twin Pauline in “Firekeeper’s Daughter” they were young girls, and now they are two teenagers with very different personalities. Perry is our protagonist, who goes from chill and laid back ‘slacker’ to teen activist who wants to bring Indigenous artifacts and remains back to her community. Perry is both hilarious and brash as well as very vulnerable and passionate, and watching her find her purpose through connection to her culture and identity is a wonderful character arc. Boulley once again brings a lot of aspects of Ojibwe/Anishinaabe culture, be it language, history, or practices, into the story with ease. As Perry digs deeper and gets more invested in bringing these things home, we learn so much about her as a person on an individual level and on a cultural level. She had big shoes to fill with Daunis in the first book, but she fills them with ease.

I also loved how Boulley took a topic like NAGPRA and how it has good intentions but doesn’t go far enough/is too easy to find loopholes within and made it the foundation of the main theme of her novel. As someone who used to work in museums I had a general knowledge of NAGRPA going into this book, but I loved how Boulley explained it in this book in an easily understandable and digestible way for her audience. It also sets the scene for high tension stakes with a very slow build up. I loved seeing Perry reluctantly familiarize herself with the concept of artifacts and museum work with her mentor/boss Cooper, and then become fired up about the injustice of Indigenous artifacts and human remains and sacred objects being held onto by non-Indigenous institutions and people. Repatriation of Indigenous remains and sacred objects is a very important subject when it comes to Indigenous rights and issues, and I loved how Boulley contextualized it in a way that shows the violence inherent in the ways these things were stolen to be put on display, and how there is so much pushback to return them to their descendants. I also thought it was a clever dichotomy to present that along with the subplot of Indigenous women who have been going missing in the community and surrounding communities, as we have overt violence and cultural violence on display as Perry tries to figure out how to bring justice to her community.

I do have vaguely mixed feelings about coming back to see what Daunis is up to. Which is CRAZY because I LOVE DAUNIS. Just LOVE her. On one hand, she is such a formidable character, and having that connection to “Firekeeper’s Daughter” and seeing how her life has progressed and changed since that story (becoming more immersed in her healing skills, raising a son, serving as a mentor to her cousins) is mostly pretty enjoyable and rewarding (I have one qualm but I’m not going to list it here because it’s spoilery, but when it happened I was like ‘wait…. WHAT?’). But on the other hand, while Perry does shine on her own (see above, look at how much I enjoyed her), there was one minor subplot involving Daunis that felt rushed and a bit slapdash. It kind of took away from Perry’s story at hand for a bit and felt like it was a forced wrap up for the sake of wrapping something up. All that said, I do hope that if Boulley keeps writing about the Sugar Island Ojibwe community we get to see how these characters keep progressing as time goes on.

“Warrior Girl Unearthed” is another successful and enjoyable thriller from Angeline Boulley. Her voice is so strong, her characters are so well developed, and her deep dive into Ojibwe culture is detailed and accessible. It all comes together to make a highly enjoyable read and a successful follow up to a game changing young adult novel.

Rating 8: An engaging and important thriller/mystery that not only takes on issues of physical violence in the Indigenous community, but also the cultural violence of artifact theft and struggles over repatriation.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Warrior Girl Unearthed” is included on the Goodreads lists “All Indigenous Peoples List 3”, and “2023 Mystery Thrillers Crime To Be Excited For”.

Book Club Review: “Spear”

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We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing book club running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is retellings and re-imaginings.  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: “Spear” by Nicola Griffin

Publishing Info: Tordotcom, April 2022

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

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

Retelling/Re-imagining: “Legends of King Arthur”

Book Description: The girl knows she has a destiny before she even knows her name. She grows up in the wild, in a cave with her mother, but visions of a faraway lake come to her on the spring breeze, and when she hears a traveler speak of Artos, king of Caer Leon, she knows that her future lies at his court.

And so, brimming with magic and eager to test her strength, she breaks her covenant with her mother and, with a broken hunting spear and mended armour, rides on a bony gelding to Caer Leon. On her adventures she will meet great knights and steal the hearts of beautiful women. She will fight warriors and sorcerers. And she will find her love, and the lake, and her fate.

Kate’s Thoughts

I’ve mentioned a number of times on here that I am not super versed in some of the more classic European literature tales, and that extends to Arthurian legends. I think that the adaptations I have seen all the way through are Disney’s “The Sword in the Stone”, which is more about Arthur getting the sword and not much else, and “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, which is, of course, near perfection. But it’s not like an absurdist comedy with holy hand grenades and killer rabbits is going to reflect Arthur in all his significance. So going into “Spear” I didn’t really know what to expect, as I have a vague working knowledge of some aspects of the source material, but not much. And I’m sorry to say that while I went in trying to be open minded, “Spear” wasn’t my jam. I just kept thinking about coconuts and John Cleese slaughtering people in ridiculous ways and wishing I was watching that again.


So there were some things I liked about “Spear” and that was mostly in the ways that Nicola Griffin tinkered with the characters and the canon. Whether it was having main character Peretur be a gender bent version of Parzival during his quest with the other knights for the Holy Grail. I liked Peretur’s queer relationship with Nimuë, I liked that Arturus (Arthur), Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere) and Llanza (Lancelot) were in a loving thrupple as opposed to being in a dramatic love triangle, and I liked some of the ways that Griffin explores themes of the Grail and the magical bits of it. But there was so much I struggled with. The biggest issue I had was the writing. It is VERY lyrical, and very detailed, and I had initially picked this book up in print form but threw in the towel VERY quickly and opted for audio. My thought process was that I would be on a couple road trips to Duluth before book club and could use that time to listen, as I’ve had success in the past with that if I find the writing tricky. But it didn’t really help this time. And I think that had I had more investment in the Arthurian source material I would have been more vested in engaging, but since I don’t know it very well I found this book to be a tricky read, bordering on a chore. I am inclined to believe that this is probably a ‘your mileage may vary’ situation, but it just didn’t click with me.

Fans of King Arthur and very purple prose writing styles would probably connect with this, but it wasn’t for me.

Serena’s Thoughts

This was an interesting read for me. On paper, it has a lot of things I really enjoy. I’m fairly familiar with King Arthur legends, but mostly through a strange smattering of exposure to various retellings and adaptations and my own internet rabbit holes of research. I’ve only looked at a few of the “original” legends, themselves. All of this to say, when I picked up “Spear,” I was able to tell right away that this was going to appeal to the big fans of these stories. And that comes to the second thing I typically enjoy: lyrical writing. From the very first page, this is what stands out the most about this book for me. The writing is dense and poetic. There were many times that I found myself having to re-read long sentences to piece together exactly what was being said. As a fan of lyrical writing, I’m used to this experience to some extent, but even for me, I found this one a bit more challenging that I would have liked. That said, I can’t emphasize enough how impressed I am with Griffin’s ability to match the tone of the “original” King Arthur legends. For the big fans, this book will feel as if it can be neatly slotted right in alongside those, as the style of writing and storytelling found here match so well to those.

It’s also clear that Griffin has done her research. For such a short novel, it’s truly impressive just how many details and references she manages to pack in there. As a fan of Juliet Marillier’s, an author who largely relies on Irish folklore and legends, I enjoyed seeing some of these tales and beings woven in throughout this story.

I also really liked our main character and her story. I had a few concerns early on when she showed hints of being a bit too unbelievably good at certain skills with no explanation, but luckily there did turn out to be good reasons for this. I also enjoyed the gender-swapping of her character from male to female and the various changes and additions that Griffith brought to the story. Overall, I did find myself struggling to read this one more than I had hoped (the writing is hard), but I do think that it will greatly appeal to hardcore King Arthur fans.

Kate’s Rating 5: This was a bit of a slog for me, as I couldn’t connect to the writing style and I know very little about King Arthur lore and legend.

Serena’s Rating 8: For me, personally, this was probably a 7. But I rounded up to an 8 for the true Arthur aficionados who will appreciate the meticulous and detailed work that went into creating this story.

Book Club Questions

  1. How familiar are you with the legends of King Arthur? Specifically, how much did you know about the various iterations of Percival?
  2. Did you like the gender-swapped approach to this story? How do you think this changed or impacted the tale as a whole?
  3. The writing in this book is very in line with the style found in many of the more traditional Arthur stories. How did this impact your reading?
  4. How familiar were you with the various Irish legends and folklore that wove in and out of this story?
  5. This is a novella, so it has a reduced page count from a typical novel. Did this seem to fit the story we have here? Would you have liked it to be longer or shorter? And if so, why? Were there parts you wanted to know more about or could have done without?

Reader’s Advisory

“Spear” is on these Goodreads lists: Amazons, Valkyries, and Warrior Women and Sapphic Retellings.

Next Book Club Pick: “The Raven and the Reindeer” by T. Kingfisher

Serena’s Review: “Beauty Reborn”

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

Book: “Beauty Reborn” by Elizabeth Lowham

Publishing Info: Shadow Mountain Publishing, May 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher!

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

Book Description: Beauty’s life is the stuff of fairy tales. The youngest in her family, Beauty isn’t trying to catch Stephan’s eye. He is the lord baron’s heir, well above her family’s modest station, but when he kisses her hand at a party, Beauty is swept away by his charm, his wit, and his passionate declarations of love.

Hearts can be untamable creatures, especially when touched by the fires of first love, and Beauty doesn’t see the truth of Stephan’s intentions until it is too late. Until he stops asking for Beauty’s love—and simply takes it from her one night despite her refusal.

Beauty locks away the secret of what happened to her, and when her father emerges from the enchanted forest with a stolen rose in his hand and the tale of a vicious beast on his breath, Beauty seizes the chance to run as far from Stephan as possible.

She has some experience with beasts, after all. Certainly the one in the forest couldn’t be any worse than the one she’s already encountered.

Breaking the Beast’s curse might be the key to discovering her own path to healing—and finding the courage to allow herself to feel reborn.

Review: First of all, thank you so much to Shadow Mountain Publishing for sending me an ARC of this book! This was definitely one those cover lust situations when it came to my initial interest. I’m on the record as not necessarily loving covers with models or people, but I think this one is dramatic and lovely in all the best ways. It instantly conveys the general tone of the book and immediately draws the eye of the type of reader who I think will likely be interested in this one. When I read on to discover this was a “Beauty and the Beast” retelling, requesting it became a no-brainer!

Beauty’s first experiences with “love” left her traumatized and untrusting. So when her family’s destitution forces them to move from the city to a smaller house in the country, Beauty is relieved to escape the man of her nightmares. And when her father returns from the forest one night raving about a monster, Beauty sees an opportunity to make some use from the tatters that is her current life. But when she arrives at the magical castle and encounters this beastly being, Beauty begins to understand that we are more than the marks that life has left upon us. And that perhaps love can still be in her future.

While this book wasn’t a hit for me, I always want to start with the strengths. One thing that stood out right away was the general readability of the style of writing. The story was very approachable and I think the style of storytelling will appeal to a lot of readers. The use of flashbacks also keeps the pacing zipping along, allowing to Beauty to arrive at the castle and meet the Beast quite quickly. It’s a short book, as well, so this is definitely the kind of fast-moving read that will appeal to fairytale fantasy lovers who want something they can finish over a weekend.

I also liked the general premise of the book, that in many ways Beauty chose to go to the castle as a way of dealing with her own trauma. In theory, she was given a fairly solid arch of her own that she could develop while also falling in love with the Beast and undoing his curse. Unfortunately, this book really struggled to portray either the Beast or Beauty as nuanced, fully realized characters. Beauty’s narration and story felt oddly flat, never giving me anything unique or interesting to really latch on to. Many other authors have played on the starkness of the name “Beauty” to highlight how their version of the heroine is so much more than just a pretty face. Alas, here, this Beauty read just as one-note has her name would suggest.

Beast was even worse, sadly, in that we’re really given next to nothing to go on. He doesn’t have any POV, but there are plenty of other stories that have created interesting and fully realized love interests without getting into the head of the hero. But while he was sweet and kind enough, he was also supremely dull. Again, the term “one note” comes to mind. With both of these characters reading so lackluster on their own, it was almost inevitable that the romance between them would also be a bit of a let down.

Finally, there is really no world building to be found in this book. Randomly it’s mentioned that there are fairies in this world, and that, while rare, they are perfectly understood to just be around. But that’s it. I had a hard time really picturing many of the locations we visit, and ultimately just felt rather unmoored and struggling to fully commit to the story. Ultimately, I think fantasy fans who are very devoted to fairytale retellings miiiiiight want to check this one out, but I do think there are many better versions of “Beauty and the Beast” out there. It’s really too bad though, because there is always room for another excellent version! This just wasn’t it.

Rating 6: Unfortunately, the one-note characters and lackluster world-building left me underwhelmed with this retelling of “Beauty and the Beast.”

Reader’s Advisory:

“Beauty Reborn” is on this Goodreads list: YA Releases May 2023

Kate’s Review: “We Don’t Swim Here”

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Book: “We Don’t Swim Here” by Vincent Tirado

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Fire, May 2023

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

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

Book Description: She is the reason no one goes in the water. And she will make them pay. A chilling new novel for fans of Tiffany D. Jackson, Lamar Giles, and Ryan Douglass.

From the author of BURN DOWN, RISE UP comes a chilling novel told through alternating voices that follows two cousins as they unravel their town’s sinister past, their family’s complicated history, and the terrifying spirit that holds their future captive.

Bronwyn is only supposed to be in rural Hillwoods for a year. Her grandmother is in hospice, and her father needs to get her affairs in order. And they’re all meant to make some final memories together. Except Bronwyn is miserable. Her grandmother is dying, everyone is standoffish, and she can’t even go swimming. All she hears are warnings about going in the water, despite a gorgeous lake. And a pool at the abandoned rec center. And another in the high school basement.

Anais tries her hardest to protect Bronwyn from the shadows of Hillwoods. She follows her own rituals to avoid any unnecessary attention—and if she can just get Bronwyn to stop asking questions, she can protect her too. The less Bronwyn pays attention to Hillwoods, the less Hillwoods will pay attention to Bronwyn. She doesn’t get that the lore is, well, truth. History. Pain. The living aren’t the only ones who seek retribution when they’re wronged. But when Bronwyn does more exploring than she should, they are both in for danger they couldn’t expect.

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

I read “Burn Down, Rise Up” by Vincent Tirado last year, and then I had the pleasure of seeing them speak at ALA Annual last summer. Given that I liked “Burn Down, Rise Up” well enough and really enjoyed their talk on their panel, I was very happy when I was sent “We Don’t Swim Here”, Tirado’s newest YA horror novel that has a small town with secrets premise combined with a healthy fear of water due to a supernatural force. My love for urban legend horror knows no bounds, so I was very excited to read this one. After all, summer is right around the corner and I intend to spend a lot of time at the pool this year, so why not freak myself out about swimming in anticipation?

The most interesting aspect of this book to me was that way that Tirado explores the way that true tragedy can turn into community lore and mythos. Hillwoods is a small town that has what appear to be superstitions and rituals that are in place to appease a supernatural force, the biggest being that swimming isn’t allowed due to a vengeful spirit. But as Bronwyn explores this and pushes against this superstition as an ‘outsider’, the story starts to come to light of what actually happened and how actual historical fact can be twisted and inflated into something else. I don’t want to give anything away as I think that the reveals are worth concealing, but given that many urban legends and local lore probably have some basis in fact, I quite enjoyed the way that Tirado explores that in this book. I also liked the way that they addressed the realities of racism and oppression in a small town community, especially when there are few people of color living there, and how that has manifested over the years in American history.

In terms of the characters and the mystery itself, I thought that Bronwyn and Anais are pretty enjoyable perspectives to follow. They are fairly typical teenagers, and I liked the alternating chapters that shed insight into what it was like for an outsider as well as someone who had lived in the community all her life. That said, I didn’t think that either Bronwyn or Anais were super fleshed out or explored to the degree I would have liked, and their conflicts with each other felt a bit repetitive with Bronwyn seeking answers and Anais refusing to provide any, again and again. There were also a number of references to the various rituals and superstitions of the town that were mentioned in passing, but not really expanded upon. There just felt like there was a lot of potential that didn’t quite get met for me, and while the main thread was entertaining and interesting, there were multiple smaller threads that didn’t really wrap up in satisfying ways.

“We Don’t Swim Here” had enough connections to real life issues and metaphors that the strengths outweigh the weaknesses. I will be very curious to see if Tirado ever goes back to this story with the other rituals and superstitions that were left unanswered. Regardless, YA horror fans should probably check this out.

Rating 7: A horror tale about the crimes of the past and the way that tragedy can be passed down into lore, “We Don’t Swim Here” is entertaining young adult horror, though I would have liked a little more character exploration.

Reader’s Advisory:

“We Don’t Swim Here” is included on the Goodreads list “Latinx Books Releasing in 2023”.

Kate’s Review: “This Delicious Death”

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Book: “This Delicious Death” by Kayla Cottingham

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Fire, April 2023

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

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

Book Description: Jennifer’s Body fans will clamor for this new sapphic horror standalone from New York Times bestselling author Kayla Cottingham.

Three years ago, the melting of arctic permafrost released a pathogen of unknown origin into the atmosphere, causing a small percentage of people to undergo a transformation that became known as the Hollowing. Those impacted slowly became intolerant to normal food and were only able to gain sustenance by consuming the flesh of other human beings. Those who went without flesh quickly became feral, turning on their friends and family. However, scientists were able to create a synthetic version of human meat that would satisfy the hunger of those impacted by the Hollowing. As a result, humanity slowly began to return to normal, albeit with lasting fear and distrust for the people they’d pejoratively dubbed ghouls.

Zoey, Celeste, Valeria, and Jasmine are all ghouls living in Southern California. As a last hurrah before their graduation they decided to attend a musical festival in the desert. They have a cooler filled with hard seltzers and SynFlesh and are ready to party.

But on the first night of the festival Val goes feral, and ends up killing and eating a boy. As other festival guests start disappearing around them the girls soon discover someone is drugging ghouls and making them feral. And if they can’t figure out how to stop it, and soon, no one at the festival is safe.

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

I read Kayla Cottingham’s debut novel “My Dearest Darkest” last year and enjoyed it due to the tone and the characters. I was also lucky enough to be able to say hello during ALAAC 2022, and she was super awesome and gracious over my awkward fangirling. So when I was offered a copy of her newest horror novel “This Delicious Death”, I jumped at the chance. Partially because I really wanted to see what she followed her debut up with. But also because when I saw that it was about cannibal monster girls going to a music festival, I was fully invested and on board.

Another example of a book that teenage Kate would have been so into. (source)

This was just such a fun read from start to finish. I really liked all of the characters, especially the core friend group of Zoe, Celeste, Jasmine, and Valeria, and I liked the ‘zombie’ (if that’s even the right word) mythos that Cottingham has created for the story. In terms of the characters, our core four feel like a pretty realistic and typical group of teenage girls with the usual insecurities and ride or die friend dynamics, just with a bit of a flesh eating twist to round it all out. While I wasn’t super invested in the will they or won’t they dynamic of Zoe and Celeste, I did like them a lot as friends and really liked how all of these girls have seen some serious shit and are still processing, all while relying on each other. You get to see flashbacks to when all of them were first infected with the Hollowing illness that transformed them into ‘ghouls’ that now can only live on human flesh (synthetically produced now, however), and how they all dealt with that change, that trauma, and how they all came together as friends who are now close as close can be. I loved their banter and their humor, and I loved as they band together to help protect Valeria after she goes feral and kills someone, and how they want to solve what is happening. The gal pal flesh eating teenage gumshoe vibe REALLY worked for me, and you throw that into a conspiracy whodunnit with the backdrop of a Coachella-esque music festival and you have a really, REALLY unique and fun story that will appeal to teens and adults alike. And along with all that, I really really liked all of the representation this book had, with trans characters, lesbian and bisexual characters, characters from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

And now the horror. The references to “Jennifer’s Body” in the description of this book are pretty on point both in theme and tone, but I also felt like we got some “Left 4 Dead” elements with the descriptions of the way that the ‘ghouls’ look (to me, very much like The Witch in those games. If you know, you know!). I really liked how Cottingham thought out of how The Hollowing pandemic and fall out would have worked, from the way information would have spread to how the population would have reacted to how it would have adapted to try and contain it/cure those who were turned into ‘ghouls’. We get sprinkles here and there of outside perspectives beyond our main character flashbacks, and it fills in some of the blanks with a nice blend of genuinely unsettling bits as well as some fun tongue in cheek/cynical moments that would fit right in in a Verhoeven film. Cottingham doesn’t hold back on the gore and body horror elements either, with full on descriptions of gnarly transformations, some cannibalism, and moments so bloody you feel a bit like you’re in a literary splash zone a la “Evil Dead: The Musical”. It really is a blast.

“This Delicious Death” is the perfect horror read for the time of year we are in, with vacations and road trips abound. It makes it all the more perfect given that we are still trying to navigate a pandemic, albeit a potentially waning one, and the messiness that can come with the aftermath. Recommended reading to be sure.

Rating 9: A fun and gory body horror meets girl’s road trip tale, “This Delicious Death” is a must read horror novel for all your summer vacation plans!

Reader’s Advisory:

“This Delicious Death” is included on the Goodreads lists “Queer Horror”, and “Cannibal Books”.

Kate’s Review: “Hungry Ghost”

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Book: “Hungry Ghost” by Victoria Ying

Publishing Info: First Second, April 2023

Where Did I Get This Book: I received a finished copy from First Second.

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

Book Description: A beautiful and heart-wrenching young adult graphic novel takes a look at eating disorders, family dynamics, and ultimately, a journey to self-love.

Valerie Chu is quiet, studious, and above all, thin. No one, not even her best friend Jordan, knows that she has been binging and purging for years. But when tragedy strikes, Val finds herself taking a good, hard look at her priorities, her choices, and her own body. The path to happiness may lead her away from her hometown and her mother’s toxic projections—but first she will have to find the strength to seek help.

Review: Thank you to First Second for sending me a finished copy of this graphic novel!

I had been eying “Hungry Ghost” by Victoria Ying for awhile, and even had it on my NetGalley shelf ready to go, when I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to receive a print copy and to review it for the blog. The cover caught my eye from the jump, and then reading into the backstory and summary I was even more interested. Disordered eating is something that is a difficult and charged topic, but an important one to talk about. So I sat down and began my read, and found it to be a very emotional experience.

This is a very personal and unflinching story about Valerie Chu, a teenage Asian-American girl who has been pressured by her mother to stay thin since she was a girl, so much so that she has started making herself throw up in her teenage years and obsessively counting calories whenever she eats. It’s a really difficult read at times, but I liked how candid and straight forward Ying was with what Valerie was going through, and how complicated the various factors feeding into it could be. I really found Valerie’s inner turmoil to be compelling and upsetting, and I liked how Ying explores the familial pressure from her mother, the self pressure from Valerie herself due to seeing thinness everywhere as an ideal, and the pressures to be a perfect person and to have control, and how once control is gone how much it can make things spiral. For Valerie it’s the sudden tragic death of her father that sends her off, due to her grief, and the perceived need to be there for her devastated mother whose insistence on Valerie’s thin physique has been a pall over Valerie since childhood. There were so many moments in here that made me tear up, and I liked how Ying was sensitive but also very honest about these issues and how toxic all of this is for Valerie.

I also liked the depictions of how complicated Valerie’s relationships were with her loved ones. The most obvious one is her mother, whose domineering insistence on Valerie being thin has set up her disordered eating and mental health issues. It is made very clear that her mother is very wrong for putting this kind of pressure on Valerie (from the jump you see her denying Valerie a piece of her own birthday cake when she is in grade school, which is just… wow), but Ying is also very careful to not make her into a two dimensional villain. At first I was very ‘um maybe we should be calling this out a bit more?’, but thinking about it it started working for me a bit more because 1) this is her mother, and family dynamics can be so hard to disentangle, 2) it’s clear that it’s not just her Mom that has this hang up, as we also see some of her extended family voicing similar opinions, and 3) the death of Valerie’s Dad makes her mother’s emotional state all the more fragile and complex. Ying doesn’t excuse it, but also shows that sometimes people have to stand up for themselves or set boundaries in other ways. There is also the relationship between Valerie and her best friend Jordan, who is fat and is completely comfortable within her body and herself. Valerie adores Jordan, but it’s clear that her own standards of her body are constantly nagging at her (especially since her mother is always commenting on how fat Jordan is), and as things unravel more and more it starts to have an effect on their friendship. It is a really complex web, and I really appreciated that.

And finally I really loved the artwork. Ying is a very talented artist and animator whose work has been seen in various Disney ventures like “Moana”, “Big Hero 6”, and “Frozen” (among others!), as well as other books and graphic novels. And I really liked her style for this story, as it feels very accessible and engaging, while also hitting the emotional moments and beats.

Source: First Second

I really, really enjoyed “Hungry Ghost”. It’s poignant and powerful, and I am pleased that Ying has brought these various difficult and entangled issues to a moving graphic novel.

Rating 9: A gorgeous, emotional, and very personal story about grief, disordered eating, and complex family relationships, “Hungry Ghost” is a must read graphic novel.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Hungry Ghost” is included on the Goodreads lists “2023 YA/MG Books with POC Leads”, and “Great Graphic Novels (Released in 2023)”.

Serena’s Review: “Divine Rivals”

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Book: “Divine Rivals” by Rebecca Ross

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, April 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: After centuries of sleep, the gods are warring again. But eighteen-year-old Iris Winnow just wants to hold her family together. Her mother is suffering from addiction and her brother is missing from the front lines. Her best bet is to win the columnist promotion at the Oath Gazette.

To combat her worries, Iris writes letters to her brother and slips them beneath her wardrobe door, where they vanish―into the hands of Roman Kitt, her cold and handsome rival at the paper. When he anonymously writes Iris back, the two of them forge a connection that will follow Iris all the way to the front lines of battle: for her brother, the fate of mankind, and love.

Review: I really enjoyed Ross’s “Elements of Cadence” duology. It was lyrical, full of adventure, and centered a lovely romance at its heart. So it was a no brainer to place a request for her next novel when I saw it was due to arrive this spring. And while I don’t think this first book necessarily reaches the highs of that previous series, I did enjoy it a lot and I have high hopes for the next book in the series!

Several months ago, Iris’s life fell apart. Her brother felt compelled to join in a god’s war hundreds of miles away. Her mother fell into depression and alcoholism. And Iris was forced to drop out of school to support her family. Now, she works towards one goal: becoming a reporter for one of the most prestigious newspapers in the city. But she’s not the only one pursuing the position. Unknowing to her, her rival, a young man who is unfortunately as skilled a writer as he is frustrating, also happens to be the mysterious pen pal she found only by chance. But as the war becomes more and more real for Iris, she begins to realize that the world is much greater than she ever imagined, and her pan pal may be the only one who really understands her.

There was a lot to like about this book, but I think the book summary really buries the lead on the true strengths of this book. Yes, it starts out as a fairly standard work rivalry story alongside a sweet pen pal subplot. But about a quarter of the way in, things quickly shift and Iris travels to the front lines of the war. Here, the story really comes alive as it explores the experience of trench warfare and the experiences of those whose lives have been upended while living through a war that is taking place right outside their own front door. I really loved all that Ross had to offer in this part of the book.

This was all obviously a parallel to WWI, with similar tactics used, like trenches and the terrible use of vicous gases. But, of course, this is a fantasy novel, so the constant terror and threat of air raids were replaced by fantastical creatures that could target any town at any moment. I can honestly say that I can’t remember reading a fantasy novel that read anything like this one, and that was incredibly refreshing.

I also really liked Iris as a character. She was brave, but not foolish. Compassionate but also struggling with her conflicting emotions about a war that stole her brother away from her family. I also liked Roman Kitt, and, for the most part, the romance between the two. I think the title of this book does mislead a bit as far as the romance goes, however. The “rivalry” between these two barely warrants the term. Not only do we see very little of it, but it is quickly shunted to the side in favor of a completely cordial friendship building quickly towards romance. Indeed, an entire romantic arch from start to finish takes place within a fairly short period of the middle and end of the book. While I liked the love story, I kind of wish that it had been drawn out between this first book and the one to come. As it was, the romance just barely sidestepped becoming an instalove situation. It’s spared from this category only by the fact that, while quickly established, it does spend a good deal of time building up this relationship.

I also liked the idea of the feuding gods in this story, and the fact that the humans caught up in the war don’t have a full understanding of the history between these characters. But that also gets to my main issue with this book: in many ways it feels like an extended prequel. A very interesting and romantic prequel, but still. It was only towards the last quarter of the book that it really felt like the story got started. I still enjoyed my read overall, but I think the pacing was questionable, and perhaps, depending on how the next book goes, there might have been some better decisions to make with how this story was broken up. The one thing I can say for sure, the fact that the story really picks up towards the end of the book really leaves the reader primed for the second book. Despite a few quibbles here and there, I’ll definitely be right there in line to read the second one as soon as it’s available!

Rating 8: Lyrical and atmospheric, this book uses the fantastical to illustrate the horrors of war and the bravery of those who risk it all to save those they love.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Divine Rivals” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Working Women in Fantasy and Female fantasy authors – Children’s, YA and adult.

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