Serena’s Review: “Curses”

Book: “Curses” by Lish McBride

Publishing Info: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, July 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Merit Cravan refused to fulfill her obligation to marry a prince, leading to a fairy godling’s curse. She will be forced to live as a beast forever, unless she agrees to marry a man of her mother’s choosing before her eighteenth birthday.

Tevin Dumont has always been a pawn in his family’s cons. The prettiest boy in a big family, his job is to tempt naïve rich girls to abandon their engagements, unless their parents agree to pay him off. But after his mother runs afoul of the beast, she decides to trade Tevin for her own freedom.

Now, Tevin and Merit have agreed that he can pay off his mother’s debt by using his con-artist skills to help Merit find the best match . . . but what if the best match is Tevin himself?

Review: A cover can go a long way. More often than not, I get sucked into reading books that have summaries that don’t really speak to me but have covers that I can’t resist. But sometimes it cuts the other way. This isn’t an awful cover, but it also looks a bit cheap and like something that was quickly drawn up on Photoshop without much great thought. I almost passed the book up based purely on this, judging the entire book to be of a similar lack-luster quality. Luckily, my obsession with “Beauty and the Beast” forced my hand, because the cover in no way represents the absolute blast of a time I had reading this story!

Fairy gifts and curses can look much alike, often to the detriment of the poor human on whom its cast. But Merit’s experience is very much that of a curse, stuck in the form of a beast except for the few hours that a rare medicine can grant her. And, unless she marries for love or marries a strategic gentleman selected by her mother, this form will become a permanent state. Luckily, Tevin, a con man with his own agenda, is on the case. Together, they hope to break Merit’s curse by finding her a truly perfect match. Soon enough, however, each begins to find their own feelings getting in the way of this task. Will it be enough to break the curse in time?

This was such a fun and funny story. It’s definitely a light-hearted fairytale retelling, but it’s not shallow, like so many stories tend to be when they go for a lighter tone. There were several moments that had me laughing out loud, with witty dialogue and clever, insightful takes sprinkled within the text. On the more serious side, there are a bunch of mothers in this book whose failures as a parent range from general obtuseness to outright neglect and maliciousness. Most of it is still played for comedic affect, but there are some interesting nuggets buried in there regarding the complicated nature of parent/child relationships. How, even if a parent is abusive, there can be a desire to please and impress them on the child’s part, even a grown child.

I really enjoyed both Merit and Tavin as characters. Tavin, perhaps, in particular, was an interesting take on a gender-swapped “Beauty.” His looks are an established part of his way of operating in the world, for better and worse. There’s also a mixture of magic, with his ability to charm those around him. I like that the author didn’t simply say “oh, he’s handsome” and leave it at that as far as the Beauty adaptation worked.

Merit’s beastly nature is also interesting. Unlike many other versions of the story, she’s not left brooding in some dark castle. Instead, while she may prefer to linger in the countryside, her mother likes to keep her in town and participating in society. Merit can go in her human form at times, but also goes out and about in public in her beastly form as well. In a land that is blessed/stricken with people affected by fairy magic, while Merit’s form is unique, she’s not the only person with such an affliction. There were a couple of other characters with interesting curses/blessing, especially the nods at other fairytale characters, a few of whom are on the lesser known side of things.

There’s was also an interesting commentary on the freedom that Merit finds in her beastly form. Not only is she physically more capable, but at times she is seen to appreciate some of the other animalistic characteristics of that form, such as having her emotions closer to the surface and the freedom to express them as such. It was also refreshing to have all of the horror/fear of the beast essentially not even play a part in the story. By not having this aspect, it allowed for the story to develop the romance in a different way and for the story to explore different challenges and aspects of the curse itself.

The world-building and magic all fell heavily in the “light and fluffy” category. There wasn’t tons of detail given into how any of it works or any nuanced history of the world. Instead, readers are left to simply enjoy the ride, with discussions about flying badgers and pompous boys being casually turned into ostriches. The side characters were also all fantastic and added a lot of flair and amusement to the story.

I definitely recommend this one to fans of fairytale re-tellings. Had we not already done our “Beach Reads” lists for the summer, this is exactly the sort of book I’d throw up in my fantasy category. Who knows? Perhaps next summer it will make an appearance!

Rating 8: Perfectly fun in every way, with a well-balanced mixture of romance and humor sure to appeal to any romantic comedy fan.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Curses” is on these Goodreads list: Fairy tales & Retellings.

Find “Curses” at your library using WorldCat!m

Serena’s Review: “Cast in Firelight”

Book: “Cast in Firelight” by Dana Swift

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, January 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Adraa is the royal heir of Belwar, a talented witch on the cusp of taking her royal ceremony test, and a girl who just wants to prove her worth to her people

Jatin is the royal heir to Naupure, a competitive wizard who’s mastered all nine colors of magic, and a boy anxious to return home for the first time since he was a child.

Together, their arranged marriage will unite two of Wickery’s most powerful kingdoms. But after years of rivalry from afar, Adraa and Jatin only agree on one thing: their reunion will be anything but sweet.

Only, destiny has other plans and with the criminal underbelly of Belwar suddenly making a move for control, their paths cross…and neither realizes who the other is, adopting separate secret identities instead.

Between dodging deathly spells and keeping their true selves hidden, the pair must learn to put their trust in the other if either is to uncover the real threat. Now Wickery’s fate is in the hands of rivals..? Fiancées..? Partners..? Whatever they are, it’s complicated and bound for greatness or destruction.

Review: Before we get into the actual review, we interrupt my regular, meandering, usually skip-able intro paragraph to dive into another segment of “Nonsense in YA Covers!”, a semi-regular bit where I shake my head at the cover art of YA books. Today’s example isn’t so much anything overtly wrong with this book’s cover, but with the inexplicable resemblance it has to another. See if you can spot the similarities!

They are both by the obviously very gifted Charlie Bowater. I’m not coming after her, but I can’t decided whether it’s laziness or brilliance that these titles look so similar! Did she hoodwink the publishers into essentially buying the same image slightly re-tooled six months later? The male characters, especially, look almost identical. And then you have the character position, the colors, the entire thing really. One of my librarian friends, Alicia, found it so amusing that she routinely placed them side-by-side on the “New Arrivals” shelf at her library just to troll patrons. But enough of that, on to the review!

Though they were betrothed as children after a particularly…eventful…first meeting, Adraa and Jatin’s entire relationship since has been made up of a few letters and a secret competition of magical abilities. However, now that they are each about to come into their own roles as the upcoming leaders of their countries, they suddenly find themselves thrust into each other’s company. But neither know it, having each taken on alternate identities for different reasons when they first re-unite. Thrown into adventure and intrigue, the two begin to each learn that this strange new person isn’t so bad. If only they weren’t already engaged to someone else…

This book is another one of those tough books that seems to fall into the category of aggressively fine. It was a quick, snappy read, and I was entertained enough while reading it, easily caught up in the fast-moving plot. But when I think back on the book, characters, and world as a hole, there simply isn’t a lot there. The magic system is barely described and while the resulting abilities serve the action-packed plot well, there’s no intricacies to be found or, indeed, many details of any kind. If you asked me to tell you anything about it, all I’d have is something about tattoos and that the number of magical abilities you master has a direct connection to your status in society. Which…I’ve seen before.

As for the world-building, I appreciated that there was a map included in the story, but I almost felt like the map did more of the heavy lifting than anything in the book. This very much read like one of those overly simplistic YA novels that treat their worlds like big green screens that their character simply run across. Like the cover, almost, the mental images that came to mind were almost cartoonish in their simplicity.

The writing was probably the strongest part. Like I said, the pacing was excellent, keeping the plot and character moving at a steady clip. Some portions of it were also incredibly funny. However, here, too, I had some troubles. Mostly with the dialogue which was bizarrely modern. This is clearly a second-world fantasy story, so there are no rules about how characters should speak. But at times the dialogue was so very much of this world and time that it simply didn’t seem to fit here. I often found myself pulled back out of the story once the characters started speaking overly much. There was also an over-reliance on “quippiness” as a stand-in for real character development and connection.

As a debut, it was a fun ride, but it also showed the areas in which the author still has room for improvement. If you’re looking for a fast, light read and don’t mind kind of random-feeling modern dialogue, this could be a fun book for you! But those looking for a more serious or layered story will be disappointed.

Rating 7: Fast-paced and fun, but too light in any real depth, both in its world and characters.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Cast in Firelight” isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on 2021 YA with Male POV.

Find “Cast in Firelight” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Queen Will Betray You”

Book: “The Queen Will Betray You” by Sarah Henning

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, July 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley!

Book Description: To stay together forever, Princess Amarande and her stableboy love, Luca, must part: Amarande to reclaim her kingdom from usurpers, and Luca to raise a rebellion and find his destiny. Arrayed against them are all the players in the game of thrones for control over the continent of The Sand and Sky. Facing unspeakable betrayals, enemies hidden in the shadows, and insurmountable odds, their only hope is the power of true love…

Previously Reviewed: “The Princess Will Save You”

Review: I read the first book in this duology last summer purely because it was hyped as being a gender-swapped retelling of “The Princess Bride.” While that premise may technically have applied, I found it to be more distracting than helpful in my read of the story. Too often, I found myself trying to match up characters from the book to characters from the original or to line up plot points in a similar way, rarely to much success. But the story was charming enough, and I enjoyed the straight forward romance at its heart. I was excited to check out this second entry in the story, however, as I’ve been hopeful that now that the author has moved past the original “Princess Bride” retelling, the story might come more fully into its own.

Each with a powerful destiny before them, Amarande and Luca must part after spending so long trying desperately to be reunited. But the kingdoms are restless and political power plays for them to separate to reclaim their birth rights. Unaware of what awaits them, they must untangle the various different factions, each with their own long-game and plans for Amarande and Luca. With so many unknowns, all they truly know anymore is their deep love for one another and their will to be together again.

As I said, I was excited to see where this book went after it firmly left behind its “retelling” status in the first book. Luca’s storyline, for example, now doesn’t remotely resemble any portion of Buttercup’s arc in the original story. With a kingdom and history of his own, I was particularly interested in where his storyline would go. While he still played a distinctly second fiddle to Amarande, I was overall pleased with what we had from Luca here. It was nice to see him in a more proactive light and freed from being simply “the love interest.” His increased characterization also helped make the love story more compelling, giving us both sides to root for.

However, the love story itself takes a marked step back into the shadows in this book. It was a fairly prevalent part of the first, but here the story veers much more into political machinations. I was a bit disappointed by that, as the love story was probably what I liked most about the first book. And while I expected a portion of the story to focus on Amarande’s and Luca’s individual stories, I also wished their storylines had converged earlier in the story. As it is, we don’t get to see over much interaction between these two characters at all.

The story was also a bit slower than the first. I’m not sure if this was perhaps just the mood I was in while reading or what, but it felt like it was harder to become invested in the plot and towards the middle the story seemed to drag a bit. I still really liked Amarande, though, which helped carry the book when things seemed to slow down. I also liked that we got more world-building and exploration in to the various choices that Amanrade and Luca’s parents made before they were born (some of the bigger reveals in the first book came on this front, so I was glad to see that given attention here).

Overall, it was a perfectly adequate story. I didn’t love the duology as a whole, but I also enjoyed my experience while reading them. I’m not sure the “Princess Bride” comparisons ever helped the story, frankly, and I do think the duology might have been better served with no connection to that beloved work. But if you’re looking for a sweet, fun YA fantasy, this duology delivers. Especially for readers look for a mostly drama-free romance, something that is definitely hard to find!

Rating 7: A solid second entry, though not ground-breaking in any way.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Queen Will Betray You” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists. But it is on Epic High Fantasy/Romance/Mythology in 2021.

Find “The Queen Will Betray You” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Red Wolf”

Book: “Red Wolf” by Rachel Vincent

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, July 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: For as long as sixteen-year-old Adele can remember the village of Oakvale has been surrounding by the dark woods—a forest filled with terrible monsters that light cannot penetrate. Like every person who grows up in Oakvale she has been told to steer clear of the woods unless absolutely necessary.

But unlike her neighbors in Oakvale, Adele has a very good reason for going into the woods. Adele is one of a long line of guardians, women who are able to change into wolves and who are tasked with the job of protecting their village while never letting any of the villagers know of their existence.

But when following her calling means abandoning the person she loves, the future she imagined for herself, and her values she must decide how far she is willing to go to keep her neighbors safe.

Review: And here we are, the third “Red Riding Hood” book that came out this summer! It’s actually really impressive how all three of authors pulled from the same inspiration (at least somewhat) but ultimately created such different stories and worlds. Unfortunately for “Red Wolf,” it was third to come out and third for me to read, so it had some big shoes to fill after the first two were such hits. However, I don’t think I would have enjoyed this lackluster outing much more had it come first.

Red has grown up in her small village, a little community of safety surrounded by a dark wood full of monsters. For most, this forest represents a natural boundary to their world, one they won’t ever need to venture within. For Red and her family, it is something very different. Within those dark depths, she, like women before her, protect that small village, prowling the woods in the form of a wolf. Soon enough, however, Red’s life is thrown upside down when the path she had seen before her begins to twist and turn into choices she had never imagined making. Will she be strong enough to protect those she loves?

First off, props to another gorgeous cover that definitely played its part in getting me to request an ARC for this book. All three of the “Red Riding Hood” books this summer had neat covers and each was distinct from the others, so that’s pretty neat. Unfortunately, most of my compliments end there.

This book wasn’t terrible, or anything, but it did seem to have an endless list of mild frustrations and then a wackadoodle ending that made the entire experience feel a bit like death by a thousand cuts. It starts out well enough, with an atmospheric village and woods and a young girl who must venture out to her granny’s every month. And then, of course, she discovers she’s so much more than she thought and the book should be off to the races.

Unfortunately, it felt a lot like an engine that kept rolling over and couldn’t quite get going. Adele’s character is set up as a fairly typical teenager, a bit stubborn, but empathetic enough to be challenged by the choices presented her throughout the story regarding the nameless many vs the the known few. But there also wasn’t anything about her that was particularly gripping or made me feel truly invested in her. I also felt like the story go a good head of steam going with some of these moral quandaries and then, somehow, never fully resolved them. The ending, especially, felt strange and disjointed from the greater conversation being presented in the book. It felt rushed and left me with a lot of mixed feelings about Adele herself.

It was also not a great sign to see Adele happily paired up at the beginning of the book. You know it’s never going to last in a YA fantasy when the main character is already happily in love when the story starts. And, alas, my predictions came true and the dreaded love triangle emerged. It could have been more annoying, I guess, but that’s hardly a compliment for the choice to have one in the first place. The other side of the triangle also felt very rushed, with Adele herself mentioning that she couldn’t believe how quickly she’d fallen for so-and-so. If the main character can barely believe it, I definitely can’t.

The writing was also a bit challenging. I can’t point to any particular quirks or style choices, only that it didn’t capture me, and I was very aware that I was actively reading as I turned the pages. I couldn’t sink into the story, for whatever reason. There were some legitimately creepy and interesting fantasy aspects in this world, but the story itself felt like the framework was too flimsy to fully hold the ideas themselves.

Overall, I was pretty disappointed in this book. It did a lot of things just OK, and then didn’t have any big wow moments to pull it up from just middling. And, of course, love triangles are almost always a detractor in my enjoyment of story. Readers looking for a more middle-grade, young YA might enjoy this, but I’d recommend “For the Wolf” and “The Wolf and the Woodsman” as your “Red Riding Hood” books of the summer before this one.

Rating 6: A big ole “OK.” Love triangles and a lackluster heroine didn’t help this story get off the ground.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Red Wolf” is on these Goodreads lists: YA Fantasy Standalone Books and Red Riding Hood Across Genres.

Find “Red Wolf” at the library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Firekeeper’s Daughter”

Book: “Firekeeper’s Daughter” by Angeline Boulley

Publishing Info: Henry, Holt, & Co., March 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: As a biracial, unenrolled tribal member and the product of a scandal, eighteen-year-old Daunis Fontaine has never quite fit in, both in her hometown and on the nearby Ojibwe reservation. Daunis dreams of studying medicine, but when her family is struck by tragedy, she puts her future on hold to care for her fragile mother.

The only bright spot is meeting Jamie, the charming new recruit on her brother Levi’s hockey team. Yet even as Daunis falls for Jamie, certain details don’t add up and she senses the dashing hockey star is hiding something. Everything comes to light when Daunis witnesses a shocking murder, thrusting her into the heart of a criminal investigation.

Reluctantly, Daunis agrees to go undercover, but secretly pursues her own investigation, tracking down the criminals with her knowledge of chemistry and traditional medicine. But the deceptions—and deaths—keep piling up and soon the threat strikes too close to home. Now, Daunis must learn what it means to be a strong Anishinaabe kwe (Ojibwe woman) and how far she’ll go to protect her community, even if it tears apart the only world she’s ever known.

Review: Sometimes, when you are reading a book, there is a moment where you just know that it is going to knock your socks off. I couldn’t pinpoint where it was in “Firekeeper’s Daughter” by Angeline Boulley, but I know it was early. I know there was a moment where there was a switch that flipped, and I said to myself ‘this is going to be fantastic’. I bought it after hearing a bit of buzz, but it admittedly sat on my pile for awhile. I happened to pick it up the same day that I had the pleasure of seeing Boulley talk during a virtual conference, and what began as ‘oh, that’s cool serendipity’ shortly thereafter morphed into something more.

It was very this. (source)

I loved this book. I LOVED it. Angeline Boulley is a fantastic writer who has a gift for imagery, characterization, and plotting, and the result is a hell of a debut novel. The mystery at hand as so many layers, and not just in terms of evidence and components, but also in terms of the consequences and difficult realities that it has because of the community it is affecting. Our main character, Daunis, is such an effective and complicated but easy to root for protagonist, and she is completely believable in every step she takes based on her experience, background, and personality. We slowly learn her backstory while we are meeting her in the middle of a huge traumatic change, as her maternal grandmother has just had a stroke and months previously her maternal uncle was found dead of a meth overdose. Daunis is feeling adrift, even when she has already felt a bit adrift, being the biracial daughter of a white mother and an Anishinaabe man, so her very existence was a huge scandal (parentage aside, her mother was a teenager when she became pregnant, and shortly thereafter he left her for another girl he’d also gotten pregnant). Daunis has had to straddle the privileged white identity as well as her Indigenous one, and has never felt truly and fully accepted by either side of the family, no matter how much love she feels from both sides. Her need to find herself, and her need to avenge the death of her best friend Lily (whose murder she witnessed), as well as her uncle, drives her even more. Daunis is such a compelling main character, I just loved her and loved everything about her. When I saw Boulley speak during the Virtual U.S. Book Show, she described Daunis as a ‘Native Nancy Drew’, and while meth is a bit more high stakes than secrets in old clocks, her pluckiness and likability is totally an homage to young women detectives in literature. And yes, her chemistry with Jamie is…. it’s just wonderful, and heartbreaking, and beautiful, and that’s all I am going to say about her and Jamie. Because you gotta read the book.

But Daunis’s Indigenous cultural identity plays a huge part in this story, and Boulley weaves it all in spectacularly. I think that in a lot of YA thrillers in which a young adult protagonist would be asked to be a CI for the government, it may be a hard and dangerous decision, but on that they would ultimately do for ‘the greater good’ without many personal qualms outside of danger. But that isn’t so in Daunis’s case, nor can it be. Her decision to work with the FBI and the BIA is certainly not one to take lightly, given the terrible history both organizations have with Indigenous people in this country (really, the United States Government in general has just been awful in this regard). But once she’s in it, we get a gritty and suspenseful, as well as critical, look at what it means to be a CI, as well as the way that the FBI and BIA approach communities with such systemic and cyclical oppression. Daunis approaches this as ‘the greater good’, but never truly trusts Ron, the FBI agent, as his motivation is to stop the criminals, as opposed to helping the community that is being affected by the meth supply heal and get better.

There is also the complicated relationship that Daunis has with her maternal side, in particular her Grandmary, who absolutely loves her granddaughter, but is racist towards the Indigenous population in the community as seen through flashbacks and second hand accounts. While it could be written that Daunis either completely excuses her grandmother, or completely shuns her grandmother, instead we find a very realistic and complicated middle ground for her. Along with both those really complicated examinations, every time we get information about Daunis’s culture, be it through conversation, demonstration, or flat out explanation, it is done in a way that is so natural that it always fits the moment. It feels strange to say that it’s ‘unique’, as the uniqueness of it probably comes from the fact that Indigenous voices in literature have been underrepresented for far too long, but it was certainly a fair amount of new information to me, someone who grew up on Dakota Land and has spent a lot of time north on Ojibwe/Anishinaabe Land.

AND, as if I haven’t gushed on long enough, BUT I’M GOING TO CONTINUE, the mystery is also great. I may have guessed some parts of it, but that didn’t even matter to me because it was well crafted, complex, and it was really able to hit home the tragedies of meth running in this community and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women that are at the center of the mystery. There is so much power in this story. As well as a lot of darkness (content warnings here an there, from domestic abuse to murder to a sexual assault that happens off page, but is definitely upsetting). But the darkness always has a bit of hope and resilience to go along with it, and that made all the difference.

“Firekeeper’s Daughter” is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Do yourself a favor and read this book. It is almost assuredly going to be on my Top Ten list this year.

Rating 10: It’s just fantastic. A healthy and powerful mix of a well done mystery and a meditation on being Indigenous in the 21st century, “Firekeeper’s Daughter” blew me completely away.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Firekeeper’s Daughter” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books by Indigenous Women”, and “Hello Sunshine YA Book Club Book List”.

Find “Firekeeper’s Daughter” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Monthly Marillier: “Wildwood Dancing”

“Monthly Marillier” is a review series that is, essentially, an excuse for me to go back and re-read one of my favorite author’s back catalog. Ever since I first discovered her work over fifteen years ago, Juliet Marillier has been one of my favorite authors. Her stories are the perfect mixture of so many things I love: strong heroines, beautiful romances, fairytale-like magic, and whimsical writing. Even better, Marillier is a prolific author and has regularly put out new books almost once a year since I began following her. I own almost all of them, and most of those I’ve read several times. Tor began re-releasing her original Sevenwaters trilogy, so that’s all the excuse I needed to begin a new series in which I indulge myself in a massive re-read of her books. I’ll be posting a new entry in this series on the first Friday of every month.

Book: “Wildwood Dancing” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Alfred A. Knopf, January 2007

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: High in the Transylvanian woods, at the castle Piscul Draculi, live five daughters and their doting father. It’s an idyllic life for Jena, the second eldest, who spends her time exploring the mysterious forest with her constant companion, a most unusual frog. But best by far is the castle’s hidden portal, known only to the sisters. Every Full Moon, they alone can pass through it into the enchanted world of the Other Kingdom. There they dance through the night with the fey creatures of this magical realm.

But their peace is shattered when Father falls ill and must go to the southern parts to recover, for that is when cousin Cezar arrives. Though he’s there to help the girls survive the brutal winter, Jena suspects he has darker motives in store. Meanwhile, Jena’s sister has fallen in love with a dangerous creature of the Other Kingdom–an impossible union it’s up to Jena to stop.

When Cezar’s grip of power begins to tighten, at stake is everything Jena loves: her home, her family, and the Other Kingdom she has come to cherish. To save her world, Jena will be tested in ways she can’t imagine–tests of trust, strength, and true love.

Review: Obviously, I love fairytale re-tellings. But as the genre goes, there are definitely more popular fairytales than others to receive this treatment. For example, there are a million and one stories reimagining “Beauty and the Beast” or “Cinderella.” And just this summer, we’re seeing three separate books coming out retelling variations of “Little Red Riding Hood.” But two of my favorite fairytales, “The Seven Swans” and “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” definitely fall in the “less likely” category for stories to be rewritten. Luckily for me, one of my favorite authors has written my favorite versions of both of these stories. I’ve already covered “Daughter of the Forest,” so now it’s time for Marillier’s take on “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.”

To others, Jena’s home may seem strange and even possibly dangerous. But she’s always loved the ramshackle castle and the mysterious woods that surround it. Wandering the wilds with her beloved frog, Gogu, Jena know that magic exists in this place. Every full moon, she and her four sisters travel in secret to the land of the fairies where they spend a night dancing and enjoying the revels of that strange world. But when Jena’s father becomes sick and leaves the management of the household to Jena herself, the magic that once made up her life seems to begin to turn dark. With threats looming in both the world of the fairies and in her own, very human world, Jena desperately tries to find the strength within to hold on tight to those she loves.

There are many things to like about this book. For one thing, it’s one of the first YA fantasy stories I read by Marillier. As such, the tone of the story and the trials her characters face are different than her adult books. While the story still has darker moments, overall, the tone of the story is light and bright. The wonders of the full moon balls were probably some of the best scenes of the book, perfectly capturing the magic of these visits with small details about the music, ballgowns, and strange attendees who made up these affairs. It is easy for readers to immediately come down on Jena’s view of this magical world, both the joys it can present but also the dangers that lurk beneath the surface.

I also really liked the side characters in this book. All of Jena’s sister felt distinct and had their own moments and mini arcs/stakes at play throughout the story. I would at turns find myself rooting for each of them and then, conversely, massively rolling my eyes at some of their nonsense. Tati, for example, the eldest sister who falls in love with a young man from the fairy world, is always a struggle for me. “Dying for love” is just not something I can really get behind, especially not in the circumstances given here where Tati’s lack of will to live, essentially, is not only dooming herself but leaving her sisters alone to cope with the very real, very present challenges before them.

I also really enjoyed the various relationships highlighted in this story. Obviously, there’s quite a lot of attention given to sisterhood, espeically as Jena sees her role in regards to her sisters, learning lessons about the difference between loving someone enough to let them make their own way and holding on too tightly. But there’s also a lot of attention given to friendship, that between Jena and her frog, Gogu, as well as the increasingly tense relationship between Jena and her cousin, Cezar. There we see how the choices we make not only change ourselves, but they change the relationships we have with people as well. The romance was also very sweet and original in this story, taking a winding path and drastically veering away from the traditional fairytale’s version.

Jena is also an excellent main character. And part of what makes her excellent is how very frustrating I often found her to be. If there’s on criticism that I’ve leveled the most against Marillier’s books up to this point, it’s that her main characters are a bit too perfect. That is definitely not the case here. Jena is presented as a highly capable young woman, but this same high level of ability is also her greatest weakness throughout the book. Again and again, we see Jena fail to trust those around her to help her deal with the challenges before her. Instead, she attempts to manage things (and people!) that aren’t her responsibility or things she has no right to direct. There are a couple of choices and moments that are very tough to read, as Jena so clearly ignores the common sense and warnings that the reader is picking up on. However, all of this is also very intentionally written in and included in Jena’s overall arch of self-discovery and growth.

This is one of my favorite Marillier books to go back and re-read. I’ve included it in lists in the past as a comfort read type of book, and that it remains. The story is fast-moving, the magic is beautiful and unique, and I love the friendships and romance at the heart of the story.

Rating 8: The best version of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” that I have yet to find.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Wildwood Dancing” is on these Goodreads lists: Books about Faery and 12 Dancing Princesses Retellings.

Find “Wildwood Dancing” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Stolen Kingdom”

Book: “The Stolen Kingdom” by Jillian Boehme

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, March 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: For a hundred years, the once-prosperous kingdom of Perin Faye has suffered under the rule of the greedy and power-hungry Thungrave kings. Maralyth Graylaern, a vintner’s daughter, has no idea her hidden magical power is proof of a secret bloodline and claim to the throne. Alac Thungrave, the king’s second son, has always been uncomfortable with his position as the spare heir—and the dark, stolen magic that comes with ruling.

When Maralyth becomes embroiled in a plot to murder the royal family and seize the throne, a cat-and-mouse chase ensues in an adventure of dark magic, court intrigue, and forbidden love.

Review: I’m always down for some good ole court intrigue, which is why I initially requested this book. Of course, that’s also one of those phrases that book blurbs often use that more often than not simply translates to “unrealistic drama” of the sort that reduces me to eye rolls. Sadly, that was the case here.

Maralyth has grown up helping to run her father’s renown vineyard. Though she is skilled at tending the vines (more so than her family even knows, with a magical ability to help plant flourish), she finds herself minding the kitchen and serving the workers meals after her mother dies, leaving this role vacant. But Maralyth knows there is a bigger future before her. Bigger even that she could have expected, when she is snatched away from this lowly life and finds herself caught up in plots to overthrow the throne. As for Alac, the second son of the king, he, too, is uncomfortable with his lot and life. And when a mysterious young woman shows up in court, he finds he, too, has an unexpected future before him.

Sigh. So, this wasn’t what I had hoped it could be, and I always struggle with these types of reviews. I don’t like to just spend an entire post ragging on a book, but sometimes it really is hard to come up with things I liked about some of these. Perhaps, if you’re appetite for fairly generic YA fantasy (super light on the fantasy and more heavy on the romance), this book could appeal to you. The writing is competent enough, and while the plot is very “write-by-numbers,” is also comfortingly predictable, if that’s what you’re looking for. Unfortunately, it was decidedly not what I was looking for.

The biggest problem for me was the characters. I’m definitely a reader whose experience of a book is largely defined by how I feel about the characters. Of course, I like the magic and mystery, but if the characters feel flat, it’s really hard for me to get past that. And here, there was nothing really going for either of the two leads (another ding against this was the fact that there even were two leads to begin with, as, more and more, I’m growing to dislike these fantasy romance stories that feature both love interest’s perspective). Sadly, each character falls into the worst tropes of the YA genre. The leading lady (dumb name Maralyth) is essentially a special snowflake who is plucked out of her ordinary life to discover that she has a magical and wonderous heritage. The leading man (dumber name/spelling Alac) regularly demeans the looks of the women around him (at one point going so far as to mentally fat shame a young woman) and only falls for Maralyth because she’s “not like other girls.” If you’ve been reading this blog for long, you’ll know that the “not like other girls” motivation for love is probably one of my absolute biggest pet peeves. It’s pretty much a guaranteed “out” for me. That’s not even getting into some of his violent thoughts when he gets angry with Maralyth, a fact that is glossed over and somehow even romanticized.

The world-building and plot were perhaps better in that they weren’t actively enraging, but that’s not saying much. Like I said above, the story follows a fairly predictable path, with many of the character’s choices being easily predicted early in the story. And, while I appreciated that the author wrote a stand-alone story, it also ended up crippling much of the world-building. There is a religion that is included but given very little depth or explanation. Wars and other countries/regions are mentioned, but the story never takes the time to fully flesh any of this out. It left the entire reading experience feeling fairly flat, relying too heavily on its main characters who weren’t up to the task of carrying the story on their own.

This book was a pretty big disappointment. The main characters were incredibly unlikable, proving that some tropes are too persistent to die in the fiery pit from whence they should be thrown. It’s really too bad, especially because stand-alone YA fantasy stories are so hard to find.

Rating 5: The main characters were too rage-inducing for me to focus on much else.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Stolen Kingdom” is on this Goodreads list: Female fantasy authors – Children’s, YA and adult.

Find “The Stolen Kingdom” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Other Side of the Sky”

Book: “The Other Side of the Sky” by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, September 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley!

Book Description: Prince North’s home is in the sky, in a gleaming city held aloft by intricate engines, powered by technology. Nimh is the living goddess of her people on the Surface, responsible for providing answers, direction—hope.

North’s and Nimh’s lives are entwined—though their hearts can never be. Linked by a terrifying prophecy and caught between duty and fate, they must choose between saving their people or succumbing to the bond that is forbidden between them. 

Review: While the latest book in the “Lady Janies” series fell flat for me, overall, I’ve enjoyed collaborations between these two authors. Plus, the cover on this book looks amazing! There’s a cat. Yes, that is all it takes to get me to pick up your book; be on notice, publishers. Unfortunately, while the book had some things going for it, it ended up falling in the “less enjoyable” camp for me of books I’ve read by these authors.

Long ago the world split in two. The wealthy and privileged fled the ground to make cities in the sky. This is North’s world, one made up of technological advancements like racing gliders to travel through the clouds and powerful engines to run rail systems between the floating systems. On the ground, those who were left behind have forgotten these advancements. Instead, their religion speaks of the Gods who rose above and they look to the Goddess who always walks among them to show them the way. And in this generation, that role has fallen upon Nimh. When North falls from above in a glider accident, these two worlds collide. Each world has forgotten the other, but together, will Nimh and North be able to merge these two once again?

There are a few things that always stand out in books written by this author collaboration. Firstly, the characters are always interesting and well-rounded. Here, too, Nimh and North were both compelling characters. Perhaps Nimh more than North due to the more strife in her past and the particular challenges of her present. North, as a comparison, felt younger and, for being the one from the more scientifically advanced portion of the world, much less knowledgeable about the challenges of life. However, this made for an interesting clash of worlds when the two meet up together, with his knowledge of science and progress up against her ground-level understanding of human nature and struggle.

However, I also started to fall a bit out of the book when these two met up. The questions began to pile up, and that’s never a good sign for my enjoyment of a book. I wasn’t quite sure how the exact world-building worked. On one hand, it felt like a fairly straight forward “technology being confused for magic” storyline, with North diligently disproving many of the aspects of Nimh’s religion that pointed towards magic as present in her world. But on the other hand, there were more than enough instances where it seemed that the authors were also indicating that there was, in fact, magic involved as well as technolgy.

I also struggled with the messages regarding religion. I wasn’t sure exactly what the authors were getting at here, but it began to feel like a point I didn’t fully understand was still being bashed over my head. Again, North was persistent in attacking and disproving many of Nimh’s beliefs. Part of this makes sense as, yes, he does have a more full understanding of the technological side of the world. But much of religion is based on faith in spite of more obvious explanations. So were the authors debunking religion as a whole? I also began to feel bad for Nimh under this ongoing demonstration. But also, there, I started to become frustrated with her own persistence in the face of some of the more clear examples presented by North that disproved her beliefs. It all was too confusing and any greater point felt muddled and difficult to identify.

The story was still well-paced and a fast read. These authors have worked together many times in the past and their writing style feels well-balanced at this point, playing to each of their different strengths. However, it did begin to feel a bit too childishly YA at times, and I wish the entire thing had been a bit more elevated with a stronger message at its heart. Fans of these authors should probably check it out, since they’re still doing what they do best. But for me it was a bit too little.

Rating 7: Confusing themes and over-arching messages brought down a story with solid characters and an interesting concept.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Other Side of the Sky” is on these Goodreads lists: Castles/Cities/Islands in the Sky and Young Adult Novels 2020.

Find “The Other Side of the Sky” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “That Weekend”

Book: “That Weekend” by Kara Thomas

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, June 2021

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

Book Description: Three best friends, a lake house, a secret trip – what could go wrong?

It was supposed to be the perfect prom weekend getaway. But it’s clear something terrible happened when Claire wakes up alone and bloodied on a hiking trail with no memory of the past forty-eight hours. Three went up the mountain, but only one came back. Now everyone wants answers – most of all, Claire. She remembers Friday night, but after that… nothing. And now Kat and Jesse – her best friends – are missing.

That weekend changes everything. What happened on the mountain? And where are Kat and Jesse? Claire knows the answers are buried somewhere in her memory, but as she’s learning, everyone has secrets – even her best friends. And she’s pretty sure she’s not going to like what she remembers.

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

Kara Thomas is one of those authors who has never disappointed me. I have genuinely enjoyed and been surprised by all of her books, and she has easily been one of the authors whose works I am guaranteed to read as soon as I possibly can. I admit that the pessimist in me tends to worry whenever I pick up a book by one of these ‘can do no wrong’ authors, as I am always wondering ‘is this the book that is going to disappoint me?’ Thus far, with her newest novel “That Weekend”, Thomas has never done so. Hell, when I was reading this book and I was enjoying it and trying to figure out what was going on, I had an epiphany moment in the tub (when I wasn’t even reading the book) in which I thought that no, THIS was going to be the big reveal that was going to change everything. I wasn’t even mad about it, as it was, to my mind, a great reveal and surely that was what was going to happen because that would be genius.

And then, like she always does, Kara Thomas went and pulled the rug out from under me and my expectations of what was to come.

SHE DID IT AGAIN! (source)

But I am so ahead of myself. “That Weekend” is a YA thriller that could have used some tried and true tropes to tell a pretty familiar story. Thomas is a talented enough writer and mystery weaver that she could have done this and still made it work and feel fresh, but no, instead she takes it to other places that make it all the more interesting and suspenseful. We mostly follow Claire, a girl who went on a camping trip with her best friends Kat and Jesse, and woke up in the wilderness with a head injury, blood on herself, and no memory of what had happened for the past twenty four hours. On top of that, Kat and Jesse are no where to be found. From the jump we are in the weeds as much as Claire is, as she is the perfect unreliable narrator in that she has memory loss AND has some issues with Kat and Jesse that she is only starting to work through (specifically, the fact that they are now a couple, and she has been in love with Jesse for years). The mystery of what happened to Claire and what happened to Kat and Jesse seems pretty straight forward at first, with familiar beats and plot points, but never fear; Thomas has much more in store. What happens next is an engaging and very addictive mystery about friendship, secrets, trauma, and the things we don’t know about the people we love most. I really liked Claire’s storyline trajectory, as she goes from victim of something, to scrutinized potential suspect, to hard boiled amateur detective, all while realistically dealing (or perhaps not dealing) with the horrifically traumatic experience she went through and continues to go through as time moves on. Her characterization felt realistic in it’s messiness, and her resentment and determination was organic and never forced. Because of this, she was easy to root for, even if she was sometimes hard to like. We do get to see into the minds of other characters a little bit, and while they are all done well too, it’s really Claire that shines as a flawed but mostly empathetic protagonist.

And as I was gushing above, the mystery is so well plotted that I was always a few steps behind. Thomas has all the clues laid out so that you can trace everything back, but she knows how to keep them close to the vest. The reveals and surprises are all pretty darn rewarding because of this, and the pacing was such that I found it very hard to put this book down. And even one kind of out there late game twist that could have been seen as overkill was done in a way that I really didn’t hate it. It didn’t necessarily ADD to anything, but it worked well enough that the late revelation wasn’t the cheap moment that it could have been. Thomas also brings up some good, damning points about true crime tourism and media, as not only are there some armchair detectives online who come off as pretty terrible, there is a VERY clear nod to that horrible trauma scavenger Nancy Grace in one of the characters whose only goal is to get ratings by turning the public against literal teenagers. It’s one of the things that the true crime community really needs to reckon with, as people like Grace (and this character) see blood in the water and exploit it for ratings, even if they make chum of innocent people in the process.

“That Weekend” continues the streak that Thomas has had from the get go. It may be my favorite of her books. Thriller fans of all ages should definitely check it out.

Rating 9: Thomas has once again written a suspenseful, engaging, and surprising YA thriller!

Reader’s Advisory:

“That Weekend” is included on the Goodreads list “2021 YA Mysteries and Thrillers”.

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

Kate’s Review: “Don’t Tell a Soul”

Book: “Don’t Tell a Soul” by Kirsten Miller

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, January 2021

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

Book Description: People say the house is cursed. It preys on the weakest, and young women are its favorite victims. In Louth, they’re called the Dead Girls.

All Bram wanted was to disappear—from her old life, her family’s past, and from the scandal that continues to haunt her. The only place left to go is Louth, the tiny town on the Hudson River where her uncle, James, has been renovating an old mansion. But James is haunted by his own ghosts. Months earlier, his beloved wife died in a fire that people say was set by her daughter. The tragedy left James a shell of the man Bram knew—and destroyed half the house he’d so lovingly restored.

The manor is creepy, and so are the locals. The people of Louth don’t want outsiders like Bram in their town, and with each passing day she’s discovering that the rumors they spread are just as disturbing as the secrets they hide. Most frightening of all are the legends they tell about the Dead Girls. Girls whose lives were cut short in the very house Bram now calls home.

The terrifying reality is that the Dead Girls may have never left the manor. And if Bram looks too hard into the town’s haunted past, she might not either.

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

I decided to pick up “Don’t Tell a Soul” by Kirsten Miller after a Minnesota snow storm, one of the first of the season and no doubt a precursor to a long winter ahead. There is just something about the dead of winter that makes a haunted house story feel all the more ominous, probably the isolation factor (which is amped up by the pandemic we are facing right now), and while my review is just now coming out in the Spring, I will say that had I read it now that feeling would have been different. I hadn’t read anything by Miller before this book, so I had no idea what to expect. All I wanted was something creepy and satisfying to match the atmosphere, as well as a story that would keep me on my toes and tick all the boxes of a genre that I love. And I didn’t really get that from this book, unfortunately.

We will start with what I did like about this book. For one, there were some really creepy moments within the manor house, moments that felt like they could have fit right in in a classic haunted house story. From flashes of someone running across the property at night, to the sense of someone standing just around the doorway but right out of sight, the unsettling moments were crafted and described very well. I also liked how Miller takes the idea of the tragic woman in a Gothic haunted house story and tweaks with it a bit. There was a line I loved in particular, “Ghosts and girls go hand in hand. Why do you suppose that is?” It gave me chills, as so many ghost stories, especially in this subgenre, do have to do with women who were probably victims in one way or another. Instead of running with the outcome as interesting, Miller decides to look at the victimization at hand and show the injustice of that. Many of the women in this story are victims of misogyny and rape culture, and there is a lot of pushback against that, which I appreciated.

But the qualms I had with “Don’t Tell a Soul” skewed my ultimate enjoyment of the novel. For one, while we get a lot of hints about Bram’s tragic backstory, up until the reveals about her circumstances we get a lot of ‘other girls aren’t like me’ and ‘but if they knew who I REALLY was they wouldn’t think that’ kind of malarky that I find frustrating. “I’m Not Like Other Girls” is frustrating when it’s used to make a girl seem cooler, and it’s just as frustrating when it’s used to make a girl seem tragic. By the time we did find out what was going on with her, the build up didn’t match the way that it was just kind of stated and then not explored. It also felt like a lot of the people in her circles were just there to be awful and unsympathetic to bolster her tragic-ness, but it made them feel more two dimensionally villain-y than actual real world problematic people. On top of all that, while I DID like how Miller takes apart the idea of the ‘crazy girl in the haunted manor’ trope we’ve seen many a time before, it was done in a lot of heavy handed ways that felt more like telling as opposed to showing.

My biggest problem, however, was that while “Don’t Tell a Soul” wanted to make good points about misogyny and the dangers that women face, too often was the bad behavior of certain men written off as okay. There were many times where Bram was feeling intimidated by local men in the town, while characters who are supposed to be ‘good’ would tell her that she didn’t have anything to worry about when it came to them. My biggest issue of this was with the character Maisie. Maisie is a local girl who befriends Bram, and is there to be the character that makes you question the ‘crazy woman’ tropes, as she actively pushes back against it in theory, and also has to deal with a mother who has a reputation for being a crazy alcoholic (but is in actuality dealing with trauma). Maisie continuously brings up some really good points, but she herself is toxic in many ways. One of the biggest examples was how she was quick to defend the very clearly abusive and bad behavior of local men (spoilers here: at one point in hopes of ‘saving’ Bram from a situation, she literally gets two local men to kidnap her and tries to write it off as ‘oh their intentions were good you don’t have to worry about the men here’. WHAT THE FUCK). I was fine with the taking down of the privileged wealthy men who were abusing the town and its locals in various ways, but it felt like others who were behaving in other bad ways got more of a pass, and that didn’t sit right.

Overall, I found “Don’t Tell a Soul” mundane and frustrating. There were glimmers here and there, but it missed the mark for me.

Rating 5: Character development felt left behind in favor of messaging, but “Don’t Tell a Soul” brings up some interesting, though not terribly unique, points about misogyny.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Don’t Tell a Soul” is included on the Goodreads list “2021 YA Mysteries and Thrillers”.

Find “Don’t Tell a Soul” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!