Serena’s Review: “The Bright and the Pale”

Book: “The Bright and the Pale” by Jessica Rubinkowski

Publishing Info: Quill Tree Books, March 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Seventeen-year-old Valeria is one of the only survivors of the freeze, a dark magical hold Knnot Mountain unleashed over her village. Everyone, including her family, is trapped in an unbreakable sheet of ice. Ever since, she’s been on the run from the Czar, who is determined to imprison any who managed to escape. Valeria finds refuge with the Thieves Guild, doing odd jobs with her best friend Alik, the only piece of home she has left.

That is, until he is brutally murdered.

A year later, she discovers Alik is alive and being held against his will. To buy his freedom, she must lead a group of cutthroats and thieves on a perilous expedition to the very mountain that claimed her family. Only something sinister slumbers in the heart of Knnot.

And it has waited years for release.

Review: Of course this new YA fantasy was marketed as similar to Leigh Bardugo’s work. If it’s not the Grisha series, it’s “Six of Crows. This nonsense has gotten completely out of hand. At this point, that comparison has been used so often (and so poorly) that it’s essentially meaningless. But, alongside the Leigh Bardugo comparison, this book was blurbed as being for fans of Katherine Arden’s “Winternight” trilogy, an all-time favorite series of mine recently. So that did the trick in getting me to pick this one up. Unfortunately, the book really doesn’t deserve either comparison…unless we’re back to the meaninglessness of the Leigh Bardugo spin where all it really signifies is that the book you’re about to pick up is a YA fantasy, which, then, yes.

To this point, Valeria’s life has been nothing but loss. First she lost her home and everyone she loved to a deep freeze. And later, after finding refuge in the Thieves Guild, she loses her best friend Alik to a brutal death. But she is also a survivor, eking out an existence beneath the very nose of the Czar who is out to silence anyone who has survived the freeze. Her life takes a turn, however, when she discovers that Alik is alive. Alive, but changed. To save him, she must venture back to the very place she fears most, the mountain that claimed her town to its cold power.

To get it out of the way from the start, this wasn’t a favorite read of mine. But the one thing I did enjoy, overall, was the world-building involved. Most especially, perhaps, the gods called the Bright and the Pale were very interesting. I liked the idea that neither is inherently good or bad, therefore choosing to follow one over the other doesn’t necessarily speak to any overall world-view or intent on an individual’s part. I also enjoyed the general world-building. It was easy to picture the frozen landscape and the ominous presence of the mountains and the magic that lurked there. The atmosphere itself worked very well for what the story was trying to accomplish.

However, I struggled to enjoy this book. The pacing was difficult, with a slow start that took quite a while to become engaging. This beginning was also hindered by a style of writing that too often veered into telling rather than showing, with information feeling squeezed into dialogue and in the narration in ways that felt unnatural and ponderous. The writing itself was rather clunky, and it took me several chapters to realize that part of the reason I was struggling with the book was the fact that I needed to re-read several sentences to try to piece together what the author was actually getting at. Hopefully, as I was reading an e-ARC, some of this will be cleaned up in edits (there were words missing from sentences even, though the sheer number of times this seemed to happen makes me think it might have just been a very poor writing style choice??).

Valeria was also not a character to write home about. There was nothing obviously wrong with her, and the attempts at giving her a dark back story with the loss of her home suited well enough. However, she still simply felt like every other YA heroine with “a past.” There wasn’t enough distinction to her voice or character to make her stand out from the increasingly crowded set of leading ladies in YA fantasy.

I also didn’t care for the romance or some of the twists in the story. I felt like most of the reveals were telegraphed way too early and too obviously to provide any sort of weight when they finally landed. And the romance struggled against some of the unlikable aspects of Alik’s character. There was too much time spent on him saying horrible things and then later apologizing for those same horrible things. From there, it just followed the typical YA romance arc without adding much or creating any real sizzle between these two.

Fans of Russian-inspired fairytales may enjoy this read, but I do think it has enough marks against it to not earn a strong recommendation. It definitely wasn’t for me, and I think there are likely better examples of similar works to read if one is looking for books like this. Katherine Arden’s “Winternight” series, for sure, and Naomi Novik’s “Spinning Silver,” come to mind.

Rating 6: A disappointing read that had promise but seemed to lack some of the writing proficiency needed to really pully it off.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Bright and the Pale” are on these Goodreads lists: Monsters and Magic Society and 2021 Young Adult Debuts.

Find “The Bright and the Pale” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Dustborn”

Book: “Dustborn” by Erin Bowman

Publication Info: HMH Books for Young Readers, April 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Delta of Dead River has always been told to hide her back, where a map is branded on her skin to a rumored paradise called the Verdant. In a wasteland plagued by dust squalls, geomagnetic storms, and solar flares, many would kill for it—even if no one can read it. So when raiders sent by a man known as the General attack her village, Delta suspects he is searching for her. 

Delta sets out to rescue her family but quickly learns that in the Wastes no one can be trusted—perhaps not even her childhood friend, Asher, who has been missing for nearly a decade. If Delta can trust Asher, she just might decode the map and trade evidence of the Verdant to the General for her family. What Delta doesn’t count on is what waits at the Verdant: a long-forgotten secret that will shake the foundation of her entire world.

Review: This book was marketed as appealing to fans of “Mad Max.” That was probably enough for me right there. The cover also worked perfectly for this description, luring me in even further. It is super unique, kind of creepy, and sets a perfect tone for the type of brutal, wasteland existence the book’s description references. I hadn’t read anything else by this author, which is also exciting. And it all worked out perfectly for me here, as I ended enjoying the heck out of this book.

Delta has always been distrustful. On her back she carries a deadly secret, one that she’s been warned to always hide. But luckily for her, this distrust of strangers is not a great weight to carry as there are so few strangers in the first place. Her pack is barely surviving on the barren wastelands, anxiously watching their only water supply slow shrink back. When Delta returns from a brief mission away to find her home destroyed and her pack abducted by a powerful man calling himself the “General,” she knows she was and the secret she carries were the likely target. Now she must venture out into the wasteland to decrypt this ancient secret before it’s too late for those she loves.

Like I said, I really enjoyed this story. For one thing, the world-building is very strong. I was immediately able to picture the wasteland that Delta lives in and the powerful storms that plague it instantly felt like a viable and fearful threat. The story touches on many of the small elements of life that would be challenging living under these circumstances that the reader might not immediately think of. It made the entire thing feel very lived in and tangible. The ever-present dust, the constant underlying fear of running out of water, the emptiness stretching out in every direction. Too afraid to move, but unable to stay where you are. Delta’s descriptions of this all are matter-of-fact and blunt, occurring organically as the story rolls out.

Delta herself was very sympathetic, partly for just how hardened and rough she was with those around her. She’s definitely a product of the life she’s been raised into, one full of difficulty but with the added layer of fear surrounding the secret map on her back. Her story is one of learning to trust, sometimes against reason. It’s also one of faith, how one can lose it and how sometimes hope and faith are needed even in the face of terrible odds. I really liked Delta’s ponderings on truth and faith, and her attempts to strike the appropriate balance between the two.

I also really enjoyed the side characters. Asher was a fairly predictable love interest, without a lot that made him stand out from the pack. But there were a bunch of surprise side characters that the general description doesn’t even mention who play, arguably, even a bigger role than Asher does in Delta’s journey, both her physical trek across the waste and her personal journey of self-discovery. I don’t want to spoil any of the elements of the book, since these characters continue to pop up throughout the book, even fairly late into the story and each surprise is as good as the last.

Speaking of surprises, while I can definitely see the comparisons to “Mad Max” and I think that is an apt sum-up of the story, this is book is definitely its own thing. There was a really big surprise towards the end that I didn’t see coming at all. I always love when I come across books that can truly shock me with a twist like this. You don’t even realize how many elements have been laid down pointing towards this reveal until it suddenly comes.

Overall, I had a blast reading this book. It was action-packed, fresh, and had a tough-as-grits heroine to lead us through the story. It strikes the perfect balance between post-apocalyptic and country western, varying between its themes of hope in the face of terrible odds and the go-get ’em attitude of our leading lady. Fans of “Mad Max” and post-apocalyptic stories are sure to enjoy this one!

Rating 9: Dive into the dusty landscape and make sure to have a glass of water on hand. Not only will it help with the prevalent worry over water throughout the book, but you may not be able to put down this page-turner for quite a while!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Dustborn” is on these Goodreads lists: [ATY 2021] – Related to Past, Present, Future – FUTURE and Best Traveling Vicariously.

Find “Dustborn” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “She’s Too Pretty To Burn”

Book: “She’s Too Pretty To Burn” by Wendy Heard

Publishing Info: Henry Holt & Co. (BYR), March 2021

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

Book Description: An electric romance set against a rebel art scene sparks lethal danger for two girls in this expertly plotted YA thriller. For fans of E. Lockhart, Lauren Oliver and Kara Thomas.

The summer is winding down in San Diego. Veronica is bored, caustically charismatic, and uninspired in her photography. Nico is insatiable, subversive, and obsessed with chaotic performance art. They’re artists first, best friends second. But that was before Mick. Delicate, lonely, magnetic Mick: the perfect subject, and Veronica’s dream girl. The days are long and hot―full of adventure―and soon they are falling in love. Falling so hard, they never imagine what comes next. One fire. Two murders. Three drowning bodies. One suspect . . . one stalker. This is a summer they won’t survive.

Inspired by The Picture of Dorian Gray, this sexy psychological thriller explores the intersections of love, art, danger, and power.

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

While I have a vague working knowledge of the main themes of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde thanks to pop culture, I haven’t actually read the book, nor have I seen any source material stringent adaptations. I figure I should probably get on that at some point, but man, the To Be Read pile is so big that it just keeps falling by the wayside. That didn’t stop me, however, from being totally interested in “She’s Too Pretty to Burn” by Wendy Heard when I read the description. Sure, the “Dorian Gray” adaptation is already kind of a tantalizing detail, but when you throw in teenage girls, sapphic romance, AND what sounds like a “Velvet Buzzsaw”-esque pretentious art scene/bloodbath? Baby, you got a stew going.

This movie is a mess, but it’s a mess that I couldn’t stop watching. (source)

“She’s Too Pretty To Burn” has two perspectives. The first is Mick, a shy, awkward, friendless teenage girl who lives with her narcissistic mother. Her self esteem is low and she hates having any attention on her. The second is Veronica, a budding photographer from a privileged home who has dreams of art school after high school, and who pals around with Nico, a passionate political performance artist who is always on the edge with his art. After Mick and Veronica meet at a party, their connection is immediately forged in passion as well as boundary treading, in that Veronica takes Mick’s picture without her knowing. This, of course, sets off a disturbing and highly readable chain of events. I liked having both Mick’s and Veronica’s perspectives, as I feel like we got a really good sense for both their passions, their hopes, and their insecurities, as well as how they both are deeply into each other, but know how to hurt each other. There were moments where I loved each of them, and moments where I would get so mad at each of them, but I was wholly invested in them, their relationship, and their fates. I also really enjoyed how Heard explored their differing levels of privilege, be it based on race, class, home life, what have you, showing that while Mick may have the upper hand in one way, Veronica may have it in another, and neither of them can see past their own issues to REALLY understand how their varying advantages manifest. Nico is a bit of a wild card in all of this at first glance, until he starts to manipulate both girls in different ways to suit his own purposes, and as that slow burn threw in a whole other dynamic to this story, I went from hooked to lined and sunk as well (does this metaphor work? I don’t care, I was all in is what I’m saying).

The plot, which I’m going to keep a little vague, is a slow build of suspense and dread as to what is going to happen. The unease is apparent from the get go, but you aren’t totally certain as to why you feel that way. Is it because of Mick’s unease with everything around her? Is it because of Veronica’s obsession with that photo she took of Mick and what it drives her to do? Is it the two of them, is it something else? Since I haven’t read “Dorian Gray” I can’t tell you as to how well it fits the narrative of that story, or how it reinterprets those themes, but what I can tell you is that this book is just off and unnerving enough that you will be on edge even before things really start to go south for all of our characters. And then when it does go that way, the tension is massive. At least it was for me. I was ripping through the final chapters, nearly breathless as I waited to see what was going to happen. I don’t know what it was about this book, but it really laid its talons in my brain and I am still shaken up. The only reason that this didn’t get a ten out of ten is because I felt like it went a LITTLE long by the end, extending past the climactic events and laying a little last minute groundwork that I don’t think was fully explored. That said, if it was laying groundwork for a potential sequel? I would be chomping at the bit to see what happens next.

“She’s Too Pretty to Burn” is going to be on my mind for awhile. Deeply disturbing but compelling as hell. Definitely check this out if you like YA thrillers, or even just thrillers in general.

Rating 9: A twisted and unnerving thriller that had me hooked almost immediately.

Reader’s Advisory:

“She’s Too Pretty to Burn” is included on the Goodreads lists “2021 Sapphic Releases”, and “Dorian Gray”.

Find “She’s Too Pretty to Burn” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Namesake”

Book: “Namesake” by Adrienne Young

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, March 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Trader. Fighter. Survivor.

With the Marigold ship free of her father, Fable and its crew were set to start over. That freedom is short-lived when she becomes a pawn in a notorious thug’s scheme. In order to get to her intended destination she must help him to secure a partnership with Holland, a powerful gem trader who is more than she seems.

As Fable descends deeper into a world of betrayal and deception she learns that her mother was keeping secrets, and those secrets are now putting the people Fable cares about in danger. If Fable is going to save them then she must risk everything, including the boy she loves and the home she has finally found.

Previously Reviewed: “Fable”

Review: I’ve really liked some books from Adrienne Young in the past, but I think “Fable” might have been my favorite in a while. For one thing, I always enjoy a good pirate/sea-faring story, and they’re fairly hard to come by, making the stand-out ones all the better when you find them. While the first book wasn’t perfect, it was definitely a solid start to the duology and the cruel cliff-hanger did its work: I picked up this one as soon as possible when it became available!

Shortly after thinking she’d finally found a place and family of her own in the Marigold and its crew, Fable is abducted and finds herself caught up in the scheming of several powerful players. Unbeknownst to her, Fable might be the clue to unlocking one of the rarest finds in the sea. And soon, Fable must risk it all to make a future for herself and her crew. But to do so, she must delve into the secrets of her family, especially her mother, a woman Fable had thought she knew up until now.

I wasn’t quite sure where this book was going to be headed when I got to the cliffhanger at the end of the first book. In many ways, most of Fable’s arcs had already been completed. She’d confronted the father who abandoned her. Found a crew. Made her fortune in a risky treasure hunt. And found love with the captain of the Marigold. And then she was abducted, with very little fanfare or clues as to why. This could have gone two ways, of course. It could have felt like a last-minute addition by an author/publisher who insisted they’d wring a sequel out of this thing come hell or highwater. Or it could be a thoughtful addition to Fable’s story that felt organic and natural in its own right. I’m glad to report that it is the second.

While much of the first book dealt with Fable’s complicated relationship with a father who refused to acknowledge her as his daughter publicly, this book dives into Fable’s relationship and understanding of her mother and her mother’s family. From the first book, Isolde is made out to be the prototypical perfect mother figure. She was everything Fable wanted to be and looked up to, while also a comforting, loving mother to Fable as a child. But this book tackles the idea that we never really know our parents, as much as we may love them and want to emulate them. Isolde, like the sea she loved, had depths and currents to her that very few understood, and it was exciting watching Fable navigate the twists and turns uncovered in her own family history through Isolde’s lingering relatives.

There were several points in this story, particularly with regards to the Isolde storyline, that could have felt very predictable. I had a number of suspicions regarding the direction the story seemed to be headed. Luckily, only one of those really played out (though that one in particular still frustrates me to no end, as I felt like at least part of it should have been more obvious to Fable and her crew). Instead, we see new layers to many characters. Villains come and go. Motivations wax and wane. It’s always a bit unclear as to who is doing what and why.

And at the heart of it, Fable is a steady, sympathetic character. The revelations about her family that rock her own understanding of herself and history, while shocking, don’t dislodge her core purpose and understanding of her place in the world. Her values, her love for her family, both found and blood, remain true even when tested by power, suspicion, and deception.

I also liked that we got to see a bit more backstory for a few of the other crew members. In the first book, many of them felt like token characters with only one or two traits to really distinguish them from each other. Here, we get a bit more history for a few of them that grounds their stories in ways that make you care about more than just Fable herself.

I still found the romance to be a bit dull. But in this different circumstance, the second book versus the first, I was almost glad for that dullness. More than anything, I hate it when authors add drama to their established romances as if that’s the only way to maintain the reader’s interest in it. If your romance can’t hold up to its characters being together, it wasn’t great to start with. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying probably forever.

Overall, I was very pleased with this sequel. It explored new areas of the duology’s central theme, that of family, while also staying true to the main character and foundations of the story that were laid down in the first book. Fans of “Fable” are sure to enjoy this second high-seas adventure!

Rating 8: Exciting but poignant, “Namesake” continues to build on the excellent foundation laid down in the first book.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Namesake” is on these Goodreads lists: OE Fiction, Fantasies & Epics Book Club and Ginger woman: Redheaded Heroine in Romance.

Find “Namesake” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Follower”

Book: “The Follower” by Kate Doughty

Publishing Info: Amulet Books, March 2021

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

Book Description: A spine-tingling YA thriller, based on a still-unfolding true story
 
Instagram-famous triplets Cecily, Amber, and Rudy—the children of home renovation superstars—are ready for a perfect summer. They’ve just moved into the site of their parents’ latest renovation project when they begin to receive chilling messages from someone called The Follower. It soon becomes clear that this anonymous threat is more than a simple Internet troll, and he can’t wait to shatter the Cole family’s perfect veneer and take back what’s his. The Follower examines the implications of what it is to be watched in the era of social media fame—as well as the lies we tell and the lengths we’ll go to uphold a perfect image, when our lives depend on it.

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

One of the things that most caught my eye about “The Follower” by Kate Doughty is that in the description it says that it’s ‘based on a still-unfolding true story’. Sure, I’ve seen ‘based on a true story’ until the cows come home, but ‘still-unfolding true story’?

Like, WHAT? (source)

I did a little digging, and found out that this book takes some inspiration from the still unsolved “Watcher” case, in which a family moved into a house, and started getting harassing and threatening letters from an unknown person. This went on for awhile, the person was never caught, the family moved out. HERE is an article about it if you want to know more, and you probably do because it’s BANANAS. But ‘still-unfolding’ may be a little misleading, as it sounds like it’s stalled out and will probably never be solved. That said, “The Follower”, though taking inspiration, does not leave the reader hanging like reality did! In fact, it captured my attention and held it, making it so I had a really hard time putting this book down.

What I liked best about “The Follower” was how fast paced and generally addictive it was. We hit the ground running in the very first pages, and we never really paused to take a breather. This made for a book that I just kept on taking in, which was great in the moment. While it’s true that sometimes this fast paced momentum meant that we’d feel like we would trip through moments that needed maybe a little bit of a slow down, this only happened a couple times and the awkward pacing wasn’t too distracting. I also liked all three of the Cole Triplets, when I assumed that at least one of them was going to fall more by the wayside. But all three of them had well rounded personalities and motivations, as well as insecurities and flaws that made them feel human in spite of their ‘influencer’ lives. I especially liked how we got to explore Amber’s drive to be a fashion master while being plus sized, and how while she was hurt by how people (specifically her mother) think that she isn’t as valuable because of her body, she herself is happy with how she is because why shouldn’t she be? Also, the snippets of the social media comments were a fun way to show how their experience at the house and with The Follower was being perceived, and how when ‘fans’ on social media get whipped up into a frenzy of perceived wrongdoing/their own entitlement and or outrage, it can be REALLY damaging. I’m not going to say that it’s going so far as to be a critique of so called ‘cancel culture’, but I will say that it raises good points about how toxic fandoms can be towards living breathing people because of the faux intimacy of social media.

In terms of the actual mystery of who “The Follower” is, there were parts that were pretty obvious from the get go if you are familiar with tropes that go with these kinds of stories. If a character has a beloved pet, it will probably meet an untimely end. If things move around and no one fesses up to doing it, that may mean something more. The family can’t leave the house in which they are being terrorized because it’s a money pit. And so forth. It’s not BAD, per se, and these tropes are familiar and cozy in a way that means that they work just fine. But it also didn’t really make for many big surprises as the story went on. There were a number of moments that should have been ‘ah HA’ in nature, but because I knew the tropes and tricks from many stories before, almost all of them were not surprising, and even somewhat predictable. That being said, I’ve been consuming these kinds of stories for many years now, so for readers who are just getting started there could be things to discover.

“The Follower” was a comfortable read for me that gave me all the reliable elements that I like of a YA thriller. I look forward to seeing what Kate Doughty comes out with in the future, and will definitely be checking it out, whatever it may be.

Rating 7: Fast paced and a page turner, “The Follower” is a pretty satisfying thriller, if at times a predictable and reliant on tropes seen many times before.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Follower” is pretty new and not featured on any Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Books Involving Stalking”, and “Unwanted Attention”.

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

Serena’s Review: “As the Shadow Rises”

Book: “As the Shadow Rises” by Katy Rose Pool

Publishing Info: Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, September 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: The Last Prophet has been found, yet he sees destruction ahead.

In this sequel to the critically-acclaimed “There Will Come a Darkness,” kingdoms have begun to fall to a doomsday cult, the magical Graced are being persecuted, and an ancient power threatens to break free. But with the world hurtling toward its prophesized end, Anton’s haunting vision reveals the dangerous beginnings of a plan to stop the Age of Darkness.

As Jude, Keeper of the Order of the Last Light, returns home in disgrace, his quest to aid the Prophet is complicated by his growing feelings for Anton. Meanwhile, the assassin known as the Pale Hand will stop at nothing to find her undead sister before she dies for good, even if it means letting the world burn. And in Nazirah, Hassan, the kingdom-less Prince, forms a risky pact to try to regain his throne. When the forces of light and darkness collide in the City of Mercy, old wounds are reopened, new alliances are tested, and the end of the world begins.

Previously Reviewed: “There Will Come a Darkness”

Review: I wasn’t a huge fan of the first book in this series, as my review above with testify to. But it’s hard to resist returning to a series when the sequel is so highly praised (but then again, so was the first one, and we saw how that turned out). But this book currently has a 4.25 star rating on Goodreads, which is definitely not something to turn your nose up at. So I requested it and tried to be open to what others are seeing in this series that I didn’t. Sadly, I still don’t see it.

Our main characters are spread far and wide. And while the Last Prophet has been identified, the world still seems to be burning around them. Hassan has lost his country to his scheming Aunt. Jude returns in disgrace having let his feelings get ahead of his mission time and again. And our favorite assassin wanders the land looking for her self-destructive, undead sister. Not to mention the doomsday cult that only seems to have gotten started. As their paths weave in and out of each other’s stories, the way forward begins to look more and more complicated and challenging. If there even is a way forward.

Well, I will say that I liked this one better than the first. With so many POV characters, the first one had to devote a huge chunk of its page time introducing each of its characters and attempting to instill equal importance and interest in them all. For me, this last part wasn’t successful, but there was no avoiding the first part. One could make an argument for this being why multiple POV books should probably be much more rare than they seem to be at the moment. But for all of those reasons, the first book didn’t have much of a plot until the last quarter of the story where it did, finally, kick into gear. Here, the story was able to take off much more quickly for all that work already being done. Our threats have been better identified, the world-building better established, and it all results in a book that has much better pacing and action than the first.

I also liked the fact that the story is leaning into the darker, twisty aspects of the story. The first one I thought was pretty predictable and what were meant to land as big shocks were easily seen chapters ahead of time. Here, I was pleased that I was only able to predict a few of the twists and turns with more of them taking me genuinely by surprise. So if you enjoyed that aspect of the first book, this one is sure to satisfy.

Unfortunately, for me, most books live and die on their characters. And that was my biggest problem with the first, and that feeling only intensified with this one. There’s a combination of problems here, really. With so many POVs, there will always be favorites. This happens even with books/authors who can handle a large ensemble cast well. But here there are really only one or two characters whose stories I’m really invested in. For the others, there’s a combination of boredom by some and then dislike of others. Both of these feelings, I’m sure, are unintentional. Boring, for sure. And the dislike? I’m not quite so sure, but I think that we’re still meant to like most of these people. And it’s not even the morally ambiguous ones (assassins always are!) that are always the unlikeable ones here! I didn’t like Hassan much in the first, and he really doesn’t improve here. And while Jude has an interesting story, I’m still cringing over his complete failure to live up to what we’re meant to believe is rigorous training he went through his entire life. He has similar struggles here.

I did like the moments when the characters crossed paths with one another. That was a favorite part of the first book, too. It’s nice to see a story that doesn’t just get all of the characters together and then leave them that way. Here, like there, we see people come and go from each other’s stories, making the fact that they are all individuals with very different goals and objectives stay at the forefront of the mind. While they have different connections and interests in one another, they are not a team like we often see in other ensemble books.

Overall, I think this was an improvement on the first book. I liked that the story took me more by surprise. And the fact that so much of the introduction leg work had already been gotten out of the way really helped the pacing and action of the plot. Unfortunately, my problems with many of the characters only intensified and at times it felt like a real chore reading some of their chapters. However, if you were a fan of the first book, I’m sure you’ll like this one. And if your problems with the first one had to do more with its introductory nature more than anything else, this might be an improvement for you as well! Just expect more of the same, character-wise.

Rating 7: An improvement on the first, but I still found myself skimming through certain characters’ chapters.

Reader’s Advisory:

“As the Shadow Rises” isn’t on many Goodreads lists, weirdly, but it is on Books with Red Covers.

Find “As the Shadow Rises” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Last Secret You’ll Ever Keep”

Book: “The Last Secret You’ll Ever Keep” by Lauria Faria Stolarz

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, March 2021

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

Book Description: Bestselling author Laurie Faria Stolarz returns with a thrilling novel where an eighteen-year-old girl’s search for answers lands her in one of the most terrifying situations imaginable.

Four days…Trapped in a well, surrounded by dirt, scratching at the walls trying to find a way out. Four days of a thirst so strong, that when it finally rains, I drink as much as possible from the dripping walls, not even caring how much dirt comes with it.

Six months… Since my escape. Since no one believed I was taken to begin with – from my own bed, after a party, when no one else was home… Six months of trying to find answers and being told instead that I made the whole incident up.

One month… Since I logged on to the Jane Anonymous site for the first time and found a community of survivors who listen without judgment, provide advice, and console each other when needed. A month of chatting with a survivor whose story eerily mirrors my own: a girl who’s been receiving triggering clues, just like me, and who could help me find the answers I’m searching for.

Three days…Since she mysteriously disappears, and since I’m forced to ask the questions: will my chance to find out what happened to me vanish with her? And will I be next? 

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

Back at the beginning of 2020 I reviewed the book “Jane Anonymous”, in which a kidnapping survivor has to readjust to her life after returning home. I thought that it did a great job of combining legitimate thrills with a realistic and responsible take on trauma. So when I saw that Laurie Faria Stolarz had written a new book within that same universe, “The Last Secret You’ll Ever Keep”, I was pretty interested! I really like the idea of a series that gives stories to different characters who are on the Jane Anonymous blog and support chat board that was established at the end of the first book, so I was really eager to jump into this one to see what story was up next. But unfortunately, this book didn’t live up to the high hopes I had for it.

I do want to say right off the bat that I think that Stolarz does her due diligence to portray mental illness and the effects of trauma on a person in realistic and non-romanticized ways. Terra has two big, horrible things that she has to deal with: the traumatic death of her parents, who died in a house fire that she survived, and being kidnapped and held captive for days, only to escape and have people not believe her. These two things would of course weigh on anyone, and the crap that Terra has to deal with, be it the disassociation, the PTSD, the fugue states, etcetera is only exacerbated by people who either can’t handle her very difficult behavior, or are openly hostile towards her or wary of her. Sometimes I think that mental illness can be portrayed in ways that doesn’t do it justice in the sense that it can be VERY hard for the person suffering, and it can be constant and repetitive. That was all well done. The problem, however, is that when you have a character going through these kinds of things in realistic ways, it can make for a plot that feels like its spinning its wheels or repeating itself. “Jane Anonymous” was able to balance both the trauma themes and the plot progression, so it was disappointing that this one couldn’t quite manage it.

And in terms of the plot progression, we have two mysteries at hand. The first is the mystery that is always in the air, and that is what happened to Terra when she was abducted, or if she was abducted at all. As the story goes on Terra has pretty much stopped trying to convince people of what happened to her, as she is met with those who think she’s flat out lying, or those who think that her previous trauma of losing her parents has led her to a psychotic break of sorts. There are moments of her looking for proof, and scenes of her maybe seeing clues that she is still being watched, though she lets it fall by the wayside a bit because she just doesn’t really know how to approach it lest she be met with derision. The other, more active mystery is what happened to her online friend Peyton, someone she met on the Jane Anonymous support boards, who has been talking about her own trauma of being kidnapped, and is worried that her kidnapper is stalking her again as well. After Peyton disappears, Terra is motivated to try and find her, and therein perhaps find the man who took her, as their stories have similarities. The problem with this storyline is that the action doesn’t pick up until we are more than halfway done with the book. I kept waiting for it and waiting for it, as it’s in the description that this is the main plot line, but it was very late, in my opinion a little too late in the progression. And by the time we do get to the big climax, which I won’t spoil here, there were things that just felt wrapped up a little too quickly, or too conveniently, and then the plot lingered a little too long post climax. Ultimately, it felt muddled and haphazard.

Given that I still think that there is a lot of potential for more books within the “Jane Anonymous” world that looks at different survivors and their stories, I’m not writing off the series as a whole. But “The Last Secret You’ll Ever Keep” was a bit of a let down that couldn’t quite find a good balance between important messages and captivating story.

Rating 5: Though I had hopes for this sequel to “Jane Anonymous”, “The Last Secret You’ll Ever Keep” was a repetitive and muddled follow up. That said, the candid look at how difficult mental illness and trauma could be was well handled.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Last Secret You’ll Ever Keep” is included on the Goodreads lists “Sweet Vicious”, and “YA Suspense/Thriller/Mystery”.

Find “The Last Secret You’ll Ever Keep” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed: “Jane Anonymous”

Kate’s Review: “Good Girl, Bad Blood”

Book: “Good Girl, Bad Blood”(A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder #2) by Holly Jackson

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, March 2021

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

Book Description: The highly anticipated sequel to the instant New York Times bestseller, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder! More dark secrets are exposed in this addictive, true-crime fueled mystery.

Pip is not a detective anymore. With the help of Ravi Singh, she released a true-crime podcast about the murder case they solved together last year. The podcast has gone viral, yet Pip insists her investigating days are behind her.

But she will have to break that promise when someone she knows goes missing. Jamie Reynolds has disappeared, on the very same night the town hosted a memorial for the sixth-year anniversary of the deaths of Andie Bell and Sal Singh. The police won’t do anything about it. And if they won’t look for Jamie then Pip will, uncovering more of her town’s dark secrets along the way… and this time everyone is listening. But will she find him before it’s too late?

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

Perhaps you remember that last year I greatly enjoyed the YA mystery “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” by Holly Jackson, and it even made my Top Ten Books of 2020. I also mentioned in that review that I was super stoked for the sequel. Well folks, the time has arrived. “Good Girl, Bad Blood” is here.

My first highly anticipated thriller book of the year! (source)

We pick up not to far after we left off in “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder”. Pip is no longer actively seeking out mysteries to solve, instead working on a podcast about the Andie Bell/Sal Singh case, and attending the trial of serial rapist Max Hastings. Pip, however, is drawn into helping her friend Connor, whose brother has gone missing, and dedicates a new season of her podcast to her investigation. What I liked most about “Good Girl, Bad Blood” is that while Jackson could have set Pip up to be a modern day Nancy Drew who is just going to solve cases and move on to the next, instead we get a front seat at the physical, mental, and emotional labor that she has to endure to help those she cares about. Well, and to give her that purpose that she felt she had in the first book. It’s an angle that may seem obvious, but Jackson does it in a way that makes you really start to wonder how much of this is all worth it as Pip gets sucked into another case, and risks her safety in trying to solve it. I didn’t expect it to go in this direction, and I was happy that it did. Jackson also takes this time to examine the weaknesses in our current law and order systems, as the police in town aren’t really taking Jamie’s missing status seriously, and the rape trial of Max Hastings follows a lot of the same ‘he said, she said’ injustices we see in real life. All of these things combine that leaves Pip in some pretty bleak places as the story goes on, and since there is going to be another book in the series, I want to see how Jackson tackles this for our imperfect heroine.

In terms of the plot itself, “Good Girl, Bad Blood” has a lot of the same strengths as the first book. I still really like Pip, and I loved seeing her relationship with Ravi Singh evolve and flourish (cutest couple ever). I also liked getting to know some of her other friends a little bit better, like Connor. As to the mystery, once again we got a taut and suspenseful thriller, and we get to see everything laid out in a cohesive way through podcast transcripts and Pip’s notes. It’s a much better way to keep everything organized without making any of the characters seem like they’re reciting facts in a robotic way, and I really enjoy it. I will say that there were a couple of trip ups for me, however. The first was that a couple of red herrings tossed out there didn’t really get resolved as red herrings or not. Like, I think that they were? But it felt a little too touched upon in the narrative to just be left behind without explanation. That’s nitpicky. The other issue isn’t as such, in that one of the big puzzle pieces that ties everything together wasn’t even hinted at until well into the last fourth of the book. It felt sort of like a deus ex machine, but for a plot point. But that said, I was pretty much kept guessing until the end. And what an ending it was. It has set us up for the next book in the series. And now, once again, I am waiting anxiously to see where Pip can go next.

“Good Girl, Bad Blood” continues a fun series that is on my must read list going forward. If you haven’t tried these books yet and like a good YA mystery/thriller, you absolutely need to pick them up.

Rating 8: A twisty and suspenseful sequel, “Good Girl, Bad Blood” has a couple of stumbles, but is overall a great follow up to a runaway hit!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Good Girl, Bad Blood” is included on the Goodreads lists “Young Adult Crime/Murder Mysteries”, and “Fiction Books Featuring Podcasts”.

Find “Good Girl, Bad Blood” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “The Ask and the Answer”

Book: “The Ask and the Answer” by Patrick Ness

Publishing Info: Candlewick, May 2009

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: We were in the square, in the square where I’d run, holding her, carrying her, telling her to stay alive, stay alive till we got safe, till we got to Haven so I could save her – But there weren’t no safety, no safety at all, there was just him and his men…

Fleeing before a relentless army, Todd has carried a desperately wounded Viola right into the hands of their worst enemy, Mayor Prentiss. Immediately separated from Viola and imprisoned, Todd is forced to learn the ways of the Mayor’s new order. But what secrets are hiding just outside of town? And where is Viola? Is she even still alive? And who are the mysterious Answer? And then, one day, the bombs begin to explode…

Previously Reviewed: “The Knife of Never Letting Go”

Review: Keeping on my read of Patrick Ness’s “Chaos Walking” trilogy, I was eager to pick up this next book after the massive cliffhanger we were left with in the first book! Warning, there will be spoilers for the first book in this review as it’s almost impossible to talk about this book without revealing some of the reveals we had there.

After desperately fleeing the Mayor and his growing army, Todd and a grievously injured Viola finally reach Haven to discover it is really nothing of the sort. Without even putting up a fight, the people of Haven have already surrendered to the Mayor, and it is he who now controls the town and Todd and Viola’s fate. The division between men and women, with men’s Noise and women’s lack of Noise at the heart of it, grows daily. Like all of the other men and women, Todd and Viola are separated and life is very different under the control of the Mayor (now the President.) But a resistance quickly emerges calling itself the Answer and waging a terrifying guerilla war against the Mayor and his men. No one knows when the next bomb will go off or how the Answer is even doing what its doing. Todd and Viola separately with the cruel decisions put before them, desperately trying to find their way back to one another at the same time.

I feel like this series is systematically expanding a central thought at its core: is violence ever justified? In the first book, we see Todd’s struggles with what he has been told makes a man, the ability to kill. Again and again he fails to kill even when it would spare his life. But then in a fit of anger and fear, he kills a Spackle violently and suddenly. And then we see this decision haunt him throughout the remainder of the book. By the end, Todd has come to his own decisions about what does and does not make a man and cold-blooded murder decidedly does not.

Here, however, the question of violence is expanded outwards. On one hand, we have the Mayor who insists that his army and tactics are necessary for dealing with the rising threat of the Spackle and to create a unified force for when Viola’s people arrive in their ships. The Answer, on the other hand, violently opposes the Mayor’s brutal tactics and cruel treatment of women and Spackle. For them, the “answer” is to fight back with everything they have, waging a terrorist bombing campaign against the town itself. They try to avoid casualties, but any accidental hits are simply put down to necessary losses in the grander scheme. And from a third perspective, Viola, who spends much of the first half of the book in a House of Healing, meets a healer woman who’s firm line that saving a life must always come first demonstrates just how hard this approach is, watching cruelty unfold but not responding other than to treat those who are injured, both friend and foe alike.

There is no clear “right” choice in any of it, other than the Mayor himself who is pretty clearly bad. Viola and Todd each have to tackle incredibly challenging situations that really make the reader stop and think about what they would do if presented these options in the circumstances. I was never really sure, other than to be glad I was reading about it and not experiencing it myself. But I find this type of story that really challenges its readers to be the best kind. It’s definitely not an easy book. There’s darkness throughout and some really terrible things happen, but it’s also one that shows the resilience of the spirit to go on through even the most impossible feeling events.

For his part, the Mayor is an excellent villain. Ness doesn’t overplay his hand here with any mustache-twirling or silly excess. Instead, the Mayor’s oozing manipulation is all to easy to understand. We see how even Todd can be influenced by it, a young many who has tackled more than many of the other men who fall under the Mayor’s sway. I also really liked that we got to see more from Davy, the Mayor’s son. His character is really rounded out here and shines a different light on the Mayor as well.

The narrative is also now split between chapters from Todd’s perspective and Viola’s. This is, of course, necessary to tell each of their stories as they spend so much of the book apart. But it’s also great to finally see into Viola’s head. In the first book, it was clear that even though Todd has grown up on this planet, he still had very little understanding of his own people’s history. But Viola is coming from a completely different life experience. She grew up on a colony ship with this planet as its destination. And then to be suddenly thrust into this situation after her parents die in the crash…It’s inevitable that she would see the decisions before her and the events around her through a very different lens than Todd.

I really enjoyed this book. Like I said, it’s not a light, fluffy read, but it’s darkness and challenge is what makes it stand-out. Ness doesn’t pull any punches when pushing his reader to tackle these tough topics. If you enjoyed the first book, I’m sure this is already on your radar (again, that ending!) So rest assured that while the pedal might have felt like it was to the metal in the first book, this is where it really gets started!

Rating 9: Tackling some really tough questions about violence and the rights and wrongs therein, this book is kept from being too dark by its incredibly compelling two main leads.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Ask and the Answer” is on these Goodreads lists: Fast-paced books with Redeeming social value to read in one-sitting and Deep Underrated YA.

Find “The Ask and the Answer” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Initial Insult”

Book: “The Initial Insult” by Mindy McGinnis

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, February 2021

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

Book Description: Welcome to Amontillado, Ohio, where your last name is worth more than money, and secrets can be kept… for a price. Tress Montor knows that her family used to mean something—until she didn’t have a family anymore. When her parents disappeared seven years ago while driving her best friend home, Tress lost everything. She might still be a Montor, but the entire town shuns her now that she lives with her drunken, one-eyed grandfather at what locals refer to as the “White Trash Zoo,” – a wild animal attraction featuring a zebra, a chimpanzee, and a panther, among other things.

Felicity Turnado has it all – looks, money, and a secret that she’s kept hidden. She knows that one misstep could send her tumbling from the top of the social ladder, and she’s worked hard to make everyone forget that she was with the Montors the night they disappeared. Felicity has buried what she knows so deeply that she can’t even remember what it is… only that she can’t look at Tress without having a panic attack.

But she’ll have to. Tress has a plan. A Halloween costume party at an abandoned house provides the ideal situation for Tress to pry the truth from Felicity – brick by brick – as she slowly seals her former best friend into a coal chute. With a drunken party above them, and a loose panther on the prowl, Tress will have her answers – or settle for revenge.

In the first book of this duology, award-winning author Mindy McGinnis draws inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe and masterfully delivers a dark, propulsive mystery in alternating points of view that unravels a friendship . . . forevermore.

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

As I’ve mentioned before, I really enjoyed Edgar Allan Poe and his poems and short stories. From the sad to the dream like to the macabre, the guy always has something that is going to connect with me. It’s been a long time since I read “The Cask of Amontillado”, the short story in which a man slowly seals up his rival into a tomb brick by brick, but I do remember how much it unsettled me the first time I read it back in middle school. When I head that Mindy McGinnis had written a new YA novel that took that story and updated it to be between two teenage girls, I was interested, but wondered how it could be done! But I was absolutely game to give it a try.

Taking a story like “The Cask of Amontillado” and turning it into a thriller/horror about two teenage girls whose friendship has gone bad is a lofty goal to set for oneself, but McGinnis rises to the occasion and has created a creepy and suspenseful story. We get the perspectives of both Tress, the one with the bricks, and Felicity, the one in the chains, and see how their relationship has gotten to this point. I really enjoyed both voices of each girl, and McGinnis was very careful to show that each of them had their own roles to play in the disintegration of their friendship. She doesn’t really give either of them a pass, but is also very empathetic to each of them in their struggles. It made it easy to both feel for them, and hate them, depending on the moment of the story. But it was the third perspective that I didn’t expect that kind of worked the best for me, and that is of the Panther that Tress’s grandfather Cecil owns, who has escaped from the exotic zoo. It’s this element that makes “The Black Cat” our other most prominent Poe work, and I thought it upped the ante, but also added an experimental and all knowing third perspective to bring in other, dreamy elements.

I WILL say, and I never thought I’d ever say this given how much I like Poe, that there was a little too much Poe stuffed into this book. It’s one thing when you are throwing references with names, vague similarities between the source content and the interpretation, and a main plot that’s paying homage. But McGinnis put a few too many plot points in that were a bit overwhelming. If it had just been “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Black Cat” with a few other nods I think it would have been fine. But we also get a whole “The Mask of Red Death” subplot which feels underexplored because there is so much else going on, and some plot points from “Hop Frog” thrown in as well that are also superfluous. It just made things seem a bit more bloated than they needed to be, especially since there is, indeed, going to be another book in the series. Could these things have been saved for that? Or will there be even MORE underutilized opportunities with some great source material?

But yes, having said that, “The Initial Insult” was a lot of fun, and while I’m curious about how a sequel is going to work (given that things seemed pretty final in some regards), I have a couple of theories as to what McGinnis may be up to. And even if those theories don’t pan out, I’m definitely anticipating what comes next.

Rating 8: A creative modern day interpretation of an Edgar Allan Poe classic, “The Initial Insult” sometimes does too much, but is entertaining and suspenseful nonetheless.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Initial Insult” is included on the Goodreads list “Books Influenced by Edgar Allan Poe”.

Find “The Initial Insult” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!