Serena’s Review: “The Grimrose Girls”

Book: “The Grimrose Girls” by Laura Pohl

Publishing Info: Sourebooks Fire, October 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Four troubled friends, One murdered girl… and a dark fate that may leave them all doomed.

After the mysterious death of their best friend, Ella, Yuki, and Rory are the talk of their elite school, Grimrose Académie. The police ruled it a suicide, but the trio are determined to find out what really happened.

When Nani Eszes arrives as their newest roommate, it sets into motion a series of events they couldn’t have imagined. As the girls retrace their friend’s last steps, they uncover dark secrets about themselves and their destinies, discovering they’re all cursed to repeat the brutal and gruesome endings to their stories until they can break the cycle.

This contemporary take on classic fairytales reimagines heroines as friends attending the same school. While investigating the murder of their best friend, they uncover connections to their ancient fairytale curses and attempt to forge their own fate before it’s too late.

Review: This book had a few things going for it that bumped it up my “to be requested” list fairly quickly. First, boarding school books. Blame “Harry Potter” if you will or some weird American obsession with the British (often) boarding schools in general. I also love, love, love this cover! It quickly conveys many aspects of the books without the reader even needing to read the summary. Fairytale like artwork, girl squad, diversity (at least from what we can see of different body shapes being featured.) Plus, it has a hint of creepiness that points to the murder mystery at the heart of the story. So, with all of that together, I dove right in with high hopes.

As close as friends and roommates can be, Ella, Yuki, and Rory are determined that the police have it wrong: their roommate didn’t kill herself and something more nefarious is at work. When they get a new roommate, things are kicked into another gear altogether. Now, they realize it’s not simply a matter of solving a potential murder, but they must unravel the world of fairtyales and magic that they are all caught up within. Turns out, each is destined to re-live a classic tale and fall prey to the dark curses that seem to always exist at the heart of such tales.

I’ll put it right out there, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I wanted to. But it’s also one of those books that I do think will appeal to a bunch of different readers, so I fully expect opinions to vary quite a bit on this one. I will immediately give it props for tons of representation. But I will also side-eye that a bit with the fact that it did seem like the author was trying to cover literally every single base. And yes, I’m all for increasing diversity in books in every way. But I don’t think every book should be trying to cover every single angle itself. It not only is impossible, but it does a disservice to each individual character represented, as jamming a book too packed ultimately reduces page time for any one character, thus reducing that character to a few (often well-known and, if not harmful in anyway, still fairly stereotypical) key traits. Nothing raised my eyebrows at all, but while I give props to the author for the attempt, the sheer number of characters as a whole did significantly reduce my enjoyment of this book.

And this is part of the reason I think it will be a book with divided tastes. I’ve come to realize that I generally struggle with books that have more than two POVs. There are a few exceptions, like “Six of Crows,” but really, not many. Here I had the same problems I’ve always had. The story is so busy jumping from character to character that I never have the time to form any type of emotional investment in any one character. As a reader who enjoys books mostly due to characterization, this is a big problem for me. This many POVs also significantly hinders the pacing of a book. You have to spend so much time in the onset setting up each individual character, that the reader must get through a good number of pages before anything resembling a plot begins to unfold. Here, for example, we only had one chapter from each character really describing or even experience their grief over their lost friend. Because there are so many characters to get through, I could never feel the strength of that connection as just as quickly the story needed to move on with each of them.

I did enjoy the various fairytales and the ways they were threaded into the story. There were enough clues here and there that were fun to spot (they weren’t well-hidden or anything, but I enjoyed it all the same). The main mystery, however, again suffered from this over-abundance of plot and characters. There were so many things to get through that there were times when I felt like the death of their friend was almost forgotten. I’ll also say that by the end I didn’t feel as if I was given enough answers to any of the questions presented. All of the character kind of just took all of the magical elements in stride without batting an eyelash. And the revelations that did come were few and far between.

I’m starting to question my own selection process here. I think I need to start taking a second thought before diving into these large cast POV books. I’ll also say that my history with boarding school books is rather spotted, so maybe that too shouldn’t be as much of an “auto request.” Lastly, I don’t know what it is, but the publisher Sourcebooks Fire must have a great book description writer because they are always putting out books that I get super hyped about but then don’t end up enjoying that much. Which is too bad.

Rating 6: Too many things packed into one book reduced my enjoyment of all of them individually and as a whole.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Grimrose Girls” is on these Goodreads lists: 2021 Queer SFF and Boarding School Mysteries.

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

Book Club Review: “Furia”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Award Winners”, in which we each picked a book that has won an award of some kind.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Furia” by Yamile Saed Méndez

Publishing Info: Algonquin for Young Readers, September 2020

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Award: Pura Belpré

Book Description: In Rosario, Argentina, Camila Hassan lives a double life. At home, she is a careful daughter, living within her mother’s narrow expectations, in her rising-soccer-star brother’s shadow, and under the abusive rule of her short-tempered father.

On the field, she is La Furia, a powerhouse of skill and talent. When her team qualifies for the South American tournament, Camila gets the chance to see just how far those talents can take her. In her wildest dreams, she’d get an athletic scholarship to a North American university.

But the path ahead isn’t easy. Her parents don’t know about her passion. They wouldn’t allow a girl to play fútbol—and she needs their permission to go any farther. And the boy she once loved is back in town. Since he left, Diego has become an international star, playing in Italy for the renowned team Juventus. Camila doesn’t have time to be distracted by her feelings for him. Things aren’t the same as when he left: she has her own passions and ambitions now, and La Furia cannot be denied. As her life becomes more complicated, Camila is forced to face her secrets and make her way in a world with no place for the dreams and ambition of a girl like her.

Kate’s Thoughts

I am not really a sporty person, though accompanying friends and loved ones to games of most any sport can be fun. I probably go to more soccer games than other sports since my husband loves soccer, so when I saw that “Furia”, this month’s book club book, had a soccer theme I figured I would at least have a vague working knowledge of it. But lucky for me, “Furia”, while having a lot to do with soccer, also tackles other issues, like love, ambition, and misogyny. I thought that it was interesting seeing Camile, aka “Furia”, have to navigate the very narrow and defined expectations that Argentine society (and her mother) heap upon her. I enjoyed seeing the parts that had to do with Camile pushing against these norms, be it when she was trying to interact with her very conservative parents (on top of that her father, a former soccer star who is placing all of his lost dreams onto Camile’s soccer playing brother, is incredibly abusive), or when she is trying to determine if she can have a romance with her old flame Diego (ANOTHER rising soccer star), who has returned to town for a bit before he goes back on the road. I also really liked seeing how Méndez would weave in various realities of living in modern day Argentina, from the way the machismo could both bolster male soccer players and create really loyal ties between players and communities, to how the misogyny could lead to violence towards women (and a lot of society would think that these women deserved it one way or another). All of this worked.

There were some problems with the narrative for me as well. One, I go to soccer games on occasion, but I’m not super interested in it in general, and on the written page that isn’t much different. So the soccer moments I found myself speeding through pretty quickly. And on top of that, I didn’t feel like many of the characters were terribly complex. Camile was able to have depths and layers to her, given that she is the main character and we mostly get into her mind, but I do like seeing other supporting roles have a little more exploration and depth, and we didn’t really get that in this book.

Overall, I enjoyed “Furia” as a contemporary YA novel. It gave me a glimpse into a setting that I don’t see as much in YA books, and it had some emotional beats involving her family.

Serena’s Thoughts

I agree with everything Kate said. Her husband and mine share a love for soccer and have been splitting season tickets for as long as I can remember. What’s more, I probably do enjoy sports more than Kate, in general. But I’ll also say that I probably had a stronger negative reaction to this book’s sports elements than she did. So take from that what you will! While I really like watching sports live and even on TV sometimes, I really have a hard time caring about the “action” when it’s the description of movements of a ball and the players kicking it. It’s not even that I can’t picture it, I can! I just…couldn’t care. So that was a pretty big hinderance to my enjoyment of that aspect of the book.

That said, I agree with what Kate said that, lucky for both of us, there was much more to this book than the sports story. I mostly enjoyed the setting and description of every-day-life in Argentina. I don’t know a lot about this part of the world, and what I do know is mostly based in historical accounts rather than a contemporary look. All of the street-level windows into this culture and part of the world were fascinating. Even more so when we witness the uphill battle Furia faces in the face of the misogyny that still limits so much of what is expected for women. The story also touches on the tragedy of how easily women and young girls can go missing or have other violence inflicted upon them and it will be casually swept under the “she probably deserved it” rug.

Like Kate said, the characters themselves were fairly flat feeling. Even Furia herself, while more nuanced than any of the side characters, felt a bit one-note at times. However, I did like the romance that came into play. The challenges they faced felt natural and the ending was satisfying and heart-warming.

Overall, this wasn’t really the book for me. I think it’s so important, though, to have books that represent different parts of the world AND to have sports books for girls. Just cuz I’m not into them, doesn’t mean that I don’t think this is a wide open hole in YA literature. There’s a bunch of YA sports books for young men (perhaps at the detriment of other genres for them), but young women, on the other hand, don’t see tons of sports books directed towards them.

Kate’s Rating 7: While the soccer parts didn’t speak to me and some characters were flat, I liked the family drama as well as the look into Argentine life and what it’s like for women.

Serena’s Rating 7: I, too, enjoyed the Argentinian setting and the look into the culture, but sports books are never going to be my jam.

Book Club Questions

  1. Was there a character that you most identified with in this story? Was there a plot point that really stood out to you?
  2. What did you think about the themes of the Patriarchy in Camile’s life?
  3. What did you think of Camile’s nickname, La Furia? How does it apply to the story that she is living?
  4. How did you like the soccer parts in this book?
  5. The book sets up two paths for Camile: follow her soccer dreams, or follow the potential for romance. Do you think it has to be one or the other for her?
  6. What were your thoughts on the depictions of day to day life in Argentina?
  7. Did you feel like the ending was realistic? Why or why not?

Reader’s Advisory

“Furia” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA/Children’s Books in Latin America”, and “YA Girls Take On the Patriarchy”.

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

Next Book Club Book: “Front Desk” by Kelly Yang

Serena’s Review: “The Vanishing Stair”

Book: “The Vanishing Stair” by Maureen Johnson

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, January 2012

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: Just as Stevie feels she’s on the cusp of putting it together, her parents pull her out of Ellingham academy.

For her own safety they say. She must move past this obsession with crime. Now that Stevie’s away from the school of topiaries and secret tunnels, and her strange and endearing friends, she begins to feel disconnected from the rest of the world. At least she won’t have to see David anymore. David, who she kissed. David, who lied to her about his identity—son of despised politician Edward King. Then King himself arrives at her house to offer a deal: He will bring Stevie back to Ellingham immediately. In return, she must play nice with David. King is in the midst of a campaign and can’t afford his son stirring up trouble. If Stevie’s at school, David will stay put.

The tantalizing riddles behind the Ellingham murders are still waiting to be unraveled, and Stevie knows she’s so close. But the path to the truth has more twists and turns than she can imagine—and moving forward involves hurting someone she cares for.

Previously Reviewed: “Truly, Devious”

Review: While I do enjoy mystery novels, they’re typically of the historical mystery variant. That or adult forensic crime stories, ala the “Temperance Brennan” series and such. That being the case, “Truly, Devious,” a YA mystery was a new thing for me. I listened to it as an audiobook and ended up really enjoying it, even if I was able to predict a few of the twists and turns. And then…it ended on a cliffhanger. It took me a bit, but now I’m finally back to see what mysteries will be revealed here! Spoiler alert: not enough.

Things have not gone to plan. After Stevie pinned so many hopes on attempting to solve the mysteries at the heart of Ellingham academy, her parents pull her away. But all is not lost when David’s father, the reviled Edward King, arrives with a proposition: Stevie returns to Ellingham in order to placate his troublesome son. Stevie’s parents, big supporters and donators to King’s causes, are willing enough to agree to this and thus Stevie returns. But all is not right at Ellingham and the prices keep going up on the bars for entrance into the academy’s dark past.

I’m going to get this out of the way, I had a lot of problems with this book. I can essentially put them in two categories, however: problems I had with this book in general and problems that might be simply due to me being a 30-something woman reading a YA mystery novel. That being the case, take much of this with a grain of salt, especially if you’re a young adult who loves this type of book and series.

Because, yes, there are still some really solid things about it. Stevie herself is an interesting leading lady. The author excels especially at the portrayal of Stevie’s anxiety and how it affects her day-t0-day life. I thought this topic was handled in such an important, normalizing way, addressing the real challenges posed to those who live with anxiety like this. Most importantly, while Stevie lives with anxiety, it doesn’t define her and the book never treats it as some sort of shameful flaw. It’s all very well-done, and I think sends a powerful message to readers who also live with anxiety.

I also like the underlying mystery at the heart of the story. But this is also where I get into one of my biggest problems with this book, and one that I think I would have regardless of my age reading it. The Ellingham murder/disappearance story is so captivating that it starts to wash-out the events happening in the current setting of the story. What’s more, we again get very, very few answers and end on yet another cliffhanger. I don’t think there is anything in this book, or in this bigger mystery itself, that justified this being a trilogy rather than a duology. By doing this, every aspect of the book feels stretched thing and watered down. It’s the epitome of “second book syndrome.”

On top of that, by choosing to end on yet another cliffhanger, the author has lost all goodwill from me. One is bad enough, but a second just makes me start to feel like I’m being inexpertly manipulated. Had there been more substantial reveals or revelations offered up in the story as a whole, perhaps I would be more forgiving of this choice. As it is, it feels like a weak attempt to forcibly capture an audience and maneuver them into sticking around using a “sunk cost” approach: you’ve already read two entire books without really getting anywhere, gotta read the last!

I personally also struggled with the characters in this book. In the first story, we meet Stevie and the other odd characters who make up the student body at the school. By splitting that story between these necessary introductions, plus the small mystery at the heart of that book and the ongoing Ellingham mysteries, we never got much more than the broadest strokes of these other characters there. So I had expected to see more depth add to them in this second book. But no, they all still felt pretty one-dimensional. That said, again, I’m not the target audience for this book, so others may find more value in these characters than I did.

Ultimately, I was pretty disappointed by this book. I had really hoped for more and finished the last page firmly believing that this entire book was necessary to the story. Of course, I haven’t read the third one, but I have to imagine that things could have been neatly covered in a duology rather than a trilogy. I’m especially frustrated with the cliffhanger and lack of answers to the cold case of Ellingham. I’m not sure I’ll continue on, honestly. We’ll see how my mood takes me in the future!

Rating 6: A solid “second book” in the worst ways, but I’m also not the target audience for this, so take my rating with that in mind.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Vanishing Stair” is also on these Goodreads lists: 2019 YA Mystery/Thrillers and YA Murder Mysteries.

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

Serena’s Review: “A Trial of Sorcerers”

Book: “A Trial of Sorcerers” by Elise Kova

Publishing Info: Silver Wing Press, March 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Eighteen-year-old Waterrunner Eira Landan lives her life in the shadows — the shadow of her older brother, of her magic’s whispers, and of the person she accidentally killed. She’s the most unwanted apprentice in the Tower of Sorcerers until the day she decides to step out and compete for a spot in the Tournament of Five Kingdoms.

Pitted against the best sorcerers in the Empire, Eira fights to be one of four champions. Excelling in the trials has its rewards. She’s invited to the royal court with the “Prince of the Tower,” discovers her rare talent for forbidden magic, and at midnight, Eira meets with a handsome elfin ambassador.

But, Eira soon learns, no reward is without risk. As she comes into the spotlight, so too do the skeletons of a past she hadn’t even realized was haunting her.

Eira went into the trials ready for a fight. Ready to win. She wasn’t ready for what it would cost her. No one expected the candidates might not make it out with their lives.

Review: The cover art thing and really strike both ways. I just got down being blown away by “Daughter of the Salt King,” a book I had delayed reading due to the lackluster cover art. And here, on the hand, is a book that I requested from the library purely because I spotted the cover on Goodreads and was drawn in. But, while the book wasn’t offensive or bad in any true way, the cover still ended up being the best part of it for me.

No one knows much about Eira, and she prefers it that way. With dark secrets in her closet and a powerful brother’s shadow to hide within, Eira’s main goal has been to remain out of sight and mind by her fellow apprentices. That is until she joins the Tournament and her true skills begin to be seen at last. Soon enough, Eira’s quiet life explodes outwards, exposing secrets she didn’t know she had and opening doors she isn’t sure she wants to walk through. With new players on the board and a competition turning deadly, Eira’s way forward requires she step out of her comfortable shadows.

Alas, this book was not for me. I read a lot of YA, especially YA fantasy, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to realize that there is a certain type of YA fantasy that is just too young for me. This makes it hard to review these books on the blog, as I usually can see the appeal of the book for the target age range. But as I’m still the one reviewing the book and it didn’t work for me…it gets a lower rating than it perhaps deserves on its own.

In this particular case, however, I also think that there are better examples of this type of book even for the target age. It’s very “paint by numbers” for every trope there is in the book. What’s worse, it felt like many of these tropes were past their prime. For example, Eira must inevitably attend a ball. She is also, predictably, unprepared for this event, so the help love interest provides a “perfect” dress for her. I mean, we’re talking “Throne of Glass” circa almost ten years ago level tropey-ness here. Not to mention that I’ve always found it fairly creepy that the love interest just “happens” to know the heroine’s exact measurements. I could get into all of the mildly icky ways, but….nah.

Eira is also your fairly standard “I’m not special, except for the fact that I’m super duper special” heroine. She has a “dark past” and, while previous to this story starting was completely unknown, comes blasting onto the stage to blow everyone away with her skills. I will say, as a fairly standard heroine, she wasn’t annoying or obnoxious. Yes, I rolled my eyes a few times. But no, they didn’t roll out of my head, which has been the case with other books like this in the past.

The world-building and plotting was ok enough. I hadn’t read any of the author’s previous books, which I believe are set in the same world. But that being the case, I still felt like I was able to easily step into this story without feeling like I was missing much. It was very approachable, probably it’s biggest stand-out feature for interested readers.

So, yes, this book wasn’t my cup of tea, but I realize that I am also probably not the audience the author was trying to reach. I think that the romance was fairly lacking, which maybe would be a detractor for teen readers, but, as I said, the story was quick and easy to fall-into. Teenage YA fantasy readers might enjoy this, but adult YA fantasy readers might want to steer clear.

Rating 6: Paint-by-numbers fantasy tropes all over the place and oddly out of date ones at that.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Trial of Sorcerers” is on these Goodreads lists: Beautiful Covers KU Paranormal, Dystopia, Sci-Fi and Epic High Fantasy/Romance/Mythology in 2021.

Find “A Trial of Sorcerers” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Under the Whispering Door”

Book: “Under the Whispering Door” by TJ Klune

Publishing Info: Tor Books, September 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: When a reaper comes to collect Wallace Price from his own funeral, Wallace suspects he really might be dead.

Instead of leading him directly to the afterlife, the reaper takes him to a small village. On the outskirts, off the path through the woods, tucked between mountains, is a particular tea shop, run by a man named Hugo. Hugo is the tea shop’s owner to locals and the ferryman to souls who need to cross over.

But Wallace isn’t ready to abandon the life he barely lived. With Hugo’s help he finally starts to learn about all the things he missed in life.

When the Manager, a curious and powerful being, arrives at the tea shop and gives Wallace one week to cross over, Wallace sets about living a lifetime in seven days.

Review: First off, props to the publisher for another awesome cover for one of Klune’s books. Does it subtly imply that it’s a sequel to the massively successful “House on the Cerulean Sea” with its similarities? Yes. Is it in fact that? No. However, as it’s still a neat cover in its own right, I’ll give it a pass. The fact that there are so few good standalone adult fantasy novels also supports that pass. Let’s dive in!

Young and successful, Wallace never dreamed the end could be so close. But when a reaper shows up for him, he realizes it must be so. Angry and confused, he meets Hugo, a magical being who helps ferry souls to the beyond. Soon Wallace begins to discover that the life he had thought was fulfilling had been an empty thing, bereft of all that makes life well-lived in the end. With only a few precious days remaining to him, Hugo and Wallace set out to give Wallace that last chance at discovering a true life and his true self.

There was a lot to like about this book, but it also wasn’t the high I had been expecting after enjoying Klune’s previous book so much. To begin with what did work, however, Klune’s flair for comedic moments was on point. In particular, the beginning of the story and the flames thrown towards corporate drones were hilarious and apt. As the book progressed, there were several other laugh-out-loud moments. However, as the story continued, even these sometimes began to feel a bit repetitive.

The characters were also quirky and compelling. This is largely a story of Wallace’s transformation from said corporate drone into an emotionally-realized individual, so nailing his character was key to the book working. And for the most part, this works. His interplay with Hugo is well done, and the two characters and their relationship is heartwarming.

However, as I went along, I kept wanting more. The characters were ok, but really just ok. The romance was sweet, but lacked the true heart that I was looking for. And most disappointingly, the message of the book, that of living one’s best life, felt at times trite and repetitive. There were a few times even when the moralizing fell completely flat, with Klune trotting out platitudes that have been overused many times before. Given the general set-up of the book, I knew what I was getting into. But I had hope that Klune would shine a new light on the topic. Or at least offer up some unique ways of looking at a common topic. Alas, not so.

Overall, the book was by no means bad. It just wasn’t what I had hoped to find. It’s perfectly acceptable in what it sets out to do, but knowing Klune’s previous work, I can’t help thinking he could have done better. There were parts of this book that almost felt phoned in, and the story started to drag towards the middling, struggling to keep up its pacing and momentum. Fans of Klune’s work will be pleased to see his trademark humor and strong characters, but he’s also had stronger outings in the past.

Rating 7: A bit disappointing, relying too heavily on tried and true platitudes instead of carving its own space.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Under the Whispering Door” is on these Goodreads lists: 2021 Queer SFF and 2021 Contemporary/Romance Releases.

Find “Under the Whispering Door” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “As Good As Dead”

Book: “As Good As Dead” (A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder #3) by Holly Jackson

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, September 2021

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

Book Description: The highly anticipated, edge-of-your-seat conclusion to the addictive A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder series that reads like your favorite true crime podcast or show. By the end, you’ll never think the same of good girls again.

Pip’s good girl days are long behind her. After solving two murder cases and garnering internet fame from her crime podcast, she’s seen a lot.

But she’s still blindsided when it starts to feel like someone is watching her. It’s small things at first. A USB stick with footage recording her and the same anonymous source always asking her: who will look for you when you’re the one who disappears? It could be a harmless fan, but her gut is telling her danger is lurking.

When Pip starts to find connections between her possible stalker and a local serial killer, Pip knows that there is only one choice: find the person threatening her town including herself–or be as good as dead. Because maybe someone has been watching her all along

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

Whenever I get to a final book of a series I have genuinely enjoyed, I am torn between wanting to devour it to see how it all plays out, and savoring it to stave off the end as long as possible. When I saw that “As Good As Dead”, the last book in Holly Jackson’s “A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder” series was coming out, I was thrilled and saddened. I think part of me had hoped that perhaps Jackson would make Pippa Fitz-Amobi, true crime obsessive and amateur detective, a series a la Temperence Brennan or Amelia Peabody. But if this is truly the end for Pip, I have to say that, while I was sad to say goodbye, this goodbye was so satisfying that I have few regrets.

Me saying goodbye to this series (though all three books are on my shelf to revisit whenever). (source)

When we left Pip at the end of “Good Girl, Bad Blood”, she had just survived a house fire and witnessed the brutal murder of sometimes ally, sometimes thorn in her side Stanley, who had been revealed as the son of a notorious murderer and who was killed out of revenge though he himself was a child at the time of the murders. Pip has been downward spiraling ever since, as while she’s counting the days down until she leaves for college, she’s also been taking Xanax on the sly to help her sleep, having PTSD episodes in secret, and fighting back unbridled rage issues. Especially since serial rapist Max Hastings, whose actions had far reaching consequences for Pip and those she cares about, has gone free. I had a very clear idea of what I thought was going to happen with this book. Pip is very unwell, understandably so, and I figured that we were going to get an exploration of a detective on the edge, who is after one last case to try and absolve herself of her roles in past cases and tragedies that came from them. As well as trying to solve the newest case of who is stalking her before it is too late.

In terms of these things, Jackson soars. I completely believed Pip’s mental state, and I loved that Jackson decided to go in this direction. I also found the slowly escalating stalker events in her life to be very creepy and unsettling, and through a combination of narrative as well as pictures, graphs, and epistolary segments (much like the previous books), we have a new case of a long supposedly solved serial killer that Pip now has to attend to, lest she be the next victim. Did this seem a little out there? Sure. But I was totally willing to buy in. Mostly because Jackson really knows how to plot a thriller that has wonderful characters and good connections to previous books/cases in the series.

It was about halfway through this book that I realized that Jackson had something else in store for the reader, and when I realized where it was all going, I was both blown away and a little bit horrified. I’m not going to spoil anything here, as it’s definitely worth keeping close to the vest. But “As Good As Dead” does away with preconceived notions of where this final book could go, even more so than just making Pip a complete emotional wreck. At first I was skeptical and a little bit incredulous, but as the plot goes on, it becomes very clear that Jackson has plans for Pip, and they are probably a foregone conclusion for her storyline given how things have been building since the first book. It’s so well done, and so suspenseful, and it made this final book a serious firecracker of a thriller. And I found myself going back to the previous two books to look for clues to see just how far back Jackson was planning this whole thing. It’s very well done. As mentioned above, while the main issue that Pip is facing (being the target of a potential dormant serial killer) did feel a little bit much, Jackson tells that story and the whole new other story so well that I was just enjoying the hell out of the ride. As well as getting my emotions totally run through the wringer. Sweet, sweet agony.

“As Good As Dead” is a satisfying end to a very enjoyable series! I look forward to seeing what Jackson writes next, and I wouldn’t mind revisiting Pip and all her loved ones down the road.

Rating 9: A supremely satisfying (and at times very very bleak) conclusion to a YA series I love, “As Good As Dead” takes Pip on her darkest case yet.

Reader’s Advisory:

“As Good As Dead” is included on the Goodreads lists “Young Adult THRILLERS”, and “Can’t Wait Crime, Mystery, and Thrillers 2021”.

Find “As Good As Dead” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously reviewed:

Serena’s Review: “The Bronzed Beasts”

Book: “The Bronzed Beasts” by Roshani Chokshi

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, September 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: After Séverin’s seeming betrayal, the crew is fractured. Armed with only a handful of hints, Enrique, Laila, Hypnos and Zofia must find their way through the snarled, haunted waterways of Venice, Italy to locate Séverin.

Meanwhile, Séverin must balance the deranged whims of the Patriarch of the Fallen House and discover the location of a temple beneath a plague island where the Divine Lyre can be played and all that he desires will come to pass.

With only ten days until Laila expires, the crew will face plague pits and deadly masquerades, unearthly songs and the shining steps of a temple whose powers might offer divinity itself…but at a price they may not be willing to pay.

Previously Reviewed: “The Gilded Wolves” and “The Silvered Serpents”

Review: So far, my enjoyment of this series has been very on again, off again. My general likes and dislikes have remained consistent throughout the first two books. But as one of the “likes” is the characterization of the, arguably, two main characters, I’ve stuck around. I’m very much a character-driven reader, so if you’ve tackled that portion well, there’s a good chance you’ll hook me. That said, this author’s style of writing has never been my favorite. But I made it through the first two, so I was excited enough to see how it would all wrap up!

The race is on, with the Divine Lyre, a seemingly all-powerful magical device, within sight at last. But the group of friends is broken and distrusting. To many, Severin seems to have revealed himself as a betrayer and cold-hearted being to his core. But as they follow a few scattered clues, the group begins to wonder if all is not as it seems there. For her part, Laila can’t reconcile a Severin who would abandon his friends (and her) so easily with the man she’s grown to love. But her time, too, is limited as the clock that rules her life ticks down. For them all, the end is coming. What will it bring?

This was a pleasant surprise. The first book had been enjoyable enough, but I really struggled with the second one. So there were really only two options here. But luckily, it went the good route and ended on a strong note. Strong enough, even, for me to feel pretty good about reading the entire series, even with its low points.

Much of my enjoyment, again, came down to the character arcs. The middle book had felt like a lot of treading water and forced angst for our group, with emotional conflicts coming left and right that felt neither earned or natural. But here, with the end in sight, it was clear the author felt more comfortable again with these characters and their paths, while not devoid of twists and turns, felt stable and satisfying across the board.

Obviously, I’m mostly here for Severin and Laila, and I really, really loved what we got from them. It was incredibly cathartic to read some of the later scenes between them after the roller coaster ride that had been the first two books. That said, I was incredibly pleased to see their story take a few turns that took me completely by surprise. The ending, in particular, was very unexpected, full of bittersweet but cathartic notes.

I still struggled with some of the writing, with certain scenes and descriptions not painting a clear, crisp image. Chokshi’s style is now well-established, so I wasn’t surprised to see this. But it is probably the biggest reason why her books will likely never be huge hits for me. Too much emphasis is put on pretty sounding turns of phrase even if the words themselves fail to convey much of anything, sometimes even making things murkier and more difficult to follow.

Fans of this series will likely be completely satisfied with this book. Chokshi delivers on everything that she’s set up for the first two books. There is action aplenty and enough twists and turns to keep readers on the edge of their seats. The romance finally pays off in a big way, as well. I was pleased to end on this high note.

Rating 8: A definite improvement on the second book, including a strong, surprising ending for our beloved characters.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Bronzed Beasts” is on these Goodreads lists: Series Ending in 2021 and 2020 YA/MG Books With POC Leads.

Find “The Bronzed Beats” at the library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “White Smoke”

Book: “White Smoke” by Tiffany D. Jackson

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, September 2021

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

Book Description: The Haunting of Hill House meets Get Out in this chilling YA psychological thriller and modern take on the classic haunted house story from New York Times bestselling author Tiffany D. Jackson!

Marigold is running from ghosts. The phantoms of her old life keep haunting her, but a move with her newly blended family from their small California beach town to the embattled Midwestern city of Cedarville might be the fresh start she needs. Her mom has accepted a new job with the Sterling Foundation that comes with a free house, one that Mari now has to share with her bratty ten-year-old stepsister, Piper.

The renovated picture-perfect home on Maple Street, sitting between dilapidated houses, surrounded by wary neighbors has its . . . secrets. That’s only half the problem: household items vanish, doors open on their own, lights turn off, shadows walk past rooms, voices can be heard in the walls, and there’s a foul smell seeping through the vents only Mari seems to notice. Worse: Piper keeps talking about a friend who wants Mari gone. But “running from ghosts” is just a metaphor, right?

As the house closes in, Mari learns that the danger isn’t limited to Maple Street. Cedarville has its secrets, too. And secrets always find their way through the cracks.

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

Tiffany D. Jackson is one of my must read authors, whose books I clamor to get my hands on as soon as they come out. It comes as no shocker that when I heard she was writing a horror novel I was even more eager, insofar as I not only requested it from NetGalley, but I also pre-ordered it so that I could just have a copy for my own physical collection. That book is “White Smoke”, a YA horror novel that is described as “The Haunting of Hill House” meets “Get Out”, two big horror flexes if there ever were some. I dove in with high hopes, and Jackson didn’t disappoint.

I’m not going to to into spoilers here, as “White Smoke” is a book that greatly benefits from letting all of its twists and turns jump forth when they are ready to do so. But what I will say is that it is a haunted house story that has a bit of a twist. Mari and her (newly blended) family move into a new house, strange things start happening, and she has to figure out if these things are real, or if they are manifestations of her high anxiety and/or her history with drug use. These themes are, of course, the perfect recipe for a Gothic horror story, and if it was just this it would have been golden. But Jackson takes it a few steps further and not only has a potentially ghostly horror, but also the horrors of systemic racism that takes down communities and holds Black people down under the boot of white supremacy. Mari and her family are part of a neighborhood revitalization project, as they have moved into a long abandoned house in hopes of bringing people back to the neighborhood, but all is not what it seems in the community of Cedarville, which has a dark history of racial disparities and injustice, from prison pipelines to property discrimination. I loved how Jackson wove in these themes along with the strange and terrifying things that are happening in Mari’s house. She also addresses the issues of race and racism in Mari’s own family, as Mari’s mother, Raquel, has married a white man named Alec who has moments of not considering the experiences and grievances of his wife and stepchildren, as he as a white man has never had to deal with it. Jackson makes sure to give all the members of this family moments of being less than optimal, but also gives them all moments of grace to show that they are all adjusting to a new family situation, as well as a new home (WHICH MAY BE HAUNTED!). Mari is also a character whose experiences as a Black teenage girl have shaped some of her as a person, from being criminalized more easily due to her race to being expected to be strong when she has plenty of perfectly reasonable fragilities, like mental health issues and past trauma. All of these real world horror themes work very, very well.

And now the haunted house aspect. Mari’s new house is notorious in Cedarville, specifically in her Maplewood neighborhood, for supposedly being haunted by The Hag. The moment I saw reference to “The Hag”, I could have exploded in excitement, as this is one of my favorite ghost stories/pieces of folklore of all time. The Hag is a spirit that supposedly sucks your essence out of you as you sleep, and will ride you until you have nothing left. The Hag will then take your skin and appearance and wreak havoc. I first heard of this when I was visiting Savannah, Georgia the first time, and it scared the shit out of me. So Jackson using The Hag folklore in this story as the thing that is maybe haunting Mari’s house is SO perfect, as not only is it a bit unique, it is also said that The Hag targets young women who are especially susceptible to mental and emotional problems. And Jackson captures every aspect of the tale and makes it INCREDIBLY scary in this book, from strange shadows and noises to vocal mimicry and manifestations. There were moments where I was on the edge of my seat with suspense, and happy that I still had the lights on as I was reading on my eReader. Not that I was completely spared from jumping out of my skin.

At one point my cat jumped on the bed and I could have fainted. (source)

“White Smoke” is a great horror novel from Tiffany D. Jackson. You don’t want to miss this one with the upcoming Halloween season being right around the corner.

Rating 9: Tiffany D. Jackson effortlessly crosses into the horror genre, and presents a haunted house story that also takes on systemic injustices in American society.

Reader’s Advisory:

“White Smoke” is included on the Goodreads lists “Black Heroines 2021”, and “ATY 2022: Gothic Elements”.

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

Serena’s Review: “The Last Graduate”

Book: “The Last Graduate” by Naomi Novik

Publishing Info: Del Rey Books, September 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: At the Scholomance, El, Orion, and the other students are faced with their final year—and the looming specter of graduation, a deadly ritual that leaves few students alive in its wake. El is determined that her chosen group will survive, but it is a prospect that is looking harder by the day as the savagery of the school ramps up. Until El realizes that sometimes winning the game means throwing out all the rules . . .

Previously Reviewed: “A Deadly Education”

Review: Yep, definitely couldn’t wait until September to read this one! But I also wanted to time my review in a better manner than just randomly throwing up here three months before anyone can get their hands on it. I’m not a monster to torture you all like that! Sadly, there is still several weeks left before it’s available even posting it now. But I wanted to give everyone plenty of time to get their pre-orders in early, because, yes, it is that good.

El, Orion, and their friends have successfully helped the previous class graduate with (hopefully) few casualties. This year it will be there turn. But as they prepare, a grueling ordeal of classes and a killer (literally) obstacle course, it becomes clear that their actions last graduation are having a ripple effect on the school itself. Things are not behaving as they should, and El is frantic to find a way to save this small group of people who have, shockingly, become her friends. As her relationship with Orion grows as well, despite the warning from her mother, El begins to realize she will need to chart her own course, even if it’s one totally unexpected.

So, obviously, I loved this book. I was a bit nervous (really only the tiniest bit, since Naomi Novik has never let me down yet!) when I heard that this series had been conceptualized as a duology but then was extended into a trilogy. For further insight into my thoughts on this strategy, see my scathing review of “Blood & Honey.” Luckily, this series had a few things going for it that made this type of extension not only possible, but supremely enjoyable.

First, I’d probably be happy enough to just read a non-fiction style textbook about the world that Novik has created here, especially the Scholomance itself. The first book had some massive infodumps (I remember being several chapters in and coming up for air only to realize that practically no action had taken place), but this book proves that Novik was only scratching the surface of her imagination. Here, we get even more details about how the school was created, how it runs, and how it functions as an individual entity with “intentions” and “will” of its own. We also looked closer at the divided society that makes up those with magical abilities in this world. The “haves” and “have nots” are starkly divided, and we see how this happened, how it continues, and how it’s not really good for anyone.

The other thing that makes this “extender” book work is the characters. They’re all so very real and compelling. El, of course, is a masterpiece of a main character. She’s very human in her flaws, her only partial understanding of herself, and her will to keep moving forward and adapting even when the world, quite literally, is against her. As a narrator, she’s also hilarious, with witty observations of the world and those in it that had me cackling out loud more often than not.

The supporting characters are equally good, especially Orion himself. In the first book, he was very much portrayed as a “Harry Potter on steroids” type savior character. Here, we still have that. But we also get a closer look into how this image of himself has shaped Orion’s worldview and value of himself. There were a few reveals here that really fleshed him out. If I had any criticisms of the first book, it might have been the fact that we seemed to only scrape the surface on what makes Orion tick. But that was fully rectified here and in some truly interesting ways.

I also love the romance that continues to develop between El and Orion. It was very believable in its slow crawl of progress. Even better, it was clear that while it was important to each of them, their romance didn’t consume their attention or lives. Indeed, it’s very much a secondary consideration at almost every moment. I can’t say how much I appreciated this presentation of a teenage love story, or any love story, really. Yes, love makes the world go round and all of that. But other things, people, and important decisions exist as well, and filtering everything through the narrow lens of one’s current love affair is by no means healthy (or realistic.)

This book is again heavy on the descriptions of the world/magic and lighter on the action. But that said, there was more action in this book than the first. It builds steadily towards a very tension-filled climax. Major warning here: there is a serious cliffhanger at the end of this book. Much more so than the first. So if you’re the type of reader who can’t stand that sort of thing, you might want to hold off until the third and final book comes out. Heaven knows, I couldn’t hold out even two days, but there are stronger people than me out there! Fans of the first book are sure to love this one and now I’m back, once again, anxiously waiting for the next installment.

Rating 10: I loved it so, so much. My pre-order has been in place for months now.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Last Graduate” is on these Goodreads lists: Best Adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy Trilogies and Fantasy Books Releasing in 2021.

Find “The Last Graduate” at your library using WorldCat!

Monthly Marillier: “Wolfskin”

“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: “Wolfskin” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Tor Books, August 2004

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Eyvind can think of no more glorious future than becoming a Wolfskin, a warrior devoted to the service of the mighty war god Thor. His closest friend, Somerled, a strange and lonely boy, has his own very different ambitions – yet a childhood oath, sworn in blood, binds these two in lifelong loyalty. Meanwhile, far away across the water, on the Light Isles, the king’s niece Nessa is beginning to learn the ways of the mysteries – though neither the young priestess nor her people can realize what lies ahead for them.

Eyvind and Somerled seem set to follow very different paths: one becoming a fearless servant of the Warfather, the other a scholarly courtier. Then a voyage of discovery, led by Somerled’s brother Ulf, brings the two friends together again in accompanying a group of settlers to some beautiful islands rumoured to lie across the western sea. However, their good spirits are dampened by a tragedy on board, which Eyvind begins to suspect may not have been an accident.

Ulf’s new settlement begins in harmony with the native islanders, led by King Engus. But one day, on a trip to a holy place of the Folk, a brutal murder occurs and that peace is shattered. It is now that Eyvind begins to feel the restraining ties of his boyhood oath…and to realize what sort of future Somerled had in mind for himself all those years ago.

Review: There really is no rhyme or reason to the order in which I’m picking the books I read for this series. The “Sevenwaters” series was an obvious starting point, but I’ve been jumping around ever since. However, I do remember that this book was the first of her books that I encountered where she used multiple POVs. All of the “Sevenwaters” books, her “Wildwood” YA duology, and a few of the other stand-alone she has are all told from a single, female perspective. So it was kind of a shock to start this one and find more than one narrator. More so that we were ultimately getting both the man and woman’s perspective from the eventual romantic pairing.

Eyvind and Nessa grow up in very different worlds with very different futures. Eyvind trains to be one of the legendary Wolfskin warriors who go out into the world and fight great battles. His reserved friend Somerland also has plans for his future, but they begin to look less and less familiar to Eyvind as they grow. For her part, Nessa leads a quiet life learning the ways of a wise woman, hoping to continue forward on the bright path set before her small community. But the seasons turn suddenly, and both Eyvind and Nessa soon learn that both of the futures they had set before themselves perhaps were not the ones they were meant to find. Soon, each must learn for themselves the great truths to be found in love, loyalty, and friendship.

First off, I really like the cover for this book. It’s sequel, “Foxmask,” has an equally beautiful cover. Both perfectly fit the overall tone and mythic quality of the stories held within. Marillier is also known as a huge dog lover, so it’s only fitting that few canines also great the cover.

Like I said before, this was the first of Marillier’s books that I encountered that featured dual narrators. And, for the most part, I enjoyed it here. Perhaps due to my expectations going in, that it would again be a single, female POV, I did find myself connecting a bit more to Nessa’s character. However, I will also add that in the long, long list of Marillier’s heroines, Nessa is not one of my favorites. Instead, she falls in similar company with Sibeal and Paula, heroines who were fine for the most part, but not particularly unique or likely to stand out in my memory.

I did like the magic that accompanied Nessa’s storyline. While we’ve seen seers plenty before, Nessa’s magic had some unique aspects to it. I enjoyed the connection to the selkie and the legends that surround magical water creatures. The tools she goes on to use as the story begins to wind down were interesting in their history and implementation.

Eyvind was of a bit more interest, perhaps simply because of the novelty of a male POV. But his story also involved a lot more change and a more established arc that covered the entirety of the book. Yes, some parts of it were highly predictable. And yes, those predictable twists and turns did make the early Eyvind a bit hard to tolerate in his naivety and trusting nature. But in some ways this same trusting nature helped draw a stark contrast between him and his friend Somerled. In some ways, I enjoyed the exploration and downfall of this friendship than I did the romantic relationship between Nessa and Eyvind.

Overall, while this isn’t on my list of favorite Marillier works, it does stand well enough on its own. I enjoy the setting, featuring Vikings and northern European myths and legends. Readers who enjoy multiple POV stories might even appreciate this one more than others. I’ve simply always preferred one narrator, so I’m a tough sell on this type of story. That said, it’s still a worthy entry and a solid recommendation for readers who enjoy mythic fantasy stories.

Rating 7: Not a favorite of mine, but a nice change of pace from the Irish setting and magic system.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Wolfskin” is on these Goodreads lists: The Best of Mythic Fiction and Vikings.

Find “Wolfskin” at your library using WorldCat!