Kate’s Review: “Burn Our Bodies Down”

Book: “Burn Our Bodies Down” by Rory Power

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, July 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: From the author of the New York Times bestseller Wilder Girls comes a new twisty thriller about a girl whose past has always been a mystery—until she decides to return to her mother’s hometown . . . where history has a tendency to repeat itself.

Ever since Margot was born, it’s been just her and her mother. No answers to Margot’s questions about what came before. No history to hold on to. No relative to speak of. Just the two of them, stuck in their run-down apartment, struggling to get along.

But that’s not enough for Margot. She wants family. She wants a past. And she just found the key she needs to get it: A photograph, pointing her to a town called Phalene. Pointing her home. Only, when Margot gets there, it’s not what she bargained for.

Margot’s mother left for a reason. But was it to hide her past? Or was it to protect Margot from what’s still there? The only thing Margot knows for sure is there’s poison in their family tree, and their roots are dug so deeply into Phalene that now that she’s there, she might never escape.

Review: After I read “Wilder Girls” I was left a little cold. Which was odd, because Rory Power’s debut novel had all the elements of something I thought I’d love: a boarding school, a post-apocalyptic event, sapphic characters, a mystery, the list goes on. I was thinking that maybe it was just me, and given that I liked her writing style a lot (the atmosphere! The world building!), I wanted to give her another go. Enter “Burn Our Bodies Down”, a YA horror story with a gorgeous cover, a strange small town setting, and family secrets. Again, things that I love in a story, whatever the genre. I gave it a go, hoping that it would click. But, once again, I was left a bit cold.

I wil start with what I did like, however. Power really has a skill at creating atmosphere and setting, and once again I was sucked into the world building of Phalene, the small town our protagonist Margot runs to in hopes of connecting with her estranged grandmother. Phalene feels like the kind of rural town that I remember passing through in my childhood, with familiar characters and places, as well as familiar hardships and hurdles. I could practically see the cornfields, and the town area, as well as the vast farmscapes and openness. Phalene itself felt like its own character that Margot was getting to know. I also will be the first to say that, without giving too much away, the big mystery that Margot’s grandmother is trying to hide, and that has affected Margot’s mother so profoundly that it has damaged her relationship with her daughter, is pretty unique and an interesting concept. I had a feeling that I knew what it was (once it became clear that this was, indeed, a horror story with fantastical elements, but I will talk about that in a bit), but it was still an angle that felt fresh and not like many others that I’ve seen before. Power had some of that going for her story in “Wilder Girls” as well, there is no denying that she has some really cool ideas!

But there were too many things that didn’t work for me. My biggest gripe was that it took a long time for the actual horror elements to arrive within the plot. I honestly went into this with very little knowledge as to what the general tropes and themes were, and while I was reading I was wondering if Power had decided to forgo her past horror genre foray and go into more of a family secrets thriller. And I guess that this could kind of be considered that as well, but by the time the actual can’t be argued as anything else horror elements popped up it was about half way through the book. That seems a little long to me. I understand that we had to have some set up of Margot’s family dysfunction before we could really explore the other issues, given that the dysfunction and the issues tie in together very tightly. But the dragging of feet didn’t really build up suspense, it just felt like it took too long. Along with that, I didn’t feel like we got to really know Margot as the story progressed, at least not past a kind of superficial level. There was so much potential for us to peel back layers of her, and hints to who she was outside of a teen who has a fraught relationship with her mom, but none of that really gets explored. Which, in turn, made it harder for me to care about her and what the deal was with her and her weird family.

I gave Rory Power another shot, but I think that this may be the end of the road for me and her books. “Burn Our Bodies Down” shines bright in the ideas department, but the execution was lacking.

Rating 5: Lots of solid ideas, but none of them fully execute in time for the big reveal for me to have investment in them.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Burn Our Bodies Down” is included on the Goodreads lists “Corn Books”, and “2020 Horror to Scream For”.

Find “Burn Our Bodies Down” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Winterkeep”

Book: “Winterkeep” by Kristin Cashore

Publishing Info: Dial Books For Young Readers, January 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Four years after “Bitterblue” left off, a new land has been discovered to the east: Torla; and the closest nation to Monsea is Winterkeep. Winterkeep is a land of miracles, a democratic republic run by people who like each other, where people speak to telepathic sea creatures, adopt telepathic foxes as pets, and fly across the sky in ships attached to balloons.

But when Bitterblue’s envoys to Winterkeep drown under suspicious circumstances, she and Giddon and her half sister, Hava, set off to discover the truth–putting both Bitterblue’s life and Giddon’s heart to the test when Bitterbue is kidnapped. Giddon believes she has drowned, leaving him and Hava to solve the mystery of what’s wrong in Winterkeep.

Lovisa Cavenda is the teenage daughter of a powerful Scholar and Industrialist (the opposing governing parties) with a fire inside her that is always hungry, always just nearly about to make something happen. She is the key to everything, but only if she can figure out what’s going on before anyone else, and only if she’s willing to transcend the person she’s been all her life.

Review: Well, we’ve finally arrived at the long-awaited (really, was anyone actually waiting on this? I think it took most fans by surprise!) fourth book in the “Gracely Realm” series. I’ve enjoyed my re-read so far, though the high of the first two has definitely been dampened by what I felt was a lackluster showing in “Bitterblue”. But given that it has been almost a decade since that book was published, I was curious to see which version of the author’s writing we’d get here: the fast-action, heartstring- pulling story that we saw in the first two, or the more slow, somewhat bloated story that was last one?

It’s been four years since the events of “Bitterblue” and the world has once again expanded. Winterkeep is a distant land whose society is largely focused on politics and industry. With fantastical airships and the knowledge of powerful resources, Winterkeep’s society is at an impasse over the progression of its industry over the environmental effects of some of the resources needed to power those advancements. When two of her envoys die under mysterious circumstances, Bitterblue takes it upon herself to visit this distant land. Things quickly go wrong, and she and her party are left to unravel the mystery at the heart of Winterkeep alongside a local teenage girl, Lovisa, whose parents are somehow connected to it all.

So, I’ll just get it out of the way early: this, sadly, fell much more into the “Bitterblue” school of book than the “Graceling” type which in turn means it was a bit of a disappointment for me. But I’ll start with what I did like. In many ways, I feel like the writing was stronger in this book than in “Bitterblue.” That book was almost oppressively gloomy and serious, whereas here, while the story still tackled serious topics and had darker moments, there were also several funny lines and observations throw in. Bitterblue herself was a much more likable character for having some of these funnier lines/thoughts early in the book which immediately endeared her to me.

I also liked Giddon’s chapters. He was a strong point in “Bitterblue,” so it was great to see Cashore recognize his potential and make him a POV character here. His relationship with Bitterblue was also much more interesting in that book than her romance with Saf, so I was happy to see their friendship/romance take precedence. We also get chapters from a telepathic fox, a special type of animal that is common in Winterkeep and bonds with humans, as well as chapters from a mysterious ocean monster.

But I struggled to connect to Lovisa, and that proved to be a fairly large failing for my enjoyment of the story. As the only native human character we have for Winterkeep, much of the world-building and deeper insight into this world comes through this character. I think there are a few problems here. For one thing, Lovisa simply didn’t have a strong inner voice or particularly compelling character. Those funny lines I mentioned with Bitterblue? None to be found with Lovisa. I’m not asking for a joke a minute, but her voice simply didn’t have any particular aspect to it that made it stand out, which leads to my second problem.

Much of Lovisa’s chapters and inner thoughts are devoted to long reflections on Winterkeep’s political situation and the challenges of balancing industry and environmentalism. Fairly early in the book, I read one of her chapters that devoted almost half of her page count to long paragraphs on these topics. And there simply wasn’t much there! The entire “debate” about environmentalism is a very thinly veiled depiction of our own struggles in this world. And the politics involved are just the same, a very watered down version of the U.S. two party system with entrenched viewpoints on both sides. There are plenty of good ways of using a fantasy novel to get out modern debates, but these were so washed out and thin that they didn’t actually get at any new ideas or add anything of value to the overall conversation. Plus it’s a fantasy novel which usually gives authors a lot of creative leeway to present these ideas in unique and interesting ways. Not so here, unfortunately. The two parties are called the Scholars and Industrialists, for heaven’s sake! And poor Lovisa’s chapters are just full of this stuff, going on and on.

Which gets to my final complaint: this book is way too long. Just like “Bitterblue,” the story begins to feel like a slog fairly early into the first third of the book. The action dies down, the mystery drags on and on, and then finally we get to the resolution, only to find that there’s a significant page count left to get through. In which, again, nothing much happens and the whole thing could have been wrapped up in half the time. This book seriously needed the firm hand of an editor who wasn’t afraid to make great big slashes through some of this.

By this point, it’s clear that Cashore is the type of author who likes to write about issues. Unfortunately, I feel like the books in which she focuses on this the most are her weakest. “Graceling” and “Fire” both touched on some pretty important topics about self-acceptance and the responsibility and dangers of great power. But when the stories delved into more broad topics like they did in “Bitterbue” and here, these issues seemed to consume the book, its characters, and any attempts to build up tension. Fans who enjoyed “Bitterblue” will probably be more pleased with this entry than those who struggled with that book.

Rating 6: Overall, pretty disappointing and bogged down by uninteresting takes on social and political statement pieces.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Winterkeep” is a newer book so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on YA Novels of 2021.

Find “Winterkeep” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Rev-Up Review: “Bitterblue”

Book: “Bitterblue” by Kristin Cashore

Publishing Info: Dial, May 2012

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Eight years have passed since the young Princess Bitterblue, and her country, were saved from the vicious King Leck. Now Bitterblue is the queen of Monsea, and her land is at peace.

But the influence of her father, a violent psychopath with mind-altering abilities, lives on. Her advisers, who have run the country on her behalf since Leck’s death, believe in a forward-thinking plan: to pardon all of those who committed terrible acts during Leck’s reign; and to forget every dark event that ever happened. Monsea’s past has become shrouded in mystery, and it’s only when Bitterblue begins sneaking out of her castle – curious, disguised and alone – to walk the streets of her own city, that she begins to realise the truth. Her kingdom has been under the thirty-five-year long spell of a madman, and now their only chance to move forward is to revisit the past.

Whatever that past holds.

Two thieves, who have sworn only to steal what has already been stolen, change her life forever. They hold a key to the truth of Leck’s reign. And one of them, who possesses an unidentified Grace, may also hold a key to her heart . . .

Previously Reviewed: “Graceling” and “Fire”

Review: So this re-read has been one of discoveries so far. I discovered first that “Graceling” held up really well in the ten plus years since it was first published, even given the boom of similar YA fantasies novels that have come out since. I discovered that while I still prefer “Graceling” overall, I actually liked the romance in “Fire” better. And with “Bitterblue” I discovered…I actually hadn’t read this one before?? I own a copy, and I think I must have skimmed through it at some point, but a full, cover-to-cover read? Nope! Given my takeaway at the end of this read, I suspect I may have skimmed some Goodreads reviews when this came out and put it on the back-burner, being a bit wary. Because, yes, for me, this was quite the step down from the highs of “Graceling” and “Fire.”

Bitterblue has been queen of Monsea since she was ten and her sociopathic father was killed at the hands of Bitterblue’s strongest protector, Katsa. In the years since, Bitterblue has struggled to put her broken country back together. But with endless paperwork and little contact with her actual people, Bitterblue begins to suspect that her efforts aren’t accomplishing much. She takes matters into her own hands and sneaks out to wander the streets of her city and see the state of things for herself. What she discovers opens the floodgates and she is suddenly overwhelmed with all of the mysteries and secrets that have lurked from the time of her cruel father’s reign.

So, overall, I really didn’t love this book. It was so surprising and disappointing to have a reaction like this after just loving both books that came before! But, unfortunately, I think there were several things that worked against it. Not least of which is the fact that I think that even its strengths ultimately work against it when compared to the books that came before. Namely that Cashore’s strengths for creating interesting new worlds and great fantastical elements weren’t allowed any room to grow here. We’ve already been introduced to Monsea, and while the story does show us around the city itself and has some new things to add here, the world itself is largely familiar. The magic, too, is familiar. We may meet a few new Gracelings, but their abilities and their place in the world are already understood. So, too, we already know about the Seven Realms and, largely, how they differ from one another and interact with each other. All of this works to undercut much of what made the first two books so great: Cashore’s deeply imaginative new worlds and magic systems.

And while both of the first two books were slower reads overall, this one really seemed to drag on. It’s much longer than the first two, and nothing in the story really justifies this length. Bitterblue is constantly beset with new mysteries and new roadblocks on any progress she’s making on the ones that came before. More than once she simply gives up and returns to her paperwork in her tower. This is just as boring and anti-climatic for the reader as it’s said to be for her. What’s more, many of the mysteries are built around the seemingly crazy actions of many of the characters around her. But they are so random and so off-the-wall that with the lack of understanding around them comes also the lack of caring. Unlike the books before where it felt like clues were being laid down that reader’s could begin to piece together for themselves (part of what kept the pacing better in those books), here, it all feels too disconnected to any logic or overall plan to really engage the reader.

I also really, really disliked the romance in this book. This was truly shocking as the other books in this series had two of my favorite romances ever. But here, nothing really works about it. Saf is a terrible romantic hero. When he’s not annoyingly immature (it’s never a good sign when you’re heroine herself calls the hero this and she’s completely right!), he’s outright rude and mean to Bitterblue. And all of this is when he’s even on the page at all, for there are large chunks of the story where he’s nowhere to be seen. From a personal reading perspective, his absence isn’t missed as when he was around I was mostly frustrated by him. But from the perspective of trying to build a compelling romance, it’s hard to do when you’re romantic hero is nowhere to be found for the last half of the book. And the end was only satisfying because it was ultimately unsatisfying, essentially!

I did like Bitterblue as a character, but I think the romance and the plodding storyline both did her a massive disserve. It was also confusing trying to understand why Bitterblue was suddenly noticing all of these things around her. Presumably she’s been acting as queen for the last 8 years, and while she was too young initially to take notice, it’s hard to understand what was distracting her from it all for the last few years. There’s no obvious impetus for any of it, really. “Winterkeep” will also feature Bitterblue, so I’m excited to see how the character fares when put in a different (hopefully better!) story. We’ll find out next week when we finally get to “Winterkeep” itself!

Rating 6: Very disappointing. It has some serious weaknesses on its own, but it’s definitely not helped by the fact that the two before it were such hits for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Bitterblue” is on these Goodreads lists: YA Second World Fantasy and Best Kick-Ass Female Characters From YA and Children’s Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Find “Bitterblue” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Rev-Up Review: “Fire”

Book: “Fire” by Kristin Cashore

Publish: Dial Books, 2009

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: It is not a peaceful time in the Dells. The young King Nash clings to his throne while rebel lords in the north and south build armies to unseat him. The mountains and forests are filled with spies and thieves and lawless men.

This is where Fire lives. With a wild, irresistible appearance and hair the color of flame, Fire is the last remaining human monster. Equally hated and adored, she had the unique ability to control minds, but she guards her power, unwilling to steal the secrets of innocent people. Especially when she has so many of her own.

Then Prince Brigan comes to bring her to King City. The royal family needs her help to uncover the plot against the king. Far away from home, Fire begins to realize there’s more to her power than she ever dreamed. Her power could save the kingdom.

If only she weren’t afraid of becoming the monster her father was.

Previously Reviewed: “Graceling”

Review: Unlike “Graceling,” I never got around to re-reading “Fire” closer to when I read it the first time. Not that I didn’t really enjoy it then, just that, like I said, the TBR list was just starting to get out of control around this time. So going into this re-read, I remembered even less about this book than that. That made it lots of fun to read now as it almost felt like an entirely new book, but one that I already knew I’d enjoy! Win win!

The Dells is a colorful land, marked by the bright, over-powering beauty of its monsters: blue horses, purple raptors, pink mice. But Fire is the only human monster after the death of her cruel father several years prior. Her extreme beauty inspires both wonder and hatred from those around her, so Fire’s life world has been small to stay safe. She also greatly fears the mind control abilities that come alongside her beauty. But when a prince arrives on her doorstep requesting her aide to save the king, Fire is obligated to venture out and put her abilities to the test.

While this is technically a prequel to “Graceling,” it most ways it stands a lone. We have one character (albeit an important one!) who crosses over, but their page time is limited so even there we’re left with mostly new material. I really loved the world-building that went into the Dells and the creativity around the native monsters and how their powers worked. The animals themselves are quite terrifying, especially the monster raptors that seem to constantly lurk in the sky. Though this was also the one point where I was confused. Are these regular raptors, like hawks and falcons that aren’t that big? Or are these some type of unique bird of prey that is bigger? They seemed to be discussed and treated as pretty severe threats to people which was confusing if we’re talking about smaller birds of prey. Not really a big deal, but it was something I kept getting caught up on throughout the story.

Fire herself is an incredible creation. It makes complete sense that extreme beauty would inspire both love and hatred, and seeing how this plays out in Fire’s every day existence was really intriguing. She has some strong abilities, but we also see how very vulnerable her monster looks are to her. She attracts monster animals who want to eat her, and humans aren’t much better, either becoming obsessed with her (often in the grabby, forceful kissing manner) or essentially go mad and want to kill her. Her life seems very challenging, full of fear and tension. This makes it all the more touching to see her begin to form real relationships with the other characters in this book, because we’ve been prepped to understand just how many challenges there are in this for Fire.

I really liked the romance in this book, perhaps even more than I did the one in “Graceling.” Everyone loves a good “enemies to lovers” romantic plot line, and as much as I liked Po, Brigan checked off more on my romantic hero wish list, like steady and a bit solemn. While Katsa and Po were all about the fiery drama, Fire and Brigan have a slow build that is beautiful to watch unfold.

This book was a bit slower than “Graceling,” and the villain(s) were also a bit underwhelming. We see the return of one evil character, and they’re good for the small amount of page time we get from them. But what accounts for the main antagonist and challenge was a bit to removed from the story to feel too invested in it. By the nature of her being, Fire’s work is mostly done from the safety of the castle and is largely passive with most of the action taking place off-page.

I really enjoyed re-reading this book. I really remembered very little of it, and I was pleased to find the romance, in particular, even better than I had remembered. Next up is “Bitterblue!”

Rating 9: A quieter, more introspective book than “Graceling,” but also a bit more heart-breaking (in a good way!) overall.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Fire” is on these Goodreads lists: Original Stories . . . a Breath of Fresh Air and Princes, Other Worlds and Future Lands.

Find “Fire” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Flamer”

Book: “Flamer” by Mike Curato

Publishing Info: Henry Holt and Co. BYR-Paperbacks, September 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Award-winning author and artist Mike Curato draws on his own experiences in Flamer, his debut graphic novel, telling a difficult story with humor, compassion, and love.

I know I’m not gay. Gay boys like other boys. I hate boys. They’re mean, and scary, and they’re always destroying something or saying something dumb or both.

I hate that word. Gay. It makes me feel . . . unsafe.

It’s the summer between middle school and high school, and Aiden Navarro is away at camp. Everyone’s going through changes—but for Aiden, the stakes feel higher. As he navigates friendships, deals with bullies, and spends time with Elias (a boy he can’t stop thinking about), he finds himself on a path of self-discovery and acceptance.

Review: I never did the whole summer camp thing as a kid. As far as I got was the YMCA Day camp program, but I was such an anxious kid with separation anxiety issues like whoa, overnight sleep away camp was NEVER going to work. I do feel like I missed something, especially since my sister did do one and really enjoyed it. So I do like reading stories that take place at summer camp. I stumbled upon “Flamer” by Mike Curato on Goodreads, and the themes sounded very much in my wheelhouse.

In some ways, “Flamer” feels a bit like the graphic memoir “Honor Girl” in that it has a teenager at camp struggling with their sexuality in the mid 90s. But for me the difference is that Aiden, our main character and fictionalized portrayal of Curato, has a lot more self loathing and and a lot more fear about his sexuality. Aiden is an outsider already, in that he’s bi-racial, he’s on the chubbier side, and he’s an easy target at his middle school, as well as for his emotionally abusive father. So while he has usually felt like he fits in at Scout Camp, his burgeoning sexuality starts to drive his anxiety up, especially as the micro aggressions and flat out bigotry of the time start to become more and more apparent. The story is mostly the last week at Scout Camp, as his safe space starts to feel less safe, and he moves towards an unknown future of high school and self discovery. Curato doesn’t shy away from the ugliness that Aiden has to deal with, be it because of his heritage, because of how he presents as more femme than his fellow Scouts, and how these stresses and the bullying is taking a toll on him and driving him to dark places. Aiden could be a mirror for many kids who are dealing with their own identity discoveries, and how the world around them can make those discoveries hard. The cruelty isn’t limited to fellow Scouts, but also pops up with Leaders who seem supportive, but have their own prejudices that they are harboring and that aren’t as hidden as they may think.

There is also a prevalent theme about Aiden’s Catholic Faith, and how he has always been drawn to certain aspects of the religion and the rituals. I know VERY little about Catholicism, but I thought that Curato really evoked the appreciation that Aiden has, from being an Alter Boy to having a favorite Saint that he relates to, to the struggles he has with his sexuality because of what he believes his religion says about LGBTQIA people. It’s a really fine line that Curato walks in that he definitely condemns the bigotry of those who may practice the religion, but never points fingers at the religion itself, nor does he say that the religion is ‘bad’ in this situation. I think that it would be easy to either condemn the religion as a whole, or to let it and all of its adherents off. but Curato finds a balance in the middle, and it works very well, and makes some of the moments near the end of the story all the more heartbreaking and powerful.

Along with those aspects, Curato also has a great author’s note in the back, as well as a list of resources for kids who may be dealign with the same things that Aiden is dealing with. I love it when books do this, and it feels like a really great resource to have in this story in particular.

And finally, the art work. LOVED it. It’s black and white, but there are splashes of color, specifically those of reds, oranges, and yellows. All of those work for passion, for fire, for anger, for love, and it makes the moments they are used pop and all the more powerful.

“Flamer” is a bittersweet and hopeful graphic novel that I hope people get in kids hands. You never know who is going to need a story like this.

Rating 8: Evocative, emotional, and necessary reading, “Flamer” is a touching and hopeful story about learning to love and accept yourself.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Flamer” is included on the Goodreads lists “Summer Camp Teens”, and “Guides and Scouts”.

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

Kate’s Review: “Concrete Rose”

Book: “Concrete Rose” by Angie Thomas

Publishing Info: Balzer + Bray, January 2021

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

Book Description: International phenomenon Angie Thomas revisits Garden Heights seventeen years before the events of The Hate U Give in this searing and poignant exploration of Black boyhood and manhood.

If there’s one thing seventeen-year-old Maverick Carter knows, it’s that a real man takes care of his family. As the son of a former gang legend, Mav does that the only way he knows how: dealing for the King Lords. With this money he can help his mom, who works two jobs while his dad’s in prison.

Life’s not perfect, but with a fly girlfriend and a cousin who always has his back, Mav’s got everything under control. Until, that is, Maverick finds out he’s a father.

Suddenly he has a baby, Seven, who depends on him for everything. But it’s not so easy to sling dope, finish school, and raise a child. So when he’s offered the chance to go straight, he takes it. In a world where he’s expected to amount to nothing, maybe Mav can prove he’s different.

When King Lord blood runs through your veins, though, you can’t just walk away. Loyalty, revenge, and responsibility threaten to tear Mav apart, especially after the brutal murder of a loved one. He’ll have to figure out for himself what it really means to be a man.

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

Back in 2019 when Angie Thomas’s “On The Come Up” made my Favorite Read list for the year, I promised myself that even though her genre isn’t usually one I cover, I would make exception for her books. Both that one and “The Hate U Give” made my lists, so when “Concrete Rose”, her newest novel, was announced I knew that it would be the first to keep the promise. I was STUNNED when I saw that it was available for request on NetGalley, but took advantage of that and downloaded it. We were finally going to get the backstory for Maverick Carter, Starr’s compelling father in “The Hate U Give”. And I was very interested to see where that backstory went.

While her previous works have tackled social justice themes and Black girlhood, “Concrete Rose” now has a focus on that of Black boyhood, and the difficulties it can entail in a racist society. When we met Maverick in “The Hate U Give”, he is a loving father and very well respected member in his community of Garden Heights. In “Concrete Rose” he’s seventeen, he’s a member of the King Lords (the gang his father was a high ranking member of), and he’s just found out that he’s the father of a three month old baby that had previously been believed to be his best friend’s (you may remember King from THUG). It’s a lot of change and a lot of pressure, and Maverick doesn’t know how to tell his girlfriend Lisa about the baby, and doesn’t want to sell weed anymore now that he is a father who needs to be there. Thomas, unsurprisingly, captures Maverick’s voice very well, as he feels like an authentic teenager who can make bad decisions, but has a lot of heart and determination. We also see the barriers that he has to face due to systemic and societal racism and the poverty that his community is dealing with. He wants to support his son, and stay in school, AND go straight so that he doesn’t end up like his own incarcerated father, but there are few opportunities, and dealing, though dangerous, feels like the only way to be successful. It’s a very empathetic look at why decisions are made to join gangs and to deal, as for Maverick, when things get really hard, it feels like the only support system he has. While I don’t think that it connected with me as much as THUG and “On the Come Up”, I do think that “Concrete Rose” will connect with other readers, especially boys who see themselves in Maverick.

In terms of being a prequel to “The Hate U Give”, “Concrete Rose” does stand well enough on its own. There are certainly a couple of references to the other book with characters and some other plot points that are mentioned, but if you go into this one without any knowledge you aren’t going to feel like you’re missing anything. I really like that Thomas decided to look more at Maverick, as he was definitely one of my favorite characters in THUG. I loved seeing Mav and Lisa’s relationship as well, as in THUG they are Starr’s parents, but in “Concrete Rose” they are a burgeoning teenage couple with ups and downs. As someone who used to dabble in fiction writing, and as someone who ALSO found herself wanting to go back and explore characters that were supposed to be supporting characters only, I definitely LOVE that we got to see Mav and Lisa go through these ups and downs with the spotlight on the two of them. Some reviews I’ve seen has questioned whether this love story needed to be explored, but so what if it didn’t ‘need’ to be? It’s a great story regardless of ‘need’.

“Concrete Rose” is another well done book by Angie Thomas, whose voice and skills are undeniable and so, so important to YA fiction right now. I’ll be curious to see what comes next. While I wouldn’t mind a whole new tale, this book proves that she could go back and explore other characters and give them rich and emotional back stories.

Rating 8: A heartfelt and emotional prequel to one of the most important YA novels of the 21st Century, “Concrete Rose” gives a great backstory to a compelling character.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Concrete Rose” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Books for BLM Movement”, and “Contemporary Books with Black Leads”.

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

Kate’s Review: “Harrow Lake”

Book: “Harrow Lake” by Kat Ellis

Publishing Info: Dial Books, August 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: Ebook from the library!

Book Description: Things I know about Harrow Lake: 1.It’s where my father shot his most disturbing slasher film. 2.There’s something not right about this town.

Lola Nox is the daughter of a celebrated horror filmmaker–she thinks nothing can scare her.

But when her father is brutally attacked in their New York apartment, she’s quickly packed off to live with a grandmother she’s never met in Harrow Lake, the eerie town where her father’s most iconic horror movie was shot. The locals are weirdly obsessed with the film that put their town on the map–and there are strange disappearances, which the police seem determined to explain away.

And there’s someone–or something–stalking her every move.

The more Lola discovers about the town, the more terrifying it becomes. Because Lola’s got secrets of her own. And if she can’t find a way out of Harrow Lake, they might just be the death of her.

Review: Even though I generally have my finger on the pulse of upcoming horror fiction, it does happen that I miss titles here and there. Because of that, I like to see various lists of horror and thriller titles that are in the pipeline. “Harrow Lake” by Kat Ellis ended up being one of those titles, as I hadn’t heard of it before I saw it on a YA horror list. I was rather bummed that I missed it, as the elements of a slasher movie, a secretive small town, and an urban legend check a lot of boxes for my horror fiction jollies. Luckily the wait wasn’t too long for the eBook hold list, and I got “Harrow Lake” in a timely manner.

As mentioned, “Harrow Lake” has a lot of potential when it comes to hitting many a thing that I like in horror fiction. Our protagonist, Lola, is the daughter of a notorious slasher film director, so we get a fun and extensive look into a fictional filmography of splatter gore flicks that sound like a hoot. We also have the small town of Harrow Lake that has some strange inhabitants, a reputation because of the movie Lola’s Dad filmed there (where he met her mother, who disappeared from her life when she was little). The eeriness of the town was palpable and built slowly, which was a nice way to build unease as well. The biggest factor in the strangeness is the urban legend of Mister Jitters, a being that sounds like he has chattering teeth and who keeps haunting Lola at every turn as she finds herself stranded in Harrow Lake with her maternal grandmother after her father is attacked and hospitalized. I loved the lore of Mister Jitters, the kind of small town monster story that I never got to experience as a child given my upbringing in a bustling urban area, and I thought that Ellis really captured it well. Her writing style was also interesting, giving me a good feel for the town itself and the reasons why it was the way it was.

But as the book kept going, it became pretty clear that “Harrow Lake” wasn’t living up to the potential that was oozing from its description. Lola is an unreliable narrator in a lot of ways, but I didn’t really find myself connecting with her even as the story went on. It does start to make sense as to why she is the way that she is, but even that reveal and explanation didn’t quite make up for a cliched personality and uninteresting characterization. The ways that her background was slowly pulled out felt a little garbled in some ways, with the sudden appearance of an imaginary friend feeling abrupt while other ways that addressed her mental state not feeling well explored. I could see a few of the twists coming from a mile away, and there were a few plot points that built up mysteries that didn’t really pay off for me. And I don’t want to spoil anything for those who do want to go on and read it, but let’s just say that Mister Jitters didn’t live up to all that I had hoped for him. Ultimately the pay off wasn’t that scary, and I had gone in with high hopes of urban legend scares.

At the end of the day, I felt like there were a lot of missed opportunities in this book, and that was really too bad. It may be that this book will connect with other people who give it a try, but for me it was a bit of a miss. I could see myself trying again with Ellis as her writing style was intriguing, but this one didn’t work.

Rating 5: There was a lot of interesting potential here, but “Harrow Lake” never quite clicked with me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Harrow Lake” isn’t on many specific Goodreads lists, but it would fit in on “Small Towns with Secrets“.

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

Serena’s Review: “Siege of Rage and Ruin”

Book: “Siege of Rage and Ruin” by Django Wexler

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, January 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Isoka has done the impossible–she’s captured the ghost ship Soliton.

With her crew of mages, including the love of her life Princess Meroe, Isoka returns to the empire that sent her on her deadly mission. She’s ready to hand over the ghost ship as ransom for her sister Tori’s life, but arrives to find her home city under siege. And Tori at the helm of a rebellion.

Neither Isoka’s mastery of combat magic, nor Tori’s proficiency with mind control, could have prepared them for the feelings their reunion surfaces. But they’re soon drawn back into the rebels’ fight to free the city that almost killed them.

Previously Reviewed: “Ship of Smoke and Steel” and “City of Stone and Silence”

Review: After blowing through the first two books in this trilogy last January, I had to hunker down for the long wait until January 2021 to finally get the to the release of the final book. As much as I like being current with many of the books coming out in real-time, I have to say, there’s something to be said for just waiting for a series/trilogy to be finished so you can enjoy it in one, big, binge read. Ah well. And, while this wasn’t my favorite book in the trilogy, I was overall quite pleased with this book and for the way the series wrapped up as a whole.

On her way back to her home city, Isoka imagines that nothing ahead can pose a bigger challenge than what she’s accomplished already. She simply needs to rescue Tori and head back to the mysterious land from which Soliton came. But Tori is no longer the innocent girl Isoka remembers. Instead, she’s a rebel leader caught up in a revolution that seems to be on the brink of failure. What’s more, she has a powerful magical ability to influence the minds and actions of others, a power she had kept hidden from Isoka for all of these years. Together, the sisters must work to re-learn the sibling they thought they knew while also saving a city that seems doomed to fall.

While I did enjoy this book and still love the heck out of Isoka as a main character, I did struggle with this one more than the first two. I think there are a few reasons for this. First, like the second book in this trilogy, Isoka now shares the narrative with Tori which essentially splits her portion in half.

Tori isn’t a bad character in her own right, but she simply can’t compete with the explosive force that is Isoka. Tori’s own story is much less sympathetic and her overall arch feels less complete. The last book saw her do some pretty terrible things and that’s never really addressed going forward. On one hand, I like the fact that the book doesn’t shy away from the terrible things that are done in revolutions, even by those fighting for the “good” side. But Tori also never seems to resolve her feelings of being “monstrous” in any real way. Isoka kind of just brushes the whole thing aside when she learns about it, and Tori just seems to get over it suddenly at the end for no apparent reason.

Isoka’s own story feels like it takes a back seat to Tori’s as this book is largely about the revolution Tori started and thus naturally falls more in her wheelhouse. I still loved Isoka’s chapters, if mostly because her voice and character feel so alive and compelling. But, like Tori, it didn’t feel like she had much of a character arc in this story. She’d already come into her own as a leader and recognized the fact that she didn’t enjoy brutal killing. So there’s nowhere really for her to go in this story.

The second challenge, beyond the lack of character arcs for our two leads, was my own personal preference for the unique, fantastical elements presented in the first two books. There was so much creativity to the fantasy aspect of the story in the first and second book, between the ship Soliton and the Harbor with its spooky leader, Prime. Here, the story of a fairly straightforward rebellion and a pretty predictable resolution just wasn’t cutting it. I really missed the fantasy aspects of the series and was disappointed that not much new was introduced. I never was very invested in Tori’s rebellion and to have this entire last book focused on that was a pretty big let-down. But this was definitely more a matter of personal preference than anything else.

The writing itself was still incredibly strong and Wexler shines with his action scenes. Isoka’s fights were as thrilling as ever and her companions were fun supporting characters. I think it’s telling of Wexler’s skill that Jack, who could easily have become gimmicky and annoying, served well in her role as comedic relief throughout. I was also pleased to see Tori’s romance plotline take a decided backseat role, as that was another aspect of the second book that I was not at all invested in.

Overall, this was definitely the weakest of the three books, but it did tie up the story well and ended in a satisfactory manner. Readers’ enjoyment of it will likely be directly tied to their interest in Tori and the storyline that was introduced with her in the second book. But I’d say that fans of the first two, regardless of preference, should definitely check this last book out.

Rating 7: Lacking the fantasy elements that I’ve come to love, but still a satisfying end to the trilogy.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Siege of Rage and Ruin” isn’t on many Goodreads lists yet, but it is on Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2021.

Find “Siege of Rage and Ruin” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Atonement”

Book: “Atonement” (Cerenia Chronicles 3) by Angela Howes

Publishing Info: Fine Tuned Editing, January 2021

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

Book Description: They stopped Absalom. They saved the city. But what if recovery isn’t quite so easy? What if there are more monsters lurking inside the city walls? What if the true monster is one of them? In the much-anticipated conclusion to the Phoebe Ray series, Phoebe, Sky, Noah, and the gang must face a new kind of villain, make amends with the past, and learn what it means to truly belong.

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

There is a song by The Who called “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, which has the line ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’. While I wouldn’t say that it’s an anti-revolutionary ditty, I do think that it brings up a good point of you can’t always know that those you back who have lofty promises of change can be trusted to follow through. I also kind of liken it to how the French Revolution ultimately ended up with Napoleon in charge after all was said and done. In any case, whenever you hear Roger Daltrey yell “YEAAAAAAAAH”, it’s almost guaranteed that it’s from this song, and it’s legendary.

I am so sorry, I had to use this GIF, just pretend he’s yelling YEAAAAAH! (source)

I was thinking a lot about that song as I read “Atonement” by Angela Howes, the final story in the Cerenia Chronicles. After all, at the end of the previous book, “Containment”, our protagonist Phoebe had helped end the dictatorship that was run by Absalom, and Cerenia was on the cusp of a new dawn, as the system of Ones and Twos was finally to be done away with, and Phoebe was going to help rebuild society into something better. But as we soon learn, if only it were THAT easy.

We left “Containment” with Phoebe, boyfriend Sky, ex boyfriend Noah, and her other friends and family dealing with the fallout from Abasalom, the previous leader, being thrown in prison. “Atonement” decides to focus on how Phoebe is trying to change society from within the confines of its power structure, and that is already an interesting take that I haven’t encountered in my YA dystopia literature. Phoebe is confident that she and the Council can rebuild, but it’s pretty clear that it’s not going to be that easy, and that someone else in power likes the idea of a power grab. Our narrative focuses on Phoebe trying to keep everything together, as well as balancing out her relationships, the safety of those she loves, and trying to figure out the best way to rebuild a society that has a lot of damage and long lasting effects that can’t just be done away with so easily. I loved this focus, and I loved seeing her have to see how damn hard it is to fix things even after the corruption is gone. She has to make hard decisions that others don’t necessarily understand, and it gave her more depth and complexity.

Our perspectives expand once again from the last book to this one. While we still have the three main lines of Phoebe, Sky, and Noah, other characters like Phoebe’s sister Violet, fellow councilmember Roderick, and others have been added to the shuffle. I can’t really decide what I think about all the new perspectives, as on one hand I liked having more insight into how all of these other people are adjusting, some of them just felt a little superfluous. I was still mostly interested in Phoebe as she tries to weed out corruption, but it was Sky’s that brought the next most interesting themes, as he is clearly dealing with trauma and PTSD after the events in the previous book. Given that Sky and Phoebe are my favorite characters and I’m invested in their relationship, I was happy(?) to see that one of the central conflicts coming between them wasn’t Noah. Not that trauma is something I WANT for a couple as a hurdle, but it felt more realistic than trotting out a love triangle just for the sake of the drama.

And in terms of plot and pacing, the action and suspense in this book builds slowly and then really amps up the stakes as the story goes on. When things start to spiral, the action just increases, and I found myself very on edge about what was going to happen. There were a good number of twists thrown in too, and throw backs to previous plot points that all come back together for the grand finale. All in all, I was quite satisfied with how things shook out, for better or for worse.

“Atonement” went in a direction that I wasn’t expecting, and I think that it was better for it. We may not see as much dystopian fiction in YA these days, but The Cerenia Chronicles is definitely a worthy series to add to the selection.

Rating 8: A satisfying ending to an enjoyable series.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Atonement” isn’t on any Goodreads lists as of yet, but if you like books like “Divergent”“Matched”, or “The Testing” you will probably find this one fun as well!

“Atonement” isn’t in very many libraries as of now, but you can find it on Amazon.

Previously Reviewed:

Book Club Review: “I Will Always Write Back”

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 “Around the World”, in which we each picked a continent and had to match a book that takes place there and/or is written by an author from that continent or of that continent’s descent.

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: “I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives” by Caitlin Alifirenka, Martin Ganda, and Liz Welch

Publishing Info: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, April 2015

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Continent: Africa

Book Description: The true story of an all-American girl and a boy from an impoverished city in Zimbabwe and the letter that changed both of their lives forever.

It started as an assignment. Everyone in Caitlin’s class wrote to an unknown student somewhere in a distant place. All the other kids picked countries like France or Germany, but when Caitlin saw Zimbabwe written on the board, it sounded like the most exotic place she had ever heard of–so she chose it.
Martin was lucky to even receive a pen pal letter. There were only ten letters, and forty kids in his class. But he was the top student, so he got the first one
.

That letter was the beginning of a correspondence that spanned six years and changed two lives.

In this compelling dual memoir, Caitlin and Martin recount how they became best friends –and better people–through letters. Their story will inspire readers to look beyond their own lives and wonder about the world at large and their place in it.

Kate’s Thoughts

Well when we started our “Around the World” Series for Book Club, we thought that it would outlast quarantine and that it would be a fun way to pass that time. The reality is that we’re in an even worse place than we were back when we started once this session ended. But even if we have more COVID times ahead of us where we have to meet virtually, I’m glad that we did our “Around the World” cycle, as we got to read books that I may not have read otherwise. Our last book was “I Will Always Write Back”, a dual memoir by Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda, two pen pals whose friendship became so much more.

I went into this book with a very rudimentary knowledge of Zimbabwe under Mugabe’s regime, and with the unease that we may have been starting a ‘white savior’ narrative. But “I Will Always Write Back”, I think, did a good job of walking that line without crossing it, and I think that the main reason for that is because we got both Caitlin’s perspective, that of a teenage white American living in a comfortable economic situation, and Martin’s, who is a Black Zimbabwean who was living in abject poverty. Getting to hear Martin’s side of the story in his own words and getting his perspectives and experiences really helped keep it away from centering Caitlin’s journey in the narrative, which was good. Martin’s chapters were the ones that I most looked forward to, as while Caitlin was relatable (we are the same age, so I was doing and experiencing similar teenage America girl things that she was in this book), I wasn’t as interested in her story. I think that there could have been a little more introspection on her part at times, but then again, she was a teenager and young adult through the crux of it, so maybe throwing that in would have felt out of place. Luckily Martin’s sections gave the reader a lot to think about, and I feel like I got more from this story from him.

I was interested in seeing their friendship grow and change, however, and liked seeing the two of them interact with each other. You can feel the love and care they have for each other within this books pages, and seeing the two of them have each other’s backs was absolutely uplifting. Given that any pen pal situation that I had in grade school completely floundered, the fact that they kept this friendship going and changed each other’s lives so much is a lovely story in and of itself. This is the kind of book that I would recommend to teens who are wanting to start looking at cross cultural themes and issues, as I think it’s a good introduction to the idea of reaching out to others who may not have the exact same life as you, but could have very similar goals and dreams that you have.

Kate’s Rating 7: An undeniably uplifting memoir about friendship and cross cultural connection, “I Will Always Write Back” has heart and earnestness, though not as much introspection as I was hoping for.

Book Club Questions

  1. What were some of your reactions to the comparisons and contrasts when it came to the lives that Caitlin and Martin were living when they started their correspondence?
  2. Were you knowledgable about the history and the cultural and societal situation of Zimbabwe during Mugabe’s rule?
  3. Do you think that teenagers today would relate to the teenage voices of the people in this book who were teens twenty years ago?
  4. As the book goes on, we learn that Caitlin and her family help Martin out in many ways. How do you think this changed and affected their friendship?
  5. Recently there has been criticism of publishers elevating and publishing ‘white savior’ narratives in books and the publishing industry. Do you think that “I Will Always Write Back” could be considered a white savior narrative? Why or why not?

Reader’s Advisory

“I Will Always Write Back” is included on the Goodreads lists “Must Read Memoirs”, and “Southern Africa”.

Find “I Will Always Write Back” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Sailor Moon: Eternal Edition Vols. 1 &2