Review: Booked for Murder

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Synopsis

Life as a bodyguard and driver for the rich, famous, and powerful is dangerous on a good day, and after sustaining a crippling injury while on duty, Janette’s left with few options. Having signed a ‘for life’ contract but unable to work, she uses her skills to disappear. Her new life as a librarian suits her. Nobody cares she limps and sometimes requires a cane to walk. She’s wanted for her knowledge, not her lethal magic. She’s surrounded by books, a woman’s best friend. But when her former employer’s best friend is murdered on the steps of her library, old loyalties and secrets might destroy her – or set her free. Teaming up with her co-workers to find the killer might keep her from being booked for murder, but unless she’s careful, she’ll find out exactly how far her ex-boss will go to reclaim what is rightfully his. Her. For life.

Review

Read: November 2021

Review: 1 star out of 5

Usually my worst reads originate from places where the books are cheap or free, since lower prices make me more willing to take the risk. Booked for Murder is not one such book. I spent a whole $15 Libro credit on it. Do I regret it? Yes. But is that loss mitigated by my chance to vent on this blog? Absolutely.

In case you haven’t surmised from the title, Booked for Murder is about a magical murder – the murder of a senator, to be specific. Should be at least a little bit interesting, right? Oh, if only. There are too many things wrong with this book for it to be even remotely considered passable.

So where do I even start?

The first problem is Janette herself, which is doubly unfortunate since she narrates the book in first-person. Blain tries to depict Janette as this perfect person who is amazing at everything; both in spite of and because of this, Janette is unlikable. I tired quickly of everyone, including Janette herself, rambling about how amazing she is – about how magically talented she is, how clever she is, how sweet she is. Like, congratulations, you figured out via testing on cattle that you can shoot blood a million feet or whatever. Are you proud of your animal cruelty? Janette is so powerful that in order to hide from her boss (whom she obnoxiously calls her “ex-boss” throughout the book even well after readers discover that she is on a first-name basis with the guy), she had to fake having a low magical capacity because her real one is so phenomenally high.

It’s normal to admire someone for their gifts and qualities, but everyone’s appreciation of Janette’s talents errs egregiously into the territory of abject fawning. What exacerbates my irritation, though, is that for as much as everyone effusively gushes over Janette, that lionization doesn’t seem earned to me. Supposedly Janette is so smart that she can hack into police files in just a few minutes and leave almost no trace, but she’s not clever enough to realize that hiding in the same city as Bradley, changing her last name, and wearing glasses like some Perry the Platypus knockoff bullshit will not ultimately conceal her effectively. The author attempts to portray Janette as jocular, but her jokes are awkward and often carried on to the point where a listener questions whether she’s serious. (I kid you not, she spends a whole minute joking about setting politicians – the people she and her group are ostensibly trying to save – on fire, even after it’s become clear that the joke has exhausted its welcome.) But congratulations, bitch, because being a talented store-brand bloodbender who can shoot bovine blood a gajillion meters away apparently compensates for your insipid personality. The only things I can appreciate about Janette are her love for her cat (whom she rescued as a kitten) and her love of books, but that’s not enough to outweigh everything I can’t stand about her.

Really, almost every character is either annoying, straight-up bizarre, or both. Like, the head librarian of the New York Library is randomly and conveniently also mortician or some shit. Bradley’s mom is almost as imperious as her son is, and she thinks it’s cool to “take in” a Black girl as a child and then employ her as a maid, and then adopt her after she’s become an adult. (Author lady, if Jezabela is supposed to be your Black rep, maybe don’t make your only explicitly Black character be a fucking maid.) Janette’s dad is weirdly, creepily obsessed with punishing her with the switch. He rambles about it for minutes at a time. And after not seeing or hearing from Janette for three years, her parents see fit to remark that her cat is an acceptable temporary substitute for grandchildren. Can you imagine being reunited with your child after three years and grousing about how bummed you are that they haven’t popped out grandchildren, let alone shacked up with somebody? Yeah, me neither.

And then there’s Bradley. We the readers are supposed to root for Janette and Bradley to at last admit their feelings for one another and bang it out, but few love interests who are unworthier than this entitled little scum nugget come to mind. This scuzzball thinks he owns the damn world and can do whatever the fuck he wants because he has money and (supposedly) is hot. He is possessive even for a guy who holds a woman’s indentured servitude contract (yeah, we’ll get to that later). He insists on doing everything for Janette, an importunity that breaches the threshold of pesky to lodge itself firmly into creepy territory. Bradley might not make all of Janette’s decisions for her, but he certainly seems that he’d like to. Various controlling behaviors of Bradley’s are excused under the pretense of pampering or doting on Janette. Clearly he has no reservations about telling HIPPA to go fuck itself, snooping through her medical records, or making appointments for her, because that’s exactly what he does. I don’t care if that’s normal for the world they live in; it’s still eerie. These aren’t the only instances of blatant overreach on Bradley’s part; there are so many that I can’t pick many more off the top of my head. What I can tell you is that like half of my notes consist of comments like “What a shithead” and “You fucking pompous iguana,” and you can bet that those are all about Bradley. I know I just spent a gigantic chunk of this review complaining about how simultaneously boring and weird Janette is, but even I think she deserves better than this self-absorbed, toxic-masculinity-riddled asshole. Get the hell out of here, Bradley, you’re not fooling me with your “I’m friends with a eugenicist but I disagree with him” claptrap.

The rest of this book is… I just hate it. Everything is too similar to the real world, and none of the things that set the book’s universe apart from the real world are charming or enchanting or even interesting. The magic system is horrendously bland. I’m also disturbed by how casually the so-called “for-life contracts” are treated. It’s one thing to write your character as accepting of obviously morally reprehensible practices for the sake of the story. But usually when an author crafts a world with a patent injustice baked into it, the voice typically expresses some kind of condemnation for that injustice, even if the characters endorse the abhorrent behavior. I did not pick up that vibe in this book. I’m not saying that the author is pro-slavery/-indenture, just that the narration doesn’t seem to hold the expected tacit remonstrance. Maybe I just wasn’t paying sufficient attention to pick that up, but the notion that my attention might have strayed so seriously is another testament to how good this book isn’t. But how could I possibly be interested when the dialogue frequently runs off on tangents such as how the tax structure of the investigative cell works. (By the way, dear book characters, if your investigative cell has tax laws it needs to follow, it’s probably sanctioned by law; therefore, you are not vigilantes.)

Aside from the presence of a cat, the other thing this book has going for it is physically disabled character representation via the main character, but let’s be honest: You can find solid disabled character representation and lovable characters, an entertaining plot, and an interesting world in the Aurora Cycle. Don’t waste your time with this book.

Book Review: Hang the Moon

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Synopsis

In a delightful follow-up to Written in the Stars, Alexandria Bellefleur delivers another #ownvoices queer rom-com about a hopeless romantic who vows to show his childhood crush that romance isn’t dead by recreating iconic dates from his favorite films…

Brendon Lowell loves love. It’s why he created a dating app to help people find their one true pairing and why he’s convinced “the one” is out there, even if he hasn’t met her yet. Or… has he? When his sister’s best friend turns up in Seattle unexpectedly, Brendon jumps at the chance to hang out with her. He’s crushed on Annie since they were kids, and the stars have finally aligned, putting them in the same city at the same time.

Annie booked a spur-of-the-moment trip to Seattle to spend time with friends before moving across the globe. She’s not looking for love, especially with her best friend’s brother. Annie remembers Brendon as a sweet, dorky kid. Except, the 6-foot-4 man who shows up at her door is a certified Hot Nerd and Annie… wants him? Oh yes.

Getting involved would be a terrible idea—her stay is temporary and he wants forever—but when Brendon learns Annie has given up on dating, he’s determined to prove that romance is real. Taking cues from his favorite rom-coms, Brendon plans to woo her with elaborate dates straight out of Nora Ephron’s playbook. The clock is ticking on Annie’s time in Seattle, and Brendon’s starting to realize romance isn’t just flowers and chocolate. But maybe real love doesn’t need to be as perfect as the movies… as long as you think your partner hung the moon.

Review

Read: July 2021

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

My rule regarding romance novels is that I don’t read them if they occur in a realistic setting. I usually want the romance to be secondary to the overarching plot – I don’t normally like it as the plot. Too much romantic angst tends to put me on edge, and because I read for fun, I try to avoid that. But Hang the Moon is the exception to my rule because its premise isn’t overburdened with angst and drama. It’s good enough that I plan to read Bellefleur’s prequel as well as the upcoming third book in this series. It’s fun. It’s cute. It’s so, so wholesome.

Brandon, the CEO of the dating company One True Pairing (yes, this author is after my heart indeed), still hasn’t found the love of his twenty-six-year-old life, but all that might change with the arrival of childhood friend/sister’s best friend Annie. But how to win over the romantically jaded girl? Well, that’s another question. Refusing to let Annie get away without at least shooting his shot, Brandon embarks on a quest to romance her – all before her impending move to London just a few weeks down the road.

I love this book about love. I am an unapologetic sucker for friends-to-lovers romances, and Hang the Moon does not fall short. Like I mentioned earlier, this book isn’t as angsty as so many romance novels tend to be – or perhaps it’s less the amount of angst and more the nature of it. The question in this story is never “Which guy/girl will X person choose?” The questions instead are “Will she stay?” and “What do I need in a relationship and in my life in general?” Annie’s work life heavily influences her social life, both before the story begins and throughout its duration. Her attempts at relationships have ended in failure, in part because of her travel-intensive work schedule, and she doesn’t really have friends where she lives when she isn’t traveling. Although she’s young and successful, Annie isn’t really happy. It’s beautiful to watch Brandon and Darcy try to show her that success in your career and happiness in the rest of your life aren’t mutually exclusive while still giving Annie the space to make her own decisions. The cherry on top of all of this is Brandon himself. He’s absolutely the kind of love interest I love to love – the one who’s hot and sweet and drives a Smart Car with a replica of a windup key attached to it. Seriously, the last part is totally swoon-worthy. Hang the Moon isn’t solely about Annie and Brandon though. After all, Annie did come to Seattle to visit her best friend, Darcy, and meet Darcy’s new girlfriend. Annie and Darcy love each other like sisters, but distance doesn’t always make a friendship easy. As the book progresses, Annie and Darcy work through the knot that distance has created in their friendship, and Darcy promises to put more effort into that relationship.

It’s also worth noting that Hang the Moon contains a lot of queer rep: Annie and Elle are bisexual, Darcy is a lesbian, and Margot is definitely not straight (I can’t remember if she’s a lesbian or bisexual). On a more personal note, this book was validating to me. I recently realized that I’m bi, even though I’ve never dated a woman. Since Hang the Moon focuses on a romance between a bi woman and a man, it’s a reminder that just because you end up with someone of the opposite sex doesn’t mean you aren’t bi – nor does ending up with a same-sex partner mean you aren’t bi. Annie and Darcy each represent different relationships for bi people, and I’m here for it.

Packed with lovable characters, refreshingly non-toxic relationships, and beautiful friendships, this novel is a worthy beach read to talk about with your friends. Aside from the major characters’ lack of racial diversity, Hang the Moon is an enjoyable, light-hearted read that calls your name when you’re craving some fluff.

Review: The Lost Apothecary

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Synopsis

A forgotten history. A secret network of women. A legacy of poison and revenge. Welcome to the Lost Apothecary…

Hidden in the depths of eighteenth-century London, a secret apothecary shop caters to an unusual kind of clientele. Women across the city whisper of a mysterious figure named Nella who sells well-disguised poisons to use against the oppressive men in their lives. But the apothecary’s fate is jeopardized when her newest patron, a precocious twelve-year-old, makes a fatal mistake, sparking a string of consequences that echo through the centuries.

Meanwhile, in present-day London, aspiring historian Caroline Parcewell spends her tenth wedding anniversary alone, running from her own demons. When she stumbles upon a clue to the unsolved apothecary murders that haunted London two hundred years ago, her life collides with the apothecary’s in a stunning twist of fate – and not everyone will survive.

With crackling suspense, unforgettable characters and searing insight, The Lost Apothecary is a subversive and intoxicating debut novel of secrets, vengeance and the remarkable ways women can save each other despite the barrier of time.

Review

Read: April 2021

Rating: 3.75 stars out of 5

That I read The Lost Apothecary at all testifies to the advertising prowess of social media. Historical fiction is not a favorite genre of mine, although I sometimes do find exceptions. I spent my Audible credit (yes, this was before I switched to Libro) for the month on this book because I kept seeing it in my Goodreads feeds – in followed accounts’ posts, in ads, et cetera. It popped up on the radio or in one of the newspapers I subscribe to, I’m pretty sure. Eventually I just gave in because I wanted to know what everyone was buzzing about – and whether it was worthy of that buzz.

Nella is a dealer of protection and revenge, both via poisons. Her clientele consists solely of women – either women who have been wronged by men or women seeking assistance on behalf of women who have been wronged by men. Enter Eliza, a twelve-year-old whose mistress dispatches her to procure a poison against her own husband because he is preying on girls, including Eliza. Fortunately or unfortunately, Eliza quickly develops an enthusiastic, unrelenting curiosity in Nella’s work. Two hundred twenty years from then, Caroline Parcewell is grappling with what a piece of shit her husband James actually is. She’s contemplating whether her marriage will survive when she heads to London. In a move that revives the dreams James crushed, she begins investigating Nella’s business and the murders connected to it.

The relatively small cast is nonetheless populated with complex, interesting characters. Nella didn’t just up and decide one day to abet murders across London just for the hell of it: let’s just say she began her line of work as a way to bite back in a world where women’s power is limited. Eliza is persistent, sometimes to a fault, and very bright – the kind of bright that, when tempered with a bit of patience and/or schooling, really takes people places. Although readers only witness Nella and Eliza’s mother-daughter relationship over the course of – a few days? Weeks? It’s been a while since I read this – their friendship is nonetheless precious. The brevity of the time span depicted in the book does not diminish their friendship. While all of the women experience strong, substantial character arcs, Caroline emerges as the star of the show: In her resurfacing from the confines of a claustrophobic marriage to an emotionally manipulative man, she rediscovers herself, all while solving an ultra-cold case murder and dealing with her husband’s shit. Caroline, in a synthesis of both Eliza’s and Nella’s best traits, is a determined detective with an eye for detail who brooks no shit from anyone – including Jackass James.

There are two sticking points I have with this book. First, I am not as impressed with the plot as I hoped I’d be. I expected it to be more… suspenseful. I mean, it is – it just isn’t sufficiently suspenseful. So what would you do to add suspense? you ask. I don’t know. Maybe the suspense level is fine, and I just wasn’t in the right mindset to enjoy the story to its fullest when I was reading. Maybe I anticipated an even darker story than I received. My biggest issue with the plot stems from how so much of it is predicated on bad sex ed. Yes, Nella and Eliza’s story occurs in the late eighteenth century and sex ed was even worse than it currently is in many US states, but that fact does little to mollify me. It’s frustrating to watch a newly menorrheic twelve-year-old believe that her vagina (if she even understands what her vagina is) is haunted by the ghost of the man that she killed using one of Nella’s poisons, even though she is in regular contact with a female apothecary who could actually explain periods to her. The other problem I have is with the magic. If you’re a regular reader of my reviews, you’ve probably noticed that I love me some magic rules and some worldbuilding when it comes to fantasy. In The Lost Apothecary, the magic isn’t even discussed until the latter half of the book, and then only briefly before being used as a Hail Mary at the end of the novel. For the gravity of the situations magic is utilized in, the scant focus on magic makes its use feel more like a cop-out than a viable, feasible solution to the problem.

Although historical fiction isn’t typically to my taste, The Lost Apothecary still was an interesting read, even when it fell short in the suspense department. In spite of the clumsy use of magic, readers will find an appealing plot and truly compelling character arcs render this novel a sturdy debut.

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Review: A Deadly Education

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Synopsis

I decided that Orion Lake needed to die after the second time he saved my life.

Everyone loves Orion Lake. Everyone else, that is. Far as I’m concerned, he can keep his flashy combat magic to himself. I’m not joining his pack of adoring fans.

I don’t need help surviving the Scholomance, even if they do. Forget the hordes of monsters and cursed artifacts, I’m probably the most dangerous thing in the place. Just give me a chance and I’ll level mountains and kill untold millions, make myself the dark queen of the world.

At least, that’s what the world expects. Most of the other students in here would be delighted if Orion killed me like one more evil thing that’s crawled out of the drains. Sometimes I think they want me to turn into the evil witch they assume I am. The school certainly does.

But the Scholomance isn’t getting what it wants from me. And neither is Orion Lake. I may not be anyone’s idea of the shining hero, but I’m going to make it out of this place alive, and I’m not going to slaughter thousands to do it, either.

Although I’m giving serious consideration to just one.

Review

Read: July 2021

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

What if the Hogwarts staff one day looked out at all the students in the Great Hall, said, “Fuck these little shits,” and collectively noped out of Hogwarts, leaving the kids to fend for themselves against whatever magical mishaps and whackadoodle, murderous beasties cropped up?

Your answer is the Scholomance. In the Scholomance, though, you’d be so lucky as to have only Hagrid’s blast-ended skrewts and the occasional basilisk out to kill you. The food is sometimes contaminated. Scholomance kids are attacked by deadly maleficaria on a regular basis (at least once per month) – and not all survive. You’re crazy if you go to the bathroom alone. The result is a Machiavellian, hardscrabble milieu that necessitates alliances, business deals, and politicking to boost your chances to survive. Sometimes kids even make friends.

Naomi Novik could’ve easily chosen the most advantaged kid to narrate the story. (That would be Orion Lake, the son of a New York enclave official, who is widely known for his lion’s heart, generosity, and his singular combat skills.) Instead, Novik opts for one of the school’s biggest loners: Galadriel “El” Higgins. El is charming in that she isn’t readily likeable – or at least not likeable in the traditional sense. She’s smart, determined, fiercely independent, and prickly, while also being deeply flawed. Novik lets El’s strengths be her weaknesses and her weaknesses be her strengths; her attributes are neither purely beneficial nor purely detrimental to her survival. El’s echinated exterior at first leaves her isolated and therefore disadvantaged in terms of survival, but later on it does earn her a few real friends and the respect of some efficacious potential allies. Furthermore, El could be extraordinarily powerful, but the moral and physical costs of that power deter her from taking full advantage of it. A refreshingly imperfect heroine, El’s delightfully acerbic stream of consciousness lends a conversational feel to the narration. It’s also wonderful to witness El develop as a person. She begins the book by not really having friends, just folks willing to do business with her, and gradually emerges from her shell. I love how her relationship with Orion blossoms into a friendship instead of just taking off into a romantic relationship right away. I’ll be interested to see further developments on that front (PLEASE!!!!), and I’m hoping for further progress in El’s burgeoning friendships with Aadhya and Liu.

Novik clearly has exerted a huge amount of effort into creating the Scholomance world, and that effort has borne fruit. The world Novik has crafted in the Scholomance universe is assiduously imagined and thoroughly explained. Novik’s worldbuilding, however, is sometimes awkward. She has a tendency to monologue her way through worldbuilding via El, and if the material weren’t so damn interesting I’d probably hate the infodumping. As much as I was enthralled by the subject matter, I often had a sense of… being unmoored. Sometimes I’d be wrapped up in the information and then think to myself, “Wait, where is this going?” However, El’s social status and introverted personality, alongside the isolation of the Scholomance’s occupants in general, allow the hefty information style to fit just a little bit better than it should have. Still, I can’t help but think that so much of the book’s content focuses on worldbuilding that the plot is edged out – or that Novik just wanted to fill more pages than a less heavy-handed approach would have.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the elephant in the room: the racist locs paragraph. Yes, Naomi Novik wrote a whole damn paragraph about “lock-leeches” that lay eggs in locs and whose larvae can kill the host. (I guess my library’s copy is the old version.) Now all racism is stupid, but this instance is especially stupid because Novik had to 1) conceive the idea, 2) write it out, 3) decide that it was fine to have written it, and 4) send in her manuscript to editors, and this somehow all passed the sensitivity read. To her credit, Novik offered a frank apology and made some serious efforts to correct her error, but the unfortunate fact remains that the incident happened and is hurtful.

A Deadly Education begins a potential-packed series in a dark, gritty setting full of characters likeable not because they are perfect, but because they are so very human. While Novik’s worldbuilding can be as much a ballast as it can be an attractant, A Deadly Education is an entertaining read worthy of picking up. Just look for later printings of it – and if you happen to get ahold of the oldest printing, be aware of why that paragraph on locs is problematic.

To learn more about race-based hair discrimination and what you can do, visit TheCROWNAct.org.

Review: House of Earth and Blood (Crescent City, #1)

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Synopsis

Bryce Quinlan had the perfect life – working hard all day and partying all night – until a demon murdered her closest friends, leaving her bereft, wounded, and alone. When the accused is behind bars but the crimes start up again, Bryce finds herself at the heart of the investigation. She’ll do whatever it takes to avenge their deaths.

Hunt Athalar is a notorious Fallen angel, now enslaved to the Archangels he once attempted to overthrow. His brutal skills and incredible strength have been set to one purpose – to assassinate his boss’s enemies, no questions asked. But with a demon wreaking havoc in the city, he’s offered an irresistible deal: help Bryce find the murderer, and his freedom will be within reach.

As Bryce and Hunt dig deeper into Crescent City’s underbelly, they discover a dark power that threatens everything and everyone they hold dear, and they find, in each other, a blazing passion – one that could set them both free, if only they’d let it.

Review

Read: July 2021

Rating: ?????

Spoiler warning! Major plot details will be discussed in this review. Turn back now if you don’t want to see them!

After reading the atrocious abomination that is A Court of Silver Flames, I dabbled in negative reviews of both that book and House of Earth and Blood. My plans to read HoEaB were scrapped, at least for the moment. But I decided that my stint of good books had continued long enough, and I wanted some trash. (Reading garbage amplifies your appreciation for the quality material, you know.)

Basically, I picked HoEaB up as a hate read, but I ended up not hating it. I liked it. This book chronicles a substantive mystery with deep personal connections to one of our detective heroes. Bryce Quinlan lost her best friend, her romantic interest, and a whole wolf pack of friends to a particularly gruesome murder and is struggling to cope with the grief and guilt even two years later. Counting on Bryce’s interest in avenging her friends’ murders and in not looking like a suspect herself, Governor Micah Domitus, an Archangel, pairs Bryce up with his slave (yes, you read that correctly), Hunt Athalar. Hunt’s primary motivation – a drastic reduction in his slave debt – is soon joined by his burgeoning feelings for Bryce (which you probably will see coming if you’ve ever been exposed to any kind of romance). If you hate slow-paced stuff, this book isn’t for you, but I found that the pacing fit well with the story HoEaB has to tell.

I didn’t expect to be as invested in the characters as I was. Ruhn is shaping up to be a promising character, and I hope that the next installment will focus more heavily on him. (Bonus: I think Maas is setting up an excellent slow-burn romance between either Hypaxia and Ruhn or Hypaxia and Tharion. Either would be fine.) Also, I love hacker-type characters, and I didn’t know I needed a Fae hacker until Declan Emmett came along. He had better have more point-of-view pages in the next book too, damn it. Even Bryce grew on me. Above all, though, Danika is unquestionably the real star of this book. Her love of animals and sense of justice are eternally endearing. Her friendship with Bryce is so wholesome. Her machinations foil the bad guy, an immortal of several hundred years, for two years after her own death. Micah isn’t exaggerating when he says, “Danika’s the smart one.”

So if you enjoyed so much of the story, why couldn’t you just pick a rating? you wonder. Well folks, between those reviews I read and my own experience reading literally every single one of Maas’s novels – and in particular, the abomination that is A Court of Silver Flames – I noticed stuff that once would have flown under my radar. Here’s my shit list:

Many people have been complaining about Maas’s dearth of diversity in her books, and I absolutely understand where they’re coming from. Juniper, a faun, is basically described as being Black, but she doesn’t really have the page time or character development for her presence to amount to much more than tokenism.

  • The slapdash tokenism diversity is frustrating. Lack of diversity alone is not usually enough to sink a book, but it certainly can degrade the quality, and it can give the impression that authors are neglecting to raise awareness about minorities and their treatment through their platforms. Many people have been complaining about Maas’s dearth of diversity in her books, and I absolutely understand where they’re coming from. Juniper is basically described as being Black, but she doesn’t really have the page time or character development for her presence to amount to much more than tokenism. What’s more, Juniper is in a lesbian relationship with Fury… and that’s all we hear about it. I mean, I guess it’s nice that being LGBTQ+ is such a non-issue in Crescent City; however, I think that Maas should remember the context in which the real-world audience lives when approaching these sorts of things. Maybe Maas is planning to focus more on Juniper and/or Fury in House of Sky and Breath, but if past behavior is any indicator, she likely will not.
  • Certain phrases are repeated ad nauseum. I get it. Bryce thinks Hunt is hot. That said, the phrase “her toes curled” does not need to appear as many times as it does. And of course, because this is an SJM book, we got a visit or two from someone’s “considerable length.”
  • Danika surrenders her eternal life in the Bone Quarter for Bryce’s Ascent. Can’t my girl get a break?
  • Does Bryce really need to end up with that much power? Stories tend to be more interesting when your characters aren’t living battering rams or nukes. I love seeing characters solve problems with their intelligence, their skills, and/or their grit. Unfortunately, by the end of the book, Bryce is a battering ram. A Court of Silver Flames, as another review points out, has the same damn problem. Bryce already has the Starborn ability and the Horn. Now she gets to be more powerful than the Autumn King? The crappiest part is that Bryce probably would have not needed Danika’s spirit to evaporate in order to survive the Ascent if she’d just stuck with her inborn power level.
  • Shut the hell up about how hot Bryce is. We get it. A character crushing on another character is bound to remark upon the physical appearance of their crush multiple times. Still, not all thoughts should be shared – or at least, not all thoughts should be shared more than once.
  • Maas needs help writing men better. “He’d admit it: males would do a lot of fucked-up things for someone who looked like that” seems pretty insulting to men, if you ask me. Maas seems to be under the impression that men have little self-control. Also, what the fuck with “Fucking Hel, his voice – silk and steel and ancient stone. He could probably make someone come by merely whispering filthy things in their ear”? Does Micah have to be a walking talking orgasmatron? That’s fucking ridiculous.
  • One of the biggest problems with this book is the potential plagiarism at the very end. Other readers have noticed that “like calls to like” is an axiom in the Grisha trilogy. (The Tumblr post in the link includes other examples that I think might be a stretch.) I’d heard about this in relation to the A Court of Thorns and Roses series, but I brushed it off. Those words are relatively common, and maybe it’s toeing the line of copying, but it’s not that huge. Demon-fighting light powers don’t belong exclusively to Leigh Bardugo either; it’s a theme as old as shit. But when those two things – a demon-fighting light power and the phrase “like calls to like” – it definitely crosses the line from “uncomfy but not horrible” to “yikes.” Alina’s power is light that can combat darkness and monsters. Bryce’s Starborn power is basically the same thing. Combined with “like calls to like,” it seems like pretty blatant plagiarism – or at least bad editing.

Overall, this first installment of Crescent City is both intriguing and also… uncomfortable and disappointing at times. I don’t regret reading it, but it’s not my new favorite thing like it might have been three or four years ago. Maas’s various issues can, have, and will diminish the fun that this book, in a less adulterated state, should be.

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Disclaimer: This review contains links to other blogs/social media posts associated with other reviewers. I am not collaborating with them, nor does the appearance of their links in this review imply endorsement of my blog or this post. I have simply included the links to connect my readers with the material to which I am responding.

Review: Truthwitch (The Witchlands, #1)

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Synopsis

On a continent ruled by three empires, some are born with a “witchery,” a magical skill that sets them apart from others.

In the Witchlands, there are almost as many types of magic as there are ways to get in trouble—as two desperate young women know all too well.

Safiya is a Truthwitch, able to discern truth from lie. It’s a powerful magic that many would kill to have on their side, especially amongst the nobility to which Safi was born. So Safi must keep her gift hidden, lest she be used as a pawn in the struggle between empires.

Iseult, a Threadwitch, can see the invisible ties that bind and entangle the lives around her—but she cannot see the bonds that touch her own heart. Her unlikely friendship with Safi has taken her from life as an outcast into one of reckless adventure, where she is a cool, wary balance to Safiya’s hotheaded impulsiveness.

Safiya and Iseult just want to be free to live their own lives, but war is coming to the Witchlands. With the help of the cunning Prince Merik (a Windwitch and privateer) and the hindrance of a Bloodwitch bent on revenge, the friends must fight emperors, princes, and mercenaries alike, who will stop at nothing to get their hands on a Truthwitch.

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Review

Re-read: June 2021

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

The Witchlands is one of those series that I stumbled upon by surfing through the Nook Store’s “$2.99 and Under” section – a favorite place of mine to snag books. In retrospect, I got even more bang for my buck than I originally thought, since Truthwitch would’ve been more than worth its cover price, let alone the measly $3 I shelled out for it.

Two-and-a-half years ago, when I first read Truthwitch, I very much enjoyed it but felt somewhat… adrift. Susan Dennard has built such an expansive world in the Witchlands that readers might feel overwhelmed. But that feeling is the good sort of overwhelm – the kind you experience when something is saturated with intricate detail, yet there are still so many questions that demand answers. Reading the rest of the series and then re-reading Truthwitch dissipates any remaining confusion. This first book of a truly spectacular series proves to be an excellent introduction to the riveting story Dennard has to tell.

The pace of this book could be best described as “barreling” or “breakneck.” Seriously, the action never ceases. It all kicks off with a bungled heist, and Safi and Iseult spend the rest of the book running. Dennard isn’t bad at writing fight scenes either – which is a good thing, because there are plenty of skirmishes throughout the novel. The characters are multidimensional, complex, and dynamic. Each viewpoint character has some hangup to battle with: Safi’s uncontrolled recklessness, Iseult’s failure to live up to the expectations of both her mother and her society as a Threadwitch, Merik’s temper, and Aeduan’s struggle to discern exactly which morals he holds. While Truthwitch decidedly focuses on Safi’s character development, the other characters experience distinct – if slower and subtler – progression of their character arcs.

There is only one reason I knocked off half a star: Dennard’s writing sometimes feels a bit unwieldy, the type of awkward that often accompanies an author still trying to figure out how to best guide readers through their story and illustrate their characters. For instance, I remembered there being sexual and romantic tension between Safi and Merik, but I forgot how ridiculously horny Merik is during the last hundred pages or so. Occasionally, the characters make what appear to be (and sometimes are) completely boneheaded mistakes, but those mistakes usually end up painting them as realistic people who are imperfect and who fuck up, all while keeping the book at a healthy distance from a disastrous “idiot plot” saga. Really, the plot is so amazingly good and the characters are so wonderful that it’s easy to forgive most of the bumps in the road.

Whether you’re reading Truthwitch for the first time or revisiting it, prepare to find yourself in a fascinated daze at the end. Considered in isolation from its successors, I highly recommend Truthwitch. Considered along with its successors, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Review: Libertie

Image from BarnesandNoble.com

Synopsis

The critically acclaimed and Whiting Award–winning author of We Love You, Charlie Freemanreturns with Libertie, an unforgettable story about one young Black girl’s attempt to find a place where she can be fully, and only, herself.

Coming of age in a free Black community in Reconstruction-era Brooklyn, Libertie Sampson is all too aware that her purposeful mother, a practicing physician, has a vision for their future together: Libertie is to go to medical school and practice alongside her. But Libertie, drawn more to music than science, feels stifled by her mother’s choices and is hungry for something else—is there really only one way to have an autonomous life? And she is constantly reminded that, unlike her light-skinned mother, Libertie will not be able to pass for white. When a young man from Haiti proposes to Libertie and promises she will be his equal on the island, she accepts, only to discover that she is still subordinate to him and all men. As she tries to parse what freedom actually means for a Black woman, Libertie struggles with where she might find it—for herself and for generations to come.

Inspired by the life of one of the first Black female doctors in the United States and rich with historical detail, Kaitlyn Greenidge’s new and immersive novel will resonate with readers eager to understand our present through a deep, moving, and lyrical dive into our past.

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Review

Read: June 2021

Rating: 3 stars out of 5

Spoiler warning!

Over the last few months, I’ve been on a journey to diversify my shelves, so I sought out some recommendations from lists on the web. Libertie was suggested to me by Taiwo Balogun’s article in Marie Claire about new books from Black authors this year. The themes of colorism, racism, and feminism appealed to me – plus, that cover is beautiful.

It’s not that there are no good things about this book. Greenidge has a truly entrancing writing style. Her prose flows and illustrates in a way that hooks readers and transports them into Libertie’s world. Considering that Libertie is supposed to have a penchant for the arts, this writing style completely fits with Libertie’s character. Greenidge also offers some insightful commentary on colorism, colonialism, gender, and racism through the eyes of a Black woman. The discrimination Libertie endures differs starkly from that faced by her mother Catherine, because Catherine possesses a light skin tone. While her mother’s light skin allowed her to slip into a prestigious academic program and establish herself as a gifted pupil before the racist assholes who ran the school discovered she was Black, Libertie’s dark skin earns her nicknames (sometimes meant endearingly, sometimes not), expressions of disappointment (“It’s too bad she inherited her father’s color”), and admonishments (very often from other Black people). After her marriage, Libertie finds that her Christian, wealthy, Black American in-laws harbor deep prejudices against the Black, pagan, and considerably darker-skinned people of Haiti – beliefs that eventually strain Libertie’s marriage itself. Libertie’s experiences remind readers that even though White people certainly bear responsibility for systemic racism and historically were/are the worst perpetrators of colonialism, racial, cultural, and color-based discrimination against people of color is not limited solely to White people. After treating survivors of the New York City draft and race riot of 1863, Libertie finds that she cannot reconcile Catherine’s post-war service of White patients, and that she is – understandably – outraged with the horrible way White patients treat her because of her skin color; lighter-skinned Catherine, while still treated as unequal by her White patients, is more accepted. Following her marriage, Libertie finds that her Christian, wealthy, Black American in-laws harbor deep prejudices against the Black, pagan, and considerably darker-skinned people of Haiti – beliefs that eventually strain Libertie’s marriage itself. Libertie’s experiences remind readers that even though White people certainly bear responsibility for systemic racism and historically were/are the worst perpetrators of colonialism, racial, cultural, and color-based discrimination against people of color is not limited solely to White people.

For all of those terrible and fascinating insights, I felt like this book dragged on longer than necessary. Although I liked Libertie’s character in the beginning of the novel, she began to truly irritate me about halfway through. I understand how the prejudices she has suffered have shaped her life and have forced her into difficult or ridiculous decisions, but sometimes Libertie is just flat-out foolish. Her choice to marry Emmanuel and buzz off to Haiti rather than confess her academic failure to her mother is immature and extremely frustrating. Perhaps my annoyance stems from ignorance of the experiences of a Black woman in the Reconstruction era – something I will never truly be able to completely understand, no matter how many books I read or documentaries I watch. The solutions seemed so very obvious to me sometimes, but then again, I am a White woman living a hundred fifty years after the events of the book with many more options and privileges than Libertie ever would have had in her time period. It would be much more difficult for a woman to leave her husband in 1870 than it is now, and I don’t have to consider my skin color when seeking out transportation or work – all things Libertie has to worry about.

Still, I think Greenidge would have done better to have narrated through multiple viewpoint characters rather than just focusing the story on Libertie. Catherine briefly is a viewpoint narrator of sorts, but only through her letters. Louisa, Experience, Ella, and Ti Me never have viewpoint chapters. All of these women have different knowledges of the Black experience, and all that they added to the story as Greenidge wrote it could have been amplified and expanded by making at least some of them viewpoint characters. Narration from the viewpoint of Louisa or Experience would have painted a more vivid picture of what it meant to be a queer Black woman during that time period. Ella’s viewpoint would have highlighted the suffering her brother and father inflicted upon her by convincing her that she saw nothing of the sexual assault(s) her father committed. Ti Me, too, would have been better and more poignantly able to explain what it was like to be nurse to kids less than ten years her juniors. And of course, Catherine would have had much to share about her unique position as a Black woman physician. On its own, Libertie’s story tends to meander and lag, to take too long to reach its points.

I don’t know. Maybe my problem is that historical fiction isn’t usually my thing. If historical fiction is your thing, please don’t be discouraged from reading Libertie. This book has a lot to offer, even if it isn’t quite for me.

Review: A Climate for Death

Image from Barnes and Noble
Image from BarnesandNoble.com

Synopsis

A thousand miles off course, a private plane grazes a historic lighthouse and crashes on a snow-covered precipice a hundred feet above Lake Superior. There’s a dead pilot on board, but three VIP passengers are missing. The FBI, NTSB and others head to the crash site in remote Lake County, Minnesota, where the locals are dealing with one of the coldest winters on record.

A deadly snowmobile accident, an upstart candidate for Congress, and alarming discoveries in Isle Royale National Park add to the challenges confronting local sheriff Sam MacDonald as the solitude of the North Shore is disrupted by events that could have national and international repercussions. The weather is just one of the circumstances that create a climate for death.

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Review

Read: June 2021

Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5

At this point, I’ve become familiar with reviewing a book that I badly wanted to like but ended up having to force myself through. The disappointment is especially strong when someone offers you their work to review because I feel disappointment on their behalf too, I think. But an honest review is warranted, and so honest I shall be.

If A Climate for Death were adapted as a movie or a series, I honestly would watch it. A murder mystery? And it’s set in the Great Lakes? Sounds good. I know that sounds contradictory to what I just said, but I’ll explain. The plot of this book is its strong point. The concept for A Climate for Death isn’t bad at all, and Lund generally has a firm grasp on how he wants the plot to play out. The motives for the murders are wild, but I’ve watched enough Dateline and listened to enough My Favorite Murder to know that people are fucking crazy and do insane things for insane reasons. Lund even goes so far as to openly address this via Hinton, albeit regarding an incorrectly named suspect:

“That’s because you’re trying to attribute rational thoughts and motives to an irrational, desperate man.”

My most prominent stumbling blocks were Lund’s writing style and characterization. Lund loves to infodump, and he loves to do it in the worst possible way. He doesn’t just spout relevant information in unwieldy lumps: He tells you all the shit you don’t need to know and probably won’t care about. No, Lund, I do not need to know the alma mater of every character who ever appears on your pages. I don’t need to be told that the wife of the lighthouse keeper is beautiful and intelligent when she only appears on like five pages. I certainly don’t need to know the fucking life story of the guy from whom Redman purchases his new car. It’s almost like when Lund introduces his characters or paints their backgrounds, he just copies his notes on their biographical profiles into paragraph form. This has the unfortunate effect of making the reader feel less like they’re reading a novel and more like they’re reading an entire wiki about the novel. Yes, details are important to illustrate characters, but for shit’s sake, please skip the biography of each Tim, Terrance, and Kathy who so much as farts on-page.

Lund also has this weird habit of throwing in a detail that is completely out of left field and just… never mentioning it again. For instance, in the beginning of the book, an exhausted Sheriff MacDonald is asleep at his desk, and his coworkers/employees wake him up and brief him on their findings. When his detective asks if he’s paying attention, we get this insight into MacDonald’s dream:

MacDonald had been watching his six-year-old daughter practice a dance routine at the Little Gym in Falls Church, Virginia. His first wife and their daughter had been decapitated when her car slid under a braking semi-trailer during a snowstorm in McLean in January of 2013.

I understand how this horrific incident could really shape a character’s life, but MacDonald doesn’t expand upon that. This is a particularly gruesome and traumatic event to just toss out to the readers like some kind of morbid steak and then never touch again beyond MacDonald having a couple of bad dreams or vague memories. I don’t even think the wife and daughter were ever named (but maybe my memory is fuzzy on that matter). Speaking of weird, an odd number of characters are involved in relationships with huge age gaps. I know (adult) people sometimes find love with someone significantly older than themselves, but it’s a tad strange when most of the couples have an age gap of eleven years or more.

The writing style is largely responsible for this book’s other major flaw: characterization. The Wikipedia article-type exposition Lund employed – Lund’s preference for telling instead of showing – failed to connect me with the characters. Near the end of the book, Hallie, MacDonald’s second wife (not the one who got decapitated), announces that she’s pregnant. And I just don’t care. If the characterization were better, I would have squeaked with joy for Hallie and Mac. The strongest emotional response I can muster up is the halfhearted, perfunctory “oh good for them” that I’d typically associate with learning that a cousin’s cousin’s cousin was expecting. I guess I kind of like Redman, but that’s mostly because he adopted a dog shortly before he’s introduced in the book. Liz, Jenny, Jeronimas are intriguing, but in a distant sort of way. Everyone in this book has the potential to be much more interesting than they are in the book.

While A Climate for Death definitely didn’t tickle me right, it has a strong plot. (Bonus: It’s also pretty cool to hear a sexagenarian bash a thinly-veiled stand-in for Donald Trump, support liberal policies, cheer on a gay trans couple, and use the phrase “sat his privileged fat ass.”) With a little work on his delivery and his characterization, Lund could blossom into a truly powerful novelist.

Disclaimer: I won this book in a giveaway in exchange for an honest review.

Spoiler-Light Review: Rule of Wolves (Nikolai Duology, #2; Grishaverse, #7)

Image from Barnes and Noble website.

Synopsis

The wolves are circling and a young king will face his greatest challenge in the explosive finale of the instant #1 New York Times–bestselling King of Scars Duology.

The Demon King. As Fjerda’s massive army prepares to invade, Nikolai Lantsov will summon every bit of his ingenuity and charm—and even the monster within—to win this fight. But a dark threat looms that cannot be defeated by a young king’s gift for the impossible.

The Stormwitch. Zoya Nazyalensky has lost too much to war. She saw her mentor die and her worst enemy resurrected, and she refuses to bury another friend. Now duty demands she embrace her powers to become the weapon her country needs. No matter the cost.

The Queen of Mourning. Deep undercover, Nina Zenik risks discovery and death as she wages war on Fjerda from inside its capital. But her desire for revenge may cost her country its chance at freedom and Nina the chance to heal her grieving heart.

King. General. Spy. Together they must find a way to forge a future in the darkness. Or watch a nation fall.

Barnes and Noble

Review (Spoiler-Light Version)

Read: May 2021

Rating: 5 stars out of 5!

Spoiler warning: This review will contain spoilers for all preceding Grishaverse books (Grisha Trilogy, Six of Crows Duology, King of Scars, and possibly even The Language of Thorns). I’ll try to be circumspect about the precise events of Rule of Wolves, but there will be mild spoilers for this book.

Spoiler version: Coming soon!

Two years of waiting have rewarded me with this enthralling, suspenseful, fulfilling masterpiece. Between finishing re-reading Six of Crows (via audiobook with my mother and sister) and reading Rule of Wolves, I’m reminded exactly why I love Leigh Bardugo’s stories so damn much.

This book is emotional. Be prepared for a hurricane of feelings. Be prepared to squeal with joy, and be prepared to sob. I don’t often cry over book character deaths, but the death in this book tore me apart. Yet, in love and friendship, there is still happiness to be found. This is especially true for fans of the canon ships. If you’re a diehard Kanej shipper like I am, even the brief allusions to their relationship will thrill you. And needless to say, the Zoyalai moments are smoldering, even without sex scenes. Bardugo has crafted an excellent romance in which she captures the intimacy between Zoya and Nikolai without much physical contact. Nina’s romance with Hanne, too, is natural, especially given how Bardugo balances Nina’s growing feelings for Hanne with her love for her deceased partner, Matthias.

Leigh Bardugo is skilled at handling multiple plot threads and bringing them together in a cohesive climax – which is fitting, because Rule of Wolves is, as I interpret it, meant to be a quasi-finale of the Grishaverse. (Bardugo has stated that this is a “farewell for now,” although she plans to return to the Grishaverse later.) While Nikolai and Zoya are in Ravka and Kerch preparing for war with Fjerda, Nina is also preparing for war from within Fjerda itself, and Mayu, Ehri, and Tamar head off to Shu Han to extirpate the kherguud. And all of it makes sense. The resolutions to our heroes many, many challenges are realistic and believable.

Rule of Wolves is one of those books in which you should pay very close attention to detail if you want a chance at correctly inferring any of the plot twists. I repeatedly would flip back through the book to refresh myself on details – partially because I’m a pedantic sucker for detail and partially because I wanted to formulate my best guess as to what would happen next. Everything is used – and there’s a lot of material to incorporate. Politicking! Magic! Spying! Mini-heists! War! Slow-burn romances! It’s all here, and Bardugo doesn’t waste a single scrap of it. If you haven’t read Rule of Wolves yet – or any of the rest of the Grishaverse, for that matter – you’re cheating yourself worse than Kaz cheats Pekka Rollins and Nikolai cheats death.

June 2021 Update

Hello again, and thanks for visiting!

Sooo last month I’d planned to post more often, but my final paper got in the way. The good news: That paper is out of the way now.

And the even better news:

I FINISHED MY DEGREE. I’M GRADUATING!

I’m both excited and anxious to begin my searches for jobs and remote master’s programs, but honestly, after the last year of school, one thing I’ve been very much anticipating is reading whatever the fuck I want. I’ve been doing just that, and you will be hearing about those books here on this blog.

Blog Announcements

As I announced in last month’s update, I am planning to renovate this blog – give it a little facelift. Now that I have more time on my hands, those renovations are getting underway. Again, you will see some changes on the Book Hawk, but bear with me while I straighten everything out.

For books that I thoroughly enjoy and therefore want more people to read, I’ve been trying to keep my reviews light on spoilers. Limiting spoilers, however, can curtail the material that I can discuss; it leaves me feeling constrained. Hence, I’ve settled on a compromise: For select books, I will post two versions of my review – one light on spoilers and one loaded with them. That way, you, my reader, can take your pick of how much you want divulged about a book, and I can cover the topics that I think need to be addressed. Please note that I will be incorporating the spoiler-light review into the spoiler review. (I’m not going to write a whole new review for the same book.)

Upcoming Reviews

Priority Content

  • Rule of Wolves (spoiler-light version): I promised you guys this one last month.
  • Libertie: I just finished the audiobook.
  • The Burning Blue: This nonfiction account of the Challenger disaster of 1986 was my first physical ARC won from a Goodreads giveaway.
  • Truthwitch: In preparation for the release of the next book in one of my favorite series ever, I am rereading Truthwitch, Windwitch, and Bloodwitch.

Tentative Additional Content (or The Stuff I’ll Get To If I Have the Time)

  • Rule of Wolves (spoiler version): I already have this review in the works.
  • A Climate for Death: I really wanted to love this Great Lakes-based thriller/mystery, but I can’t say I’m terribly impressed.
  • Windwitch and Bloodwitch: Whether or not these are reviewed this month will depend on how fast I read.
  • The Lost Apothecary: C’mon. I finished this two months ago.

And now, without further ado, I present to you my review of Rule of Wolves.