The Blacksmith Queen by G.A. Aiken

Have you ever read a book where you just could not decide if it was for you or not? Then it won you over right there at the very end? That’s how it was reading The Blacksmith Queen.

This book is about a woman named Keeley who is prophecized to become the new queen after the Old King’s death. To make it brief the Old King has died and his bloodthirsty sons are killing each other off to claim the throne. Keeley and her sister are both prophecized as the potential queens. In a wild twist of event Keeley’s sister turns against her and Keeley is faced with battling not only the King’s sons but her bloodthirsty kin.

I have got to say that this book is a little cheesy and I had a hard time getting through it. The main character, Keeley, her last name is Smythe, can you guess what she does for a living? Yes, she’s a blacksmith, hence The Blacksmith Queen. If that doesn’t make you cringe just a little her father’s last name is Farmerson, and yes, he is a farmer. The names in this book were not everything that made it cheesy, there is campy humor spread throughout the books and sometimes the dialogue is a bit off-putting. Here is an example between Keeley and a centaur named Quinn about a horse who’s offspring was killed in a previous battle.

Quinn studied the gray mare and the saddle on her back. “If she’s not your horse, then what is she?”

“A mother looking for justice.”

I just thought this was a little over the top and reminded me of a really bad action movie. I pictured Tom Cruise holding patting the horse while dramatically proclaiming the horse’s desire for revenge.

There’s also an awkward sex scene that I found off-putting. I honestly really don’t want to go into it, here is a weird quote from a romantic gesture between the two. Sorry, it might be a small spoiler so if you’re interested in the “mysterious” love arc to skip this quote and the following paragraph.

A hand pressed against his hindquarter and he recognized Keeley’s touch.

Yes… the romance is between Keeley and a centaur. It’s a little strange but also pretty cute. I am not going to hate on the love story, it felt a little awkward to me but maybe that’s just the way I interpreted it.

Okay now that I have gotten that off of my chest let’s move on to what endeared me to this story. The characters are badass. Keeley is awesome, her sister Gemma is stone cold, and their cousin Keran is a drunken disaster that I enjoyed every second of. This book is extremely explicit when it comes to the battle sequences, punches are not held and there will likely be scenes that turn your stomach a little.

Keeley is such an interesting character. She loves her family above all and is capable of making friends with the strangest of beings and animals. This includes demon wolves, a vengeful mare, and grumpy centaurs. Her ability to be likable while also being stubborn and flawed made her feel very well rounded and interesting. She is the kind of character you want to win because she doesn’t want the power she just wants to help those she cares about.

I struggled to read this book in the beginning and I don’t want that to deter anyone because it gets better. The cheesiness and oftentimes awkward dialogue are worth it because the characters are loveable and the plot is quite interesting.

I was originally going to give this book 3/5 stars but after reading the ending and doing some reflection I have deemed it worthy of 4/5 stars. This book captured my attention and with the flaws taken with a grain of salt, it is quite funny and ambitious. It seems that this is the debut of a series and I look forward to the next installment.

As always thank you to NetGalley and a big thank you to and Kensington Books for giving me access to this book.

Topside by J.N. Monk

Imagine living your whole life not knowing what the world outside is like? Then imagine that you royally messed up and you have to go outside to fix your mistake! In short, that is what Topside is about. Jo, a young maintenance technician makes a mistake that destabilizes her planets core and must go on an adventure to find Oblexium, the only substance that can fix her error. Jo comes face to face with a scam artist, a shapeshifter, and pair of bounty hunters in the form of a shark in a dress and a sentient lightbulb. Jo’s adventure gets complicated when agents from the interior, her home, start pursuing her with the thought that she has been abducted.

What I most enjoyed about Topside is that Jo finds friends in the most unlikely of places. Funnily enough, she stumbles upon these friends due to her likeability and sheer ignorance of the world beyond the interior. Monk creates a world of danger but also of acceptance. Jo, while skeptical, accepts these odd people around her for who they are and forms an interesting little gang of friends. I thought that it had a really good message for a kid’s graphic novel.

Also, Jo is an interesting and fun protagonist. She has this aura of exhaustion from the constant work, but she also has an enthusiasm that makes her enjoyable. The balance for this character is very good and it made me care for her. She is honestly just trying her hardest to fix her mistake and help her family move up in the world. She is an underdog and I liked her.

The pacing in this graphic novel, while quick, feels perfect for the target audience. It moves quickly enough to hold kids attention while also having enough detail for an adult to enjoy. One minute your following Jo as she wanders through an apocalyptic style town the next your in hot pursuit following the interior agents, it really holds your attention.

Something unique about Topside that I particularly enjoyed was the not so antagonistic antagonist. He is just a guy forced to do a job he doesn’t want to do, and he is forced to jump through a bunch of ridiculous bureaucratic hoops. He’s comical and seems to embody the tedious nature of office work and adulthood. I don’t hate him and I think that there should be more “bad guys” like him in children’s books.

I also want to praise Harry Bogosian’s illustrations in Topside, they are gorgeous. Jo’s appearance reminds me a little of Steven Universe, I’ve mentioned that show before and honestly I’ve only seen a few episodes, I think it’s great.

I give Topside a 5/5, I was really charmed by this one. As always thank you to NetGalley and also a thank you to Lerner Publishing Group, without them this review wouldn’t be possible.

Voyages In The Underworld Of Orpheus Black by Marcus and Julian Sedgwick

One detail left out of the original tale of Orpheus is that he is reincarnated over and over, at least in this novel he is. In Voyages (shortened for my sanity) we follow an artist named Harry Black who is a conscientious objector to World War II. Through his “cowardly” choice to not paricipate in the war effort he loses the affection of his brother and father, thus sending him on a path of redemption aimed at his brother. Harry yearns to rekindle the friendship he had with his brother prior to the war, and he wants to create an illustrated book with his brother as the writer. When asked about the book Harry says, “I want to do a big illustrated book, with words and images combined; make a kind of warning. About how we’re just going to become more efficient at killing each other unless we work out how to develop our better selves.” I found this explanation very self aware because that is exactly what Voyages does. But, soon after, disaster strikes and the pub where Harry’s brother Ellis was drinking is bombed by the Germans, and Harry is sent on the search of his life to recover Ellis at all costs, Harry knows that his brother has to have lived.

Voyages is an interesting mixture of fiction and poetry, often swirling together and creating a lyrical tale that meanders down a sad path of loneliness. I am not what I would call a poetry expert nor enthusiast but I found the poetic aspects to be very beautiful. It sung its way through this story and really turned it into a piece of artwork. While on the topic of artwork, the pieces of illustration that I had access to in this ARC, while limited, were beautiful. Alexis Deacon did an amazing job of brinigng Voyages to life. The illustrations depict a world similiar but not entirely our own, a mirror of what our world looks like but with an almost sinister twist. Every illustration filled me with anxiety but also wonder.

Something that really caught my attention was the ever looming presence of Orpheus. He is constantly near by, playing the fiddle or infecting the town with his music. You can expect to see a reference of him around every corner. His music haunts Harry as he recognizes it but can’t place where he has heard it. This detail gave me something familiar in an unfamiliar setting, I had a detail to orient myself by.

My only real bone to pick with this book is that it is extremely slow paced and a bit difficult to get through. I believe I have had access to this book since May or June and I am just now finishing it. It’s not that this book is uninteresting it just didn’t captivate me like other novels, and like I previously stated I’m not really one for poetry, which is a personal issue but an issue none-the-less. This book took too long to develop and by the time you get to the interesting pieces you’re a little bit lost and it starts making less sense. I was also a little bit lost on the ending, I had a hard time understanding who was alive and who was dead, that made it hard for me to feel any kind of satisfaction.

I give Voyages a 3/5 stars, while truly beautiful it had some flaws that were hard for me to forgive. If you love poetry and a good mythological retelling I urge you to give Voyages a try.

Thank you to NetGalley for allowing me access to this book and thank you to Candlewick Press for granting me permission to read and review Voyages.

The Weight Of A Soul by Elizabeth Tammi

How far would you go to save your sister? Would you kill a stranger? A friend? In Tammi’s novel The Weight Of A Soul Fressa is faced with those questions when her sister mysteriously winds up dead in the forest by her village. Set in the times of vikings we are thrown into a plot that is ever more complicated due to the mysterious Norse gods that Fressa meets along her journey.

Fressa is given the near impossible task to find a soul that weighs the same as her sister’s so that Hela can retrieve her from Valhalla. Time is running out as Fressa’s parents, the aloof chief and chieftess of the village pressure Fressa to marry her sister;s betrothed. Fressa struggles with the loss of her sister and the fear of betraying her love,

I struggled deciding how I was going to rate this novel. I will be honest the pacing is very slow and it was not the grand adventure I expected. Almost the entirety of the novel takes place in the small village where Fressa lives. To me it was a little bit boring to stay in the same place for so long, the same setting played over and over. For a fantasy novel to really stick out the setting has to be unique in some way, I didn’t feel a particular draw to the landscape. I kept waiting for this novel to take me to places I had never seen, and the one place it does take you to is seriously lacking in the detail department. So that was a little disappointing.

Something Tammi handles really well is grief. When Fressa finds her sister dead you can feel the Earth shattering pain that Fressa feels and you can see her depression thicken around her like a cloud. This is important because it helps us to understand Fressa’s descent as a human, she becomes a cold-hearted killer. She sinks low and is constantly trying to work out who is worthy to take her sister’s place in Valhalla, strangers become enemies and friends become potential victims. Everywhere Fressa turns a deadline is looming and her desperation grows.

In my head I went back and forth about whether I thought that the Norse mythology was used effectively or not. The gods play an important role in this novel and the symbolism is outstanding, but to me the gods themselves felt a little flat. Most history/mythology buffs know who Hela, Loki, and Odin are so I can understand why Tammi may have lightened their character development, but to me they came off as uninteresting. I was very excited for the mythological angle, but it left me wanting.

As I dug through this novel I was constantly debating with myself over whether this book is a 4 star rating or not, and the ending almost convinced me. The ending really wraps the story together and gives it a warm feeling, but it was also a little bit predictable. I absolutely did not dislike this novel, in fact it was quite good, but it had some boxes that needed filling to satisfy my reading expectations and it didn’t do that.

This book is a solid 3/5 stars. If there was a continuation of some kind I would read it out of curiosity, but I won’t be adding it to the top of my TBR pile.

The Lure of The Ring by Alan James Strachen and Janet Coster

This book is different than what I usually review, but as a Tolkien fan I was drawn into the exploration of who Tom Bombadil truly is.

This book is a theoretical idea speculating about who Tom Bombadil is and how Sauron’s desire for the ring was like an addiction. I can tell that a lot of research went into this publication and I found it fascinating.

The first point that I found interesting was their comparison of Sauron to a Hungry Ghost in Bhuddism. He is like an emaciated creature who’s only desire is possession of the ring but his appetite can never be quenched. I found this to be a good comparison because it really delves into who Sauron is at the core. Tolkien leaves a lot to speculation and I think it is important for Tolkien enthusiasts to dig into the motivations and habits of each character. It gave me a different view of Sauron and sort of makes me pity him.

Creeping past Sauron we entered what I was truly curious about, Tom Bombadil. If you don’t know who he is it’s probably because he isn’t in the Peter Jackson movie. He is a mysterious being in the books, and no one can really define who he is. But this book speculates, and the hypothesis makes a lot of sense. The authors wrote that we can envision Tom Bombadil as the antithesis to Sauron, and I thought that was clever.

They also offer up two different definitions for who Tom Bombadil could be. They state,

“Tom has answered Frodo’s “Who are you?” question in two ways: In terms of identity, Tom’s true name is silence. Simultaneously, in relationship to Frodo – and , indeed , to all others – we shall see that he is called Eldest.”

This is a good representation of his character because it is not an easy answer, if that makes sense. Tom Bombadil is complex and one answer would never work. He is the silence you experience when you are just being, and he is the Eldest because he watched Middle Earth become what it is. He takes two forms and only one being corporeal. We can’t fathom who he is because he is unfathomable.

My issue with this particular book is that it is extremely repetitive and unnecessarily wordy. It’s already a short read but could be quite shorter. Old points are brought up again and again, then sentences are reworded three different ways. Not only was that kind of annoying but it caused me to lose interest. It took me a little over an hour to read and probably could take less if points weren’t constantly reiterated.

All in all, the speculation is great, but the execution could be better. I give The Lure of The Ring 3/5 stars.

Thank you to NetGalley and BooksGoSocial for allowing me to access this content. An extra thank you to BooksGoSocial for giving me my first Auto Approval!

Crown Of Coral And Pearl by Mara Rutherford

In Varenia beauty is everything. Beauty is honor, esteem, and escape. Or at least Nor believed it was for her entire childhood, until a series of unexpected events lead her to the land of Ilara to marry Prince Ceren.

In Crown of Coral and Pearl we are introduced to twin sisters Zadie and Nor, their entire lives have revolved around an archaic ceremony where the most beautiful girl in Varenia is chosen to be the wife of the Prince of Ilara. Nor, the main character, was left with a scar on her cheek due to an accident when she was younger leaving her identical twin sister to be chosen as the next Ilarean Princess, but tragedy strikes and Nor is forced to take Zadie’s place in secret. But, there are secrets lurking below the surface of the Ilarean castle and Nor is determined to uncover them for the sake of the starving Varenian people.

Crown of Coral and Pearl nails its characters. The good guys are people you want to root for and the bad guys will fill you with rage. I was particularly intrigued by the antagonists, specifically Nor’s mother and Prince Ceren. Nor’s mother hurt me to my core, her mother is so obsessed with the idea of her daughters being chosen that she dictates their entire lives and even goes so far as to call Nor damaged. One quote really got me, her mother tells her, “Without your beauty, you are nothing.” I found that line to be so unforgivable that I just wanted the mom to die. Such a terrible thing to say to your own child. Mara Rutherford’s character building is so convincing, I really hated the antagonists. Prince Ceren is also just the worst. He gets off on making people uncomfortable and is abusive in every way imaginable. I couldn’t stand the idea of a character like him existing.

The world building is also enjoyable while relatively small scale. This is not Westeros, so it does not contain the overly complex map that you never want to look at, it’s easy to follow and I liked that. While simple, it does not come off as under developed. The land is rich with a history to follow. The contrast of tropical Varenia and the Ilarean castle embedded in the mountain makes an interesting plot point. Nor’s constant yearning to be by the ocean and in the sun really makes you feel for her. Watching her descent into an entirely different landscape is suffocating and you suffer alongside her.

The magical elements in this book are subtle. You will find magic used in very strategic ways, for me it was a pleasant surprise. Traditional aspects of fantasy are buried in this novel, such as monsters and special gifts, but they don’t steal the spotlight from the storyline. The backseat approach to magic was a refreshing change in my opinion.

The book has a lot of good lessons to teach. It focuses on the beauty within and one section really embraces that idea, “I felt the eyes of every woman as I passed, and I reminded myself that I was doing this for them, and for every young girl in Varenia who would spend her life wondering if she was beautiful enough.” This quote stuck with me, most girls go through a self conscious phase wondering if they are beautiful enough to be loved. This idea really added a layer to Nor that made her relatable, she is so different from the girls in our world, but still very much the same. Nor is tough and she fights for those who have been stepped all over, I love that about this character. She is rough in all the right places but she isn’t annoyingly tough. She knows her strengths and limitation and will use them to make a difference in the world.

Another point that really hit home is that, above all else, family and love are what matter most in this world. “Home was not a house, or a village, or a sea. It was family, and love, and the space where your soul could roost, like a seabird safe from a storm.”

If you ask me this book has a well rounded story and complexities to make it unique within th YA genre. It truly stood out to me and I think Crown of Coral and Pearl will make an impact on its readers. 5/5 stars for this one.

Crown of Coral and Pearl will be released on August 27th, 2019. Thank you to NetGalley and Harlequin Teen for allowing me access to this book.

Kingdom Cold by Brittni Chenelle

Love, war, and tragedy are the three words that come to mind when I think about Kingdom Cold. I felt so much while reading this book and I was surprised by its ability to captivate me. I’m a sucker for a good romance and I was not disappointed, Chenelle crafts a reluctant but beautiful love story that had me on the edge of my seat the entire time.

It starts with a simple desire: freedom to choose. ““I won’t say ‘I do’,” I said, locking my knees to keep them from shaking . Marriage? Even the word repulsed me. It sat at the back of my throat and I choked on it.” Charlotte, the princess of Besmium and main protagonist, is a rebellious girl with the simple wish to get married on her own terms. Besmium is facing a brutal war and the promise of a marriage between Princess Charlotte and Prince Young could unite the East and West to save the kingdom of Besmium. But through tangle after tangle the love story deepens winding in and out of characters until they must face an even more powerful enemy than they ever imagined. Death lurks at their doorstep and they must think quickly to save everything they love.

What I love about this book is the depth of each character. Everyone has wants and their own motives that make them unique. There is a rich history, that while it doesn’t delve super deep it feels well rounded and complete. Every single character down to the smallest of servant has their own special personality, there are no cardboard cutout characters. My all-time favorite is Charlotte herself, she reminds me of Celaena from Throne of Glass. She takes her fate into her own hands and makes the absolute best of each situation. She’s analytical and blossoms into a full blown badass who isn’t afraid to get blood on her royal hands. She is not a damsel, she is a warrior in her own rite. She is not afraid to speak her mind and no man is her master. Her fate is her fate alone.

The antagonists are done so authentically, even minor antagonists like Charlotte’s mother. While not intending to be evil and cruel, the queen is brutal and horrible to her daughter. Charlotte’s hatred for her mother feels real and justified. Charlotte is not just a silly teen girl that is irritated with her mother, she is full on verbally abused by the queen. It’s so satisfying watching Charlotte defy her mother at every turn. While the queen isn’t the main antagonist, I felt so empowered everytime her plans were foiled.

This story has so many layers and felt like a roller coaster ride. My only quarrel with this book is that it felt like it was written as a standalone and changed towards the end to make it span a few more books. The plot would heighten and dip making me feel like it had three different stopping points. I will say that I am glad that this series is going to be three parts because I really enjoyed the story and characters. I was angry when I read the ending but with a promise of continuation in the acknowledgements my anger was quelled. I need to know more and I refuse to be left with the ending presented.

I give Kingdom Cold a 4/5 stars. This book surprised me and has a love story that I won’t soon forget. I will be looking forward to reading the next installment.

Small Spaces by Katherine Arden

I never expected a middle grade book to scare me the way Small Spaces did. Katherine Arden, author of The Bear and the Nightingale, has crafted a wonderfully creep scary story that surprised me on each page.

In this book we follow Ollie, a super smart sixth grader, who is struggling with the loss of her mother the year prior. Ollie’s adventure begins when she runs into a crying woman by the creek, this woman has a book and is going to throw it in the water. Ollie ends up stealing the book and going home to read it. The book is an old scary story, but nothing is as it seems when Ollie goes on a field trip to Webster farm and discovers that the books she stole could possibly be related to scarecrow infested farm. On the way home the bus breaks down and she is warned by her terrifying bus driver that there are monsters in the mist and they are coming to get the kids. Ollie sets off with two friends to uncover what’s out there and to save their class.

Small Spaces builds tension in a way that makes you simultaneously afraid to turn the page but excited to. This constant sense of dread propels you forward in this downward spiral of fear. You know the horror is coming yet you keep going and when it fianlly unfolds in front of you a tingle will snake its way down your spine. I never knew that I was afraid of scarecrows until I read this book, the fact that they are around every corner and moving when they’re out of sight really creeped me out. Imagine that the monster trying to get you moved when you aren’t looking and can show up at any second.

The setting in Small Spaces is suffocating, but not in a bad way. You fly through the dark deserted woods and then into cramped farm houses, the book is littered with claustrophobia to really get your heart pumping. The imagery of where you are really shines through, I could see myself standing in the woods or carefully walking across rotten bridges. The story includes you in every step and you never feel like an outsider peeking in.

We are left with very clear descriptions of the horrors that stand before Ollie, one instance that really made me anxious was a description of the bus driver. Arden writes, “This time the driver turned to face her. Ollie got a terrible shock. His eyes had turned white, white as an egg, pupil-less. He might have been blind except he was definitely looking at her. His teeth were perfectly white too, sharp against red lips.” I found this so frightening because the contrast of white against red is so vibrant, and when most people think about bus drivers they don’t think of pupil-less hell demons. Arden takes the mundane everyday people and places and turns them into horrifying mechanisms to push the story onward.

A detail about this story that I enjoyed was Ollie’s watch. Her watch was dead prior to this field trip, only a memento of the past, but beyond the mist of the woods it starts aiding her on her journey to the truth. It tells her where to go and gives her a countdown to nightfall (when the horrors come out to play), and it added to the mystery of the story. The watch gives Ollie’s history depth and makes you want to learn more about her. The twist about the watch is a tad predictable but heart warming none the less.

My only squabble with Small Spaces is that it is a little bit predictable. No one is who they seem but they do stick to common character tropes that litter horror stories. You can mostly see where the books is heading and the ending, while different, still fits the typical scary story model. It resolves too perfectly in my opinion.

I give Small Spaces a 4/5 stars because it is a fantastic middle grade horror story with depth and fear inducing scenes. I knocked off a star for predictability only.

I just want to thank Netgalley for the opportunity to read the free uncorrected copy of this book for my blog.

Be sure to check out Small Spaces by Katherine Arden and keep your eyes peeled for the next book in the series titled Dead Voices expected to release on August 27th, 2019.

Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker

Unique and cute as can be, Mooncakes is unlike any other graphic novel that I have read so far. The story is different and the illustrations are fun and colorful. This graphic novel definitely kept me entertained throughout with its simple story line and fantastical creatures.

In Mooncakes we follow Nova, a young and budding witch, and Tam a werewolf with undiscovered magical talent. Nova and Tam embark on an adventure to banish the demon in the woods behind Nova’s house, while also discovering their feelings for each other. This story is filled with quirky characters like Nova’s pigeon headed uncle and her sassy but wonderful grandmas. This graphic novel is sure to make you smile and feel fuzzy inside.

My favorite character is Tatyana, Nova’s best friend and science nerd. She brings a lot of humor to the story and I enjoyed viewing her paralleled views of science versus magic. Her constant desire to understand and her unending frustration with the “physics” of magic made me fond of her. As a character she felt well rounded and interesting. She reminded me of one of my childhood friends and that familiarity really endeared me to her.

Weirdly enough I did not feel the same connection to Nova or Tam even though they were the main characters. To me it felt like they took a back seat to the quirkier secondary characters, who were so well crafted. The grandma’s were also so unique and in my opinion were more interesting than Nova and Tam. I feel like I would have enjoyed their love story far more. Nova and Tam just felt like a regular teen romance with angst and a small side of secrecy. It just did not feel as original as I wanted it to. With Tam being non-binary and Nova being bisexual ( I believe this is the proper interpretation though I may be incorrect) I thought going in that the dynamic would feel unique and impactful, it didn’t. It seems their relationship was composed entirely of the same typical young adult romance tropes as any other YA novel. To me the characters just felt a little hollow.

While entertaining and composed of some unique character aspects this story didn’t diverge much from the usual YA plot system. I felt like it was a novel I had read before but with a different skin. I definitely did not hate it because I love YA, but it wouldn’t stand out in a crowd. It felt like it wanted to be like SAGA mixed with Steven Universe but didn’t quite meet the expectations of either. It really needs a characteristic that causes it to stand out from the crowd, some fatal flaw or even just raised stakes. You’re probably thinking, How is battling a demon not high enough stakes? Well in all honesty I didn’t feel any real danger because the grandmas’ are so over powered. I had a hard time envisioning the conflict as true conflict. It was like no matter what everything would be okay in the end. I guess in simple terms, my anxieties as a reader felt coddled.

On the other hand, the illustrations of this graphic novel are excellent. Wendy Xu made this novel absolutely stunning. The woodland spirits and the grandmas’ three cats were so cute. The world created is absolutely beautiful, it’s colorful while not feeling like an acid trip, and it creates a definite autumn weather feel. I could see myself sitting outside in the brisk air of Halloween reading this graphic novel. I am interested to see what else Wendy Xu has illustrated.

In all, I did not love this graphic novel. But, I also do not hate it. I think that if this story is to continue and really focus on Nova and Tam’s character development, my mind could change. There is a lot of potential here and I do not want to judge it too firmly because it was not a bad story, I just think that it could use some expansion. I give Mooncakes 3/5 stars with the strong hope that I get to see more in the future.

The Hunger by Alma Katsu

One of the greatest elements in horror is making you question whether the greatest evil of all comes from within. In Katsu’s The Hunger we are posed with evil from all angles, external and internal. This novel does not make its monsters a secret, we get our fill of bloodthirsty creatures stalking the night, but what it does hide beneath the surface is the secrets and atrocities that the people next to you are capable of committing.

In The Hunger we get to see the Donner Party re imagined as they make their great western trek across America. While most people already know how this story ends, Katsu offers up a different explanation for the Donner’s cannibalistic demise by throwing monsters into the picture. But, this is not your typical hack and slash monster story, it has a depth that was unexpected and truly impressed me. I was left more curious about the evil that lies within human beings than anything.

We follow the party along their journey viewing the events through the lens of many different travelers. The most prominent being Charles Stanton, a lone traveler with a secret, Tamsen Donner the wife to the patriarch and leader George Donner, and James Reed a family man with a fatal flaw. The wagon train is going well until George Donner makes the irrational decision, influenced by the hack Lansford Hastings, to turn away from the Oregon trail and set course through the mostly untamed trail heading toward Weber Canyon with the expectation to take an easier trail through the Wasatch mountains. No such trail existed. Instead they faced hardship after hardship through the Great Salt Lake and meeting their eventual demise in Sierra Nevada Mountains. The unexpected twist is that the party is under near constant surveillance from creature lurking in the trees, the party starts questioning who or what the creatures are and as more of the pioneers disappear or go mad the panic begins.

I have a, probably, unhealthy fascination with the way gore is described in novels, and Katsu does this very well. Nauseatingly well. I have always had an admiration for people who can make my stomach turn just through description, Katsu truly did not let me down. Here’s an example that gave me the creeps, “The head was intact. In fact, if you only looked at the face you wouldn’t think anything was wrong. The boy’s eyes were closed, long brown eyelashes stark against chalk white cheeks. His fine blond hair was plastered against his skull, his tiny mouth closed. He looked peaceful, as though he were sleeping. But from the neck down…” This description is just so fitting of the novel altogether. At first glance it seems like it will be a normal story about pioneers, but underneath it festers with something evil. Another of Katsu’s abilities, is the ability to instill fear. One of her descriptions of the monsters sent a shiver down my spine, she wrote, “His fingers grazed the very end of the rifle stock. Slipped. But the thing had him now, had a mouth around his ankle- Stanton gasped in terror as he saw human eyes, a human nose…” Something about this imagery just paralyzed me. As much as I would like to include a few more sentences from that section I can’t because it would give too much away. Just trust me when I say that this book is freaky.

It is very clear that Katsu dedicated a lot of her time to researching the history for the Donner party so that she could perfectly execute an adjacent story line. She has a familiarity with the history that creates an intimacy between you and the party. It feels like you are peeping in on the hidden lives of the Donner party, non of her creative liberties feels disingenuous or implausible. It inspired me to read up on the historical background of the Donner Party and it is crazy for me to think about the sheer amount of research that she must have put in. A lot the history and people are accurate, it takes the term historical fiction to a new and impressive level. Katsu didn’t just take a moment in history and use it to loosely base a story on, she embedded herself in the history and based her fiction as closely on reality as possible.

I’m a sucker for horror, but I do not believe this made me biased towards this novel. This novel truly deserves any praise that is receives, and for me it is an easy 5/5 stars. I was entertained throughout and had such a hard time putting the book down. Horror novels have a tendency to speed up and slow down as suspense intensifies and wanes, but not The Hunger. The internal and external conflicts are so intense and well written that it is hard to lose interest for even a second.

Teen Titans: Raven by Kami Garcia

Kami Garcia puts a fresh twist on the Raven origin story by throwing Raven into Louisiana to mingle with voodoo and spirits.

We are dropped into the life of Raven just as her soon-to-be adopted mother is killed in an accident. Raven is left without any of her memories and goes to live with her adopted aunt and cousin. Here we see her re-entry into high school while she adjusts to her new life, all while trying to remember who she used to be and also discovering who she is now.

This graphic novel does an excellent job of balancing back story and the self-discovery of who Raven is. Raven’s emotions feel authentic of a teen girl even while she is experiencing her powers for the first time again. Raven as a character is compelling in this story and I was interested to find out where her character was headed, it did not wane it was consistently interesting throughout.

While this is a super hero origin, I was impressed by the amount of normal teenage activity that mixed in with her supernatural abilities. We see Raven make friends, fall in love, and attend prom. The mix was very even and it did not feel like a typical young adult graphic novel. I found that it would be interesting to even the older comic book junkie.

My single issue with this graphic novel was how the dialogue was executed. The thought/speech bubbles changed color to indicate if something was verbal or in Raven’s head. This was a little hard to interpret at first because I was having a hard time discerning who was talking/thinking. After the first couple chapters I adjusted but I did find myself having to reread the beginning to understand exactly what was happening.

One thing that really stood out to me was the art style. The illustrations are gorgeous. The illustrator Gabriel Picolo did a fantastic job making the art style really stand out. The characters were gorgeous and so was the setting. You could really see Louisiana in the illustrations.

I give this graphic novel a 4/5. It was entertaining, the plot felt fresh, and the illustrations were beautiful. Aside from the one hiccup mentioned this graphic novel is amazing.

I was lucky to receive and advance copy from DC comic through NetGalley, so a huge thank you to both of them.

Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

Were you one of those kids that watched Cartoon Network on Saturday mornings? Did you watch it with a bowl of sugary cereal in your hands? Was the cartoon Scooby-Doo? Meddling Kids offers up a plate full of nostalgia for any adult who loved the mystery solving gang, but, Meddling Kids travels into the types of monsters that scare adults. We shed the zany ghosts, pirates, and witches, and pick up the Necronomicon. We join the Blyton Detective Club in Blyton, a small mining town in Oregon.

In Edgar Cantero’s best selling novel you will follow the detectives into haunted houses, monster-filled lakes, and deep mines as they try to discover if the Deboën family was keeping secrets that could explain the salamander-like creatures walking out of Sleepy Lake. The real questions arise when the detectives discover that the whole haunting could have been caused by their own nosy antics. Cantero builds suspense in a satisfying way that never falters. You will find yourself clinging to the seat of your chair and afraid to turn to the next page. Every event leads to bigger questions that you will want to have answered, the stakes are high and you will have a hard time not being invested. Edgar Cantero introduces his monsters in this haunting description:

“ A new sound was slowly rising over Tim’s growls, taking shape like an underground train or the murmuring of an angry mob. A hateful, familiar sound. Although “familiar” could hardly refer to something so alien. It resembled breathing, but it was distorted, tortured, broken. It had qualities that should not be associated with breathing. It was vicious, and jagged, and swarming.”

Cantero has a way of writing that creeps you out and fascinates you at the same time. This novel is sure to live up to the nostalgia of the Saturday morning cartoon.

Meddling Kids doesn’t just delve into the depths of horror, it explores the effects of mental health and trauma. Each living detective has their own issues they must overcome to solve the mystery of the Sleepy Lake monster. You see parallels of The Scooby-Doo crew, but each character in the novel has their own unique traits that make them more than just cardboard cutouts of the cartoon characters. While borderline cheesy, Meddling Kids, incorporates just enough references to the cartoon to make you feel nostalgic but not a cringe-worthy amount of nostalgia overload. Cantero balances the fine line of throwbacks well and creates his own unique story with interesting characters. This book is a must read for any adult with a Scooby-Doo sweet tooth. This novel is the type of story I would be interested in reading as a series to prolong that childhood reminiscence.

While Meddling Kids is a stark reminder of childhood it also incorporates a heavy brushstroke of adulthood. These characters are not the Scooby gang. We do not have an ascot-wearing Fred Jones to lead the gang, there is no damsel in distress like Daphne, and Tim, the dog in the novel, is not a big goofy scaredy cat like Scooby-Doo. The cartoon is a fun mystery cartoon set in the seventies where the bad guy is always a man in a mask. The cartoon sleuths always come out on top and the bad guys end the show with the famous line, “And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids!” In the novel, Meddling Kids they are older and rougher around the edges. A nearly constant stream of profanity flows from their mouths and they have real adult issues. Two characters are escapees from a prison and a mental institute, another is a failed biologist, and their fearless leader committed suicide after a brief and successful stint in Hollywood. The gang is broken and they need each other to pull themselves out of the hole they dug themselves into.

You don’t expect a novel in the vein of Scooby-Doo to be horrifying, but the Lovecraftian monsters and ghoulish figures will surely give you the creeps in a way that you never saw coming. Edgar Cantero mixes humor and horror in a way that keeps the novel interesting and fast-paced. The story has a dark surprise around every corner and will keep you coming back for more, consuming Cantero’s writing at record speed.

This novel is not perfect though. One issue that I have, is the ridiculously long descriptions in the first half of the book. Cantero has a beautiful knack for creating imagery in your head but it tends to drone on to the point of beating a dead horse. He creates sweeping landscapes that make a wonderful setting but they are so thorough that you often forget what was happening in the story. Here is a brief example of a much longer description “Kerri had brought along her binoculars. They were the same ones she used to carry as a child for bird spotting, but they were good binoculars that she treated with care, and they besotted a grown-up. Same went for her magnifying glass and her compass, both artifacts of beautiful craftsmanship that she had owned since childhood hands and still suited long-fingered hands”, This quote goes on to take up seven more lines on the page about Kerri’s binoculars. This does not seem like the kind of novel that requires lengthy descriptions of simple items, it is distracting and makes you lose interest in the plot.

Another issue in this novel is the strange shifts in dialogue. You will be reading a normal section of dialogue and then it will shift to a script-style that you would find in a play. Here is a brief example:

“Yes, please,” Andy shouted back. “Right. So we saw the lake creature, and then what did we do?”

Kerri and Nate were still fighting a smile each.

KERRI: We ran away.

NATE: Sorry, was that “ran” away, or “run,” as in now? Are you telling or suggesting?”

There doesn’t seem to be a rhyme or reason as to why the dialogue changes. My only guess is that it was to help reduce confusion between the people speaking, but to me, it was more confusing trying to figure out why the switch was made than it would have been for the dialogue to stay the same. To me, it felt like the author didn’t trust me, to decipher who was talking, even in a conversation of just three people.

There is a minor love arc in this story that seems to try and steal the spotlight from the beauty of this novel, and for me, it was a distraction from the interesting pieces of the story. While I understand the desire for there to be a romantic interest in the book it came off as an unnecessary side story that felt unbelievable and potentially problematic. Andy, one of the detectives, came off as unable to take no for an answer and being in the heat of the #MeToo movement, that will rub many readers the wrong way. It felt like the wrong move for this story.

But, even with its issues, this is a good novel. Cantero put in a lot of hard work and it shows through his writing, it is well worth its status as a New York Times Best-Seller. The story does not rely entirely on being a trip down memory lane and honestly, the balance is very good. If you are looking for something to take you back to your times in front of the television set as a child, this is the book for you. If you are looking for a book that will surprise you and give you the creeps, this is also the book for you.

Meddling Kids is an easy 4/5 stars. I love the story and I believe that the minor flaws are easily forgivable.

The Phantom Forest – Liz Kerin

What would happen if we got a glimpse of the afterlife? In this story, “Discovery of the afterlife had had irreparable consequences, so the Coalition abolished the notion of gods, fate, and prayer, worldwide.” Liz Kerin gives us a fresh take on what the world may look like if we saw beyond our realm in her book The Phantom Forest. Kerin intertwines her version of the afterlife and a fantastical twist on the modern day in such a way that captivates you and forces you to keep reading.
We follow Seycia, her brother Miko, and the demon Haben on their separate but entwined journeys for freedom and justice. Miko leads a revolution to overthrow the corrupt powers controlling the world, while Seycia learns how to navigate the underworld and destroy her own demons as well. Haben is a messenger between worlds bestowed with a sick punishment by the devil-like figure Dohv. Haben is tasked with consuming the flesh of sacrifices made in the living world, regardless of age. In the passage where we meet Haben we see him after the sacrifice of a young boy, “He cried as he gorged himself on the entrails, choking back sobs as he swallowed mouthful after mouthful. There was nothing lower than this. This— this was hell.” He fills his belly with the flesh of the sacrifice and starves the rest of the time. But, this is not the only dark secret he possesses, his destructive past is the key to the present. He joins Seycia on her quest to avenge not only herself but her parents.
On occasion, Haben’s character loses some of the tortured mentality and seems not to suffer as much as originally let on. I found that bothersome in a few ways, the first being that he doesn’t behave like someone who is constantly starving, secondly his pain seems downplayed, and lastly, this characteristic mostly disappears in the second half of the book.
Through The Phantom Forest, we see how changes in the afterlife have an impact on the world of the living, altering people’s fates and the outcome of a revolution. My only critique on this is that I wish I could have seen more. We see Seycia’s decisions change the trajectory of Miko, they flow together beautifully and I would have loved to see this expand. The author is the strongest when she is tangling and untangling the two storylines, her ability to connect character arcs left me satisfied.
At first, I had a hard time connecting to Miko. I didn’t see his relevance to the plot until later in the book. I kept asking myself, why is this character important? This question was eventually made clear, but I would have liked to felt a connection to him earlier in the book so that he was a well-rounded character.
Kerin does imagery very well, she will paint fantastic settings in your mind. I could see so much color and life in her story that it was hard to put down, I wanted to see where we would end up next. She creates her own lore that isn’t overpowering or hard to keep straight and puts you at the center of her beautiful world. The plot is easy to follow, unlike a lot of fantasy stories, you will not veer off in a thousand different directions. Overall the story is enjoyable and you will fall in love with Seycia’s all or nothing attitude and Haben’s heart wrenching back story.
This story is a fresh take on how government and religion clash. Kerin creates this world that seems like it’s going to be your typical fantasy style novel and it turns out to be something entirely different. It tackles the problems that arise when a government decides to eradicate religion, we see how it affects the people, and how it can change entire societal structures. One glimpse of the afterlife leads to war, poverty, and the destruction of history. This all plays out in this twisting tale of adventure, redemption, and vengeance.

I give The Phantom Forest a 4/5 stars. This is a solid 4 out of 5 because it exceeded my expectation but there were some aspects that could have been better.

You’re not going to want to miss The Phantom Forest releasing July 16th, 2019.