A much-needed breath of fresh air within the YA fantasy "there's a magic world among us!" trope, with a lot to say and a lot of heart to give.
"Moms raised a diamond..."
Rue comes from the East Row, where the families look out for each other and happiness, love, and loyalty bloom amid the concrete. She and her half-sister, Tasha, live with their mom and are doing pretty well.
Until, that is, their mom is shot on their doorstep and life as Rue knows it ends.
Suddenly, Rue's absent dad arrives on the scene with a puff of magic (literally) and whisks Rue away to the magical island of Ghazan. Where apparently a land of magical, gray-tinged white people reside, and Rue and her father are the only brown-skinned people in the whole joint.
Yes, it's just as weird as you're thinking...And Rue's having none of it.
Rue's pissed. Dragged away from her sister, reeling from her mom's murder, NOT on board with her no-good father's weird return, and now struggling with a magic she didn't want and a people she doesn't understand.... it's a lot.
And oh, there's also some serious sh** going on and more people are turning up in trouble.
...And diamonds never crack.
Told through a past/present split timeline and through Rue's intensely personal point of view, Wings of Ebony was a unique voice in the realm of today's young adult fantasy and really highlighted a lot of the internal/external issues surrounding Black teens today. And it was a damn fun time too, that also needs to be in there.
There's a lot of "real world" involved right in with the fantastical, so do go into this novel with the expectation that it's not a high fantasy/magical school concept—Rue is back and forth within the magical and non-magical scene throughout the entirety of this book and so are the rest of the characters.
In truth, I thought that Wings of Ebony stood apart from many other fantasies in its tropes BECAUSE of the intermeshed realities of Rue's ties between the magical community and her home of the East Row. There was no clean break, no escapism, no forgetting your roots to embrace the new like we've seen done before in so many other (let's be honest, traditionally white) books.
I know my voice in the discussion as a white adult woman might not add much to the discussions of this book (and frankly, that's fine - this was not a book meant for me or traditionally white audiences, I do recommend checking out the other wonderful reviews coming from more relevant voices) but I do think it was truly awesome to read a book that was clearly for young Black women and teens that didn't cater to white audiences in terms of its dialogue, plot points, or references. There was a lot outside of my personal experience in Wings of Ebony, and to be honest I loved that, Rue taught me things through the page just by her experiences and how she framed her thoughts to the other non-Black characters in this book—but that teaching wasn't her job, or the novel's job, to do that so I'm taking those points as a good personal side benefit, not anything that I came to this novel with as an expectation.
The only caveats to Wings of Ebony in terms of its technical structure, for me, was its pacing. At times, I really did struggle with the flow of the past-to-present timelines and in general found it easy to pick up and put down this book because the flow from action point to action point felt uneven in places. But those are quibbles, this was still an incredibly solid and extremely unique debut.
A notoriously haunted L.A. hotel. A group of teenage ghost hunters. A dead girl and her secrets. And something lurking in the dark...
Sense of pacing: ★★★★
Personal enjoyment: ★★
Chrissy, Chase, Kiki, and Emma are quickly becoming famous for their YouTube channel, Ghost Gang. In a setup that feels pretty similar to Buzzfeed Unsolved and other real-life online channels, this group of teens goes to haunted locations and films their explorations and reactions to creepy locations. And Chrissy is their ace in the hole: she actually CAN see spirits.
The Ghost Gang needs their next big hit. Chase, the group's organizer, decides to set their sights on the big one: the most haunted hotel in Los Angeles, California.
In this hotel from hell, a young girl died brutally within its walls and her erratic behavior before her untimely death was caught online for the world to watch. Something happened to this girl, and someone—or something—killed her. No one has found out the truth.
Chrissy and the rest of the group aren't exactly wild about visiting this location, but they let their better senses get the best of them and agree to go. (What's a horror setup without a few dumb decisions?)
They have no idea what they're in for...
So first off, a small disclaimer: I think this book is quite good for the right audience, and in that audience I could see Horror Hotel being a new favorite YA thriller/horror. It has all of the right hooks, shocks, and drama.
Unfortunately, I was not the right audience for this story because I'm a frequent horror movie and true crime documentary buff and knew the source material inside and out before starting this story.
If you've watched the Netflix documentary Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel and heard the very true story of the tragic death of Elisa Lam at that real L.A. hotel, then this fictionalized account with different names and slightly different tweaks might not work for you. The authors of Horror Hotel pay tribute to Elisa Lam in their dedication, which makes sense as this story was inspired by hers, but to me this novel was almost an exact replica of that particular Netflix documentary.
Now I'm not getting into whether replicating stories is good or bad, retellings are a very popular thing and I've enjoyed a few of them, but regardless of my opinion on that element I found Horror Hotel to be pretty low stakes and low interest for me, personally, because I knew where it was going all of the time. Without the feeling of "where is this story going," I quickly found my interest waning.
Again, this issue only happened because I was so familiar with that Netflix documentary. For those who haven't seen it and are just casually aware of the Elisa Lam story and the Hotel Cecil, this might be a very different reading experience.
Recommended for new fans to the genre and for those who have not watched the referenced Netflix movie.
Thank you to the publisher for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Generational secrets, the darkness within, and small town murders collide in this atmospheric and unputdownable debut.
Sense of unease: ★★★★★
Watch out for the dark.
Wow, this was such an engaging young adult mystery. As an adult reader who can't seem to stay away from the young adult genre, sometimes there are stories that don't translate out of their age-appropriate market and I feel like I'm the one old person at the young people's party. The Dead and the Dark was not one of those books—I think this one will have more of an all-ages appeal.
In Snakebite, a small town with generations of secrets and shame, things don't change. Visitors never stay, residents don't leave, and those that are different are not welcomed.
Years ago, Logan's two dads left Snakebite under upsetting circumstances, several of which revolving around their status as the only gay couple in town. They've been a traveling duo ever since, with their paranormal TV series dragging them across the country along with their adopted daughter, Logan.
But when one of Logan's dads returns to Snakebite and his supposedly short trip turns into months and months, they family decides to return to Snakebite and see what's going on.
Someone's keeping secrets. And a boy is already missing.
I think The Dead and the Dark works best if you don't know too much about it going into the story, so I'm not going to share any more of the plot. In short: I thought this story took a while to get off of the ground (roughly 75 pages) but then once things started to unravel for Logan and the other characters I could not stop reading this one.
It's a bit ghost-y. A bit queer identity struggle. A bit of small town bigotry. A bit of a romance on the side. A bit of a cold-blooded killer.
This one sits at some interesting cross-sections, so I can see why some readers feel unsatisfied after finishing it. If you're here for just one thing, then the other bits feel like unwanted excess. But I, personally, was here for the entire experience and, outside of some occasionally clunky writing, I thought this story was extremely well done.
Looking forward to seeing Courtney Gould's growth in her next book.
Thank you to Wednesday Books for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Deals with Fate, a whimsically dark, wintery setting that reminded me of the Night Circus's atmosphere, and a twisty-turny love plot to fit all of the classics. I loved it.
Entry point for new readers? oof, equal yes and no
NOTE: Once Upon a Broken Heart is set in the same universe as this author's previous trilogy, Caraval. I was not smart enough to realize that before reading this (whoops), so I want throw that out here at the start of this review. This has crossover with Caraval. It is, however, marketed as the start of a brand new series.
Evangeline Fox grew up on fairytales. Her life is one, after all, even if some people don't realize it. A recent orphan, Evangeline works in her late father's curiosities shop and is in love with a boy. Her mother raised her on stories of the magical North, where curses and magic are real and everyone knows it. Evangeline's very existence—her hair is the color of rosy gold, her upbringing shrouded in magical mystery—everything points to the start of a good fairytale.
But then the boy becomes engaged to Evangeline's stepsister, and everything in Evangeline's life shifts sideways.
She decides to believe in yet one more fairytale—the existence of Jacks, the Prince of Broken Hearts. For those who need him in Valenda, Jacks has a temple where the broken hearted can go and ask for a bargain.
It's dangerous to bargain with a Fate, but Evangeline is desperate and "dangerous" sounds like it could get the job done.
She strikes a deal with Jacks. Things don't exactly go as planned. He's a Fate, of course, and Evangeline is a girl straight out a fairytale—the story isn't going to let them go that easily.
It's time to let the story unfold...
I don't want to get into the plot too much, as half of the fun is going into the story with as little knowledge as possible, but WOW! In short, I really enjoyed this one.
Highlights: I loved the dynamic between Evangeline and Jacks. Even though Evangeline was much more naive than I prefer for a protagonist, the dynamic really worked for me and fit the story's vibe. I was also a huge fan of the world. It takes a rare type of author to write with the same je ne sais quoi quality as early Erin Morgenstern, but Stephanie Garber reached it. It's the YA, winter version of the Night Circus in terms of atmosphere and I was into it.
Negatives: Was it easy to jump into this world WITHOUT having already read Caraval? ...No. I wish I'd known how many references, nods, and hidden nuances in this novel were going to directly relate to that previous storyline. I would have taken a second look at Caraval first. It wasn't as bad as jumping into a direct sequel, but I did feel like I'd entered a TV show at the start of the second season. New character arc but same setup, and it was a bit confusing.
Read this if you like well-told tales, fairytales and their retellings, the power of hope, a dang good time, and nothing too dark.
Cool concept, really loved the death lord angle. Annoyed as heck by the main character to the point where I wanted to skim…so, a mixed bag of thoughts here.
Main character: ★ 1/2
Violeta Graceling and her brother, Arien, live in a wooded world filled with a mysterious blight. They live off of the long-suffering "goodness" of their adoptive mother, who works for the local villager as a painter for the village's important religious icons. It's a light versus the darkness, goodness versus shadow demons type of religion... and to Violeta and Arien's horror, every night Arien wakes to shadows coating his body.
Violeta knows that if Arien could just wish the shadows away, they could be safe. Harsh control is the only answer to Arien's issue...right? (Oh dear)
One day in the village, Arien is caught with his shadows by the visiting lord from the nearby Lakesedge estate: Rowan Sylvanan.
Rowan Sylvanan might be close to Violeta's age, but he's already a nightmare story that parents warn their children about at night. He killed his whole family, they say. He's filled with evil, they say.
Rowan takes one look at Arien and his shadows and makes the decision to take Arien home with him. And because Violeta is fiercely protective of her brother, Rowan begrudgingly takes her too.
But neither the estate nor Rowan are what they seem, and Violeta's going to have to face certain truths whether she's ready for them or not...
Sometimes, it's not really the book's fault or the reader's fault when the reading experience is "meh." Sometimes it's just....the main character. And for Lakesedge, my issues all circle around one thing: Violeta herself.
I thought this world was cool. I loved the gothic atmosphere, the mystique of the estate, the dark shadow magic at the core of the story. I thought the ending in particular was spectacular.
But.... I can't give this more than 3 stars, because for the first half of the book (and frankly, ok, the rest of the book too) I couldn't stand Violeta. When you have a first-person narration with only one POV, a lot of the story rests on that one main character and whether the reader can get behind them and their actions. And I just could not do it.
Violeta was stubborn to the point of dumbness, prejudiced to the point of fear mongering, and at the end of the day she was also... weirdly reactionary to her own story?
(Except for the very, very end where my complaint turns into a spoiler: (view spoiler))
I'm not sure if all of that stands up outside of my own personal opinions, but that was how I felt. Oh well. Another case of "it's not you, book, it's me!"
Excellent atmosphere, loved the fresh take on a very different—and minimally inspired—Jane Eyre retelling. Loved the magic component, the haunted house, the Ethiopian-meets-gothic vibes… ahhh so good.
First disclaimer: I have not read Jane Eyre.
Second disclaimer: I did not go into this book wanting, or requiring, a faithful interpretation of Jane Eyre.
Andromeda, or "Andi," is a debtera—an exorcist hired to cleanse households of the Evil Eye. With a rough upbringing behind her, current poverty around her, and a very uncertain future ahead, Andi is out of options and in need of steady employment.
So when an offer for a house cleansing comes her way riddled with warnings, she's too desperate to refuse.
Andi arrives at Thorne Manor in the middle of the African desert with desperation and everything to gain. She needs to eradicate this manifestation at whatever the cost—she has nothing left to lose.
But Thorn Manor, with its English colonialist design and history forced into the African landscape, is nothing like Andi's expectations. It's dark and freezing cold in the middle of the desert. It's filled with weird, misplaced furniture and false illusions. There's a sense of foreboding that Andi has never experienced despite all of her prior cleansings. And, to top it all off, the host of the manor is not at all like her expectations.
Andi has a job to do. And as the servants keep disappearing (or worse) and the house creeps closer toward Andi with every breath, the stakes are too high to leave.
Now add in a romance, a ghost story, and a claustrophobic atmosphere on par with Mexican Gothic, and you have a STORY.
Don't let your guard down...
Again, with my disclaimers at the beginning of this review aside, I thought this was a fantastic story. I read it over the course of one evening—and basically one sitting, if you don't count tea breaks!
Within These Wicked Walls had truly fantastic writing. Most times for young adult fiction/fantasy, I am attached to the characters, plot, or world building more than I'm attached to the actual words and their structure themselves. But for this one, the writing itself stood out to me. I loved the sense of place conveyed through the sentence descriptions, Andi's presence on the page, and the great sense of dialogue and scene transitions. This sounds like I'm reviewing an academic paper or something (boring, I know) but I really wanted to call it out here. GREAT writing.
I also thought that entire plot (romance, relationships, pacing, and all) was just.... chef's kiss. Really nice. I have no complaints besides a few spots that felt slowly paced.
Why is it so hard to talk intelligently in reviews when you love something??? Sigh. Please take my badly-constructed word on this: this story is fantastic, it's atmospheric, and it's a fresh take on a very old concept with some much needed non-Western influences.
I could see myself rereading this one every autumn. Pick this one up, gothic/ghost fans!
Thank you to the publisher for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
So I DNF'd this book years ago, but I guess I'm a different reader now, or maybe I just missed the magic the first time—because now it's a new favorite. Sometimes, second chances are worth it...
Main character: ★★
Scarlett and her sister, Donatella, live on an isle under the controlling rule of their abusive father. Scarlett believes in happy endings. Donatella...doesn't so much.
So when their grandmother tells them tale after tale of the mysterious Legend, the man behind the magic of the realm's mystical Caraval game, Scarlett's the one who writes to Legend year after year. If Legend would only invite them to participate in Caraval, then Scarlett and Donatella could win the game and be granted the grand prize... one wish. No restrictions.
For two girls with a very bleak future, winning Legend's elusive wish is one of their last shots at happiness.
So when Scarlett's letter finally arrives with invitations, Scarlett and Donatella can't believe it.
It's all about to begin, now. And remember, it's only a game.... (Right?)
Filled with lush descriptions, fantastical and transportive scenes, and enough twists and turns to actually surprise this jaded YA reader more than once, Caraval was more than worth the read!
Alright, so like I said from the beginning, this was a second-chance read for me. In 2018ish, I tried to pick this up and actually DNF'd it a few times within the first few chapters. I just couldn't get into it, the main character bothered me (I have a personal taste issue with really naively-written older teen characters), and I just. didn't. vibe.
But then, this author came out with a spin-off series in this universe in 2021 called Once Upon a Broken Heart. And I totally loved it. It made me curious enough to give Caraval another shot—again—and see if anything good lay beyond the opening part of the book.
Spoiler: a LOT of good things exist beyond the weak opener. So if you're like me, maybe give this one another shot.
This really worked for me, mainly because I’ve already ready the books it’s based on, but still. If you're ALSO obsessed with this era of history, then check this out! Another book to add to the canon of fiction and nonfiction centered on Chicago, the World’s Fair, and H.H. Holmes.
1890s Chicago. The World's Fair. All the glitz and glamour in the world focused on the Windy City...and yet something darker lurks the in streets beneath.
Women are disappearing. They're never seen again. And too many signs point to the Castle, a new hotel built near the grounds of the Fair.
Zuretta's sister, Ruby, left their small Utah town to escape to the wilds of Chicago to find a better life. When Ruby's weekly letters stop arriving, Zuretta knows something has happened. She goes to Chicago to investigate.
Once in the city, Zuretta realizes that Ruby is not the only girl lost in Chicago...not by a long shot. And the men of the police force and the famous Pinkerton detective agency have bigger fish to fry than helping one country bumpkin find her naïve sister.
When all signs point to the Castle hotel, Zuretta decides that she needs to infiltrate it from within. She becomes the Castle's new maid, under the watchful eye of the young owner... Henry Holmes.
The Castle's winding, nonsensical architecture entraps Zuretta while the screams in the walls haunt her nights. What's going on at the Castle, and just who, exactly, is behind it all?
Zuretta's going to find out—and hopefully escape with her life.
Ok so right off the bat, this is another one of those books that I think is either going to really, REALLY work for people... or be a huge miss.
It's a huge YES from me, but I think a lot of my enjoyment came from knowing way more about this story's real-life historical roots. If you've already read Erik Larson's Devil in the White City, then you're extremely primed to like this one too as The Perfect Place to Die is a "perfect" (couldn't resist that pun) young adult fictional companion to that story.
However, if you've NOT read any of the supporting works (Devil in the White City, fictional renditions like Kerri Maniscalco's Capturing the Devil, etc.) then you're left with the main plot itself, which does have some quirks/weaknesses as it attempts to follow the historical accuracies. It's not the most dramatic of stories, and it's also not the most complex—but again, it's because it's following the historical blueprint.
An interesting one for sure. I enjoyed the read and will definitely recommend it to the right audience.
Many thanks to the publisher for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Fantastic setup for a series!! Wish the first half had been less boring. Poisons, mythology, secrets, creaky old mansions, and more—OH MY.
Last third of the book: ★★★★★
Briseis has a strange skill. A gift, maybe. Some might call it a curse. Growing up adopted in Brooklyn, Briseis and her two moms discover that she can grow any plant. She can rebirth a plant from its withered ashes. The plants also want to... be close to Briseis. In fact, whenever a plant is near her it literally moves to be closer.
As you can imagine, this is a problem in the nonmagical world of our current times, and especially in the concrete jungle of New York City where every plant is noticeable.
One day, Briseis and her moms receive a strange visitor claiming to be a solicitor from the small rural New York community of Rhinebeck. Briseis' birth mother, Selene, and Selene's sister, Circe, lived in an old mansion in the community and both have died recently. Briseis is the sole inheritor.
So her family moves to Rhinebeck.
Now surrounded by the ghosts of her birth family, a gothic mansion filled with secrets, and a mysterious garden on the property with a locked gate, Briseis is about to discover the true meaning of her abilities and just what, exactly, they're meant for.
Cue the dramatic, suspenseful music!
I thought This Poison Heart was awesome. Well, for for the first half, not so much. I was bored silly. In order to give this large plot its proper setup—and to get Briseis from Brooklyn to Rhinebeck and more—we had to take a lot of time to build up the suspense and get to know all the players involved. While this totally makes sense, it made for an extremely boring opening read and made me slip into the assumption that this novel was going to be just like other YA traditional novels.
It is NOT like your run-of-the-mill adventure. You just have to get past that part to realize it.
Once the plot kicks off, this was awesome. I couldn't stop reading it, and I loved what the author brought into play for the next book. This series (duology? more?) is going to play with a lot of myths, magics, and more—and I can't WAIT!
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.