Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao #bookreview #YA #fantasy #scifi

The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.

When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.​

To tame her unnerving yet invaluable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial male pilot in Huaxia​. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage their combined might and infamy to survive attempt after attempt on her life, until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system works in its misogynist way—and stop more girls from being sacrificed.

When I saw Pacific Rim mentioned as a comp title for this novel, I jumped on requesting this from NetGalley. The main character sounded like she was ready to stir up some trouble, and I wanted to be around to see what would happen.

I can’t skip commenting on this beautiful cover. Besides being so striking, it does an admirable job of portraying Zetian’s strength and determination. I may be understating it when I say the girl is a force of nature and has maniacal tendencies.

Zetian has been raised her whole life to believe she’s basically a second class citizen and must make sacrifices for men. Although very few survive, she and her older sister volunteer as concubine-pilots so her family can use the death compensation to find Zetian’s brother a suitable wife. A loving family is as far from an apt description as you could get for these people. Zetian rejects these beliefs and has plans of her own to assassinate the pilot responsible for her sister’s death.

When Zetian survives the psychic link with one of the best pilots (after assassinating him), she’s soon paired with Li-Shimin, a death row inmate plucked out of incarceration and forced to be a pilot. He’s a talented pilot, but is feared by the others – the guy doesn’t exactly possess a welcoming personality – but Zetian learns he has many layers to be discovered. After Gao Yizhi, the boy who loves her, comes into the picture again I was sure a dreaded love triangle loomed on the horizon. I was wrong – it’s a polyamorous relationship. It’s the first time I’ve encountered this in a YA book, but it seems a natural development for these three characters and isn’t the primary focus of the story. As partnered pilots, Zetian and Li-Shimin battle the mecha aliens but soon learn they have enemies in their own camp. The cliffhanger at the end was a doozy!

With huge piloted robots that can transform into mythical creatues (seriously, how cool is that?), mind-blowing action scenes, and immersive world-building, I was glued to the pages. The novel also deals with themes of oppression and feminism and gets very dark and brutal at times, but it’s one I highly recommend. This may be one of my favorite reads of the year, and I’ll be at the front of the line waiting impatiently when the sequel releases.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

WWW Wednesday: What Am I Reading? #amreading

WWW Wednesday is a meme from Sam at Taking On A World Of Words

The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

I was so busy last week I completely forgot to post on Wednesday, so I made a point not to let it slip by this week.

Over the weekend I started She Who Rides the Storm. One of the comp titles is a favorite dark fantasy of mine, and any time an archaeologist is mentioned it piques my interest. Maybe it’s an Indiana Jones kind of thing, who knows.

In this atmospheric YA fantasy that is Wicked Saints meets There Will Come a Darkness, four teens are drawn into a high-stakes heist in the perilous tomb of an ancient shapeshifter king.

Long ago, shapeshifting monsters ruled the Commonwealth using blasphemous magic that fed on the souls of their subjects. Now, hundreds of years later, a new tomb has been uncovered, and despite the legends that disturbing a shapeshifter’s final resting place will wake them once again, the Warlord is determined to dig it up.

But it isn’t just the Warlord who means to brave the traps and pitfalls guarding the crypt.

A healer obsessed with tracking down the man who murdered her twin brother.

A runaway member of the Warlord’s Devoted order, haunted by his sister’s ghost.

A snotty archaeologist bent on finding the cure to his magical wasting disease.

A girl desperate to escape the cloistered life she didn’t choose.

All four are out to steal the same cursed sword rumored to be at the very bottom of the tomb. But of course, some treasures should never see the light of day, and some secrets are best left buried…

During my marathon reading session on the patio over the weekend I finished The Last House on Needless Street. I can’t say much about this without spoilers, but if you’re a fan of dark, twisty, psychological thrillers bordering on horror, DO NOT miss this book.

This is the story of a serial killer. A stolen child. Revenge. Death. And an ordinary house at the end of an ordinary street.

All these things are true. And yet they are all lies…

You think you know what’s inside the last house on Needless Street. You think you’ve read this story before. That’s where you’re wrong.

In the dark forest at the end of Needless Street, lies something buried. But it’s not what you think… 

Next up is Summer Sons. The cover intrigued me, plus I live about an hour from Nashville and Vanderbilt. Reviews look good so I’m hoping for a winner.

Andrew and Eddie did everything together, best friends bonded more deeply than brothers, until Eddie left Andrew behind to start his graduate program at Vanderbilt. Six months later, only days before Andrew was to join him in Nashville, Eddie dies of an apparent suicide. He leaves Andrew a horrible inheritance: a roommate he doesn’t know, friends he never asked for, and a gruesome phantom with bleeding wrists that mutters of revenge.

As Andrew searches for the truth of Eddie’s death, he uncovers the lies and secrets left behind by the person he trusted most, discovering a family history soaked in blood and death. Whirling between the backstabbing academic world where Eddie spent his days and the circle of hot boys, fast cars, and hard drugs that ruled Eddie’s nights, the walls Andrew has built against the world begin to crumble, letting in the phantom that hungers for him. 

Under the Whispering Door by T.J. Klune #bookreview #fantasy #contemporary #TuesdayBookBlog

Under the Whispering Door is a contemporary fantasy about a ghost who refuses to cross over and the ferryman he falls in love with.

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

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

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

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

After reading The House in the Cerulean Sea, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this author’s newest release. Ecstatic doesn’t begin to describe how I felt when I received an ARC from NetGalley.

Once again, this author has left me awestruck. It’s hard to convey how much I loved this book and the feelings it evoked in me, but I’ll give it a shot.

Wallace is not a nice person. At all. He’s a workaholic who cares very little for the employees at his law office. After he dies of a sudden heart attack in his 40s, all he leaves behind is a failed marriage and his firm – no family or friends, not even a pet. At his sparsely-attended funeral not one person has a kind word to say about him. There, he meets a feisty reaper who escorts him to a peculiar tea shop to meet the ferryman. The tea shop is a kind of layover for the recently deceased until they’re ready to move on. Here, Wallace experiences the five stages of grief – anger is a big one for him – and eventually has some earth-shattering moments of self-realization. He may have been alive, but he never really lived.

Besides the ferryman and reaper, there are a couple other characters at the tea house, and I fell in love with all of them. They felt like family by the end of the story. As with The House in the Cerulean Sea, humor is still prevalent along with plenty of heartfelt moments. I’m not a person who cries easily over books or movies, but I’m batting a thousand with Klune.

This novel is about love, grief, friendship, family, a wide variety of teas, and truly living. It’s also about death and what might come after, but it’s dealt with in a light-hearted, thought-provoking, moving, and beautiful way. As with The House in the Cerulean Sea, it’s a book I’ll recommend to everyone I know, reader or not.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

Weekend, #BadMoonRising, and #AmWatching

This was my birthday weekend and I pretty much did nothing but read. The weather wasn’t sweltering, there was a nice breeze, and I spent the better part of Saturday and Sunday afternoons on the patio with my Kindle. I’m way behind on reading and reviews, and with NetGalley books I always try to get the review done and posted before publication day, so it was nice to make some progress. Son #2 flew in from Austin – not specifically for my birthday, but his friend happened to have one the same weekend. Honestly, the longest amount of time we spent with him was driving back and forth from the airport in Nashville, lol. Not that I played the guilt card – he made loads of friends here and I know he wanted to see them. We’re talking about making another trip to Austin in October. Now that he’s been there a few months, he’s found some places he’d like to take us.

I might have the last spot for Bad Moon Rising filled? I received an email from an author, but couldn’t find the name on Amazon, and I’ve asked for a book link or the name they write under. Usually a couple authors never return their info, so I always like to have backups. If I have more than thirty-one, that’s fine – I’ll do extra posts if I have to. Better than not having enough. If you’re one of the participants, the deadline for submitting your info is this Saturday! I’ll start prepping the posts this week. It may sound like a chore, but you’d be surprised how quickly I can finish them – especially when I’m laughing at some of the answers.

Two of my favorite shows are back! The eleventh season of The Walking Dead started a few weeks ago, and the final season of Lucifer dropped Friday on Netflix. I also started watching The Chair on Netflix with Sandra Oh. You might think the trials and tribulations of an English department chair at a major university sounds kind of dry, but I was surprised at how humorous it is. Holland Taylor is an absolute delight as one of the professors.

Here’s to a productive week – cheers!

The Last Beautiful Girl by Nina Laurin #bookreview #YA #horror #gothic

BLACK MIRROR meets Darcy Coates in this exploration of the dangerous, dark side of beauty in the digital age, with a gothic, haunted-house setting.

When Izzy is dragged from Brooklyn to a tiny town for her parents’ new job, she’s not thrilled. The silver lining is the gorgeous old mansion she’s moved into: the former home of an artist’s muse who died tragically in a fire. But the house has its quirks: whole floors are closed off, paintings are covered up, and cell reception is nonexistent.

Izzy throws herself into starting an Instagram fashion account using the gowns and jewelry she finds hidden away in the house. She looks perfect in the photos–almost unnaturally perfect–and they quickly go viral. Soon she’s got a new best friend, a potential boyfriend, and is surrounded by a group of girls who want the photoshoots and fame for themselves. But there’s a darkness in the house, and a darkness growing in Izzy, too. When girls start dying, it’s clear that something–or someone–in the house is growing in power, with deadly intentions. 

I have to admit – I would have passed up this book if it hadn’t mentioned Black Mirror, Darcy Coates, and a gothic, haunted-house setting. The cover didn’t scream horror to me.

The descriptions of the old mansion Izzy and her family relocate to paint a picture of a beautiful home that’s falling into ruin. I could easily imagine the architectural details and understand Izzy’s unexpected delight when seeing it for the first time. This haunted house had the potential to offer those delicious spine-tingling chills horror fans chase after, and I was excited to delve into its darkness. Maybe I’ve read so many books in this genre that I’ve become immune, but I never felt the chills. There are some eerie moments, but when the situation really starts to become intense, the scene never plays out. Something would interrupt it, leaving Izzy to rationalize what happened. Without giving away spoilers, the reader isn’t given much time to get to know Izzy before she moves into the house, and it was difficult for me to emphathize with her – she’s a difficult person to like. The final scene builds up to a tension-filled, creepy climax, but then ends abruptly and leaves several questions unanswered.

Kudos to the author for an admirable job of calling attention to the dark sides of vanity and obsession with social media and the effects both can have on a person. While this is an enjoyable read, I’d recommend it for the younger YA crowd.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

The City Beautiful by Aden Polydoros #bookreview #YA #historicalfantasy #LGBTQ #TuesdayBookBlog

Death lurks around every corner in this unforgettable Jewish historical fantasy about a city, a boy, and the shadows of the past that bind them both together.  
 
Chicago, 1893. For Alter Rosen, this is the land of opportunity, and he dreams of the day he’ll have enough money to bring his mother and sisters to America, freeing them from the oppression they face in his native Romania.
 
But when Alter’s best friend, Yakov, becomes the latest victim in a long line of murdered Jewish boys, his dream begins to slip away. While the rest of the city is busy celebrating the World’s Fair, Alter is now living a nightmare: possessed by Yakov’s dybbuk, he is plunged into a world of corruption and deceit, and thrown back into the arms of a dangerous boy from his past. A boy who means more to Alter than anyone knows.
 
Now, with only days to spare until the dybbuk takes over Alter’s body completely, the two boys must race to track down the killer—before the killer claims them next.

Set during the World’s Fair in 1893, this atmospheric, queer Jewish historical fantasy infuses real-life events with a dark murder mystery. I’ve read several of this author’s books, and The City Beautiful was on my list of most anticipated releases this year. It surpassed my expectations.

After tragically losing his father during the journey to America, Alter falls in with the wrong crowd and is soon scraping by robbing others. It’s not something he’s proud of, and after a particularly unsettling experience he leaves his criminal days behind and gets an honest job. He works long, hard hours to save enough money to bring his mother and sisters over from Romania. When his best friend, Yakov is the latest victim in a string of murdered Jewish boys, Alter finds himself in the middle of a mystery not many seem to care about. The police aren’t much help and the newspapers all but dismiss the murders, but he refuses to let his Yakov’s death go ignored and unsolved. With the help of his friends Frankie and Raizel, Alter is determined to discover who’s responsible. Yakov’s dybbuk is equally determined and possesses Alter’s body. Time is of the essence in discovering the identity of the murderer because former friend or not, two souls can’t inhabit one body for long and the possession takes a toll on Alter.

Sadly lacking in knowledge of Judaism, learning more about Jewish customs and traditions was incredibly compelling and enlightening for me. A glossary is included at the end of the book for help with some of the terminology. The author skillfully weaves those customs and traditions along with historic details involving Jewish immigration during that time into the story. He also touches on the racist themes of the World’s Fair and how The White City wasn’t the utopia the organizers portrayed.

This novel is dark and disturbing at times, but it’s also a beautiful story of love, friendship, community, and justice. As a trigger warning, it doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of anti-Semitism and social inequities so be prepared. I can’t wait to see what this author does next – he’s been on my auto-buy list for years.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

Football Game and #AmWatching

If you celebrate Labor Day, hope everyone is enjoying this long holiday weekend. We spent it in Charlotte visiting family and attending the Clemson-Georgia football game Saturday night. Hubby and I earned our graduate degrees from Clemson University, and a business associate of his got us tickets. Our oldest son is all about sports, so he flew down and met us. Lots of energy, plenty of good-natured ribbing between most fans, and perfect weather. Here are some pics from the game. Those skydivers always amaze me the way they can land on the 50 yard line. Skydiving is something that’s on my bucket list, and I’m determined to give it a try.

You notice above I said “most” fans. There’s always one who takes it all too seriously and tries to start things with fans from the other team. We had two within three rows of us. One nearly got thrown out – have no idea why they didn’t insist he leave – and the other sat directly in front of us. The sad thing was the little boy sitting beside him (not his father) who had to witness all the bad sportsmanship and immature behavior.

Hubby and I started watching Succession last week – aging patriarch of a business empire, four ambitious adult children, one trying to force out the father so he can take over, division of family loyalties, lots of backstabbing and manipulation – you get the picture. There’s not one likeable character on the whole show, but we’re hooked. Two seasons are on HBO Max right now, and I think a third is being released soon.

Wishing you all a great week!

The Bones of Ruin by Sarah Raughley #bookreview #YA #fantasy

As an African tightrope dancer in Victorian London, Iris is used to being strange. She is certainly a strange sight for leering British audiences always eager for the spectacle of colonial curiosity. But Iris also has a secret that even “strange” doesn’t capture…​

She cannot die.

Haunted by her unnatural power and with no memories of her past, Iris is obsessed with discovering who she is. But that mission gets more complicated when she meets the dark and alluring Adam Temple, a member of a mysterious order called the Enlightenment Committee. Adam seems to know much more about her than he lets on, and he shares with her a terrifying revelation: the world is ending, and the Committee will decide who lives…and who doesn’t.

To help them choose a leader for the upcoming apocalypse, the Committee is holding the Tournament of Freaks, a macabre competition made up of vicious fighters with fantastical abilities. Adam wants Iris to be his champion, and in return he promises her the one thing she wants most: the truth about who she really is.

If Iris wants to learn about her shadowy past, she has no choice but to fight. But the further she gets in the grisly tournament, the more she begins to remember—and the more she wonders if the truth is something best left forgotten. 

I always enjoy a Victorian London setting, and the description of the Tournament of Freaks sounded like a mashup of The Hunger Games and X-Men. There’s no way I could resist requesting this book from NetGalley.

After the macabre opening scene of this book, I was all in. Adam comes across as a cunning assassin with plenty of closely held secrets. I wanted to know exactly what they were and what his connection to Iris was. While I understood Iris’s need to discover her identity and origin, her character didn’t appeal to me as much – but three of the male characters are completely enamored of her. The love triangle – square? – pops up early in the story, but the competition between her suitors grows tiresome pretty quickly. I’ve never been a fan of that trope, but that’s just me.

I was anxious to get to the Tournament, but it doesn’t make an appearance until around the halfway mark and isn’t as much of a plot element as I’d expected. The clues send the teams on life-endangering searches all over London, and the rules state the winner will be the player still alive within the team left standing. Love the high stakes. And there’s no shortage of creepy characters on these teams. I liked the fact that Iris and her team had plenty of stiff competition, but the disadvantage of that was the sheer number of characters to keep straight. Many times I came across someone I couldn’t remember.

While the world-building and plot are unique and well thought out, the story features a strong female MC, and there are several plot threads to follow, I struggled with the pacing (nearly 500 pages) and skimmed through some sections. Reviews are split on this, and many readers enjoyed the longer length of the novel – it just comes down to personal perference.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

Battle of the Bands – an #Anthology of YA Authors #bookreview #music #contemporary #TuesdayBookBlog

Fifteen young adult authors and one real-life rock star band together for one epic—and interconnected—take on a memorable high school rite of passage.

A daughter of rock ’n’ roll royalty has a secret crush. A lonely ticket taker worries about his sister. An almost-famous songwriter nurses old wounds. A stage manager tires of being behind the scenes. A singer-songwriter struggles to untangle her feelings for her best friend and his girlfriend. In this live-out-loud anthology, the disparate protagonists of sixteen stories are thrown together for one unforgettable event: their high school’s battle of the bands. Told in a harmonic blend of first- and third-person narrative voices, roughly chronological short stories offer a kaleidoscopic view of the same transformative night. Featuring an entry from Justin Courtney Pierre, lead vocalist of Motion City Soundtrack, Battle of the Bands is a celebration of youth, music, and meeting the challenges of life head-on. 

As a devoted music fan and someone who was briefly in a band in high school, there’s no way I could pass up requesting Battle of the Bands. It’s been on my radar for quite a while.

This book was so much fun. If there had been a Battle of the Bands when I was in high school, you can bet I would have been there. Fifteen amazing YA authors contributed to this anthology, but the overall feeling is one cohesive story. Some characters make brief appearances or are casually mentioned in other stories. I can’t imagine the level of coordination and organization that went into this. At the beginning of the book is a list of the participating bands and their members – something that was very helpful. Some of the creative and unusual band names and their songs sure put a smile on my face.

Most of the narratives are about finding love, but stories of revenge, self-realization, sibling disputes, finding your people, and a heartwarming coming out are also included. The character diversity is outstanding, and one of my favorite aspects of this anthology. Being high school students, a lot is going on with these teens, and not every disagreement or doubt is left behind once they take the stage. You can feel the vibe of excitement over the event from every musician and the enthusiastic audience and the determination of each band to win. I had my favorites and couldn’t wait to see who took the prize at the end. Not every story is about the musicians. Some feature the students who work behind the scenes at merch tables, on tech/lighting crews, and the stage manager. Even being short stories, it was so easy to get invested in these characters and their lives.

As with all anthologies, readers will enjoy some selections more than others, but this is a pretty quick read. I had a difficult time putting it down after finishing a story, and I’m thrilled someone finally put together a book like this.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Edelweiss.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

#AmWriting, Fantasy Football, and The Matrix

I don’t care that it’s a dreary, cloudy Monday morning – join me in a Snoopy happy dance! Today I’ll be adding the final touches on the sequel to Subject A36 and sending it to my editor – woohoo!!!!! I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I write out of sequence – weird, but it works for me – and last week I finally put the chapters in order. I balked at my word count. Something looked off, and I’d thought it was higher. Once I began the final read through, I realized I’d left out a chapter – whew! Completing this is such a weight off my shoulders. I’ve been working on this sequel for nearly two years, and I think the characters and I were getting annoyed with each other for taking this much time to complete their story. Saturday, it occurred to me my time with them was nearly over, and a wave of sadness came over me. Has this happened to you other writers out there?

My oldest son was here for the weekend. It’s fantasy football draft time! He’s in two leagues – one with friends from high school and another with fathers and sons – so he had two consecutive draft days. The second draft day was held at our house and it was fun seeing these guys together again – they’ve been friends since middle school. Where did the time go?

I read that the trailer to The Matrix Resurrections (the fourth in the series) was revealed by Warner Brothers at CinemaCon last week, but I guess it’s not out for the general public yet. Trust me – I’ve scoured the internet. I’ve been a fan of this series from the beginning and remember seeing the first movie by myself (hubby is most definitely not a fan of sci-fi) while I was pregnant with son #2. The release date is set for December 2021, so I’m super excited. Sure hope to see that trailer soon.

Hope you all have a fantastic, Snoopy dance-filled week!