Book Review: Lost in the Moment and Found (Wayward Children, #8) by Seanan McGuire

Title: Lost in the Moment and Found
Series: Wayward Children, #8
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: January 10, 2023
Length: 160 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A young girl discovers an infinite variety of worlds in this standalone tale in the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning Wayward Children series from Seanan McGuire, Lost in the Moment and Found.

Welcome to the Shop Where the Lost Things Go.

If you ever lost a sock, you’ll find it here.
If you ever wondered about favorite toy from childhood… it’s probably sitting on a shelf in the back.
And the headphones that you swore that this time you’d keep safe? You guessed it….

Antoinette has lost her father. Metaphorically. He’s not in the shop, and she’ll never see him again. But when Antsy finds herself lost (literally, this time), she finds that however many doors open for her, leaving the Shop for good might not be as simple as it sounds.

And stepping through those doors exacts a price.

Lost in the Moment and Found tells us that childhood and innocence, once lost, can never be found.

You might wonder whether, by the 8th book in a series, an author might run out of fresh stories to tell.

If the author is Seanan McGuire, then the answer is — not a chance! In Lost in the Moment and Found, she puts a fresh spin on the ongoing Wayward Children series, once again moving the focus to a completely new character in a completely new circumstance.

While all the Wayward Children books feature children who’ve had lousy childhoods in one way or another, the circumstances here are particularly awful — enough so that the author includes a note prior to the opening of the story:

While all the Wayward Children books have dealt with heavy themes and childhood traumas, this one addresses an all-too-familiar monster: the one that lives in your own home. Themes of grooming and adult gaslighting are present in the early text. As a survivor of something very similar, I would not want to be surprised by these elements where I didn’t expect them.

I just want to offer you this reassurance: Antsy runs. Before anything can actually happen, Antsy runs.

I have to say, I very much appreciated the warning. While the sense of dread builds in the early part of the book, at least I could proceed without fearing the absolute worst. And as the author promises, the main character, Antsy, does in fact run. When her fear and sense of isolation and lack of support gets to the point that she can no longer stand it, she finds a way out and escapes.

… as she got older, she would come to think that the ability to cry was the third thing she’d lost in a single day.

Antsy, at age six, a year after a terrible loss, gains a stepfather whom she never wanted, but she hopes her mother’s happiness will allow her to feel happy too. It doesn’t work that way. Her sense of wrongness and unease whenever she’s around her stepfather only continues to grow. He’s insidious, undermining Antsy in small ways through lies and contradictions, so that Antsy knows that if she goes to her mother with her big worries, she won’t be believed. It’s utterly heartbreaking.

When Antsy finally does reach her breaking point and runs away, she ends up at a strange little thrift shop that she never noticed before, with the words “Be Sure” written over the door frame. Once inside, the door she entered through disappears, and Antsy finds herself in a new home with an odd elderly woman and a talking magpie as companions.

As she stays in this store, she discovers new doors leading to new worlds, where she meets all sorts of strange and fascinating people and brings back more goods for the infinite shelves of the store she lives in. And for a long time, she forgets that there’s anything else out there and doesn’t think to question certain very odd occurrences…

Eventually, Antsy realizes that there’s a steep price to be paid for all the miraculous new worlds she visits — and that she may run out of options sooner than expected. The ending is moving and fitting, very sad, but with a small sliver of hope too.

Yes, I’m being vague!

As in all the Wayward Children books, the writing is simply gorgeous. These stories are never just straight-forward action — there’s a sense of mythic scope embedded in the descriptions of sad, lost children, and loss permeates so much of the storytelling.

The toll of childhood trauma becomes literal here: Antsy’s loss of safety and innocence leads to her new reality in the strange world of endless doors and lost things:

She should have had a childhood, ice cream and matinees and sunshine and cookies, not working in a dusty shop while she grew up faster than she should have been able to, rocketing toward adulthood, spending hours she’d never be able to recover! She should have had time. It was hers, and she had never agreed to give it away.

Antsy’s story is particularly tragic — obviously, no small child should ever have to doubt whether the one person they count on will actually believe them when they speak up. We can cheer Antsy on as she saves herself, but still, we can’t avoid mourning her shattered childhood and sense of faith in family and love.

The Wayward Children books include beautiful drawings by the very talented Rovina Cai. See more at https://www.rovinacai.com/portfolio/wayward-children-series/

As a whole, the Wayward Children series is beautiful, sad, emotional, and full of heartache and redemption. There’s hope and joy to offset the sorrow, but an undercurrent of sadness never quite leaves the stories or their characters.

I love the series, and I’m so happy that Lost in the Moment and Found lives up to my (very high) expectations. Please do start from the beginning if you haven’t read any of these yet! Each book is novella -length, but don’t rush through them — the lovely writing should be savored.

Book Review: Even Though I Knew the End by C. L. Polk

Title: Even Though I Knew the End
Author: C. L. Polk
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: November 8, 2022
Length: 136 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A magical detective dives into the affairs of Chicago’s divine monsters to secure a future with the love of her life. This sapphic period piece will dazzle anyone looking for mystery, intrigue, romance, magic, or all of the above.

An exiled augur who sold her soul to save her brother’s life is offered one last job before serving an eternity in hell. When she turns it down, her client sweetens the pot by offering up the one payment she can’t resist―the chance to have a future where she grows old with the woman she loves.

To succeed, she is given three days to track down the White City Vampire, Chicago’s most notorious serial killer. If she fails, only hell and heartbreak await.

In this noir-ish novella, Helen Brandt is a private investigator who specializes in occult-related crime scenes. She’s also a woman who, years earlier, sold her soul in exchange for her mortally-wounded brother’s life.

With only days left before her bargain comes due, all Helen wants is private time with the woman she loves. But when a particularly gruesome murder takes place, she’s pulled into a battle between demonic forces, powerful magicians, and fallen angels.

As a novella, the action by necessity is fast-paced, and the storytelling moves quickly from one set-piece to another. I’m not that big a fan of stories about bargains with the devil or battles between angels and demons, but what really sucked me in was the love story and the desperate need for just a bit more time.

The title comes from Helen’s thoughts about The Great Gatsby, and the essence of love and hope:

Jay Gatsby knew a lot about hope. Hope felt a little painful, on account of it not being a sure thing. In fact, there was almost no hope for him, which made that tiny flashing light all the more precious. I’d read this book a dozen times, two dozen. I always held my breath, waiting for Daisy to come to him. Jay hoped every single time, and I hoped right along with him, even though I knew the end.

A week after finishing this short but powerful story, I couldn’t tell you the specifics about the outcome of the murder plot… but I absolutely remember how Helen and Edith’s love story made me feel. Even when the end is inevitable, even when a deal with the devil is coming due, Helen will savor every moment, because every moment with the woman she loves is worth much more than the pain of thinking about losing it.

They love, even though they know the end.

Shelf Control #342: Jane in Love by Rachel Givney

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

Title: Jane in Love
Author: Rachel Givney
Published: 2020
Length: 434 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

If Jane Austen had the choice between the heart and the pen, what do you think she would do?

At age twenty-eight, Jane Austen should be seeking a suitable husband, but all she wants to do is write. She is forced to take extreme measures in her quest to find true love – which lands her in the most extraordinary of circumstances.

Magically, she finds herself in modern-day England, where horseless steel carriages line the streets and people wear very little clothing. She forms a new best friend in fading film star Sofia Wentworth, and a genuine love interest in Sofia’s brother Fred, who has the audacity to be handsome, clever and kind-hearted.

She is also delighted to discover that she is now a famous writer, a published author of six novels and beloved around the globe. But as Jane’s romance with Fred blossoms, her presence in the literary world starts to waver. She must find a way to stop herself disappearing from history before it’s too late.

A modern-day reimagining of the life of one of the world’s most celebrated writers, this wonderfully witty romantic comedy offers a new side to Jane’s story, which sees her having to choose between true love in the present and her career as a writer in the past.

How and when I got it:

I bought a paperback copy on a whim when I saw it on sale, probably a little over a year ago.

Why I want to read it:

Oh dear. Now that I’m reading the synopsis, I have to say… it doesn’t sound good! I’m always up for giving an Austen-inspired book a try, but finding herself “magically” in modern-day England? And being at risk of disappearing from history? Sounds a little too Back To the Future, perhaps. I’m already cringing, and I haven’t even picked up the book!

On the other hand, I do own a physical copy, and should probably at least give it a fair try before casting it into the discard pile.

Right?

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!


__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments or link back from your own post, so I can add you to the participant list.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Shelf Control #341: All the Murmuring Bones by A. G. Slatter

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

Title: All the Murmuring Bones
Author: A. G. Slatter
Published: 2021
Length: 337 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Long ago Miren O’Malley’s family prospered due to a deal struck with the Mer: safety for their ships in return for a child of each generation. But for many years the family have been unable to keep their side of the bargain and have fallen into decline. Miren’s grandmother is determined to restore their glory, even at the price of Miren’s freedom.

A spellbinding tale of dark family secrets, magic and witches, and creatures of myth and the sea; of strong women and the men who seek to control them.

How and when I got it:

I bought a paperback edition about a year ago, and I also have the audiobook on my Chirp app.

Why I want to read it:

Mermaids. Need I say more?

Yes?

I don’t really remember how I first became aware of this book, but it seemed like there was a moment where it was all over the blogs and Goodreads, and I just knew I needed a copy!

There’s really no reason I haven’t read All the Murmuring Bones yet, other than my huge TBR pile looming over me every second of the day. The synopsis above is really brief, but it’s enough to absolutely pique my interest!

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!


__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments or link back from your own post, so I can add you to the participant list.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Book Review: Lute by Jennifer Thorne

Title: Lute
Author: Jennifer Thorne
Publisher: Tor Nightfire
Publication date: October 4, 2022
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Horror/fantasy/thriller
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

On the idyllic island of Lute, every seventh summer, seven people die. No more, no less.

Lute and its inhabitants are blessed, year after year, with good weather, good health, and good fortune. They live a happy, superior life, untouched by the war that rages all around them. So it’s only fair that every seven years, on the day of the tithe, the island’s gift is honored.

Nina Treadway is new to The Day. A Florida girl by birth, she became a Lady through her marriage to Lord Treadway, whose family has long protected the island. Nina’s heard about The Day, of course. Heard about the horrific tragedies, the lives lost, but she doesn’t believe in it. It’s all superstitious nonsense. Stories told to keep newcomers at bay and youngsters in line.

Then The Day begins. And it’s a day of nightmares, of grief, of reckoning. But it is also a day of community. Of survival and strength. Of love, at its most pure and untamed. When The Day ends, Nina―and Lute―will never be the same. 

In the world of Lute, the residents of this peaceful place truly live in an island paradise. Lute is located in the Bristol Channel, a small place with one little village, a grove of trees, some goats, gorgeous views, and a manor house that’s been occupied by the Treadway family for centuries.

Lute is also a haven from a war-torn world. We’re never told exactly when this story is taking place, but it’s set at some indefinite point in the future when the entire world is engulfed in a devastating war… the entire world except for Lute, that is. While many of Lute’s residents have been drafted or volunteered to serve, the war itself has never touched the island — no invasions, no air raids. All is peaceful.

Nina Treadway, the main character, has lived on Lute for almost seven years, after meeting the son of Lord Treadway on an ocean voyage and then returning to the island with him after his father’s sudden death. After all her years on Lute with her husband and two children, Nina feels settled, but not truly a part of the island community. She doesn’t quite fit in with the townsfolk, and she accepts as quaint tradition the island lore about The Day.

What is The Day? Going back thousands of years, the islanders believe they live under the blessings of the old gods. In exchange for seven deaths on midsummer every seventh year, the island enjoys good weather, good fortune, and mostly importantly, peace. Nina scoffs at the stories, and really doesn’t believe that the good people of Lute actually believe in these stories that they tell.

But this is the seventh year, and as The Day approaches, the mood shifts to one of anticipation and dread. It can’t really be true… can it? These people can’t truly think that seven deaths are inevitable… can they?

Told in chapters that creep forward from three days before, to two days before, all the way through to The Day, which then unfolds pretty much hour by hour, Lute carries a growing feeling of anxiety and fear that’s hard to describe, but so impossible not to feel.

I wouldn’t describe Lute as a horror story — there’s very little in the way of gore or jump scares, and there’s no big bad lurking in corners. Still, I haven’t been this terrified reading a book in quite some time. The quiet creeping dread that builds and builds had my stomach in knots — and while part of me just absolutely did not want to know what was coming, another part simply couldn’t look away.

Lute is a fairly short book, and I think it’s probably best enjoyed in one big marathon read. I wish I’d been able to do that. By having to break up my reading time, it would take me a few beats before feeling immersed again, and that’s not at all the fault of the writing. This is a haunting, absorbing story that I think is best read by just diving in and staying with it to the end.

I’m not sure that I loved the wrap-up in the epilogue, although it does work. I also really did want to know more about the war and what was happening in the wider world… but then that would be a very different book. Those are my only quibbles, really.

All in all, I simply loved this book. The writing is beautiful and evocative and sets such an eerie, otherworldly tone. I loved getting to know the people of Lute, the history of the island, the origin of their legends, and the way the very rocks, waves, and trees seem to bring the mythology of the place to life. The beauty and isolation of Lute is presented as a blessing that comes with a price, and over the course of the book, we come to understand why the people of Lute are willing to pay that price, despite the pain and sorrows that come with it.

Lute is a very special reading experience. I highly recommend it.

Book Review: Fairy Tale by Stephen King

Title: Fairy Tale
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: September 6, 2022
Length: 608 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Legendary storyteller Stephen King goes deep into the well of his imagination in this spellbinding novel about a seventeen-year-old boy who inherits the keys to a parallel world where good and evil are at war, and the stakes could not be higher—for their world or ours.

Charlie Reade looks like a regular high school kid, great at baseball and football, a decent student. But he carries a heavy load. His mom was killed in a hit-and-run accident when he was ten, and grief drove his dad to drink. Charlie learned how to take care of himself—and his dad. Then, when Charlie is seventeen, he meets Howard Bowditch, a recluse with a big dog in a big house at the top of a big hill. In the backyard is a locked shed from which strange sounds emerge, as if some creature is trying to escape. When Mr. Bowditch dies, he leaves Charlie the house, a massive amount of gold, a cassette tape telling a story that is impossible to believe, and a responsibility far too massive for a boy to shoulder.

Because within the shed is a portal to another world—one whose denizens are in peril and whose monstrous leaders may destroy their own world, and ours. In this parallel universe, where two moons race across the sky, and the grand towers of a sprawling palace pierce the clouds, there are exiled princesses and princes who suffer horrific punishments; there are dungeons; there are games in which men and women must fight each other to the death for the amusement of the “Fair One.” And there is a magic sundial that can turn back time.

A story as old as myth, and as startling and iconic as the rest of King’s work, Fairy Tale is about an ordinary guy forced into the hero’s role by circumstance, and it is both spectacularly suspenseful and satisfying.

In Fairy Tale, master author Stephen King takes a kind-hearted 17-year-old and sends him on an epic quest to battle forces of evil and save a kingdom.

Also, there’s a very good dog. And because I know this is important for many readers to know up front: The dog will be fine! (Stories that treat book doggos badly can be a deal-breakers for many readers, so now you can rest easy and proceed).

Charlie is a strong, self-reliant boy who loves his father, but he’s also had to shoulder far too heavy a burden in his short life. After his mother’s tragic death, his father became lost to alcoholism, and Charlie had to care for himself and his father through the dark years until his father finally found sobriety. For all that, Charlie is remarkably well-adjusted, but he does think back with regret on the mean-spirited pranks and cruel behaviors he indulged in during the worst of days.

When he hears a dog barking from behind the large, spooky house on the hill, he intends to just move on, until he hears a faint voice crying for help. Charlie discovers Mr. Bowditch, the old man who lives alone in the house, severely injured in the backyard. He calls for help, then makes a decision that this perhaps is his opportunity to atone for the bad behavior in his past, and becomes completely devoted to Mr. Bowditch and his elderly dog Radar.

While Mr. Bowditch is hospitalized, Charlie takes on caring for Radar, and begins work on cleaning and repairing the house. After Mr. Bowditch is released, it’s Charlie who takes on the responsibility of daily care, going far above and beyond would might be expected of a teenager (or even most adults). Through their time together, the two become very close, but Mr. Bowditch holds onto his secrets tightly — although he does tell Charlie how to access his safe and the bucket full of gold pellets stored within, and how to exchange the pellets for the money needed to pay the hospital bills.

When Mr. Bowditch suffers a fatal heart attack some months later, Charlie and his father are shocked to learn that Charlie has inherited the house, the property, and everything it contains. Even more shocking is the cassette tape Mr. Bowditch has left, telling Charlie a strange tale about a journey to a hidden world and the magical device there that allows one to regain youth and health. With Radar in sharp decline, Charlie realizes that following the instructions on the tape might be his only option for saving Radar’s life. And so the quest begins.

Fairy Tale in many ways embodies the traditional Hero’s Journey, with Charlie receiving a call to action, setting out on a quest, gaining allies along the way, sinking to darkest depths (in this case, spending weeks/months (?) in a literal dungeon), before finding redemption and reemergence. It’s brilliantly constructed — we can see the framework and understand what King is doing, while still becoming totally immersed in the magical and dangerous world that Charlie enters.

At the same time, Charlie himself recognizes the influence of stories and how they seep through worlds into realities. Rumpelstiltskin, the Goose Girl, the Little Mermaid, Jack and the Beanstalk — all are present in some variation here, not as literal retellings but as universal tropes that inform the reality that Charlie now finds himself in.

Based on the synopsis, I’d expected the portal elements to kick in pretty early in the story, but in fact, it’s not until around 30% that Charlie first ventures through the passage to the alternate world. The first third of the story is devoted to Charlie’s family’s backstory and his growing relationship with Mr. Bowditch (and Radar!). This is really effective, as it grounds everything that follows in a realistic beginning in our own world, and gives a solid basis for why Charlie acts as he does, both his devotion to providing care to Mr. Bowditch and his actions on his portal adventure.

The flow does seem to lag for a bit in the middle of the story. As I mentioned, there’s a dungeon involved, and Charlie’s time imprisoned there drags on long enough that my interest flagged. Likewise, the sections about Charlie and his fellow prisoners being forced to train for and then compete in a Hunger Games-like tournament to the death felt overly long and drawn out.

Those elements aside, the plot is mostly fast-paced, full of surprises, odd-ball and quirky characters, memorable settings, and a superbly crafted sense of wonder and menace that hangs over every step of Charlie’s journey. Charlie himself is wonderful — smart, caring, and sensitive, but flawed enough that he’s not too good to be true.

Fairy Tale is a big, thick book, but absolutely worth the time and attention. I was captivated, often scared on behalf of the characters, and fully invested in the outcome and the stakes. The world Charlie visits is fascinating, and I would have loved to have spent even more time exploring it at the conclusion of the quest.

Wrapping this up… I highly recommend Fairy Tale! It’s a treat for King fans, but also an easily accessible entry point for those who haven’t read his books before or who feel that his books are too terrifying for them! Yes, there are some frights and scary beings, and as I said, plenty of menace, but this book doesn’t have the absolute terror of, say, Pet Sematary or It.

Fairy Tale is both a coming-of-age story and a tale of a mythical, magical adventure, and it’s a wonderfully engaging read, start to finish. Don’t miss it!

Shelf Control #333: Daughter of the Forest (Sevenwaters, #1) by Juliet Marillier

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

Title: Daughter of the Forest (Sevenwaters, #1)
Author: Juliet Marillier
Published: 1999
Length: 554 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Lovely Sorcha is the seventh child and only daughter of Lord Colum of Sevenwaters. Bereft of a mother, she is comforted by her six brothers who love and protect her. Sorcha is the light in their lives: they are determined that she know only contentment.

But Sorcha’s joy is shattered when her father is bewitched by his new wife, an evil enchantress who binds her brothers with a terrible spell, a spell which only Sorcha can lift—by staying silent. If she speaks before she completes the quest set to her by the Fair Folk and their queen, the Lady of the Forest, she will lose her brothers forever.

When Sorcha is kidnapped by the enemies of Sevenwaters and taken to a foreign land, she is torn between the desire to save her beloved brothers, and a love that comes only once. Sorcha despairs at ever being able to complete her task, but the magic of the Fair Folk knows no boundaries, and love is the strongest magic of them all…

How and when I got it:

I’ve had an old paperback on my shelves for years — no idea exactly where it came from!

Why I want to read it:

I’m always up for a good faerie kingdom story, and this is a book (and series) that I’ve seen recommended many times over the years. It regularly appears in lists of great fantasy series, and I know I’ve seen readers with tastes that align with my own talk about how much they love this book.

The plot sounds complicated but compelling. Faerie bargains, strange kingdoms, and mystical elements all sound right up my alley — plus, from descriptions on Goodreads and elsewhere, it seems that these books are very much influenced by Celtic folklore, which absolutely appeals to me.

Daughter of the Forest is the first in a six-book series. I tend to be pretty reluctant these days about starting new series… but I do feel tempted to at least give this first book a try.

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!


__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments or link back from your own post, so I can add you to the participant list.
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Have fun!

Book Review: The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna

Title: The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches
Author: Sangu Mandanna
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: August 23, 2022
Print length: 336 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A warm and uplifting novel about an isolated witch whose opportunity to embrace a quirky new family–and a new love–changes the course of her life.

As one of the few witches in Britain, Mika Moon knows she has to hide her magic, keep her head down, and stay away from other witches so their powers don’t mingle and draw attention. And as an orphan who lost her parents at a young age and was raised by strangers, she’s used to being alone and she follows the rules…with one exception: an online account, where she posts videos pretending to be a witch. She thinks no one will take it seriously.

But someone does. An unexpected message arrives, begging her to travel to the remote and mysterious Nowhere House to teach three young witches how to control their magic. It breaks all of the rules, but Mika goes anyway, and is immediately tangled up in the lives and secrets of not only her three charges, but also an absent archaeologist, a retired actor, two long-suffering caretakers, and…Jamie. The handsome and prickly librarian of Nowhere House would do anything to protect the children, and as far as he’s concerned, a stranger like Mika is a threat. An irritatingly appealing threat.

As Mika begins to find her place at Nowhere House, the thought of belonging somewhere begins to feel like a real possibility. But magic isn’t the only danger in the world, and when a threat comes knocking at their door, Mika will need to decide whether to risk everything to protect a found family she didn’t know she was looking for….

This witchy book is sweet, a bit romantic, and very whimsical. It’s a bit Mary Poppins, a bit House on the Cerulean Sea… and just a wee bit naughty too (more on that later).

Mika is a young, kind-hearted witch who grew up in loneliness and isolation — because the biggest rule for witches is to stay very, very far away from one another. When witches gather, so does magic, and when a lot of magic gets concentrated in one place, all sorts of unwanted outcomes can result — and when there are big magical accidents, it attracts attention. As history has shown, attention can be very bad for witches, so it’s best to just avoid it at all costs.

But Mika is lonely, and to keep herself amused and engaged, she creates a web series where she pretends to be a witch offering videos on potion-making. It’s cute and silly, and she doesn’t expect anyone to actually believe her… but of course, as the synopsis points out, someone does.

She’s invited to Nowhere House, where three young, orphaned witches are being raised by an assortment of adult caretakers. They’re sheltered and fed and clothed (and completely doted upon), but they have no control over their magic, and no one to teach them. Without some sort of intervention, the adults in charge are afraid of what might happen. Mika seems to be the answer to their prayers.

Before long, she’s made herself a part of the household, captivating the girls with her magical abilities, and captivating the sexy librarian with her sweetness and smiles. There are some outside threats to their happy household, but I felt pretty confident throughout that nothing too bad could happen, given the light, bubbly tone of the book.

The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches could almost be a children’s story, if the point-of-view characters changed a bit and if you stripped away the romance. There are some adorable scenes of wide-eyed wonder, as Mika shows the girls the possibilities of a life infused with magic — like, for example, when she arrives at Nowhere House with an entire koi pond in the backseat of her car.

The romance elements are for the most part understated, although (as I hinted earlier) there is one scene that’s fairly steamy in nature (not anatomical, in terms of graphicness, but more than just implied). Side note: I was annoyed that the characters did NOT use a condom! Most contemporary romances incorporate safe sex practices into the sex scenes these days, so it’s very noticeable (and not okay!!) when one doesn’t.

The cast of characters is nicely diverse, with many different ethnicities, national origins, genders, ages, and orientations represented. I appreciated that this element was all very matter of fact, too — the diversity is just part of the whole, and not presented in a “hey, I’m being so hip and inclusive!” sort of way (if that makes any sense).

Overall, the mood and tone of this book is light, cheery, and yes, very whimsical. Nothing terrible ever happens, the characters are delightfully quirky, there are plenty of silly little moments, and there’s an overarching sense of wonderful awe whenever magic is involved.

This is a sweet, quick read, good for when you’re looking for a fanciful diversion with lovable characters. A great choice to read with a mug of hot cocoa and some fuzzy slippers!

Book Review: The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy by Megan Bannen

Title: The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy
Author: Megan Bannen
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: August 23, 2022
Print length: 336 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Hart is a marshal, tasked with patrolling the strange and magical wilds of Tanria. It’s an unforgiving job, and Hart’s got nothing but time to ponder his loneliness.

Mercy never has a moment to herself. She’s been single-handedly keeping Birdsall & Son Undertakers afloat in defiance of sullen jerks like Hart, who seems to have a gift for showing up right when her patience is thinnest.

After yet another exasperating run-in with Mercy, Hart finds himself penning a letter addressed simply to “A Friend”. Much to his surprise, an anonymous letter comes back in return, and a tentative friendship is born.

If only Hart knew he’s been baring his soul to the person who infuriates him most – Mercy. As the dangers from Tanria grow closer, so do the unlikely correspondents. But can their blossoming romance survive the fated discovery that their pen pals are their worst nightmares – each other?

This Western-tinged fantasy novel about undertakers, marshals, and drudges (the undead) includes romance, the classic enemies-to-lovers trope, old and new gods, and so much more. The biggest surprise for me? It actually brought me to tears at one point! (And this is not an easy feat… I’m afraid I’m more of a hard-hearted cynic when it comes to tugging-on-the-heartstrings moments, as a general rule).

The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy is set in the town of Bushong, on the border of the sealed, people-less area known as Tanria. In this frontier town, undertakers do a booming business, as more and more people attempt to cross into the forbidden Tanrian wilds for profiteering opportunities — and often come back as corpses.

Within Tanria, untethered souls look for human bodies to inhabit, turning them into drudges, highly dangerous creatures that exist to kill. The marshals patrol Tanria and take down drudges when they find them, stabbing them through the appendix to release their souls, then bringing the bodies back to a border-town undertaker for death rituals (pre-paid, of course).

Fun fact: The human soul resides in the appendix. Now we know what that weird little body part is for!

Mercy’s family undertaking business is in dire straits when the story opens. After suffering a heart attack the previous year, her father is supposed to be taking it easy. Her younger brother Zeddie is expected to take on the mantle of running Birdsall and Son once he graduates from his training program… but Zeddie definitely has other ideas about what his future should look like. Mercy, on the other hand, loves the work and values the importance of carrying out the rituals and sending people on their way to their final rest with honor and dignity. But the undertaking business is a men-only affair, and despite having done the work for years, no one considers Mercy as the heir to the family business.

Meanwhile, there’s Hart Ralston, a demigod marshal who lives a lonely life, carrying out his grim trade and never allowing himself to get close to anyone. Four years earlier, when he and Mercy first met, they took an instant and deep dislike to one another (although I had a hard time understanding why, exactly), and nothing has changed in that regard in the years since then.

But things take a big turn when Hart writes a letter addressed to a “friend”, assuming it’ll just get lost out in the world somewhere. Due to magical mail deliverers (it’s a thing), however, the letter ends up with Mercy, who writes back. As their anonymous correspondence continues, Hart and Mercy unknowingly forge a connection that’s honest and deep, never realizing that they’re writing to their self-proclaimed enemy rather than their “dear friend”.

Eventually, though, Hart and Mercy are propelled past their hatred and discover it’s a cover for strong attraction, chemistry, even love (although still without sharing the truth about their secret correspondence). They fall passionately and emotionally for one another, but since this is a bordertown and there are drudges to slay, life doesn’t give them much room to savor their new-found love before danger strikes and threatens to separate them… permanently.

There’s so much to like about The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy! I enjoyed the banter, the Western vibes, Mercy as a strong, talented, professional woman determined to save the business she loves, and the various friends and family members who create the background community for the main characters. (And don’t get me started on the talking, hard-drinking bunny and owl who deliver the mail…) Hart and Mercy are terrific together, and even though we’ve all read a gazillion versions of the enemies-to-lovers story, somehow it still manages to feel fresh here.

I do have quibbles when it comes to this book, and the biggest for me is the incomplete and confusing world-building. With its Western vibe, I pictured a dusty, dry setting originally, but the location actually seems to be water-based and set amidst an island nation. The marshals ride equimares (singular: equimaris), which appear to be some sort of amphibian horse… maybe? They’re not really described, although there are references to webbed feet and they seem to be very good in water. For vehicles, people drive autoducks, which (I think) are some sort of amphibious truck… maybe?

The undertaking business has its own mysteries. Bodies must be salted and wrapped in sailcloth, and undertakers also build boats for the remains (which I assume are kind of like coffins) — which are usually then cremated or sent to the burial grounds… I think?

There’s a lot of exposition about old gods and new gods, who they are, where they’ve gone, why Tanria exists, etc… but honestly, the information seems to get dumped in big chunks and it’s too much to really keep track of — although I did like the incantation describing the death gods, which we hear from Mercy as she prepares a body:

From water you came, and to water you shall return.

You shall sail into the arms of the Salt Sea, and Grandfather Bones shall relieve your body of your spirit.

The Warden shall open the door unto you, and the Unknown God shall welcome you into their home, where you shall know peace.

I should note here that I read this book as an e-ARC (via NetGalley), and it indicates that a map will be included in the finished book. Perhaps if I’d had access to the map while reading this book, I might have had a better grasp of the setting, at the very least, even if the terminology and gods/religion remained unclear. I hesitate to criticize the book based on something that may be better in the final version, but at the same time, I’m writing to express how I experienced this book, and for what it’s worth, the world-building was incomplete and confusing from my perspective.

I initially found the book slow and didn’t feel absorbed right away, but by midway through, this definitely changed. Hart and Mercy’s breakthrough from enemies to lovers is the turning point of the story, and from that point onward, I was hooked! Their dynamic is sweet, funny, and lovely, and I became very invested in their individual well-being and happiness as well as in their relationship.

There were moments when I thought my heart would break (remember, I did say earlier that this book brought me to tears!), but also moments of joy and delight. Overall, I’m very glad I spent time with Hart and Mercy, and enjoyed the book and its characters very much. If you’re looking for a very different sort of fantasy, this is one to check out.

Book Review: Heat Wave (The Extraordinaries, #3) by TJ Klune

Title: Heat Wave (The Extraordinaries, #3)
Author: TJ Klune
Publisher: Tor Teen
Publication date: July 19, 2022
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Heat Wave is the explosive finale to the thrilling Extraordinaries trilogy by New York Times and USA Today bestselling author TJ Klune!

Nick, Seth, Gibby, and Jazz are back in action bringing justice, protection, and disaster energy to the people of Nova City.

An unexpected hero returns to Nova City and crash lands into Nick’s home, upturning his life, his family, and his understanding of what it means to be a hero in the explosive finale of the thrilling and hilarious Extraordinaries trilogy by New York Times bestselling author TJ Klune.

This series! This book! These characters! At this point, I love the characters so much that I just want to tuck them all away somewhere safe and shower them with love and ice cream. THEY ARE SO ADORABLE AND AMAZING.

Heat Wave, the 3rd and final book in the Extraordinaries trilogy, opens as a hot summer rolls through Nova City. The main characters are on summer break, hanging out, fighting crime… you know, like kids do! But it doesn’t take very long before something starts to seem just a little bit off. I won’t say what, but at first it was just a nagging little “huh?’ voice in my head, which soon escalate to full-on shouts of WTF?

Never fear, it all makes sense eventually. Our gang – the incredibly lovely and awesome and over the top Nicky, his true love Seth, and their best friends (who are also deeply in love) Gibby and Jazz — continue their Extraordinary activities as, respectively, superheroes Guardian and PyroStorm, with Gibby and Jazz as their tech support and secret lair gurus, aka Lighthouse. Also involved are the various parental units of our four teens, and the parents are equal measures supportive, loving, and totally embarrassing. (Oh, the Dad jokes! These people are just so much).

I really don’t want to say too much about the plot. There’s action, adventure, danger, and telekinetic and fire-power heroics! There are also bad guys who are very, very bad and very, very powerful. Plus, a mayoral election that’s truly a battle for the heart and soul of Nova City, and a police reckoning that’s very much a reflection of today’s real-world society.

I need to stop and mention that Nick and his dad Aaron have THE BEST father-son dynamic I’ve ever witnessed. Aaron is excruciatingly in Nick’s face in the most cringe-y ways, and it’s so clearly coming from a place of unconditional support and love that you want to stand up and shout “YES!” whenever they have a scene together. This book does also include the most cringe-worthy Nick and Aaron scene of the entire series. Suffice it to say that Aaron loves his gay son and wants him to be fully informed, prepared, and safe when it comes to moving things forward with Seth. I kind of wanted to die of embarrassment reading this scene, and at the same, I couldn’t help thinking how absolutely affirming it might be for gay teens who need that kind of open information and communication in their own lives.

Likewise, Seth and Nicky’s physical relationship moves forward, and the author does not shy away from the details… but it’s not at all gratuitous. Again, all I could think was that there are probably teen readers who really need to see a healthy, loving, consensual relationship depicted in such a positive way, and I hope this book finds its way to those who need it.

But anyway… even putting aside how amazing all of the above is, this is just a GOOD STORY. The action zips along, there are some astonishing surprises and big reveals, and a major blam-pow-kabam superhero battle to finish it all off. (Also, there’s the introduction of a new character named Burrito Jerry, and he’s pretty amazing, so there’s that too.)

The book’s epilogue ties up the story and gives us a flash forward into the characters’ lives several years down the road, and while it’s a little disconcerting to see them all as adults, it’s also wonderful. And yes, the conclusion is quite definitely a conclusion… but I’d pay oodles to get to spend more time with Nicky, Seth, Gibby and Jazz! I’m sure they’re all going to go on to lead fabulous, fascinating lives, and I just wish we could see it!

As always, the writing in Heat Wave is smart and funny, and I’ll wrap up this big gushy love letter to The Extraordinaries trilogy by sharing some favorite bits and pieces:

“We’re queer. We walk fast because of our survival instinct.”

He snorted. “Okay, that was funny in a really sad way. I feel bad for the heteros. They wanted us to run from them, and so we did, and now we evolved to be much quicker than they are. They really don’t get anything aside from having all the rights they could ever ask for.”

If he’d known how much worse it was about to get, Nick would’ve probably fled the house, moved to Canada, and spent the rest of his days living in a cabin while making maple syrup, or whatever it was Canadians did aside from being pleasant and supportive, most likely because they enjoyed the benefits of universal healthcare.

Owen had been Nick’s first… well. Almost first everything. First kiss. First sort-of boyfriend. First breakup. First (and so far only) former flame who’d turned into a villain and had tried to kill them.

You never forgot your first.

“I’m supposed to be in a romantic comedy, not a horror movie!” Nick cried as the blade wiggled from side to side as if it was stuck…

But before Nick could be dragged away he leaned forward, knowing he’d never get the chance again to have this many people listening to him. “Queer rights!” he shouted. “Down with the patriarchy! Defund the police! Support fanfic writers!”

“We’re going to hug you, but then we’re going to yell at you. It’s going to be very loud, but you will sit there and take it.”

I’m tearing up just thinking about these characters and their lives and how amazing they are. I can’t believe the story is over!

The 3rd book, and the trilogy as a whole, get five glittery stars!