Wicked Saints (Something Dark and Holy, #1)

First Lines: The calming echo of a holy chant filtered down from the sanctuary and into the cellars. It was late afternoon, just before Vespers, a time where psalms to the gods were given up in an effortless chorus.

I have heard a lot of buzz about this book lately, especially since the sequel just came out. Since this was apparently all that and a bag of potato chips, I decided to check it out and see if the hype was worth it.

Since it’s so sparce, I’m just going to copy in the book jacket: A girl who can speak to gods must save her people without destroying herself. A prince in danger must decide who to trust. A boy with a monstrous secret waits in the wings. Together, they must assassinate the king and stop the war. In a centuries-long war where beauty and brutality meet, their three paths entwine in a shadowy world of spilled blood and mysterious saints, where a forbidden romance threatens to tip the scales between dark and light.

Honestly, the beginning was really slow. Like, it took a looooooong time for me to feel like it was going anywhere. It wasn’t that it was hard to read, though. I often found myself starting to be drawn into the characters, but the story didn’t feel alive until about halfway through. That’s when the real action (or…plot, frankly) started.

The characters in this are complicated. They are delightfully good and bad at the same time. Some more one way than others. But I truly do love that characters are getting more complex in YA writing now. It’s so much more fun to read about.

Like a lot of fantasy novels, it’s hard for me to just jump right into a new world with very little to help me figure out what’s going on. I kind of hate the feeling of being lost until I’m 100 pages in. This was definitely one of those books, where I couldn’t figure out what it meant to be a cleric and why each chapter started by telling me about some alleged martyr and what they were saying half the time that was clearly in a different language. (Oh, and figuring out how to pronounce some of these names was a real puzzle. Everything looks like some kind of mix of Polish/Russian/Hungarian.)

It’s a pretty decent story that definitely has a lot of twists as you really get going, but I thought the beginning was just not exciting in the least. It’s a strong premise, though, and I think it could definitely go places in that sequel. I’m willing to try it. But I don’t think I’d say this is worth all the hype.

Coming Up For Air (Hundred Oaks, #8)

Coming Up for Air by Miranda Kenneally

First Lines: When I’m not in the pool, I’m counting the minutes until I can dive back in, so most of the time my bushy, light-brown hair is wet and reeks of chlorine. This is the story of my life.

After reading a few heavier books in a row (specifically lots of fantasy), I needed a palate cleanser. I needed a simple story with lovable characters and I knew Miranda Kenneally was the way to go. (Also, don’t let the fact that this is the 8th book in a series fool you–they’re more like loosely connected stories that happen to take place in the same town.)

All of Maggie’s focus should be on swimming. As a senior in high school, she’s got a swimming scholarship lined up already, but what she doesn’t have is an Olympic tryout yet. Her best friend, Levi, does, though. He’s her biggest cheerleader, so she’s not mad about that, but it’s just more pressure. When Maggie goes on a college visit, though, she suddenly realizes how much of the “normal” high school experience she’s been missing out on by being in the pool. And it’s time to change that. So, first up is making out with a guy. Unfortunately, the only available guy that she trusts is, well, Levi. On one hand, it’s perfect: they already spend tons of time together and are comfortable with each other. But as Maggie begins falling for her best friend, she needs to decide what’s worth sacrificing to make things work.

Ok, this was cute. I’ve read all the books in this series over the years and I have absolutely adored that they focus so heavily on girls playing different sports, from football to horse racing to running to swimming. I think there’s a real lack of athletic girls in YA contemp, so this series is amazing.

This story is definitely one of the racier books in the series (and I don’t mean that in an athletic way), but it kind of worked? It was done in a way that felt authentic and interesting rather than just explicit. And it found the humor in it, which I think helped a lot too. I really enjoyed the humor. But yeah, maybe don’t hand this to a twelve-year-old?

Maggie and Levi are interesting characters. They’re both so dedicated to their sport and Maggie doesn’t really mind at all that she spends so many hours swimming. She loves it. She just wishes that, like her other friends, she could make out with boys and maybe go to a dance or something sometimes. She’s maybe not as deep of a character as I was hoping, but still cute. And Levi was a good counterbalance to Maggie and a loyal friend. The dynamic between the two was great.

I like Kenneally’s stories because I think they’re relatable and cute and light. And it’s so good to see some of the old characters come back in this book, especially Jordan. 

Night Spinner (Night Spinner, #1)

Night Spinner (Night Spinner, #1) by Addie Thorley

First Lines: Darkness waits like a devil outside my window–curling its shadowing fingertips beneath the shutters, drawing its inky claws across the latch, raising every hair on my body as temptation trickles down my spine.

There were two reasons why I added this to my to-read list/picked this up: 1) I read Addie Thorley’s debut last year (An Affair of Poisons) and I loved it and 2) this was billed as a fantasy retelling of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a story that I love. And also that was a unique choice, as I don’t think I’ve ever seen Hunchback retelling of any sort. I was interested to see what happened.

Before the massacre of innocents as Nariin, Enebish was the most promising commander in the Sky King’s Imperial Army. As a rare Night Spinner, she has the ability to control darkness. Now, she’s known as Enebish the Destroyer for her loss of control. She’s been exiled to a monastery and reminded daily that she’s more monster and murderer than anything else. Devastated and broken, Enebish knows this is where she belongs, but it doesn’t make her want to be there. So when her adoptive sister, the commander of the Imperial Army, shows up and offers Enebish a deal that might earn her freedom, Enebish jumps at the chance. Enebish only has to help capture to the criminal Temujin, whose gang has been stealing supply wagons meant for the troops and undermining the Sky King. But as Enebish hunts Temujin, she learns the tide of the war has changed and those supplies he steals are the only thing keeping thousands of shepherds alive. Things aren’t adding up. Should she put her trust in the charismatic criminal or her sister? But no matter who she chooses, the enemy is still getting closer…

I just want to mention that this is a gender-bend retelling of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I’m sure we kind of picked up on that, but still worth saying. Enebish = Quasimodo and all that.

As I alluded to earlier, I was really looking forward to this book. Thorley’s debut was exciting and had great characters and was well written. This was no exception either. Once I understood the world I had just stepped into, I had a hard time putting it down.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this, even expecting all that. I’ve had a lot of trouble lately getting into fantasy stories, but I didn’t have that problem with this one. It’s very accessible. A lot of the setting does have that medieval city feel to it while still clearly taking place somewhere unfamiliar, so it was possible to recognize where we were and what was happening fairly easily.

The characters were also amazingly well done. The Disney version of Hunchback has a line in it that asks, “What makes a monster and what makes a man?” This story definitely asks that question as well. None of the characters are strictly heroes or villains. They aren’t all good–or all bad. They have questionable morals and their own agendas that often times end up hurting other people. It’s hard to decide who to trust. I liked that the story was so character driven in that respect. It brought a lot of depth to the story and I felt like it made it more realistic.

The one thing that sort of took away from my enjoyment was the same thing I actually really loved: how closely it mirrored Hunchback. Because I am so familiar with the story and because this actually does follow the basic plot most of the story, I blew some of the surprises early. Like, by chapter three I mostly knew how one thing was going to go down at the end. But look, I knew that was probably going to happen going into this. And I did still really enjoy trying to match up these characters with their counterparts (Frollo, Esmeralda, Phoebus, etc.). It just meant that I was then either not able to take a character at face value or I kept trying to anticipate The Thing.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t still surprises in the story. For sure, there were still twists I did not see coming. It just means that since this story lines up with another I’m familiar with, I knew some of what was going to happen. This story still does its own thing while fitting into an existing framework most of the time.

Very enjoyable reading. Way more enjoyable than Hugo’s original story, I’ll say that. That man does not know how to get to the point.

Vengeance Road (Vengeance Road, #1)

Vengeance Road (Vengeance Road, #1) by Erin Bowman

First Lines: It weren’t no secret Pa owned the best plot of land ‘long Granite Creek, and I reckon that’s why they killed him.

I won’t lie–I’d seen this cover before and thought it was too busy, kind of Gothic, and just…not me. But a few months ago, I was looking through books online and for some reason, I gave this enough of a chance to read the blurb. And I found that it was probably totally something I would enjoy.

When eighteen-year-old Kate’s father is murdered, she doesn’t just want justice–she wants revenge. And answers. Because it seems her father was killed for a journal detailing the location of a gold mine in the area. And the only way Kate’s going to get her revenge is if she disguises herself as a boy and does the dirty work herself. But Arizona is not a safe place and Kate’s going to need the help of a couple of meddling brothers who won’t leave her along and an Apache girl who’d just about given up on hope. Even that may not be enough to keep her safe from the gang that’s out for gold and doesn’t mind spilling some blood.

This is an adventure story set in a very dangerous time and place. Arizona in the 1870s was an unforgiving land, especially if you managed to strike gold in any of the mines. As the story constantly points out, gold can turn men into monsters. The setting itself was unconventional enough to make it an interesting story. Factor in that this entire novel was based on a legend (which the author explains at the end) and it just makes it both more fascinating and weirdly creepier.

Kate walks an interesting line as a character. She’s not your typical young woman of the time. She’s lived out in the middle of nowhere her whole life. She knows how to shoot with killer aim and live off the land and track animals. That makes it easy for her to pretend to be a man as she seeks her revenge in a world unfriendly to women. Her voice easily shines through in the story, given her very distinct way of speaking as you can see from the first lines.

This story does not shy away from the harsh realities of a life like this. I was constantly surprised by the level of violence. Shoot-outs, blood, cold-blooded murder. It’s all there.

And this story takes some serious chances. There were some surprising twists I did not see coming because I thought there was no way this story would go that far. I was wrong.

This story rocks because it’s a female protagonist in a dangerous world doing what no one thought she’d be able to do. I would actually consider teaching this in my classroom if it worked in the curriculum. It’s a fast-paced story with tons of action. I’m pretty sure you could get a lot of reluctant readers to fall in love with this.

The Life and (Medieval) Times of Kit Sweetly

The Life and (Medieval) Times of Kit Sweetly by Jamie Pacton

First Lines: The Red Knight only fights on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Much to the everlasting chagrin of my boss, King Richard the Bold, aka Len Schwartz. Today’s Friday, and the Red Knight, my older brother, Chris, is running late. Again.

Ok, this probably sounds super corny, but this was high on my to-read list when I learned a book like this was going to be coming out. I have this thing for Medieval reenactments and Ren Faires and I wish I could tell you why, but I truly have no idea. I’ve only been to Medieval Times once and that’s it! But it must’ve made an impression.

Kit is a passionate defender of all things Just. So working as a serving wench at a Medieval -themed restaurant with no way to advance up the pay ladder to help her mom pay the bills, Kit is fired up. All she wants to do is be the first female Knight and joust but that’s not “historically accurate” despite how good she is. The company only lets men do that. So when Kit disguises herself as her brother and enters the joust anyway, the video of her goes viral–and brings with it a lot of trouble from management. But the Girl Knight won’t go down without a fight. Recruiting other girls to her cause, Kit’s next rival could be her greatest–and her last, if management fires her first.

What I’ve come to expect from stories about Medieval reenactments is that they’re going to be very quirky and a little bizarre. This was no exception.

Kit is pretty much exactly who you think she’ll be. She’s fierce and all about equality. She’s literally a Wench at the Castle (the name of the themed restaurant…so original) and wants to be a Knight like her big brother. Except company policy is that only men can be Knights. And Kit takes issue with that. Kit’s also funny and quirky and loyal, which was a nice way to round out her character.

The story bills itself as this like feminist rom-com style story (except with very little rom), and for the most part it worked. It’s definitely a comedy of errors at times and I found myself giggling over what Kit was doing. And yeah, I suppose it fits the bill as feminist too. Kit is constantly told no simply because she’s a teenage girl. The story also involves characters who do not conform to gender roles and/or are LGBTQ+. There’s one nonbinary character with they/them pronouns, one who is bi, and one who is trans. Really none of these things is ever the point of the story. For the most part it was mentioned at one moment and normalized from then on. No one cared, which is probably really how it should be.

I think the one detraction that I have for this story is that it seemed to struggle with tone a little bit. What I mean by that is this: most of the story feels like a comedy. The Castle is a joke in and of itself, and Kit and her friends are just silly and fun, keeping the story feeling super light. But then there are other very serious issues Kit’s dealing with. Her family is poor. Like can-barely-put-food-on-the-table poor. It’s a constant strain on her life, obviously. And while I appreciated the angle that brought to the story, it was always hard to go from laughing about what happened at work that night to the right mood for that scene. I don’t know. I feel like the serious stuff could have been handled/incorporated better. Because it was always sandwiched between funny scenes, it sometimes felt like it was supposed to be a joke itself and it’s definitely not.

I knew it was going to be a pretty light, fun read going in and that’s exactly what I got.

The Steep and Thorny Way

The Steep & Thorny Way by Cat Winters

First Lines: I drew a deep breath and marched into the woods behind my house with a two-barreled pistol hidden beneath my blue cotton skirt. The pocket-size derringer rode against my outer right thigh, tucked inside a holster that had, according to the boy who’d given it to me, once belonged to a lady bootlegger who’d been arrested with three different guns strapped to her legs.

I love a good historical fiction and Cat Winters is one I’ve come to respect when I want a story I know is going to unique and interesting. But she has had 1-2 that I wasn’t exactly a fan of, so despite my enthusiasm, I was leery.

Oregon, 1923. Hannalee Denney is the daughter of a white woman and a Black man. A few months back, her father died under somewhat mysterious circumstances. Hannalee is even more convinced something isn’t right when Clyde Koning, the doctor who treated her father that night, soon becomes her stepfather. When her father’s ghost suddenly begins appearing around town, Hannalee is sure there’s more to the mystery. And she wants answers. But to get those answers, she’s going to need to face something truly terrifying: the rising power of the Ku Klux Klan.

Cat Winters’s writing is usually meticulously researched and that showed in the book. From the very beginning, I felt like I was part of this world.

Set in 1923 Oregon, we enter a world that isn’t exactly familiar when we think of the Roaring ’20s, but isn’t all that different either. Characters are dealing with the loses from World War I and the Spanish flu epidemic. There are bootleggers and places that sell hooch on the sly. But, being rural Oregon, there aren’t glamorous speakeasies and flappers in this story. So if you’re looking for that, this isn’t it. But it is still definitely the time period and definitely interesting.

The story bills itself as being a 1920s retelling of Hamlet, but I feel like that’s a pretty loose description. The story certainly seems inspired by it, but most of the similarities to the famous play wore off quickly and this became its own story. I mean, this seemed to follow the Hamlet story line less than The Lion King did.

Hanalee is definitely a different kind of character for this type of story. She’s biracial, the product of a love match between a white woman and a Black man, in a time when those marriages were actually illegal. Hanalee experiences prejudice and legitimate danger because of her skin color, despite having some protection from living in the town all her life and having a white mother and stepfather. This story goes deep into the prejudices and dark realities of the time, a real scar in American history. I like that it didn’t flinch away from that.

But on top of that, we also see animosity for another marginalized group of the time: gays. I won’t go into details and say who or what happens, but I really appreciated that it showed their plight at the time as well. It truly was a scary time to be “different” for any reason.

As for the plot, I thought it unfolded really well. The mystery may not be the deepest or the most twisting one ever, but that was ok. The story was just as much about survival as it was solving the mystery. I got really into the characters, both main and minor, and that really made the story take off. Oh, and there are real pictures scattered throughout of Oregon during this time period. That’s super fascinating to me. I mean, I have an entire wall in my dining room devoted to pictures as much as 130+ years old of my ancestors.

This was a super fast read for me because it was just so interesting. Great for history buffs.