Review: The Quiet Stillness of Empty Houses by L.V. Russell

A Kindle rests on a blue Kindle pillow that a moon and star pattern. On the left is a Sweater Weather candle. On the right is a notepad that says "Read."

Alexis:

If you’re into gothic books that are similar to Jane Eyre, then add The Quiet Stillness of Empty Houses to your TBR. 

When Theodora becomes a governess for a little girl in a quiet mansion, she realizes the house and its mysterious lord, Cassius, are full of secrets. 

What I liked:

  • The atmosphere

Russell’s words drip with atmosphere! Her writing is lyrical and paints such a vivid picture of the multiple decaying houses in this book. Speaking of which…

  • Creepy mansions

The settings almost feel like characters themselves. Theodora’s house, where she lives with her grandmother, is an ancient being falling apart around them. And Broken Oak Manor, where she works, feels like a slumbering giant. 

  • Ghosts! (Enough said.)
  • Secrets

There’s a lot going on behind the scenes that Theodora tries to uncover.

  • Theme of grief

Even though Theodora’s father died when she was young, his death plays a pivotal role in Theodora’s character arc. 

  • A great plot twist 

What I didn’t like as much:

  • Slow-paced

While I generally enjoy slow-paced and character-driven novels, the middle of this book dragged in places.

  • The romance 

The romance was just okay for me, and I felt like it could have been developed more!

VERDICT: ⭐⭐⭐⭐/5 

Pub date: May 15, 2023 ⁣

⁣Thanks to BookSirens, Quill & Crow Publishing House, and author L.V. Russell for sending me an ARC for review!

Alexis’ 2023 Hopefuls

Alexis:

Happy new year from me and my new book cart! The top shelf is my physical TBR (will I ever get to it?) And the bottom is shelf overflow. ⁣

I’m currently reading an ARC of A Song of Salvation by Alechia Dow, as one of my goals for this year is to delve into more sci-fi/space operas.

Here’s a long list of books I would love to get to at some point in 2023.⁣

  • Know My Name by Chanel Miller
  • The Little Village of Book Lovers by Nina George
  • Notorious Sorcerer by Davinia Evans
  • Empire of Exiles by Erin M Evans
  • The Ashfire King by Chelsea Abdullah 
  • Song of Silver, Flame Like Night by Amélie Wen Zhao
  • Threads That Bind by Kika Hatzopoulou
  • Never a Hero by Vanessa Len
  • The Bone Shard War by Andrea Stewart 
  • The Foxglove King by Hannah Whitten
  • A Fire Endless by Rebecca Ross
  • The City of Dusk by Tara Sim
  • When In Rome by Sarah Adams 
  • Seven Faceless Saints by M.K. Lobb 
  • A Study in Drowning by Ava Reid
  • Two Twisted Crowns by Rachel Gillig

I also saw that there’s some interesting discourse going around in the book community (I mean when is there not?). Apparently, some readers think it’s a red flag when someone mostly reads new books.

I’ve always enjoyed reading newer releases. As a writer myself, I love supporting authors during and after their book launches, because some day, I hope that will be me! I’m also all for reading what you like and what you want, as long as it isn’t hurting anybody.

What do you think? Do you feel the same as I do?

Happy reading!





Anna’s Yearly Wrap-Up: Best Books Of 2022

Anna: It’s that time of year again! 

Reading Stats

In 2022, I read a total of 69 books. My top three genres were literary, mystery, and contemporary, although not as many mysteries made it to my top books this year. I read 93 percent fiction and 7 percent nonfiction. Oops— one of my reading goals for 2022 was to read more nonfiction. Maybe next year!

Reading Tracking App

This year, I stopped using Goodreads and switched over completely to The StoryGraph to track my reading. Why? Goodreads is owned by Amazon and The StoryGraph is independently owned. I also just prefer it— The StoryGraph is more user-friendly, you can actually select the correct edition you’re reading, there are trigger warnings and each book is tagged by its mood, pacing, and genre. I also like that you can tag the books you own and digitally line up your TBR. 

Reading Journal

Instead of using my main bullet journal, this year I tried chronicling my reading in a separate reading bullet journal. I found it pretty tedious and stopped about halfway through the year. Even though I find that journaling helps me remember and process a book better, I need to stop writing so much of the summary or I get too burned out to actually journal. Luckily my in-laws got me a templated reading journal for Christmas, which I’m going to try using this year. 

So without further ado, let’s talk about the best books that I read this year! I’m not attempting to rank these; I loved them all.

Fiction

The Push by Ashely Audrain

I could not stop reading The Push and it haunts me to this day. This is a fast-paced yet deeply character-driven thriller about a mother who is convinced her daughter is evil, but no one else believes her. It’s about how terrifying parenthood is and how you might not have as much control over your child as you think.

This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub

I was hesitant to read this since I did not enjoy the only other book I’d read by Emma Straub, The Vacationers. But I loved This Time Tomorrow! It centers on a father/daughter relationship and how that changes as we age. It’s also about being happy where you are in life while recognizing that it’s okay to feel nostalgic for the past.  It also involves time travel! I can’t wait to reread this one.

Other People’s Clothes by Calla Henkel 

This coming-of-age book has a lot going on—some themes include mental health, sexuality, and our obsession with true crime. It follows Zoe, a struggling college student who becomes involved in a dangerous scheme when she and her study abroad roommate move into the apartment of a famous mystery writer. It’s a little slow in places but has so many elements I love that I couldn’t stop reading.

Bewilderness by Karen Tucker

This was one of the first books I read in 2022, and it continues to stick with me. It’s literary fiction about two friends living with drug addiction. Tucker writes about the heartbreaking cycle of addiction in a way that humanizes it without glorifying it. The writing is beautiful, I loved the friendship between the two main characters, and the ending still gets me. 

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

After reading (and loving) the Monk & Robot series by Becky Chambers, I was excited to jump into this sci-fi series. This first book was so fun and featured a diverse, lovable cast of characters that travel space together in a rag-tag ship called the Wayfarer. I’m looking forward to continuing the series! 

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

It’s hard to write about mental health in a fresh, new and meaningful way, but Meg Mason does it. Martha’s mental illness is never named in Sorrow and Bliss. We just know it’s a very stigmatized disease. I loved the role of family in this book, and that a large part of Martha’s journey is about accepting their love and support.

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

Modern Irish fiction is among my favorite, and this slim, “quiet” novel packs a punch. I read this one in early January, and it’s the perfect book to read around Christmas time. It makes you question what you would actually do when confronted with someone in need around what is supposed to be the happiest and most giving time of the year.

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel 

I’ve loved every Emily St. John Mandel book I’ve read, and this one is no exception. It’s almost impossible to describe what Sea of Tranquility is about, but it follows different characters across different timelines and worlds. Slowly their stories start to weave together. I loved the sci-fi and dystopian elements of this one as well!

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell 

This was one of my most anticipated new releases of the year, and it did not disappoint! No one writes historical fiction like Maggie O’Farrell. This retelling of the life of the duchess Lucrezia de Medici is set in Renaissance, Italy. We know from the beginning that Lucrezia is killed early in her marriage by her husband. The Marriage Portrait is beautifully written, full of tension, and I loved the direction it went. 

Down Comes The Night by Allison Saft

I don’t read much YA any more, but I picked up this one and liked it so much that I also read Allison Saft’s other book, A Far Wilder Magic, this year. I preferred this one, which follows Wren, a young healer who visits a gothic, crumbling mansion to figure out its dark secret. It also has a romance plot, which I actually enjoyed (I’m not huge on romance in my reading these days). The way the relations between the different kingdoms are written in this one is really well done.  

Nonfiction

Trailed: One Woman’s Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders by Kathryn Miles

Kathryn Miles explores the life and death of Julie Williams and Lollie Winnans, avid hikers who were murdered while camping in Shenandoah National Park. As a woman and frequent hiker of Shenandoah, I was intrigued—and terrified—by what Miles has to say about how the places we consider the most peaceful are not actually safe, especially if you’re a woman. 

My Body by Emily Ratajowski 

I knew nothing about model Emily Ratajowski before reading her memoir. Now, I respect her. Her essays recognize that Emily uses her body as currency and that it’s made her wealthy. Yet she challenges the perception that a woman can’t be sexy, intelligent, and call herself a feminist and a writer all at once.

Here’s to another great year of reading in 2023!

Alexis’ Yearly Wrap-Up: Best Books of 2022

Alexis:

It’s almost the new year, which means it’s time for my yearly wrap-up!

I read over 100 books in 2022, which is definitely the most books I’ve probably ever read in one year. I only say “probably” because I was that kid in middle school who just devoured books 😄

Here are my favorite books that I read in 2022.

  1. Divine Rivals by Rebecca Ross

If you’re looking for a YA/new adult historical fantasy, look no further. Divine Rivals doesn’t actually come out until 2023, so definitely add it to your tbr! It has magical and mysterious letter writing, WWII vibes, romance, and a war between gods. I adore the two main characters and the gorgeous, lyrical writing. 

  1. Bloodmarked by Tracy Deonn

The sequel to the Arthurian fantasy Legendborn is action-packed, with great characters and worldbuilding. It tackles topics like privilege, racism, and identity. It definitely does not have middle book syndrome! 

  1. Wildbound by Elayne Audrey Becker

The sequel to the YA fantasy Forestborn follows a pair of shapeshifters. It has magical woods, a war with plenty of action scenes, and romance (including a LGBTQ romance). This is one of my favorite fantasy duologies! 

  1. Defend the Dawn by Brigid Kemmerer 

Another sequel! This one is the sequel to one of my favorite books: Defy the Night. I just love the mix of court politics, plague, romance, and adventure. 

  1. Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher 

This is an adult fantasy that’s part horror novel, part whimsical fairytale. It’s both dark and hilarious, with a unique feel and a great adventure storyline. 

  1. Only a Monster by Vanessa Len

Only a Monster has time travel, intriguing worldbuilding and characters, and a lot of deep and dark themes. It surprised me, but in the best way. 

  1. Night of the Raven, Dawn of the Dove by Rati Mehrotra

This Indian-inspired fantasy has monster hunting, a forbidden soul bond, and an adventurous feel. It also has a dark turn that really amps up the stakes. 

  1. Love & Other Words by Christina Lauren

This is the only non-fantasy on my list, but Love & Other Words has childhood friends to lovers and follows two different timelines. The two main characters are an absolute mess, but I love how raw and vulnerable they are. There’s an emphasis on books, too. The ending has a plot point that I was not a fan of, but I love the rest of this book enough that it made the list.

  1. The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna

This book is heartwarming, charming, and a breath of fresh air. It has witches, including a loveable group of children witches. It has themes of belonging, family, and learning to love yourself.

  1. Unraveller by Frances Hardinge 

I’ve mentioned this before, but I will read anything Frances Hardinge writes. Unraveller has curses, a kid who can unravel them, and lots of quests. The writing is lyrical and atmospheric, the worldbuilding unique and interesting. 

Have you read any of these? If you want to check out my 2022 reading stats, check out my Storygraph or my Goodreads. (Disclaimer: They’re 1 book off from each other and I haven’t figured out why!)

I hope you all have a great new year! 🎉

Review: Kill Your Darlings by L.E. Harper

A Kindle ARC of Kill Your Darlings rests on a white marble table next to a Santa hat and a book notes notebook

Alexis: 

If you’re looking for Inkheart meets Inception, then Kill Your Darlings is for you. 

Inkheart was my absolute favorite book as I kid, so you know I had to request Kill Your Darlings on Netgalley!

The story immediately jumps into the action. Author Kyla thinks she’s dreaming at first. After all, she’s in Solera—the world she created in her fantasy series. But soon, she realizes that she’s stuck in Solera, who is in the middle of a war against the evil villian, and Kyla has to figure out how to save both herself and her favorite characters.

This book depicts the struggle of mental health, specifically with depression. It’s the main theme and the main abstract obstacle that Kyla must overcome. Kyla’s struggles, which Harper explains stem very closely from her own, give this book such a raw and emotional edge. I really felt for Kyla as she struggles with her very dark thoughts and depression in order to learn her self worth.

Harper’s wordbuilding is amazing. Solera is the perfect mix of a fantasy and sci-fi world. It has a healthy mix of dragons, magic, battles, and a slew of magical creatures. Since Kyla is the author, we also get a great insight to how the world and its dark and light magic works. 

Without giving anything way, I thought all of the parallels between Earth and Solera were done well. I like how we get asexual representation with Kyla’s character. And I love Kyla’s relationship with a dragon named Cendrion. 

I did think the romantic subplot felt a little forced, especially considering the age gap. However, I think it accomplished what Harper needed it to do for the story. Besides that, my only main critique is that I wanted even more at the end of this story. There were some open-ended questions and interactions that I itched to see while I was reading. However, I understand why Harper ended the book this way, especially considering the frame of the novel (which is within the frame of the novel about Soltera…hence the Inception aspect!). Even without a more beefy ending, this book packed a punch!

VERDICT: ⭐⭐⭐⭐/5

TWs: Depictions of mental illness including depression, anxiety, suicide and suicidal ideation, and self-harm

Note: I received an ARC from Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

Review: One Dark Window by Rachel Gillig

One Dark Window rests on a yellow scarf next to a cashmere candle and an oil perfume rollerball called Dusty Manuscripts.

Alexis:

One Dark Window is a new adult fantasy that follows Elspeth, who lives in the mist-locked kingdom of Blunder. Elspeth has a secret—after she contracted the infection that gave her illegal magic, she accidentally let a monster called the Nightmare into her head. Now, it lives in the back of her mind and protects her.

But when Elspeth runs into a group of highwaymen, she unexpectedly ends up joining a quest to rid Blunder of its dark magic: a deck of cards called the Providence Cards.

The first topic I want to discuss is the magic system. The idea of a magical deck of cards is very unique, and I really enjoyed how it shaped the worldbuilding and the story. The cards are the only legal way to do magic; each card temporarily gives the user a magical ability. 

Now for the worldbuilding. In the beginning of each chapter is a passage or two from a text called the Book of Adlers. This really helped give insight into the culture of Blunder and helped shape the world, as well.

As for the pacing, the beginning is really slow, and it takes a while for everything to be set up before Elspeth can actually go on her quest. But once the quest began, I really enjoyed being on the journey with her.

There’s a romantic subplot, as well. I’m a huge fan of a romantic subplot, and while I did enjoy it, I was hoping for a little more depth. (It’s worth noting that there’s also the fake-dating trope in this book, which I haven’t seen anyone mention!) But I’m hoping the romance doesn’t feel as surface-level in the sequel.

Speaking of sequels, the ending of One Dark Window sets up for a killer second book. 

Overall, One Dark Window is a great choice if you’re looking for an atmospheric and gothic read with a unique, dark magic system. 

VERDICT: ⭐⭐⭐⭐/5

Review: Spice Road by Maiya Ibrahim

A Kindle copy of Spice Road sits on a bookshelf next to a tea tumbler and a box of tea samplers.

Alexis:

Dune meets An Ember in the Ashes

Spice Road is a YA fantasy that follows Imani, a Shield warrior with an affinity for iron. When she discovers her supposedly dead brother is actually alive, she ventures outside of her homeland, the hidden desert city of Qalia, to bring him home. Outside the city limits, she discovers a world that she never knew existed, and grapples with her worldview, herself, her understanding of her brother, and the group she travels with. 

I really enjoyed the worldbuilding. Ibrahim does a great job describing the lush world. I love her use of sensory imagery, especially smell. It brings the world to life.

I love the tea magic! The people of Qalia access their affinity through drinking misra, a tea that allows them to access their magic. The first line of the book is, “We will fight, but first we will have tea.” Which is awesome.

I also really enjoyed the themes that Ibrahim presents. One of the main themes is truth and honesty, as Imani deals with the many lies she’s been told over the years. Another main theme is colonialism, which comes into play in the latter half of the book. I also appreciated the emphasis on family as Imani struggles to handle her rebellious little sister and hold onto hope that her brother is alive and well.

My favorite character is Qayn, a djinni that becomes Imani’s ally. He is the most complex and expressive character of the bunch, and I’m interested to learn more about him and his past!

But unfortunately, I didn’t like Imani’s character. She starts out as very naive and bullheaded…and ends the story being slightly less naive and bullheaded. She tends to be downright mean to anyone who helps her in the slightest and makes a lot of really dumb decisions. It doesn’t help that she’s also known as the Djinni Slayer…but besides obviously slaying a lot of djinni, we don’t really get an insight as to how she got that nickname at the age of seventeen. She also has a very confusing and lackluster enemies-to-lovers romance with a character who accompanies her on her journey. 

I found her to be unlikeable in general, and I had to push through certain chapters because I wasn’t rooting for her the way I should. However, I really loved the tea magic, the Arabian-inspired world, and the mythology aspects of Spice Road. 

VERDICT: ⭐⭐⭐ 💫


Special thanks to Delacorte Press for sending me an e-arc for review.

Spice Road is expected to be published on January 24, 2023!

Review: Bloodmarked by Tracy Deonn

Alexis holds a copy of Bloodmarked over a pile of fallen autumn leaves and her black Chelsea boots.

Alexis:

I’m not kidding when I say I sat down and devoured Bloodmarked in one day.

Bloodmarked, book two in the Legendborn Cycle, was one of my most anticipated sequels, and let’s just say if you’re worried about middle-book-syndrome/sequel syndrome, don’t be!

So much happens in this book that I already feel like I need to re-read it. The plot really thickens.

I loved learning more about Bree. I loved learning more about her root and her ancestors. I loved getting to know the secondary characters even more. I especially enjoyed getting to know Sel and Alice better. A decent number of new characters are also introduced, but Deonn does such a good job of balancing everyone out that no character feels flat.

Bloodmarked also dives into important themes such as racism, white privilege, and identity. This is such a well-fleshed out series so far, and I can’t wait to see where Deonn takes it next.

Overall, there’s not much else I can say about this book without spoilers! If you still haven’t picked up Legendborn and you’d be into a King Arthur retelling (or even if you’re just looking for a great and multi-layered YA fantasy read), I recommend picking it up.

VERDICT: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Review: The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy by Megan Bannen

Alexis wears a pirate Halloween costume and holds a copy of The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy in front of fall foliage.

Alexis:

Happy belated Halloween!

The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy was the perfect read to finish out October.

Hart is a demigod who’s a marshal for a wild land called Tanria. Mercy is an undertaker for her dad’s funeral home, Birdsall & Son, where Hart sometimes drops off bodies he finds in Tanria. But the two, who take their jobs too seriously sometimes, hate each other. But then Hart, who has been lonely for years, pens a letter to “A Friend,” it ends up in Mercy’s hands. When she anonymously responds, the two strike up a tentative friendship. 

I just had so much fun reading this book. It has fun fantasy elements like animal mailmen who used to be the messengers to gods and zombie-like creatures, yet the story also feels very contemporary. 

I don’t have anything negative to say about this book. Sure, the romance between Hart and Mercy happens a little suddenly, but there is a build up through the letter writing, which is an aspect I realized I’m loving in novels lately. I loved learning more about the characters’ backstories, and I especially loved Mercy’s relationship with her family. 

If you’re looking for a book that’s pure, weird fun but also has a macabre sense of humor that doesn’t shy away from the brutality of death, then this is for you.

VERDICT: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Review: The Sunbearer Trials by Aiden Thomas

The Sunbearer Trials rests on a marble table next to a white stuffed pumpkin and two candles.

Alexis:

The Sunbearer Trials follows Teo, a 17-year-old Jade semidiós and the trans son of Quetzal, goddess of birds.

This book is described as Percy Jackson meets The Hunger Games, and that’s the perfect description. 

Synopsis from Goodreads: 

As each new decade begins, the Sun’s power must be replenished so that Sol can keep traveling along the sky and keep the evil Obsidian gods at bay. Ten semidioses between the ages of thirteen and eighteen are selected by Sol himself as the most worthy to compete in The Sunbearer Trials. The winner carries light and life to all the temples of Reino del Sol, but the loser has the greatest honor of all—they will be sacrificed to Sol, their body used to fuel the Sun Stones that will protect the people of Reino del Sol for the next ten years.

In The Sunbearer Trials, I really enjoyed Thomas’ trademark voicy characters and fun writing style. The story is nice and fast-paced, and everyone’s outfits and superpowers sound so cool. I also like how this Mexican-inspired fantasy world is very diverse and inclusive, and how Teo’s wings play a role in the story and his trans identity.

While this was a fun read, there are some aspects that keep me from rating this higher.

For one, I never feel like the stakes are high enough. I mean, sure, one of the contenders will be sacrificed at the end, but the trials themselves don’t feel big enough to me. The games in The Hunger Games are thrilling to read because the stakes are so high, but in The Sunbearer Trials, Teo doesn’t even want to be there, much less take them very seriously. His motivation is to just…get through the trials so he can go back home. His lack of motivation plus the lack of high stakes meant I skimmed certain sections of the trials.

At times, this story feels more like Percy Jackson, aka middle grade. Now, I’m aware that I’m saying this as an adult reader who mostly reads YA, so maybe younger readers will feel differently. However, Teo is 17-years-old, and oftentimes, I thought he sounds like he should be closer to 14. Keep in mind reading is a personal experience and everyone interprets and reads things differently, but that’s how I perceived the character while reading this book. 

My last point is that the blurb makes it sound like this is going to be a high fantasy story, so imagine my surprise when the characters have phones and are watching TV. While I definitely think more fantasy worlds need modern technology and this is a cool aspect, moments of it took me out of the story. The world has its own version of Instagram and TikTok, and there’s also a reference to furries (what is up with books mentioning furries?? I read another one earlier this year that did the same thing).

That being said, the ending cranked up the stakes, which is exactly what I wanted! This is only the first book in a series, and the series definitely has a lot of potential. I’m interested in getting to know the large cast of characters better and to see what happens next. 

VERDICT: ⭐⭐⭐