ARC Review: The Jade Setter of Janloon by Fonda Lee

Publication Date: April 30, 2022

Synopsis:

Fonda Lee returns to the world of the Green Bone Saga with a new standalone novella.

The rapidly changing city of Janloon is ruled by jade, the rare and ancient substance that enhances the abilities and status of the trained Green Bone warriors who run the island’s powerful clans.

Pulo Oritono is not one of those warriors. He’s simply an apprentice jade setter with dreams of securing clan patronage and establishing a successful business. His hopes are dashed, however, when a priceless jade weapon is stolen from the shop where he works.

Now, Pulo has three days to hunt down the thief, find the jade, and return it to its rightful owner if he wants to save his future prospects, the people he cares about, and his very life. The desperate mission will lead Pulo to old vendettas, vast corruption, and questions about everything and everyone he thought he knew.

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This was intense. I hadn’t read the Green Bone Saga prior to reading this, so I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d be getting into, and for the first quarter or so I was overwhelmed by it all. This is a very complex world with many moving pieces and political factions and social hierarchy and magic rules that are really only touched on in this story. There is enough information that I was never completely lost, but I’m sure I would have gotten a lot more out of it had I read the Green Bone Saga first.

Even so, I was completely enthralled and engrossed and was surprised at 1) the amount of plot in this novella (there were SO MANY twists and turns and reveals) and 2) how attached to the characters I became. Pulo and Malla and Isin were sympathetic from the start which was really quite a feat, considering Malla spends most of the story in the back room and in a jail cell and Isin doesn’t say a whole lot and keeps to himself. Pulo is the entry point to the story and carries the weight of making them sympathetic, and it works so well. He starts out frustrated with them and not really understanding them, and as the story progresses and he comes to sympathize with them and understand them, so do we as readers. It was really quite skillfully done.

I was also impressed with how every side character is complex and well-rounded, and how the initial impressions we get of them aren’t always accurate. There were definitely some I didn’t like, but I felt like I knew so much about each of them, even when their page time was very small. I would happily read more about most of them.

I am definitely eager to read more by Fonda Lee and am already hooked on the complex world. I think the Green Bone Saga is probably in my future.

*Thanks to NetGalley and Subterranean Press for providing an e-arc for review.

Favorite Quotes:

Bright lights distracted from darkness, while money and success flowed through the gutters toward the cunning and the ruthless. Jade was not the only thing that was gained at the expense of lives.

ARC Review: Siren Queen by Nghi Vo

Publication Date: May 10, 2022

Synopsis:

From award-winning author Nghi Vo comes a dazzling new novel where immortality is just a casting call away.

It was magic. In every world, it was a kind of magic.

“No maids, no funny talking, no fainting flowers.” Luli Wei is beautiful, talented, and desperate to be a star. Coming of age in pre-Code Hollywood, she knows how dangerous the movie business is and how limited the roles are for a Chinese American girl from Hungarian Hill—but she doesn’t care. She’d rather play a monster than a maid.

But in Luli’s world, the worst monsters in Hollywood are not the ones on screen. The studios want to own everything from her face to her name to the women she loves, and they run on a system of bargains made in blood and ancient magic, powered by the endless sacrifice of unlucky starlets like her. For those who do survive to earn their fame, success comes with a steep price. Luli is willing to do whatever it takes—even if that means becoming the monster herself.

Siren Queen offers up an enthralling exploration of an outsider achieving stardom on her own terms, in a fantastical Hollywood where the monsters are real and the magic of the silver screen illuminates every page.

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Gods I love Nghi Vo’s books, and they just keep getting better. This one keeps the same vibe as the Chosen & the Beautiful but lays the magic and raw ambition on much thicker. I absolutely could not look away from the Siren Queen as she clawed her way to stardom on the silver screen, finding her limits and her people along the way.

The whole idea of the movie industry as a place steeped in magic, where stars literally rise into the sky and a kind of immortality can be wrested by those who want it enough, where the cameras steal a piece of you even as they capture you on film, is brilliant. More than that, it’s written in a way that makes it believable and real and true in a way that Hollywood and show business often isn’t.

There is a hunger to these characters that echoes and leaves you empty. Pain that leaves you with a phantom ache. The way the queer characters have to hide but still find each other, the way the studios can scrape you raw and remake you and sacrifice you if you displease them is desperate and true.

The writing is gorgeous and to die for. I read it in over a little more than 24 hours and fell absolutely, madly in love with it. It is absolutely going in my top 10, probably top 5 books of the year.

*Thanks to NetGalley, Macmillan-Tor/Forge, and Bookishfirst for providing an arc for review.

Favorite Quotes:

The trains had run the night before, and her hair, hanging over her shoulder in a braid, looked like a strip torn out of the world.

Women disappear, and even if you are famous, it can happen without a sound, without a ripple.

I liked being cold as the Atlantic, somehow monstrous and untouchable.

He looked like a man carved out of rock, like a mountain ready to fall.

Time stretched like a piece of taffy. I stood on Oberlin Wolfe’s rug, and names feel from my lips like rose petals, and then like rocks.

That was where I lost the very last of my Cantonese, and it died with a soft aspirate, a consonant rhotic.

“He was shrugging into a stiff, shiny new jacket, and though he’s still big, there was something different in his eyes. Maybe this was who he used to be, or maybe I chased him out, and something else came to live inside him instead.”

She couldn’t help what she was, and I couldn’t help what I was. We were stories that should never have met, or stories that only existed because we met. I still don’t know.

They were mostly terrible choices, and being smart and lucky only meant that they were ours. We made them because otherwise it was one more choice that the studios could take away from us…

He was kind though, and I remembered the glow in his eyes when he called me a monster. In his mouth, it was a compliment, and I would much rather be a monster than a victim.

The car slipped down the road as if it came on tiger’s paws, like a menace disguised in fog.

Would I be as brave now, in the light of day? I already knew that being brave didn’t mean anything unless you were willing to do it again.

I spent November haunted by October.

There was a cragginess to her features, her strong nose and her sharp jaw. It would crash ships rather than launch them, but I never knew a woman who didn’t want to crash at least a few ships.

The entire way to Jacko’s trailer at the back of the lot, my tall heels clacked a military beat. They still pained me, but I had learned years ago that there were things more important than pain.

When I drove north to San Francisco in a dead man’s car, the Pacific Coast Road was California’s dream turned flesh, the way Illinois dreamed of Chicago.

Beautiful but not pure, my mind whispered while I begged. Nothing we had done in the shadows of the Friday fires was pure. It was better than that. It was true. It was everything I was and everything I could be—was meant to be—if only I dared. It twisted inside me, hungry and vicious and clever.

It was worth dying for, it was worth living for, and now Nemo’s daughter was walking towards me as I writhed in the sand.

ARC Review: Ten Days in a Madhouse (graphic novel) by Brad Ricca

Publication Date: April 19, 2022

Synopsis:

Beautifully adapted and rendered through piercing illustrations by acclaimed creators Brad Ricca and Courtney Sieh, Nellie Bly’s complete, true-to-life 19th-century investigation of Blackwell Asylum captures a groundbreaking moment in history and reveals a haunting and timely glimpse at the starting point for conversations on mental health.

“I said I could and I would. And I did.”

While working for Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper in 1887, Nellie Bly began an undercover investigation into the local Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island. Intent on seeing what life was like on the inside, Bly fooled trained physicians into thinking she was insane—a task too easily achieved—and had herself committed. In her ten days at the asylum, Bly witnessed horrifying conditions: the food was inedible, the women were forced into labor for the staff, the nurses and doctors were cruel or indifferent, and many of the women held there had no mental disorder of any kind.

Now adapted into graphic novel form by Brad​ Ricca and vividly rendered with beautiful and haunting illustrations by Courtney Sieh, Bly’s bold venture is given new life and meaning. Her fearless investigation into the living conditions at the Blackwell Asylum forever changed the field of journalism. A timely reminder to take notice of forgotten populations, Ten Days in a Mad-House warns us what happens when we look away.

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This was an excellent adaptation of a chilling story. It covered all the main points of the story of Nelly Bly getting herself committed in order to expose the conditions inside a mental institution. The contrast of Nelly’s self-assured, composed inner voice and the illustrations of the women she was with and the conditions they faced was very powerful. I also loved how her self-confidence and self-assuredness deteriorated the longer she remained inside.

The illustrations were haunting. The black-and-white pen-strokes conveyed texture and detail and a chilling atmosphere. The way the women’s faces were rendered were also very powerful and haunting.

When I finished reading I discovered that I was tense and chilled — the story affected me quite strongly. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to know about how mental institutions used to be, but also with the caveat that while the story moves along quickly and is compelling, it will stay with you.

*Thanks to NetGalley and Gallery Books for providing an e-arc for review.

ARC Review: Sofi and the Bone Song by Adrienne Tooley

Publication Date: April 19, 2022

Synopsis:

In this gorgeous, queer standalone fantasy, a young musician sets out to expose her rival for illegal use of magic only to discover the deception goes deeper than she could have imagined—perfect for fans of An Enchantment of Ravens!

Music runs in Sofi’s blood.

Her father is a Musik, one of only five musicians in the country licensed to compose and perform original songs. In the kingdom of Aell, where winter is endless and magic is accessible to all, there are strict anti-magic laws ensuring music remains the last untouched art.

Sofi has spent her entire life training to inherit her father’s title. But on the day of the auditions, she is presented with unexpected competition in the form of Lara, a girl who has never before played the lute. Yet somehow, to Sofi’s horror, Lara puts on a performance that thoroughly enchants the judges.

Almost like magic.

The same day Lara wins the title of Musik, Sofi’s father dies, and a grieving Sofi sets out to prove Lara is using illegal magic in her performances. But the more time she spends with Lara, the more Sofi begins to doubt everything she knows about her family, her music, and the girl she thought was her enemy.

As Sofi works to reclaim her rightful place as a Musik, she is forced to face the dark secrets of her past and the magic she was trained to avoid—all while trying not to fall for the girl who stole her future.

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This book was EVERYTHING. Gorgeous slow-burn enemies-to-friends-to-lovers f/f romance? check. Magic? check. Music? check. Beautiful, lyrical writing? check.

This book reminded me of An Enchantment of Ravens (which is probably why it’s listed as a comp title on goodreads). They both have magic swirling through the story but also a deep and abiding love of art (painting in Enchantment of Ravens and music in this case) that underpins and transforms everything. Also similar is the journey and slow blossoming of love, and the writing of each is utterly gorgeous.

The story has music and magic and mystery in spades and combined with the gorgeous writing, it’s catapulted instantly onto my favorites list. It’s SO atmospheric and you can really feel the music and the magic as the journey and mystery unspools before Sofi and Lara. I FELT things. So many things.

The way Sofi slowly came to realize that her father’s methods of teaching her were actually abuse–and that she took that abuse further upon herself–was painful but also cathartic. Her discovery that she wasn’t as alone as she thought was beautiful.

I would definitely recommend this to fans of Margaret Rogerson and Maggie Steifvater.

This is definitely one of my favorite books I’ve read this year and after reading the arc I will immediately be purchasing my own copy because I can’t not own this and I will absolutely be rereading it.

*Thanks to NetGalley and Margaret K. McElderry Books for providing an e-arc for review.

Favorite Quotes:

What was art if it did not come from hard work and devotion? If it was not tended to and grown in the careful pockets of one’s heart?

It was eerie how casually people donned the level of polish the Papers offered. Where others fawned over the results of Paper-made glamours, that level of calculated, pristine perfection made Sofi uncomfortable. Humans were messy and complex. It pained her that magic disguised that potential for failure with a fleeting sense of flawlessness.

This girl looked like magic, but for the first time in her life, Sofi didn’t care.

“That’s…” Laura looked unbearably sad. “Sofi, that’s not what makes you a good songwriter. You don’t have to suffer in order to create.”

“Sofi, you don’t have to hurt yourself to be worthy of pursuing your dream. You don’t have to deny pieces of yourself in order to be good. Your songs are never better than when you let yourself go. You’re a different girl when you offer yourself the freedom to merely play. No grimaces, no frostbitten toes. Just your love for the music.”

She wanted this girl and all of her sounds. Every swish of her skirt, every clearing of her throat, every noise that proved she was right there beside Sofi. She never wanted a chance to forget, wanted to ride out the rhythm of Lara’s breathing, the clack of her nails against a tabletop. Sofi wanted every single note Lara’s existence created.

She was a song Sofi couldn’t wait to learn.

“I can’t be a saint,” she moaned, raking a hand through her hair, which had begun to dry in a frizzy pouf. “I’m barely adept at being a person.”

And she had. After all, it was a sixth day.

And sixth days—like every breath Sofi had ever taken, like every dream she’d ever dreamed, like every future she’d ever imagined—had always been for music.

ARC Review: To Marry and to Meddle by Martha Waters

Publishing Date: April 5, 2022

Synopsis:

The “sweet, sexy, and utterly fun” (Emily Henry, author of The People We Meet on Vacation) Regency Vows series continues with a witty, charming, and joyful novel following a seasoned debutante and a rakish theater owner as they navigate a complicated marriage of convenience.

Lady Emily Turner has been a debutante for six seasons now and should have long settled into a suitable marriage. However, due to her father’s large debts, her only suitor is the persistent and odious owner of her father’s favorite gambling house. Meanwhile, Lord Julian Belfry, the second son of a marquess, has scandalized society as an actor and owner of a theater—the kind of establishment where men take their mistresses, but not their wives. When their lives intersect at a house party, Lord Julian hatches a plan to benefit them both.

With a marriage of convenience, Emily will use her society connections to promote the theater to a more respectable clientele and Julian will take her out from under the shadows of her father’s unsavory associates. But they soon realize they have very different plans for their marriage—Julian wants Emily to remain a society wife, while Emily discovers an interest in the theater. But when a fleeing actress, murderous kitten, and meddlesome friends enter the fray, Emily and Julian will have to confront the fact that their marriage of convenience comes with rather inconvenient feelings.

With “an arch sense of humor and a marvelously witty voice that rivals the best of the Regency authors” (Entertainment Weekly), Martha Waters crafts another fresh romantic comedy that for fans of Julia Quinn and Evie Dunmore.

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I really loved this. Emily’s journey from the perfect untouchable innocent to her true self – determined, fiery, with a quick wit – was so, so very satisfying to watch. Julian was also great. I loved the family dynamics and the message of acknowledging how your upbringing affected you and then growing and asserting your independence.

Emily’s friends were wonderful and I loved their gatherings. And her interactions with Julian, as they both fell in love, were perfection. And the grand gesture at the end? Swoon-worthy.

Really, I just loved it all. I spent the entirety of the book with this huge smile on my face. It was so sweet and swoony and romantic and funny. The perfect romantic comedy. I will be rereading this one for sure and Martha Waters is now a must-read for me.

Thanks to NetGalley and Atria Books for providing an e-arc for review.

Favorite Quotes:

“Can I help you?” he asked her, somewhat grumpily.

“You getting married,” his sister said, quite decisively “is the best thing that has happened in years.”

…really, Frenchmen were very charming; it was a shame His Majesty’s Army had spent so much time trying to kill them over the past twenty years.

Here, a woman could take up space, speak loudly, draw the eyes of a crowd—or, alternately, could slip into a role behind the scenes, quietly doing her work just as well as the men who surrounded her—and Emily found both prospects not shocking but… exhilarating.

He loved her.

And what was truly galling was that it had taken a waistcoat that was an offense to God and man alike to make him realize it.

ARC Review: A Magic Steeped in Poison by Judy Lin

Publication Date: March 29, 2022

Synopsis:

I used to look at my hands with pride. Now all I can think is, “These are the hands that buried my mother.”

For Ning, the only thing worse than losing her mother is knowing that it’s her own fault. She was the one who unknowingly brewed the poison tea that killed her—the poison tea that now threatens to also take her sister, Shu.

When Ning hears of a competition to find the kingdom’s greatest shennong-shi—masters of the ancient and magical art of tea-making—she travels to the imperial city to compete. The winner will receive a favor from the princess, which may be Ning’s only chance to save her sister’s life.

But between the backstabbing competitors, bloody court politics, and a mysterious (and handsome) boy with a shocking secret, Ning might actually be the one in more danger.

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This was such a good book! I knew from the stunning cover art that I was going to love it, and I wasn’t wrong. The writing was gorgeous and painted such lovely pictures, bringing the mythology to life. I’m fairly certain it was Chinese mythology and culture, though I don’t have the background to say for sure.

I love how Ning carries this sharpness inside her. She is sometimes overwhelmed with the glitz and plush life in the imperial city and the competition, but she always finds this core of steel and honed edge when she needs it. I also love how everything she does is for her sister.

This quote in particular really spoke to me and summed up Ning:

‘I am selfish, and I know now that I will no longer apologize for it. Let the world burn, if Shu can live.’

The political games and scheming were great, as were the details of the competition. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time and I’m really glad the next book is being released this fall because I don’t think I could wait a whole year after that ending.

The characters were all so great. It wasn’t clear whose side anyone was on or who Ning could trust. Except Lian. She was Ning’s friend and ally from the start and their friendship was really beautiful. I hope we get to see more of it in the next book. Kang is still very mysterious and I’m still not sure whose side he’s on, but I definitely look forward to seeing more of him and Ning together because they definitely had some chemistry.

The magic was so cool! It was tea-based which is something I haven’t really seen before. I was swept away by the gorgeous rituals and ceremony surrounding it.

Thanks to Bookishfirst and Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group/Feiwel & Friends for providing an early copy for review.

Favorite Quotes:

I am selfish, and I know now that I will no longer apologize for it. Let the world burn, if Shu can live.

How can I give another part of myself to someone else, when I already have so little to give?

“You are the first girl who has ever greeted me with a swift kick to the shins. The first girl who has ever made me feel… normal.”

“That is decidedly abnormal,” I tell him after a pause, not knowing how else to respond.

I’m not sure I would have been able to say something so reasonable about someone who threatened the people I love.

Yet his answers conjure more questions that worm their way through my mind.

Just like the palace itself, tunnels upon tunnels, leading nowhere, and no exit in sight.

Just like Steward Yang said, it is too easy to live this pampered life, this fantasy.

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