Monday, January 20, 2020

The Iron Flower (Black Witch Chronicles #2) - Laurie Forest

Summary: Elloren Gardner and her friends were only seeking to right a few wrongs, but their actions have propelled them straight into the ranks of the realm-wide Resistance against Gardnerian encroachment. As the Resistance struggles against the harsh rulings of High Priest Marcus Vogel and the Mage Council, Elloren begins to realize that none of the people she cares about will be safe if Gardneria seizes control of the Western Realm.

With tensions heating up in Verpacia, more and more Gardnerian soldiers continue to descend upon the university…led by none other than Lukas Grey, now commander of the newly rebuilt Fourth Division base. Though Elloren tries to keep him at arm’s length, Lukas is determined to wandfast to her, convinced that she has inherited her grandmother’s magic—the prophesied power of the Black Witch. As his very nearness seems to awaken a darkness inside her, Elloren finds it more and more difficult to believe that she’s truly powerless, as her uncle always claimed.

Caught between her growing feelings for the rebellious Yvan Guriel and the seductive power offered by Lukas Grey, Elloren must find a way to stay true to what she knows is right and protect everyone she loves…even if that means protecting them from herself. (Summary and pic from

My Review: Well! So continues the saga. If you haven’t read the first book, The Black Witch, I don’t think it’s completely necessary, but you’ll wish you had. You can read my review here.

This book was a lot of things the first installment wasn’t. First off, it’s way more in the fantasy genre. Whereas the first one felt Harry Potter-esque in that they were at a magical school and everyone was just discovering their powers, this book goes full-on into the different races of magical beings and addresses more their differences and their backgrounds, including their looks. In a more main-stream book that had magic in it (like the Harry Potter series, which is always my go-to for a good fantasy/magic crossover) races wouldn’t look as different or be as deeply fantastical. At first this was difficult for me, as I’m not a huge reader of high fantasy and am not as completely familiar with all of the vernacular as some. There is definitely a learning curve for someone like me who doesn’t read a lot of high fantasy, whereas someone who does may be more familiar with the terms. Being a YA fic novel, though, these things were well-addressed and I didn’t feel completely lost. By the end I felt pretty well-versed in what was going on, even though the terms weren’t completely familiar at the beginning of the read.

Another thing that this book really leaned into was the romantic element. There was a lot of discussion of “affinity lines” and different character’s “affinity lines” moving towards each other, entwining together, getting all hot and heavy about affinity lines…and because of this, I would say that this book is probably for at least mid to older teens. It would be pretty intense for a young teenager, and although the discussion is always about “affinity lines,” it is heavily nuanced and very suggestive. I’ve read all of the novellas in between these novels, and they definitely have a lot more romantic discussions and goings-on than the main installments of the series. However, that is something that definitely needs to be mentioned.

Things got a lot darker in this book. I liked that, actually, because it upped the stakes. It made for some difficulty in reading about the abuse and injustice going on, but I think this is a good way for readers of this age to experience and witness oppression and those who are willing to fight against it. Although it takes place in a fantastical realm, it definitely has real-world echoes and implications and I think this is a great way to get the youth thinking about these situations.

One complaint that I have about this series so far is I’m really ready for this girl to come into her magic already. I’m not giving anything away here, I don’t think; it’s completely obvious what’s going to happen (or what should happen! Maybe I’m wrong!). It’s happening slowly, everybody in All the Land knows what’s up and yet we’re still waiting. It’s been two books already. C’mon! Let’s do this! I feel like at this point she’s a little clueless. Maybe it would be this way in real life? I don’t think so, though. C’mon girl. Figure this out. Anyway, I’m hoping that I’m rewarded for my patience.

If you’re into fantasy, especially high fantasy (because this is basically that). This book is YA, although many of the themes and content is bordering on New Adult, so I think older teens and adults alike would enjoy it.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There isn’t a lot of language, but there is a lot of sexual innuendo.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Freeform Friday: Where to Find Your New Fave Book

Hey there! Do you have a hard time finding a new book? Are you sick of the Facebook "hive mind" as your only option to get a recommendation? Check out this video about LOTS of different places to find new books. I hope you find a new fave place to find a new fave book!

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Stepsister - Jennifer Donnelly

Summary:  Isabelle should be blissfully happy -- she's about to win the handsome prince.  Except Isabelle isn't the beautiful girl who lost the glass slipper and captured the prince's heart.  She's the ugly stepsister who cut off her toes to fit into Cinderella's shoe...which is now filling with blood.

When the prince discovers Isabelle's deception, she's turned away in shame.  It's not more than she deserves.  She cut away pieces of herself in order to become pretty.  Sweet.  More like Cinderella.  But that only made her mean, jealous, and hollow.  Now she has a chance to alter her destiny and prove what ugly stepsisters have always known:

It takes more than heartache to break a girl.

Evoking the darker, original version of the Cinderella story, Stepsister shows us that ugly is in the eye of the beholder, and uses Jennifer Donnelly's trademark wit and wisdom to send an overlooked character on a journey toward empowerment, redemption...and a new definition of beauty.

(Summary from book sleeve - Image from

My Review:  I'm not going to waste your time by beating around the bush.  Stepsister is ah-mazing.  It's the best kind of fairy tale retelling -- instantly captivating, achingly familiar in an original way, and graced with an unbelievably compelling message.  Go ahead and add it to your shopping list/cart or reserve it at the library.  I'll wait. ........ Are you back?  Okay, I'll elaborate.

There have been numerous versions of the Cinderella story, and a fair few that focus more on the stepsister side of things, but none have hit me quite as hard as this one did.  Stepsister was utterly riveting, with brilliant phrasing, and ominous, lyrical prose reminiscent of the old Grimm fairy tales but with a more modern message.  If I'm being perfectly honest, Connelly hooked me with the dedication, which read "To everyone who's ever felt that they're not enough" and sealed the deal with the following foreword:
This is a dark tale.  A grim tale.  It's a tale from another time, a time when wolves waited for girls in the forest, beasts paced the halls of cursed castles, and witches lurked in gingerbread houses with sugar-kissed roofs.  That time is long gone.But the wolves are still here and twice as clever.  The beasts remain.  And death still hides in a dusting of white. It's grim for any girl who loses her way. Grimmer still for a girl who loses herself. Know that it's dangerous to stray from the path. But it's far more dangerous not to.
It gave me chills! The dazzling story that follows is a blend of dark, ancient magic, perilous adventure, and sweet romance, with an electrifying lesson on fairy tale feminism.  I was straight up swept away.

Stepsister is one of those rare YA fiction books that I plan to hand to my teenage daughters in the hopes that they not only enjoy the ride, but actually internalize the message.  I'm also not above buying several copies and leaving them strategically placed around the house.  There were many  times where I was so floored by the real life application of the story, I would have started highlighting if I hadn't been reading a library copy.  Isabelle's story begins rather bleakly, but her character arc is immensely empowering and laced with deep observations on human nature that might have felt out of place in a fairy tale retelling, if the book weren't so startlingly well-written.    Along the way, she learns lessons about the importance being authentic, listening to her own voice, loving herself and others, embracing her own strengths, and not letting others define or diminish her.  I can't think of anything a teen needs to hear more.

Now, I could blather on appreciatively for days, but I suspect Connelly's own words will do more to illustrate what I mean, so here are ten of my favorite quotes from the book:
History books say that kings and dukes and generals start wars.  Don't believe it.  We start them, you and I.  Every time we turn away, keep quiet, stay out of it, behave ourselves.
...cruelty never came from a place of strength; it came from the darkest, dankest, weakest place inside you.
Ella is the beauty.  You and I are the ugly stepsisters.  And so the world reduces us, all three of us, to our lowest common denominator.
Most people will fight when there is some hope of winning, no matter how slim. They are called brave.  Only a few will keep fighting when all hope is gone.  They are called warriors.  Isabelle was a warrior once, though she had forgotten it.
Here are the things girls die of: hunger, disease, accidents, childbirth, and violence.  It takes more than heartache to kill a girl.  Girls are tough as rocks., I can't make myself likable. I've tried.  Over and over. It doesn't work. If I don't like who I am, why should you?
This world, the people in it...they sort us. Put us in crates. You are an egg. You area potato.  You are a cabbage. They tell us who we are.  What we will do. What we will be. "Because they are afraid. Afraid of what we could be," Tavi said. "But we let them do it!" Hugo said angrily, "Why?"  Tavi gave him a rueful smile. "Because we're afraid of what we could be, too. 
They were not pretty, these women.  Pretty did not begin to describe them. They were shrewd.  Powerful.  Wily. Proud.  Dangerous.  They were strong.  They were brave.  They were beautiful.
Every war is different, yet each battle is the same. The enemy is only a distraction.  The thing you are fighting against, always, is yourself.
She'd listened to him.  She'd believed him.  She'd let him tell her who she was. And after him Maman, suitors, the grand duke, Cecile, the bakers wife, the villagers of Saint-Michel.  "They cut away pieces of me" she whispered in the darkness."But I handed them the knife."
There are countless more moments of solid gold wisdom...but they give away too much to share without spoiling things.  Long story short, I loved this book.  If you love fairy tale retellings or if you've ever felt less than, stuck in a situation you cannot change, or shoved into a mold of someone else's making, I highly recommend this book.

My Rating: 5 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  Some battle-field violence.  A girl cuts off her toes, but it is not described.  Four or five swear words (of the B, A, and H variety). A little kissing.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Finale - Stephanie Garber

Summary: A love worth fighting for. A dream worth dying for. An ending worth waiting for.

It’s been two months since the Fates were freed from a deck of cards, two months since Legend claimed the throne for his own, and two months since Tella discovered the boy she fell in love with doesn’t really exist.

With lives, empires, and hearts hanging in the balance, Tella must decide if she’s going to trust Legend or a former enemy. After uncovering a secret that upends her life, Scarlett will need to do the impossible. And Legend has a choice to make that will forever change and define him.

Caraval is over, but perhaps the greatest game of all has begun. There are no spectators this time—only those who will win, and those who will lose everything.

Welcome, welcome to Finale. All games must come to an end… (Summary and pic from

My Review: Ah, the end of a series. I know a few people who, when they love a series, will re-read the entire thing each time a new book comes out. I haven’t done that, I must admit, and if I did do it, it would have to be in a series that I absolutely loved. I loved the Harry Potter series, but I didn’t do that, and there were a few things I couldn’t remember each time I started, but within a short while I was caught up. I don’t know about ya’ll, but I don’t have a picture perfect memory. When it’s been a year or more since I’ve read something, sometimes I’m a little fuzzy on the details unless I’ve spent a ton of time with the characters or watched the movie. That brings me to this book. I remember the first books, I certainly remember how I feel when reading them (it’s a very immersive world), but it took me a little while to jump back in to what was happening. Part of the issue was that it picked up exactly where the last book left off, which is sometimes a little confusing just because there is very little back-story to kick you into gear and figure out where you should be. Luckily, I figured it out and was able to read along and pick up details as needed as I went.

Have you read the other two books in the trilogy? You can read my reviews for both: Caraval and Legendary.

So what is great about this book? Well, I think the world-building is really fun, and the creation of the atmosphere of it. This book has a very specific, magical fantasy feel to it. It’s unlike other books I’ve read. There are a lot of YA books that delve into the fantastic and dystopian, but they can often feel alike. This book feels different. It has a very specific feeling and she uses very specific words to describe it. That is, in part, one of my complaints about it as well. And I think I’ve mentioned this in the past reviews—it gets a bit excessive and a bit wordy. In addition, some of the descriptions are like mad libs. Sometimes they’ll make sense, and sometimes they’re two words that don’t even go together and don’t necessarily bring a new way of thinking about the (scent, look, feel, etc.), but instead are just silly and at times ridiculous. I’m sure younger readers will eat this kind of stuff up, but I’m old and cynical and sometimes I like my metaphors and descriptors to make sense. I’m not asking a lot, ya know?

The story in this book is fun. It’s got a lot of twists and turns (and sometimes it’s a little difficult to keep track of them because of it) but it certainly makes for a quick and fun read. It’s a long book, but it moves quickly. The story and characters are interesting, and I especially like the idea of the Fates and the magic that goes with them. I think there is potential for many spinoffs to this trilogy. It’s a rich world with lots of potential, and that’s a lot of fun. Some prequels would also be in order, as the Fates are really interesting and could make for their own adventures and stories.

If you are into YA Fic, especially magic and fantasy, this would be a fun book. I feel that teenage boys probably wouldn’t go for it as there’s quite a bit of romance and it’s quite fluffy in some aspects in that way (i.e. the descriptors and the clothes and the romance) but I know many teenage girls who would love this series. If that’s your jam, you should check this out.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book is clean, actually, with no language. It was a lovely surprise.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Freeform Friday: 15 of My Favorite Reading Challenges for 2020

It's that time of year when a lot of people starting thinking about goals.  Most of them seem to revolve around fitness, but why not set a goal to strengthen your brain with a few good books?!  There are a million reading challenges out there, but I've compiled/created a few of my favorites to give you a little inspiration.  If the numbers feel a little too hard/easy, feel free to tweak them to fit your needs, age, and abilities.  Several of them might even work well for your kiddos.

  • A Book a Week Challenge:  Read 52 books in 52 weeks. If this seems a little high, that's ok.  Maybe 12 books in 12 months is more your speed.  Set a goal that works for you!
  • The ABC Challenge: Read a title/author for every letter of the alphabet. (e.g. Ahab's Wife, Bird Box, Catch-22... OR Austen, Bradbury, Cisneros...)  
  • The Rainbow Challenge: Read books with colors in the title (e.g. A Clockwork Orange, Blue Asylum, Red Road, The Color Purple, White get the idea.)  
  • The Get Out of Your Comfort Zone Challenge: Read in a genre you've ordinarily snubbed.  Try some poetry.  Maybe read in the classics.  You might be surprised by what you find!  
  • The Book Swap Challenge - Get together with a friend and select 12 books for the other friend to read.  One for each month!
  • The 2020 Challenge:  Read 20 Fiction and 20 Non-fiction titles!  Not your thing?  Read 20 NYT Bestsellers and 20 Classics! 
  • The Read Outside Your Ethnicity Challenge:  Read a set number of books by authors from a different ethnic background/experience than your own.  
  • The Genre Gauntlet:  Read a book from 12 different genres.  Use this list or create your own: Classic, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Crime, Biography, Thriller, Self-Help, Mystery, Romance, Western, Dystopian Fiction, Memoir). 
  • Around the World Challenge:  Read books either set in or written by authors from around the world.  How many you read is up to you!
  • The Spiritual Feast Challenge: Read a book a month that feeds your soul.  This could be scripture or simply spiritual in nature.  Get ready to be uplifted!
  • The (Inter)Personal Improvement Challenge:  Read a book a month designed to help you become a better person or improve your personal relationships.  (e.g. The Anatomy of Peace, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, The Five Love Languages, etc.)
  • The Long Lost Love Challenge:  Sick of being disappointed with your TBR pile?  Re-read all your old favorites this year!  You already know it will be great!
  • The I'm Too Busy To Read Challenge:  Don't have time to sit down with a good book?  No worries!  'Read' with your ears!  Try listening to 1-2 books a month throughout the year, while you are busy doing other things. Folding laundry just got a gazillion times more fun!
  • The Clean Out Your E-Reader Challenge: We've all fallen victim to the free/reduced E-book.  Read 'em and delete that aren't worth keeping.  
  • The Trust Your Librarian Challenge:  Go to your local library and ask your favorite librarian(s) for their recommendations without giving them any qualifiers. I'm fairly certain they won't run out of suggestions, so your reading list can be as long or as short as you need.
BONUS CHALLENGES (for the serious reader only ;)
  • The TBR Challenge: We all have that To-Be-Read Pile.  Make it disappear!  Bwahahaa! Okay, we admit it.  This one might be a little unrealistic. 
  • READ THE BOOKS YOU ALREADY OWN:  Okay, this one is for me.  Clearly.
We hope you find a challenge that inspires you this year!  Let us know which challenge you like that best (or if you have one you'd like to share!)

Happy Friday!

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Odd Dog Out - Rob Biddulph


For busy dogs
a busy day,
of busy work
and busy play....

And one small dog is finding out what being
different is all about.  All Odd Dog wants is
to fit in and she's prepared to go around the
world to find her place in it.  But sometimes
it takes becoming part of the crowd to show
that, actually, it's better to stand out from the
rest.  From award-winning and tremendously
talented Rob Biddulph comes a heartwarming,
funny, and poignant picture book about the
power of being yourself and blazing your own

(Summary from book sleeve - Image from

My Review:  I was delighted to find Odd Dog Out in my mailbox in early December.  I don't remember requesting it for review, so I can only assume that Harper Collins just wanted to make my day (and they did). 

Odd Dog Out is stinking adorable.  It's about a dog who doesn't fit in with the crowd and ends up hitting the road in an attempt to find her tribe.  Eventually, she finds a town where everyone is just like her.  Well, almost everyone.  When Odd dog meets another dog who doesn't fit the mold, she beings to realize that being different isn't all that bad.  In fact, it can be amazing!

Odd Dog Out has a wonderful message of self-acceptance.  It teaches readers that it's okay to be different, to embrace those qualities that make you you, and to love yourself for who you are inside and out.   I adored the colorful pictures (see right, click to enlarge), adorable dachshunds, and rhythmic, rhyming prose.  I recommend this book to anyone who wants to encourage tolerance and acceptance, and most especially to those parents of young ones who march to the beat of their own drum.

My Rating: 5 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  You should be fine.  At least, I didn't find anything to offend in this book.

Monday, January 6, 2020

The Wren Hunt - Mary Watson

Summary Every Christmas, Wren is chased through the woods near her isolated village by her family's enemies—the Judges—and there’s nothing that she can do to stop it. Once her people, the Augurs, controlled a powerful magic. But now that power lies with the Judges, who are set on destroying her kind for good.

In a desperate bid to save her family, Wren takes a dangerous undercover assignment—as an intern to an influential Judge named Cassa Harkness. Cassa has spent her life researching a transformative spell, which could bring the war between the factions to its absolute end. Caught in a web of deceit, Wren must decide whether or not to gamble on the spell and seal the Augurs’ fate. (Summary and pic from

My Review:  One thing I love about YA Fic is that it’s not afraid to be brave and just have a book that is both real and that also includes magic. There are adult books that do this, of course, but it seems like they are almost always ensconced in the “fantasy” or “sci-fi” realm and it’s really just a certain kind of book. It probably won’t reach someone who is not into that kind of thing, simply because they probably won’t even be looking in that section. YA Fic is not so definitive. Just like the youth are not so set in their ways regarding magic and what is real and what is not, the literature is also more free-flowing. I’m all about it. Now—this is not to say that there aren’t plenty of adults who aren’t into that kind of thing. Of course there are! However, as adults, they know that they’re “into that kind of thing.” If someone asks them if they believe in magic or witchcraft or ghosts, their answer is much more certain and definitive. And if it’s not, like, “I’m not sure. There’s so much evidence to point to there being ghosts. However, I just don’t know.” That is also definitive. You see what I’m saying? I guess what I really want to say is that I like the young adult ability to just dispense with the judgment already and just enjoy a book that includes the real world and magic. This is just such a book.

I loved the magic in this book. It felt old, it felt ingrained in the culture; it felt real. I really enjoyed that it was just part of the characters’ lives, like it was never questioned or confusing about whether or not it was real magic or not. It was just part of them and their family and their family rituals and lore. There’s something magical about that—practices and beliefs so deep that it just becomes part of who you are. I loved that the characters related to it on a fundamental level. Even if they thought that some of the rituals and magic weren’t working, or if they questioned it, it wasn’t that they questioned the existence of it; they merely questioned the efficacy. That alone gave the magic an ancient feeling and believability that was fun. I also enjoyed that this book took place in the real world as opposed to a paranormal world or something more fantastical. That made the magic feel more realistic and ingrained and interesting. It's almost like when not believing is not an option, what to believe and how to incorporate it becomes more fundamental and more interesting. I loved that these teens were faced with this alternate option to the world and to the existence of magic.

I enjoyed the characters in this book as well. This wasn’t my all-time favorite female protagonist, but I think that’s because she is not completely developed in this book yet. I’m giving her the next book or so to see what comes of her and her ambitions. I enjoyed what I saw so far, I just think there could have been more there. There were definitely some promising moves at the end of the book that I’m thinking will lead to some awesomeness upcoming. There were also some good villains, which is key. It’s hard to fight against evil when the evil just isn’t that…evil. There were definitely some legit foes that could cause some drama in the upcoming books. That being said, I'm hoping that the female protagonist can step it up or the evil is going to take it over and I'm not sure I'm all about a book like that. 

I liked the story of this book. I’m hoping there’s more to it in the books to come. There were definitely some holes and some weaknesses in the storyline, but I am letting it slide for now because I know there are more books coming. A good author doesn’t give away all the secrets in the beginning otherwise there’s nothing to look forward to! Now, if my questions aren’t answered and there are lots of holes in the books to come, I’ll start to wonder, but for now I’m definitely intrigued and looking forward to the next installment!

If you are a lover of YA Fic, especially the kind that deals with old magic and magical cultures, this book is for you.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book is pretty clean with some minor language.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Freeform Friday: Reading for Sanity's Best Books of 2019

It's that time of year again! 
Our reviewers are taking a wee winter break 
to enjoy the holidays with their families.  
We'll be back on January 6th but before we go, 
we thought we'd leave you with a little gift -- 
Reading for Sanity's BEST BOOKS OF 2019


by Bunmi Laditan

Before We Were Yours 
by Lisa Wingate

Encyclopedia Mythologica: Dragons & Monsters 
by Matthew Reinhard & Robert Sabuda 

Rosie Revere, Engineer 
by Andrea Beaty & David Roberts

Remarkably You 
by Pat Zietlow Miller & Patrice Barton

We Were the Lucky Ones
by Georgia Hunter

 La Princesa and the Pea 
by Susan Middleton Elya 
& Juana Martinez-Neal

by Juana Martinez-Neal


With the Fire On High 
by Elizabeth Acevedo

Red Queen (Red Queen #1)
by Victoria Aveyard

Glass Sword (Red Queen #2)
by Victoria Aveyard

The Island of Sea Women 
by Lisa See

by Malala Yousafzi with Christina Lamb

Where the Crawdads Sing
by Delia Owens

Virgil Wander 
by Leif Enger

Dealing with Dragons
by Patricia C. Wrede

Stonebearer's Betrayal 
by Jodi L. Milner

Golden Son (Red Rising #2) 
by Pierce Brown

Morning Star (Red Rising #3) 
by Pierce Brown

Edited by Christopher D. Short

The Wrath & the Dawn 
by Renée Ahdieh

Also, don't miss two of our most popular posts this year:

...and lets not forgot
with RFS Reviewer Ashley & Librarian Olivia Jeppson Carter:

Part One / Two / Three / Four

We hope you have a great holiday season 
and will see you in the New Year! 
Until then, happy reading!

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Firefly: The Unification War (Part One) - Joss Whedon, Greg Pack , Dan McDaid

If you haven't seen the Firefly television show or the Serenity movie, you might think about it before reading this book.  I'm  not sure this graphic novel will be fully understood or appreciated by someone not familiar with the Firefly 'verse.

Summary: From Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Marvel's The Avengers, comes a new era of Firefly, as the definitive story of the Unification War is told at last!

Captain Malcolm Reynolds thought he could outrun his past, but when a simple mission goes wrong, he's forced to confront it in the form of the Unificators, mercenaries deputized to hunt down war criminals...and they've got Mal and Zoe at the top of their list!  Ward can make villains of even the best men, and Mal's quest for redemption will put him at odds with his own crew, forcing him to make a choice: fix the past or fight for the future.

Along with Whedon, writer Greg Pak (Mech Cadet Yu, Totally Awesome Hulk, Weapon X) and artist Dan McDaid (Judge Dredd: Mega City Zero) take you back to the battleground where it all began...and reveal a secret history that might end it all.  (Summary from back of book - Image from

My Review:  If you've been around here at all lately, you know that I'm a huge fan of Firefly, a television show by Joss Whedon (Avengers, Buffy) which lasted only one season and was cancelled by morons, much to the dismay of its many loyal fans.  A movie called Serenity was made to give the fans some closure (and it was great), but, guess what? Years later, we still want more.  This summer, in a fit of withdrawal, I checked out all the Firefly related books available at my local library (even the graphic novels, which aren't usually my style) because I am just. that. desperate. for more of my favorite motley crew.  Enter Firefly: The Unification War (Part One), a graphic novel created by Joss Whedon, written by Greg Pak, and illustrated by Dan McDaid.

In this volume, a fiery malfunction and an explosive encounter strands the crew of Serenity on a isolated moon with a sidelined ship.  Not long after, Mal and Zoe are accused of war crimes and hunted by group of Alliance mercenaries.  The crew gets separated, baddies come out of the woodwork, and the shenanigans ensue.  This volume also teases, but doesn't fully delve into a significant shared backstory.  Basically, they give you just enough to torture you. *shakes fist at Josh and Greg

I liked this graphic novel a little better than one I reviewed back in October (Serenity: Leaves on the Wind).  I appreciated that there weren't any images of a sexually graphic nature and the lack of likeness in the artwork didn't bother me as much as it had previously.  My favorite aspect of the book was the beginning of each chapter which contained detailed artwork and a collection of well-loved quotes from show.  You know...

"That sounds like something out of science fiction.... You live on a space ship, dear."
"Ten percent of nothing is -- let me do the math here.  Nothing into nothin'.  Carry the nothing."
"I brought you some supper. But if you'd prefer a lecture I have a few very catchy ones prepped.  Sin and hellfire.  One has lepers."
"Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal."

That sort of thing.

Unfortunately, this volume felt more like a teaser than anywhere near a full story.  It ended abruptly with a cliffhanger, zero resolution, and rather sooner than I expected.  It was WHAM....To be continued.  The last thirty or so pages were a beautiful cover gallery, but I was still left wanting the rest of the story rather than just the beginning.  I went online to find the next volume only to discover it doesn't come out until December 17, 2019.  I realize to you that is yesterday, but I am writing this review in August.  So I have to wait.  You don't. 

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader: Some violence and biblical swearing (of the H and D) variety.  

Monday, December 16, 2019

The Fondue Bible: The 200 Best Recipes (Second Edition) - Ilana Simon

Summary: An updated and upgraded edition of the market leader on fondue, with over 200 recipes.
Fondue is ever popular and is the perfect choice when you want to create a memorable meal experience for family and friends. The Fondue Bible has been a market leader and a trusted resource on fondue cooking for over a decade. In addition to traditional favorites and new twists on those classics, it offers a range of recipes that go well beyond the familiar cheese and chocolate varieties, along with dozens of dips and sauces specially designed to complement the recipes.
There are hot oil fondues such as Ginger Beef Fondue, Zesty Lime Chicken, and Tempura Vegetables, and savory broth fondues such as Mongolian Hot Pot, Honey Garlic Chicken Fondue, and Thai Pork Fondue in Lemon Grass Broth. Traditional recipes with a twist include Emmentaler Fondue with Caramelized Shallots and Cheddar Cheese and Beer Fondue, while decadent finishers include Bittersweet Chocolate Fondue and Cherries Jubilee Fondue. With more than 200 recipes, there's a fondue for everyone.
The Fondue Bible also provides menu-planning suggestions, a guide to using and maintaining different types of fondue pots and lots of tips and tricks for fondue cooking. This updated edition offers 10 new recipes in an entire section devoted to throwing fondue parties. (Summary and pic from

I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

My Review: My kids love fondue. Actually, my husband and I love fondue, too. Back in college we would go on a special date here and there to The Melting Pot, and it was always a delicious treat. We eventually moved from the city where the Melting Pot was, and now it's an hour away, and also, I bought their cookbook, so we don't go as often. Well, we haven't been for years, actually. And here's the deal--fondue at home is pretty easy, actually. I have two legit fondue pots (both upgraded from the one powered by a tealight back when we were first married). I haven't done the hot oil fondue at home because #toddlers, but for special events (like Valentine's Day) we will do a cheese fondue and a chocolate fondue as a family and call it dinner. I'm a fun mom, ya'll. In fact, for the past few years we've had fondue for Christmas, and we're planning on that again for this year. Christmas Eve will bring ham and a full-on traditional dinner with in-laws and such, but Christmas is fondue. We love it.

I would say we're quite adventurous when we do fondue in that we'll try lots of different cheeses and combinations. My grocery stores here have pretty decent cheese sections, and I can usually find everything listed in a fondue recipe. I can especially find everything listed in the Melting Pot recipe book because there aren't that many recipes and they are pretty basic. Let's talk about The Fondue Bible in regards to this. This book has, like, a bajillion recipes. I'm not kidding. It is hundreds of pages of so many different types of recipes you could spend your year cooking through it and still not do everything. Ilana Simon is basically the Great Pubah of Fondue.

This book has a pretty lengthy "fondue essentials" at the beginning of the book. This covers everything from fondue history to fondue equipment (divided into different tools needed for fondues like dessert, oil, broth, cheese, etc.). It even has a small section about fondue fables, and a section about the menu and what beverages go with fondues. She also gives a list of do's and don'ts, and how to adapt recipes. Even though I've been making fondue for years, I found these sections really helpful. I'm certainly not all-knowing and I often encounter what I consider to be rookie mistakes and yet I still kept making them because I wasn't sure what to do differently. I was following the simple suggestions in the Melting Pot's book, and it wasn't cutting it. This book has helped me a ton in those areas where I struggled. 

The Fondue Bible is divided into sections: Fondue parties (this has four different menus to use for different occasions such as first-time fondue party, game day, family-friendly brunch, and romantic fondue for two). The next sections are cheese fondues, oil fondues, broth fondues, dessert fondues, and dips and sauces. These sections are HUGE. There are SO MANY recipes in here. Like I said at the beginning, I have the Melting Pot's official cookbook, and it has probably 1/6 of the recipes that this book has. This book has everything from basic combinations to more adventurous combinations. There are fondues from different regions and lots of different kinds of cuisines such as Thai, Korean, Mexican, Italian, and French. It seriously runs the gambit of different flavors and tastes. The recipes are great in that there are tips as well as make ahead suggestions and even suggestions for what to serve it with. It literally gives you everything you need to make a successful fondue experience, regardless of whether or not you're a beginner or a seasoned fondue eater. I guarantee you will find something in here that will interest you. There is, of course, a long table of contents that makes it easy to find what you're looking for. 

The Fondue Bible has some beautiful pictures in it, but instead of being right next to the recipes, they're clumped in sections. The recipes are grouped together and are made out of slightly heavier paper than a normal book, but not the glossy recipe pages that are in many cookbooks. It's not my favorite way to have a recipe book (and I have several cookbooks like this), but the pictures are labeled with page numbers and I understand that with a recipe book this large with so many recipes it would be simply ginormous if it were to have those big heavy pages with a picture from each. It just would be massive and unwieldy. This is a much more manageable size.

I'm reviewing this book purposely in December because I think it would be a fun gift, especially if you were to include it with a fondue pot or cheese and chocolate for a recipe. It would be a fun gift. Also, maybe you'll get a delicious dinner invitation out of it. Alternatively, you can buy it for yourself and enjoy your own fondue. This is the most comprehensive fondue book I've seen, and I totally think it's title of "Fondue Bible" is applicable. If you're looking for a no-nonsense guide to making any fondue you can think of (and many, many more that you haven't) then this is your book to go to.

My Rating: 4.5 Stars 

For the sensitive reader: This book is clean. 

Friday, December 13, 2019

Freeform Friday: What's in Ashley's Stack?

Hey book reading friends! If you're like me, you're plowing through these holiday events/obligations/choir concerts/treat making (and treat eating)/gift buying/etc/etc/etc because it's crazy that it's December 13th! Seriously. Every year I swear to you the holiday season goes faster and faster. It's okay, though. We still have plenty of time for Prime shipping. That's what I'm telling myself, at least.

Once things slow down (ha) and the kids are out of school and I stop having to stand in the kitchen at 5 PM wondering what the heck we're going to have for dinner because apparently I forgot ALL DAY that we had to eat dinner and now we don't have time for extra special dinner making before the next upcoming activity, I'm planning to read. We'll have a good dose of holiday festivities of course, but by and large I'd like to spend a lot of time reading and whittling down on this huge stack of books I have going on.

Some of these books are ones I've accepted/requested for review, so there's some amount of obligation involved, some are books that I've been given for gifts or am borrowing, some are ones that I've just put in the stack as next in line, and then of course there are the library books that I keep putting on hold even though I have a ton of books waiting in the queue. What can I say? I'm a compulsive reader. And I'm reading for sanity. So. There ya go. Whatever your holiday may include this year, I'm hoping it can include a lot of reading. Should you need some ideas, especially ones that may not be on your radar, check out my list below. Happy holidays, friends!

Books I'm currently reading and plan to finish before the year is out (all pics and summaries come from

A Bend in the Stars by Rachel Baranbaum
Summary: In Russia, in the summer of 1914, as war with Germany looms and the Czar's army tightens its grip on the local Jewish community, Miri Abramov and her brilliant physicist brother, Vanya, are facing an impossible decision. Since their parents drowned fleeing to America, Miri and Vanya have been raised by their babushka, a famous matchmaker who has taught them to protect themselves at all costs: to fight, to kill if necessary, and always to have an escape plan. But now, with fierce, headstrong Miri on the verge of becoming one of Russia's only female surgeons, and Vanya hoping to solve the final puzzles of Einstein's elusive theory of relativity, can they bear to leave the homeland that has given them so much?

Before they have time to make their choice, war is declared and Vanya goes missing, along with Miri's fiancé. Miri braves the firing squad to go looking for them both. As the eclipse that will change history darkens skies across Russia, not only the safety of Miri's own family but the future of science itself hangs in the balance.

Grounded in real history -- and inspired by the solar eclipse of 1914 -- A Bend in the Stars offers a heartstopping account of modern science's greatest race amidst the chaos of World War I, and a love story as epic as the railways crossing Russia.

Summary: In every corner of this earth there are secrets. They are hidden in the dark edge of the woods, nestled in the cold stars, and staring out from a stranger's eyes. And whether they be demonic possession or an unsolved murder, the unknown has always haunted our dreams.

From the hit podcast Unexplained comes a volume perfectly crafted for the curious, the cynical, and the not-easily-frightened. Richard Maclean Smith is the expert in the unknown, and humbly offers up ten tales of real-life events that continue to evade explanation. With these chilling stories comes the missing key: a connection to our own beliefs in science, superstition, and perception.

What can a case of demonic possession teach us about free will? What can a cursed box show us about the act of storytelling? What can a supposed instance of reincarnation tell us about developing a concept of the self?

Perhaps some things are just better left unexplained...

Books that are staring at me longingly from their places on the to-read shelf (pics from

The Winter Sisters by Tim Westover

And one library book that is due soon enough it will probably be moved up above all these very worthy lovelies:

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

The Wrath & the Dawn - Renée Ahdieh

Summary: In a land ruled by a murderous boy-king, each dawn brings heartache to a new family.  Khalid, the eighteen-year-old Caliph of Khorasan, is a monster.  Each night he takes a new bride only to have a silk cord wrapped around her throat come morning.  When sixteen-year-old Shahrzad's dearest friend falls victim to Khalid, Shahrzad vows vengeance and volunteers to be his next bride.  Shahrzad is determined not only to stay alive, but to end the Caliph's reign of terror once and for all.

Night after night, Shahrzad beguiles Khalid, weaving stories that enchant, ensuring her survival, though she knows each dawn could be her last.  But something she never expected begins to happen:  Khalid is nothing like what she'd imagined him to be.  This monster is a boy with a tormented heart.  Incredibly, Shahrzad finds herself falling in love.  How is this possible?  It's an unforgivable betrayal.  Still, Shahrzad has come to understand all is not as it seems in this palace of marble and stone.  She resolves to uncover whatever secrets lurk and, despite her love, be ready to take Khalid's life as retribution for the many lives he's stolen.  Can their love survive this world of stories and secrets?(Summary from book flap - Image from

My Review:  I started listening to The Wrath & The Dawn while walking at my local high school track.  I was hooked fairly quickly by the opening chapters, the narrator's voice, Shahrzad's fiery nature, and the lavish middle eastern setting.  It was all so captivating that even as I kept listening I knew I would eventually start reading it so I could catch every nuance and soak it all in.  And so that's what I did.  I threw in the proverbial earbuds, picked up a hard copy, and started over.

The Wrath & The Dawn is inspired by One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Arabic folk tales better known in English as Arabian Nights.  If I'm not mistaken, it had a touch of Beauty & the Beast woven in, as well.  It was delightfully romantic and mysterious, but also full of assassins, intrigue, and hints of magic.  One of my favorite aspects of the book was Shahrzad herself -- a fiercely determined young woman with a sharp mind, an even sharper tongue, and lethal skills of her own.  Shazi isn't about to be intimidated by anyone, not even the homicidal prince who just happens to be her new husband.  Of course, it isn't long before she realizes the prince isn't all that he seems, and that seriously complicates things for a girl whose sole purpose for marrying was to avenge the death of a beloved friend by murdering the man responsible.  The story takes some interesting turns from there, and has several subplots and supporting characters that enhance and amuse...but I'll let you discover those yourself.  Suffice it to say, I was never bored.

This story takes place in the city of Rey in the kingdom of Khorasan.  I wasn't sure until I finished the book and looked it up, but Khorasan is an actual land that historically encompassed much of what is now eastern Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan (and several other 'stans').  There is even a much smaller province in Iran of the same name today.  I loved that the author chose to give the book a real, rather than fictional location and felt it added a little something extra to the story.  Though the setting is real, the story is laced with mystical undercurrents, dark magic, and bits of fanciful folklore (like flying carpets), which made for a lovely blend of fantasy and reality.

The Wrath & the Dawn's middle eastern setting was exquisitely-rendered, to the extent that I could close my eyes right now and visualize with ease not only the characters but the sumptuous cuisine, elegant clothing, bustling marketplace, and ornate architecture. If pressed, I might even be able to conjure up a smell or two. And, probably helped that I'd seen the live-action Aladdin recently and so I already had one foot in the door, but still....I. was. in. it.  I just adore that.  All that aside, there is a fine line an author must walk when setting a scene -- too little detail can leave a reader skimming the surface of the story and too much detail can drown the story or slow down its flow.  The author walked that line like she was stone-cold sober most of the time, but every so often she would overstep and the excess detail interfered with the momentum of the story.  It didn't bother me that much, but I did notice it enough times to merit a mention.  Still, I'd rather have too much than too little.

I thoroughly enjoyed this story for what it was -- a lovely little bit of escapism and a great balance of (moderately clean) romance, action, folklore, and adventure.  The book does end on a cliffhanger, so I will definitely be listening to and/or reading the sequel, The Rose & the Dagger, as soon as possible.  I believe Wrath and Rose are a duology and it's actually kind of marvelous to be able to read a series that doesn't take a kabillion years to finish.  Ahdieh has another duology set in feudal Japan (The Flame in the Mist and Smoke in the Sun).  I already have it on order.  I want to wait till I've read the next book to make the call, but I think I've found a new author to love (and binge read)!  HOORAY!

UPDATE:  While this review is posting in December, I wrote the review in August.  Since then I've had time to think about the book a bit more (and read the sequel) and there is one thing that is a little off to me that I feel it is important to mention. I don't want to take away from my original review because those are my actual feelings having just finished the book, but I still want to be honest as I sit here thinking about it.  To talk about it, I have to explain a bit so I have to throw up a warning...(SPOILER STARTS HERE) Shahrzad ends up marrying the Caliph early on in the story and they have a 'wedding night' of sorts.  It isn't graphic.  It's barely even mentioned.  I suppose the consummation of their marriage could be construed as rape from a modern perspective, though it seemed to me that it was more of a sacrifice Shazi was willing to make to exact her revenge.  However, later on in the story it is explained that the Caliph only ever was intimate with Shahrzad.  The big question is WHY?  Why her and none of his previous 'wives'?  I'm sure you could come up with a lot of explanations, but that whole scenario seemed odd to me and worth mentioning for anyone who might feel triggered by the way that relationship plays out.  (SPOILER ENDS HERE)

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  A handful of swearwords, mostly biblical in nature.  Several instances of marital intimacy, though two were only briefly inferred (like one sentence) and another was 'closed-door' but preceded by making out and the loss of some (but not all) clothes.


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