The Ex Hex by Erin Sterling

The Ex Hex by Erin Sterling

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The 52 Book Club 2022 Challenge Prompt: 3. Title starting with the letter “E”

Other Possible Prompts: 14. A character with superhuman ability, 34. An author’s photo on the back cover, 37. Set in a rural area, 41. Involves a second chance, 42. An indie read, 43. Author who’s published in more than one genre, 45. A book with illustrated people on the cover

I’m on a streak of some really *meh* books, which SUCKS because I was quite excited for this one! I was hoping for The Hating Game meets Payback’s a Witch, but no such luck.

Nine years ago, Vivienne and her cousin cursed her ex-boyfriend with a Bath & Body Works candle. After a wonderful three months, she broke it off with witch Rhys Penhallow and promptly labeled him a dickbag – but now he’s back, home to charge the ley lines that power the witchery of Vivi’s town, and the curse she didn’t really think worked apparently very, very much did.

Now, the pair have to work together to shut down living toys and ghosts, and other witchy antics haunting the little town as a result of Rhys’ curse, which he passed on through the ley lines. The proximity and the unresolved feelings make Rhys and Vivi’s relationship sizzle with some lightning intensity.

Without a doubt, this relationship was *sizzling*. The romance in this book is steamy and entertaining, if nothing else. Truthfully, I didn’t initially like Rhys and Vivi for each other…and I still didn’t really, by the end of the novel, but it mattered less because they never turned out to be super round or relatable characters so I wasn’t even mad. I felt like their backstories were generic and their reactions to things very neutral/unimaginative. I don’t know how else to describe it, other than I legitimately did not care about either of these characters, but Sterling writes some good romance *scenes*. That’s where all the magic happens.

I really want more from my witch books than The Ex Hex had to offer. I enjoyed Payback’s a Witch so much because it did a great job blending the romance and the witchy world; there was a lot of substance to that story and a lot of magic interspersed. That’s a series that will carry itself on the magic alone. The Ex Hex falls flat in comparison. I didn’t even really get the cozy vibe of a fall novel from this one, though I am reading it in 80 degrees…so that could be my fault. I just expect more from books about witches than Sterling was able to deliver.

I feel like I’m just entirely trashing this book here, but I evidently enjoyed it at least a little bit. And it really wasn’t that bad, it just wasn’t that good. The romance part was really solid, as I mentioned, but the rest of it was not stellar.

I think I will still pick up The Kiss Curse, especially because I really liked Gwyn’s character more than I liked Vivi. I had the potential to like Vivi more; I liked that she didn’t grow up as a witch, that she was coming into her own power in this book…but it was poorly executed. Gwyn had more warmth, character, and personality, so I’m excited to see her story play out on the page. Though I have to say, somewhat disappointed that we went from the f/f lead up created in The Ex Hex to whatever f/m magic is happening in The Kiss Curse.

And in conclusion, I would like to say that Sir Purrcival the cat was my very favorite character. He reminded me of my own kitties. I would be a witch in another life, and Eloise would be my Sir Purrcival.

Have a lovely week, friends!

Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune

Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The 52 Book Club 2022 Challenge Prompt: 14. A character with superhuman ability

Other Possible Prompts: 41. Involves a second chance, 42. An indie read, 43. Author who’s published in more than one genre

This gem came up in my library holds a couple weeks ago but I’ve just been putting it off – everytime I got it, it seemed I was already in the midst of something. Finally I decided to just borrow it, and I literally could not put this one down.

Wallace was a powerful, cold and calculated attorney who was very good at his job, if nothing else – and then he died. At his funeral, he is collected up by his reaper, Mae, and brought to Charon Crossing: a peculiar teahouse run by a man named Hugo. Hugo, Mae tells him, is a “ferryman” who will help him cross over.

Unwilling to believe himself really dead, Wallace learns to navigate the world as a ghost with the help of Nelson, Hugo’s grandfather, and Apollo, Hugo’s dog – both also dead. Wallace isn’t quite ready to pass on, but he’s not sure why just yet. This odd clan is going to help him find out why.

I love the characters in this book. They absolutely make the story – they are warm and alive, much like in The House in the Cerulean Sea. Despite the wild fantasy the story tells, these characters are deep set in reality with beautiful personalities and stories to tell. Even Wallace becomes something greater than he was.

I didn’t think I was going to like the premise (pondering the afterlife) in this one as much as the other Klune I read, but I really did. Perhaps even more so, because it felt a bit more like magical realism than deep fantasy – I don’t prefer fantasy, but I think Klune has a knack for it. I can picture it, see it, follow it and actually enjoy it more than I can any other fantasy story I’ve read in the last five to ten years or so (God, I’m old).

The themes of this book, as we are forewarned, are very heavy. It deals with a lot of sad and sobering stuff, but it deals with it very well. Klune has the heart and mind to write about suicide, grief, and loss in a way that many authors can’t even touch. The empty feeling is captured and laid out on the page for you to grapple with. I cried multiple times reading this book and I’m not ashamed to say so. It is not an easy novel to read, especially if these themes have been in your own life.

My biggest complaint about Under the Whispering Door is the lack of bridge over the gap between how Wallace starts and what he becomes. For the most part, the character development is truly fantastic, but there’s a point, maybe around 35-40% of the way through, where I think Wallace made a very discernible shift without one particular catalyst. The rest of the transitions, including Wallace’s, are masterful.

I loved this book. Can’t recommend it enough. Please, please pick it up, but practice self care while you read it.

Have a great week. ❤

Gwendy’s Final Task by Richard Chizmar & Stephen King

Gwendy’s Final Task by Richard Chizmar & Stephen King

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The 52 Book Club 2022 Challenge Prompt: 43. Author who’s published in more than one genre

Other Possible Prompts: 14. A character with superhuman ability, 15. A five-syllable title, 23. Author with an X, Y, or Z in their name, 25. A wealthy character, 52. Published in 2022

Plenty of prompt options, but I’m going to leave this one in my bonus category for right now! I think I only still need to fill 43 and 52 of those, so I’m just going to leave it off for the time being. 🙂 This review and synopsis won’t make a ton of sense unless you’ve read Gwendy’s Button Box and Gwendy’s Magic Feather, both of which I highly recommend.

This final installment of the the story of the button box takes our heroine all the way to outer space. When Mr. Farris returns one last time and asks Gwendy for the biggest favor at all, she complies, but at a great cost: it’s time to get rid of the button box, but there are people after its power. People who will stop at nothing to take it away from Gwendy…

This story, of course, hits with the same nostalgic, small-towny note as the first two, and I thoroughly enjoyed the vibe and the atmosphere these books created. The button box, and all of its buttons spelling certain doom, remain just as real and horrifying in this book. The Jonestown incident from Gwendy’s Button Box really got me and stuck with me long after reading, but I think the parallels King and Chizmar draw between a post-pandemic world will shake you even more so. It’s such an interesting concept, that makes for a really interesting tale.

Gwendy is wonderful as always, but I felt her narration was even more authentic this time as we live inside her brain with early onset Alzheimer’s. Memory is key to completing her “final task”, but as she slips away, she has to guard the secret that she can’t recall names, codes, or key instructions. We live the narrative the way she’s existing in it, forgetting names or things we just learned moments ago in the novel. It’s very intriguing and definitely makes the story that much more nerve-wracking!

I was duly surprised by the gore and drama of this book. There are some crazy parts encompassing the good ol’ town of Derry, Maine, that disturbed me if only because they were so wildly unexpected. Much of the button box series isn’t terribly violent (I say much of it – there are certainly times), but this one amps it up a bit. I loved the weaving in of King’s other tales, too. Both The Dark Tower and It made minor appearances in our storyline this time (and I’m just now realizing, if “the clown did it” in 2024, does that mean nothing the Losers Club did even worked?? I have questions).

The writing duo that is King and Chizmar is a damn good one. I really enjoyed Chizmar’s writing all on its own in Gwendy’s Magic Feather, but it needed the horror… it needed King back. And I don’t usually say that. King, in turn, is incapable of writing a short and to-the-point novel all on his own, and Chizmar provides that perfect balance. The length and level of detail in Gwendy’s Final Task hits that perfect sweet spot between the two.

While this book is full of twists and turns I wasn’t expecting, I did kind of think we were in for one more big one that just never showed. The book shows its cards a little too quickly for my taste. I was expecting more because there was still so much to go when it got a little hairy, but things play out just about as you expect them to in the last 75-100 pages.

Have you read this series? I’m curious to hear your own thoughts on this ending!

Have an awesome weekend, pals.

100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson

100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The 52 Book Club 2022 Challenge Prompt: 39. A Middle-Grade Novel

Other Possible Prompts: 14. A Character with Superhuman Ability, 15. A Five-Syllable Title, 22. An Unlikely Detective, 37. Set in a Rural Area

I feel like my “Other Possible Prompts” section always looks the same…I appear to read some very similar stuff, haha. I picked up 100 Cupboards to fill my middle-grade novel prompt, but there’s also a backstory here! This novel was not a random choice, nor just one that sounded interesting…I’m pretty familiar with what’s popular in middle grade novels from my work at the library, but 100 Cupboards has additional meaning to me.

Henry York’s parents are missing, so he’s being sent to live with his Uncle Frank and Aunt Dottie for the summer in Henry, Kansas. Summer with his cousins is finally helping him taste some sense of normalcy from his own life, and letting him be a kid – but better yet, he’s discovered cupboards buried under the plaster in his attic bedroom. Slowly, painstakingly, scraping and picking away at the plaster, Henry and his cousin Henrietta discover ninety-nine cupboards that seemingly help them enter other worlds. The cupboards are doorways to somewhere else…but the thing about doorways is that things can come back through them, too – and that’s where the trouble begins.

When I was twelve, my grandparents gave me 100 Cupboards as a Christmas present. We almost always got at least one book for Christmas in those days, and N.D. Wilson’s novel was mine. I love the creepy cover and the horror look in its coloring. I recall reading it in the sixth grade and just absolutely loving it – this was roundabout the time I was finally becoming a reader, for real, primarily because I was picking up good books like this one instead of that weird regurgitated garbage we feed kids, ie. “sad animal story”, or “magic animal story where they’re weirdly human”, or “girly drama about a boy that reminds you about true friendship”. There’s nothing wrong with reading those and enjoying them, but I think they became so much of a fad when I was in school that I forgot to just try to read things I actually enjoyed. And oddly enough for a kid with anxiety, I loved horror. Now an adult with anxiety, I still love horror! And I think this is one of the first books that got me hooked on that.

I really enjoyed completing this prompt, and not just because the book was pretty decent. I think this one really gave me a blast from the past, and made me evaluate where my reading tastes originally derived from. I recalled very little of the story, so as it unfolded for me nearly ten years later, I enjoyed it just as much the second time. I thought it was so interesting to see one of those pivotal turns in my reading taste.

I did remember, however, this book being much scarier to twelve-year-old me than it was to twenty-one-year-old me. I found very little of this book truly frightening, but I can see why it may have felt ghostly and horrific to a younger version of myself. And that said, I still really enjoyed it. This is a good yarn, if you will, and I would actually love to know what happens next. I may try to squeak both sequels into my reading for the rest of the year, just to see what happens.

This book is also more fantasy than I typically read, in keeping with my last two reviews! I think you should always expect some fantastical element of something when reading a middle grade novel, but the depth of this fantasy also went much deeper than I recalled. Even as a kid I didn’t read a lot of fantasy; I never read Harry Potter and I wasn’t into the Warriors series…I was more likely to pick up science fiction, or realistic fiction. This novel held a much higher rating in my head prior to me getting to the last quarter of the book or so, actually, because it was about then that it got really wild and a little harder to follow. They’re trying to get you to read the sequel…but really they lost me quite a bit when it started developing further. It was just an interesting observation for me. As a child, I never read the sequels – so clearly I was not so entranced at that age either.

And as much as I enjoy reminiscing about my childhood reading habits, I’m writing this review as a twenty-one year old bibliophile, so not all of this should come from my twelve year old self. And as an adult, I have to say, this book is stellar. It’s well written, it’s got well-rounded characters, and there’s just enough to it to keep the pre-teen following the plot and the adult pretty interested. There’s just little specks of suspense here and there that I was absolutely living for.

I had so much fun with this prompt and reading this book, so I was really excited to share this one. I hope I didn’t bore you too much with my nostalgia!

Have a great week, friends!

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The 52 Book Club 2022 Challenge Prompt: 28. Award-winning book from your country (Alex Award Winner)

Other Possible Prompts: 14. A Character with Superhuman Ability, 22. An Unlikely Detective, 37. Set in a rural area, 42. An indie read, 43. An author who’s published in more than one genre.

WOW. I’m disappointed in myself for putting this book off as long as I did. I am absolutely astounded and flabbergasted by how much I enjoyed House in the Cerulean Sea, especially given that it is yet ANOTHER fantasy novel! Not only my second five star read of the year, starting off strong, but it’s the second fantasy book I’ve tried and loved so far in 2022.

Quiet and analytical Linus Baker has been given a classified assignment as a case worker for his employer, The Department In Charge of Magical Youth: he is to investigate an orphanage on remote Marsyas island. Six unusual charges with incredible magical abilities are led by Arthur Parnassus, and their strange circumstances and lack of communication has Extremely Upper Management taking a special interest in Marsyas Island Orphanage.

Upon his arrival, nothing is as Linus expects. Though he tries to remain analytical, the children and even Arthur surprise him at every turn. The more time he spends on the island, the harder it becomes for him to keep his distance from these children, labeled as threats, this island, bringing color to his world, and Arthur, sweet and surprising – all but capturing his heart. And Linus hasn’t the slightest clue what to do with it all.

To me, House in the Cerulean Sea is best described as a cross between 1984, the X-Men, and your favorite slow-burn romance. I can’t even pinpoint for you all the exact vibes and marks this book seems to hit upon; all I know is that their convergence is an absolute delight. I haven’t read something with so much warmth, so much wit, and so much familial lightness in such a long time. This book is truly a marvel and lifts a weight off the heart when you read it.

There is so much subtext in this book. I’m sure most people will know that going into it, but Klune does a great job highlighting it for those who may not have gotten it initially. Themes of family, of hate and fear of the unknown, of separation – they are all reflected in this book, and while our characters may be represented as magical beings, they represent a broader group of marginalized people. Which brings us, unfortunately, to the controversy.

Now, I’ve read many different accounts and recounts of where this draws from, and Klune doesn’t seem to be afraid to repeat it. House in the Cerulean Sea was a story born from the Sixties Scoop, which refers to Canada removing indigenous children from their own families and placing them into white families, which went on for about twenty years and is still having an effect today. Reparations were paid by the Canadian government for this action in 2017. Klune claims that when he heard about this, having not previously known it, he had a lot of feelings about it that birthed House. A lot of people feel this to be wrong, given he is not indigenous, he is in fact white, and that he turned this story of misery into a fantasy tale that (spoiler alert) has a happy ending. There wasn’t a lot of happy endings when it comes to the real story that inspired this one.

I think the criticism is one-hundred percent fair, and I agree that, even if it was his inspiration, this is not something Klune should’ve shared. House in the Cerulean Sea is a real sugar coating of things, if I’ve ever seen one. But what I take issue with is the complete canceling of this story. I’m not at all anti-cancel culture: I think it’s society’s brilliant invention for deciding what we will no longer tolerate, and if the masses say it goes, it sure as hell should go. However, I want to remind everyone that this book was absolutely beloved and revered prior to this news breaking. It still does tell the story of a marginalized group of people, particularly children, who overcome through love and changing the minds of those around them. It tells a story of perseverance. And it spoke to so, so many people. Even now, after many readers “canceled it” with one-star ratings, it currently has a 4.47 star rating on Goodreads. I think the substance of this book is quality, and even if it’s not an accurate representation of the Sixties Scoop in any way shape or form, it’s a damn good book. It was born out of the feelings Klune felt when he heard about this horrific event. It’s not an accurate depiction; it was an inspiration for a tale we all hope could be, of the ending we needed. And above all, Klune himself is of a marginalized group, understands a marginalized group, and advocates for marginalized groups to write more about their own experiences. So yes, his inspiration and his sharing it was problematic. Is problematic. But I don’t think we should throw out the baby with the bath water. This is a brilliant piece of fiction, and we’d be wrong to deny it that much.

I have to know: have you read The House in the Cerulean Sea? What were your thoughts?? I’ve yet to meet someone who didn’t absolutely adore it upon the first read, though I know a few who changed their tune when they learned the information above. I really hope to read Under the Whispering Door this year; I have a few areas I could fit it into my challenge, and this was such an unexpected five stars from me. I picked it up when it first became popular, then when I read the description I didn’t know if I’d actually enjoy it, then the whole controversy came about…so I didn’t know what to expect. But I certainly couldn’t have guessed I would love it THIS much!

I hope you have a fabulous week friends, and that you’ll check out this gem if you haven’t already!

Payback’s a Witch by Lana Harper

Payback’s a Witch by Lana Harper

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The 52 Book Club 2022 Challenge Prompt: 41. Involves a Second Chance

Other Possible Prompts: 2. Featuring a library or bookstore, 5. Chapters have titles, 14. A character with superhuman ability, 37. Set in a rural area

This book!!! Too much fun. I legitimately have not read a fantasy book I enjoyed this much in many, many years. It wasn’t entirely what I was expecting – it was better.

After years away, Emmy Harlow returns to her hometown of Thistle Grove in anticipation of a house competition for the town’s founding family witches – over which she is to preside. But there’s good reason for her being gone so long: one of the other witches, Gareth Blackmoore, left her ten years before and made her feel inconsequential – as the Harlows are considered to be the weaker witches, and do not participate in the tournament that brings strength and prosperity to its crowned family. Emmy left magic behind in exchange for leaving behind a family legacy that followed her around like a storm cloud.

Back in Thistle Grove, Emmy and the other houses – Avramov and Thorn – are teaming up. Having been similarly scorned, her best friend Linden and the mysterious Talia Avermov are working together to put the Blackmoores, and Gareth especially, back in their place. But all that time together seems to be creating some sparks between Emmy and Talia…

There’s a lot going on this book so it is a bit hard to describe for you – but I think part of the action and imagination is what makes it so good. As I said, this is one of the first fantasy books I’ve read in a long, long time – I expected magical realism, but it’s pretty far into a fantasy realm. And I actually loved it! Payback’s a Witch was easily accessible and yet tons of fun. The whimsy and magic of it all was a great ride.

The romance was also adorable! That’s what I actually was reading it for – I honestly didn’t realize it was such an in-depth fantasy, though I live for witches and witchy vibes. And even jumping into a romance, I didn’t know this was queer romance, lol. Somehow I missed that – I don’t tend to read descriptions as much anymore, so I just jumped right into the book. After a few minutes, I actually laughed out loud at my own confusion…”That’s odd, I feel like they’re implying that Talia is the love interest? That’s an odd way to describe her if she isn’t.” Silly me! Really not sure how I missed that but oh my lord, are they cute!

I also loved Emmy and Linden’s friendship. It was sweet and genuine, and riddled with shared history that you could feel through the story. Sometimes I read a romance, and I honestly like the best friends more than I like the couple. Sometimes romance stories can feel disingenuine, but a writer can almost always capture best friends. But Linden and Emmy really compliment the romance and highlight the levels of intimacy differences between Talia and Emmy. Linden and Emmy’s sweet moments of friendship build even better expectations of connection between Talia and Emmy.

The storyline, and the ending, absolutely killed it. I can’t even express to you how much this reignited the vibes I gathered from my middle school, fantasy-reading days (but like, obviously…this one is not meant for middle schoolers!). I also want to note that I listened to this as an audiobook, and the performance and reader was very good. I love, love, loved it!

There’s a sequel coming! I’m told there’s another Witches of Thistle Grove book on the horizon…and I literally cannot wait. This book was just tons of fun. That’s the best way to describe it. Please check it out!!