Afterlife #3: A Sucker For You – Marlene Perez

“I should have staked you when I had the chance”

Tansy, vampire queen of California, is going on a road trip. She’s bringing an eclectic bunch with her: her best friend (the only human), her two assassin sisters, her boyfriend (a werewolf who’s trained as a vampire slayer) and his pack (minus the one who stayed behind to study). They’re headed to Vegas to stop a wedding.

Besides the obvious ickiness associated with the idea of their parents being married, Tansy’s mother, Vanessa (AKA, the Executioner), has compelled Vaughn’s father, so it’s not exactly a free will decision as far as Adam Sheridan is concerned. Tansy and Vaughn are determined to prevent this happily ever after.

“Do you think it’s a coincidence that I follow Vanessa to Vegas and all hell breaks loose?”

It’s been six months since Tansy attended the worst part of her life and became a striga vie, a witch/vampire hybrid, and her witch is at war with her vampire. Granny’s tonic isn’t working as well as it used to so her allergy to the sun has been getting worse.

Tansy has the Blood of Life ruby with her but she doesn’t know what it does yet or even who gave it to her. All she knows for sure is she needs to do whatever it takes to ensure Vanessa doesn’t get her hands on it. Besides the priceless gemstone, Tansy has brought along her parasol and her trusty drumstick (all the better for slaying vampires).

It’s family reunion time in Vegas. While Vanessa is doing her best to evade her daughter and get on with her dastardly deeds, Tansy finally gets to meet her absentee father. Mason Alicante, the head of the Paranormal Activities Committee, is also Rose and Thorn’s father. He’s one character who certainly lives up to his reputation. Rose and Thorn need their own series.

The Drainers, who reinvented themselves in the sequel as the Thirsty Thieves, are at it again. This time, they’re the Bleeding Hearts and they’re trying another new style of music, pop.

Hecate, the best hellcat ever, makes an appearance. She’s such a good kitty.

Granny and her Old Crones Book Club stayed home for this adventure but Granny still has her part to play. She’s my favourite character of the series, not that it was ever a close call.

My main question mark in this book related to Wanda, the healer. When we first meet her, she says she’s not going to be around for the next few weeks because she’s going to a deserted island. In the next chapter, the group have dinner at Wanda’s World and chat to Wanda, who is clearly not on holiday.

This book has action scenes where vampires meet their doom via drumstick, parasol and other lethal means. There are werewolves with ginormous appetites. The characters stay in luxury accommodation and visit specialty hidden world stores. There are mushy lovey doves scenes and mysterious tattoos.

This is my favourite book of the series. It’s unusual for me but I enjoyed each book more than the one that preceded it.

I’m not usually into books that feature vampires and I don’t generally read romance novels but this series hooked me. They’re light reads but they were fun and a great escape. I’m definitely keen to read more books by this author.

Content warnings: Readers with emetophobia may have trouble with some scenes.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Entangled Teen, an imprint of Entangled Publishing, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Vampire-witch hybrid Tansy Mariotti has exactly one goal: to stop her mother’s Vegas wedding.

It’s not because she hates weddings. It’s not because the groom is her boyfriend’s dad (although yuck). It’s not even because Vegas weddings are cliché as hell. It’s because her mum is an evil incarnate vamp known as the Executioner. Nothing good can come of someone marrying a person named the Executioner. Nothing.

With the help of her werewolf boyfriend, her bestie, her granny’s no-crave-blood tonic, and her favourite stake – a drumstick – Tansy is Vegas-bound and ready to raise hell, all while hoping her witch side can keep her fangs at bay. Only suddenly, her witch side is fading … fast.

Tansy’s running out of time to stop her mum and save herself – before what happens in Vegas stakes in Vegas. 

Afterlife #2: I’m With the Banned – Marlene Perez

Tansy got way more than she bargained for when she and friend/crush Vaughan set out to save her best friend, Skylar, from Travis, lead singer of The Drainers, a band that sucks both literally and figuratively.

Tansy, a Mariotti witch, is now a striga vie, a witch/vampire hybrid. Not only that, shortly after acquiring her vamp abilities, she got a serious promotion: queen of the California vampires. The job comes with a surprising amount of admin.

Meanwhile, Skylar has returned to being human, which considering she’s the one who got Tansy into this mess in the first place, doesn’t seem especially fair. I’m not a fan of Skylar; she’s not the best friend that Tansy deserves.

One really good thing happened during the road trip: Vaughan has graduated from crush to boyfriend. Only he’s been MIA recently, learning to become a vampire hunter. Oh, and he’s a werewolf now. So are all of his new friends.

The Drainers have reinvented themselves. They now call themselves Thirsty Thieves and are singing country and western. Badly.

I found Rose and Thorn, who work for the Paranormal Activities Committee, intriguing during the first book but they didn’t seem to do much. In this book their potential becomes more evident and I want to spend much more time with them. They’re training Tansy to become a badass and they’re big on motivational speeches.

“There are other things to worry about besides vampires,” Thorn said.

I stopped moving. “Like what?”

“Werewolves, banshees, Medusas, Narcisi, and stupid people,” she said, “Just to name a few. All of whom can run faster than you. Your granny can run faster.”

Vanessa, Tansy’s mother, comes back onto the scene for the first time since she abandoned her as a baby. Vanessa is doing her best impression of a loving mother but she’s the vampire known as the Executioner so may not be as trustworthy and caring as she’d like Tansy to believe.

“You know she’s about as stable as a toddler on a sugar binge, right?”

I’m absolutely obsessed with Granny. She’s amazing! Her tonic helps Tansy manage her newfound sun allergy, she’s a librarian and her coven is called the Old Crones Book Club. She also knows when to be a sweetheart and when Tansy need a loving push.

“Now, are you going to sit there like a lump or are you going to get off your tush and handle business?”

Unlike most series, I enjoyed the sequel more than the first book. I’m looking forward to meeting Tansy’s father and can’t wait to see where Vanessa’s storyline takes us.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Entangled Teen, an imprint of Entangled Publishing, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

I never wanted to be a vampire queen.

But on the bright (if not sunny) side of the debacle, I’ve got a super-hot new boyfriend. And he just might be the perfect guy.

Well, if the perfect guy ghosts you for a month and then comes back to school with a new look, a pack of friends, and a secret. But we have bigger problems.

The Drainers are back. They’re singing a different song, but have they really changed?

Even worse, werewolves’ hearts are being ripped from their bodies – which is putting the people I love in danger. I need to figure out who is behind the murders before there’s an all-out vampire-werewolf war.

No one is going to mess with my friends, even the ones who like to get wild and howl at the moon.

Sometimes, all a girl can do is grab her tiara and start kicking some supernatural ass…

Afterlife #1: The Afterlife of the Party – Marlene Perez

Spoilers Ahead!

Join Tansy as she embarks on a road trip with her friend/crush Vaughan. They’re following a band that’s on tour, but not because they’re groupies. They’re trying to save Tansy’s best friend, Skylar, from the clutches of Travis, the band’s lead singer. Travis is a vampire that’s been feasting on Skylar.

The first in a planned trilogy, The Afterlife of the Party sucked me in straight away. (See what I did there? 🧛🏼‍♂️) I felt like I already knew Tansy, Skylar and Vaughan, and enjoyed hanging out with them. I loved the name of the vampire’s band, ‘The Drainers’, and I was keen to learn all about Tansy’s witch heritage.

I appreciated that consent was addressed in a vampire story, although after the vampires were introduced there were a number of scenes that had me scratching my head. I do need to acknowledge that I read an uncorrected proof so it’s entirely possible that the things I struggled with may not be included in the final version. Having said that …

Rose and Thorn mostly wandered in and out of scenes and didn’t contribute a great deal to the story. I anticipate they will have a larger role in the sequels, and I hope they do because their characters have the potential to become very interesting. However, by the end of this book both they and the Paranormal Activities Committee they work for seem pretty irrelevant.

I didn’t always feel the urgency of Tansy and Vaughn’s attempts to find Skylar. Especially when Tansey found Skylar close to death, did a quick healing spell on her and then left her again.

Sometimes terms that had already been defined, like Bleeders, would be reexplained in later chapters.

Tansey says she told Granny the “entire story” but less than ten paragraphs later she mentions a key part of the story that she has kept from her.

I knew I’d have to tell her eventually, but I wasn’t quite ready for the look of disappointment I’d see.

The showdown that I knew was inevitable as soon as a certain character was introduced disappointed me. It was over and done with much too quickly for my liking. If someone is going to try to take out a Big Bad I want there to be more of a fight, and maybe a cliché Big Bad monologue to go with it. While there are still plenty of baddies left for our heroes to deal with in the sequels, if it was that easy to get rid of the Big Bad then won’t their underling’s deaths be even easier?

I hope the sequels reveal the identity of Tansy’s father and explain what the deal is with Connor. I want more time with Granny, who could become my favourite character if I got to know her better. I’d also love to see Tansy and her friends cross paths with other hidden world creatures.

Content warnings include the violent death of an animal and mention of sexual assault. Readers with emetophobia may have trouble with some scenes.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Entangled Teen, an imprint of Entangled Publishing, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

When my best friend Skyler told me about this party in the Hollywood Hills, I was less than enthused. As it turned out, my feelings were more than justified. That party ruined my life.

Tansy didn’t even want to go to the party. It’s hard enough living in one of your best friend’s shadows and secretly in love with your other best friend.

And now she’s leaving it a vampire.

Now her best friend Skyler is stuck on the road trip from hell, on tour as a groupie with a literal band of vamps. Tansy sets out with Vaughn, her other BFF turned maybe more, to save Skylar’s life and take down the band. But when they find themselves in the middle of a vampire war, will Tansy be able to make the ultimate sacrifice to save her friends?

Crossroads Chronicles #1: Demon Bound – Chris Cannon

Spoilers Ahead!

As a long term romantiphobe it makes zero sense that I eagerly await the next book by an author who writes romance novels, but that’s the voodoo Chris Cannon has somehow managed to place upon me. After laughing at myself because of my accidental enjoyment of my first few Chris Cannon reads, I now get smiley when I realise there’s a new book on the horizon. See? Voodoo!

I don’t have to work to get into Chris’ books. I’m sucked in right about the time the main character is described as a bookworm. So, about page 1.

Meena lives in Crossroads, a small town in Southern Illinois with farmhouses and cornfields, a place she describes as “boring with a huge helping of judgmental”. Entertainment in Crossroads consists of the diner, library, pageants and bonfires. Meena isn’t a pageant kind of girl, unlike her older sister, so she spends a good portion of her time hiding out in the library. She lives in books and can’t wait to go away to college.

All of the trouble that follows Meena applying for a summer cleaning job with Wacky Winslow Old Lady Winslow Carol can be traced back to her need to feed her addiction to books, but as a fellow hopeless book addict I understand the pain of the money to book ratio only too well.

One of the reasons I liked to live in books is that real life mostly let me down.

Meena’s new job also requires she collects Carol’s orders from Madame Zelda, a fortune teller, whose nephew (sort of) is staying with her for the summer. I say ‘sort of’ because Zelda is actually Jake’s mother’s second husband’s aunt. Naturally Meena and Jake cross paths and then they’re practically insta-kissing, followed soon after by some insecurity and jealousy, then more kissing.

I was kind of afraid he’d forget about me as soon as another girl came along.

Previous Chris Cannon books I’ve read have been fun, bantery smooch-fests. This book also features some lip locking but a tad less banter than I’ve come to expect from Chris’ books. However, this one also includes some entertaining supernatural elements.

Witches, demons, spirits and vampires also make Crossroads their home, which makes for some interesting dynamics. Along with the good ol’ faithfuls like spells, wards and salt lines,

there are also imaginative additions like Super Soakers fuelled with holy water! I chuckled whenever a vampire said something “sucked”.

“Is it just me, or do you have a sense of impending doom?”

My favourite characters were Sybil, the vampire, and the familiars, Goblin and Sage. Bane, the crossroads demon, was an early contender but he creeped me out with his desire to keep touching Meena’s hair. He’s not the only supernatural being who seems fuzzy on the whole consent thing.

“You’re reading about demons? I’m flattered.”

Carol and Zelda, who seemed quite powerful in the lead up to the events in this book, disappointed me by seeming to accept the hands they were dealt without the fight that I expected from them. If there’s a sequel I’d love to see what they’re truly capable of.

It’s not a Chris Cannon book if I don’t get to drool over the food. I craved apple pie, pizza, hamburgers, chocolate shakes, cake, donuts,

cinnamon rolls, bacon, and ice cream during this book.

“Remember our family motto,” my dad said. “With ice cream, everything is possible.”

A few niggles and question marks (spoilers are included here!!):

I personally found some of the terms used, including “batshit crazy” and “nuts”, cringey. I also feel the language used when discussing suicide is important, so much prefer seeing ‘died by’ rather than ‘committed’ suicide.

When Meena says early on, “No, but it might explain the drinking”, she’s talking about Jake’s father. I’ve checked a few times and definitely acknowledge I could have missed something but as far as I can tell the only parent whose drinking had been mentioned up to that point was Meena’s father.

There’s a door that’s too small for Meena and Jake to use but when it’s opened from the other side they have no problem entering the room. I didn’t see any indication that the door changed size in the meantime.

Sage, Meena’s familiar, uses a credit card when he’s in human form. I wondered where he stores this when he transforms into a cat again. Also, what happens to the human clothing of familiars when they transform?

I may have misread this but there was a section which seemed to imply that dementia is a mental illness. My understanding is that dementia is a condition of the brain and sure, comorbidities with mental illnesses can and do exist, but isn’t one itself.

If Meena leaves her body for a week while she’s astral projecting, how did she not die of dehydration? Did the people around her physical body somehow get her to drink during that time? (Not to mention her bodily functions.)

When Jake says, “Did you call me to start a fight?”, it was he who called Meena, not the other way around.

I wanted to know more about the physical, emotional and behavioural impacts of being on a demon’s payment plan. One character mentions being more quick to anger since they’ve lost part of their soul but I’m greedy; if a concept like having your soul gradually removed is introduced, I want to know exactly how it works.

While this story is self contained there’s definitely room for a sequel. I’ll be hitching a ride to Crossroads if the story continues. I need to see a pageant in this town!

Content warnings include mention of mental health and attempted suicide.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Entangled Teen, an imprint of Entangled Publishing, LLC, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

When a summoning goes awry, suddenly booknerd Meena’s summer job becomes something drastically different. Instead of cleaning eccentric Carol’s house, she’s bound to a demon as his soul-collector. Soon Meena discovers that the boring, pageant-obsessed, bonfire-loving town that she’s never fit in to is a hotbed for soul-sucking demons, demon-hunting witches, and vampires who just wanna have fun … And then she comes into her own powers. 

Could things get any stranger? Good thing she meets new guy Jake – who gets her and still hangs around.

When Jake’s mum sends him off to his Aunt Zelda’s for the summer, he thought he’d be bored. But nothing is what it seems in this town. His aunt isn’t just odd, she’s a witch who fights demons and tries to maintain the magical balance of the town. Jake should get the hell out of there and, he would leave, except for bad-ass newbie witch Meena, who looks at him like he matters. 

He never counted on sticking around, but Meena’s bound to a demon who wants to destroy her soul – and Jake’s finally found someone worth fighting for.

Breakout – A.M. Rose

I’ll admit it. I requested to read this book solely because of the awesome spider on the front cover. Yes, I quickly glanced at the blurb so was intrigued by how the prison escape would unfold but really, the spider had already clinched the deal.

This is a place they send people to die when they’ve done something wrong. Really wrong.

Lezah is number twenty-two. She’s in prison but has no memory of committing a crime, and the clock on her metal bracelet is counting down to her expiration date.

Escaping this prison will be harder than Lezah can imagine. She doesn’t know who she can trust and every step of the way is fraught with danger. With plenty of action and countless spiders, Lezah learns that there’s a lot more at stake than she realised.

In a world that could easily become ours in the not too distant future if we’re not careful, climate change has altered the landscape and technology is potentially awesome or scary as hell, depending on who’s controlling it.

The pace was maintained throughout the story and the characters were faced with almost constant danger. The world was interesting and the sequences in the prison were well thought out. I really liked Vaughn and wanted to get to know her more.

The romance didn’t work for me at all; it felt insta and unnecessary. This is probably just me but I tend to find it amusing rather than sweet when a girl has time to appreciate a boy’s eyes or the way he smells when an entire group of people are in potentially mortal danger. I keep thinking they’re wasting time focusing on that when they could be making a better plan to escape; they could ogle to their heart’s content once they’re safe.

I made the mistake of rereading the blurb around the halfway point and realised it spoiled a couple of things characters hadn’t figured out or revealed yet. It wasn’t until I was past 60% before the characters caught up.

I’d encourage you to read some five star reviews of this book. I got dazzled by the cover spider and enjoyed the story overall but I found some aspects of it very predictable. While there were several lengthy info dumps I was left with so many unanswered questions.

Thank you to NetGalley and Entangled Teen, an imprint of Entangled Publishing, LLC, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Six days. 

That’s the amount of time until Lezah’s execution. 

She’ll die never knowing what got her locked up in this godforsaken prison in the first place. Her only chance of survival is to escape. Except the monitoring bracelet that digs into her wrist, the roaming AI, and the implant in her neck make freedom close to impossible. 

Her best chance is to team up with the four other inmates who are determined to break out, even if one of them is beyond (gorgeous) annoying – oh, and in for murder. But he has a secret of his own. One that could break Lezah if she finds out, but could also set him free. 

Figuring out how to work with him and the rest of this mismatched group of criminals is the only way Lezah will survive to see the outside world again. 

But nothing in this prison is as it seems. And no one.

Prom-Wrecked – T.H. Hernandez & Jennifer DiGiovanni

“C’mon, Riley. It’s not like we’ll end up in jail over prom.”

Famous last words. That’s exactly what happens! Prom-Wrecked begins with a bunch of the kids who attended prom (affectionately called ‘morp’ in this book) in a jail cell. What follows is an account of the two disastrous months leading up to morp, told by two of the main characters, Evil Skater Girl and Morp Queen. This book is essentially Murphy’s Law: Prom Edition.

Morp Queen and House of Lock have been the ‘it’ couple at school for the past three and a half years. Morp Queen used to be best friends with Evil Skater Girl but they don’t speak anymore. Evil Skater Girl has had a secret crush on House of Lock for about a decade but because he’s dating her ex-best friend, they mostly only talk online while they’re slaying aliens together.

When their school cancels this year’s senior prom it’s up to the students to organise one themselves. Evil Skater Girl is happy to help out but wants to palm off the leadership role to someone else. Unfortunately there are no takers so Evil Skater Girl finds herself in charge of the committee. She’s overwhelmed by the task ahead of her but it helps that she’ll be spending plenty of time with House of Lock.

Then things start to go wrong. They lose their deposits. They lose their venue. Evil Skater Girl doesn’t have a date. It’s one thing after another. Their prom may not go to plan but it will certainly be a night they’ll never forget, even if they want to.

My expectations were probably too high going into this book. I thought the blurb would only mention a small percentage of the calamities that befall our senior class so I was looking forward to finding out what amusing and increasingly bizarre hurdles weren’t already mentioned. Learning the reasons why so many people wound up in a jail cell was fun, but I would have preferred if the blurb didn’t give so many clues to the preceding disasters away.

I had trouble getting into the story. I’d hoped for a lot of humour because of the Murphy’s Law prom concept but I found the initial planning phase quite tedious at times. However, it is difficult to transform committee meetings into something fascinating to read about.

I thought the perfect location for Morp would be where they have all of their parties. They would have had all the space and privacy they could have wanted, plus it already had good memories attached to it. All they would have had to do is decorate, cater and organise some music, and they’d be set. While I didn’t expect this to be the final location, I did think it would be tossed around as an option.

I didn’t find either of the girls’ voices that distinctive; at times I only knew who was narrating if I picked the book up mid-chapter by what they were talking about, not how they spoke. The resolution between Evil Skater Girl and Morp Queen felt too easy and although I tried to fall in love with him, House of Lock fell flat for me. I kept trying to tell all of the main characters to just communicate instead of lying, avoiding or running away from their problems and feelings, but my way would have taken a lot of the drama out of the book.

I really liked Desmond and would have liked to spend more time with him. I also enjoyed hanging out with both Hunter and Jordon (and even Jordon’s car, Sarah). I did wonder if this class’ prom curse would’ve been solved if someone uninvited Carrie. I can’t see ‘Carrie’ and ‘prom’ in the same sentence without thinking the worst. 😜

Thank you to NetGalley and Entangled Teen, an imprint of Entangled Publishing, LLC, for the opportunity to read this book.

P.S. For those who want to know the characters’ actual names, Morp Queen is Catherine, Evil Skater Girl is Riley and House of Lock is Owen.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Their prom night ended in a jail cell with forty of their closest friends. But that’s hardly the worst thing that happened to them …

When the principal announces prom is cancelled this year, senior Riley Hart is determined to save it. Armed with little more than her own enthusiasm, she ends up working closely with Owen Locklear, who is more than completely off-limits. Because he’s the boyfriend of her ex-BFF, Catherine Reed. Still, Owen knows Riley better than almost anyone, and his charming ideas for turning the prom upside-down and backward win Riley over.

Then they lose their deposit. Twice. And book a band full of octogenarians. And don’t even get her started on the act of God that takes down their venue …

Riley will have an unforgettable teenage experience, damn it, if it’s the last thing she does …

8 Souls – Rachel Rust

Spoilers Ahead!

Seventeen year old Chessie dreams about the old farmhouse every night. She learned to keep her mouth shut about her dream house when she was young; it turns out that telling people you have a recurring dream about a house where eight people were murdered can land you in a psychiatrist’s office.

Chessie is spending the summer with her grandparents in Villisca, Iowa. They live directly across from the Axe Murder House, the farmhouse in Chessie’s dreams.

Villisca is known for murder. But other than that, it’s a cute town.

The 1912 murders remain unsolved and haunt this small community. The townspeople are also on edge because some young girls have recently been reported missing. Soon after Chessie arrives in town she hears someone calling her name and asking for help, which wouldn’t be as scary if she wasn’t alone in her bedroom at the time.

During the summer Chessie gets to know David, who’s cute but has a secret, and Mateo, a wannabe Ghostbuster. Chessie hopes they will be able to help her discover out what her connection is to the farmhouse and whether there’s any connection between the 1912 murders and the girls that are currently missing.

“People are afraid of the devil when they really should be afraid of each other.”

I got into this book straight away and enjoyed trying to figure out what Chessie’s connection to the Axe Murder House was and the secret David was hiding. If I were Chessie I would have gone straight to the library to check out what the historical records could tell me about the 1912 murders but that could have taken some of the fun out of this read.

After the first round of reveals I was able to figure out where the book was heading, so wasn’t surprised by any of the subsequent reveals. While I can find predictable elements annoying in some books I didn’t have a problem with them here as it meant what I’d hoped would happen did.

I would have liked to have gotten to know Chessie’s grandparents more but was satisfied with learning the backstories of other characters. There wasn’t as much banter as I’m used to in books that have a romantic component but, given the characters are dealing with unsolved murders from the past and missing children, it wouldn’t have been overly appropriate.

Since it happens so infrequently in books, I’m always thrilled when book characters actually use the bathroom, so this book won realism points from me each time Chessie took a bathroom break.

I wasn’t that keen on how the final showdown was set up. Surely if there’s a guy standing in the middle of the road and their car is parked on the shoulder, you could drive around them or through them. They had a gun so to make the characters stop the car so the subsequent confrontation could happen didn’t work for me. How was David able to drive anyway since he’d just woken up from being drugged?

Thank you to NetGalley and Entangled Teen, an imprint of Entangled Publishing, LLC, for the opportunity to read this book. I’m interested in reading more books by this author.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

All her life, seventeen-year-old Chessie has had recurring dreams about a little white farmhouse. Quaint? Not quite. The house is the site of the unsolved murders of Villisca, Iowa, where eight people were slaughtered in 1912. With her parents on the verge of divorce, Chessie is stuck spending the summer with her grandparents in Villisca – right across the street from the axe murder house. 

She’s soon hearing voices calling out for help and begins unraveling a link between herself and the town’s bloody history. And when she falls for a cute boy harboring a big secret, the pieces fall into place as she at last discovers the truth of Villisca’s gruesome past …

Smoke and Key – Kelsey Sutton

“You’re dead, darlin’. This isn’t hell, but it’s the next best thing.”

She hears a voice imploring her to wake up. She falls and finds herself surrounded by dirt. In Under she meets a group of strangers whose bodies are in different stages of decomposition. While they can all remember general knowledge they do not remember anything personal from their lives. Each awoke with an item that was buried with them, an item that helps their owner decide their Under name.

The girl who wakes at the beginning of the book becomes Key. She meets Ribbon, Smoke, Journal, Handkerchief, Doll, and many others. Shortly after Key arrives in Under the first murder occurs and there’s no waking up from this death.

We are ghosts, but we are the ones being haunted.

Key’s flashbacks provide frequent snippets of information about her life before death, building towards revelations that may hold more danger than she could imagine. I found the flashbacks interesting but expect readers who aren’t a fan of multiple flashbacks could find their frequency and slow drip of information irritating.

Given the exponential growth of my TBR pile I was definitely attracted to a life after death that included books and no need for sleep. I loved guessing who the characters may have been before their deaths, the mysterious writings on the wall, the magic and Journal’s tower with all of his books.

I liked getting to know the main characters but found many of the minor characters interchangeable. I didn’t always know which minor character was being referenced as I didn’t know much more about them other than the item they were buried with. I was disappointed by the lack of resolution surrounding Doll; I did learn who she was in life but I have so many unanswered questions about her.

While I enjoyed some aspects of the love triangle I did find the kissing scenes when the characters were dead a tad squirmy, although I acknowledge I probably overthought it. Maybe if I hadn’t already read about the putrid death breath of other characters (who don’t need to breathe because they’re dead, but anyway) it wouldn’t have bothered me so much, but the idea of death breath kisses didn’t exactly make me want to go, “Awww!” I can only hope that Tintype found some toothbrushes and toothpaste for these kissing corpses to use that I wasn’t aware of.

I adored the concept of this book and loved the initial world building but would have liked to learn more about Under and its residents. Had this book covered all of the details I craved it would have been close to twice the length though. The magic was interesting but could have been fleshed out (sorry!) more. I also found the mystery fairly predictable. The final few chapters wrapped up the story too quickly for my liking. Despite my need for more, most of my questions were answered and a sneaky tear did escape quite unexpectedly.

Content warnings include physical abuse and abandonment. Characters also discuss a death by suicide that occurred before the events in this book.

Overall this was an enjoyable read (one I can see myself rereading) and I am interested in reading more of this author’s books. I don’t usually wander into historical fiction territory but this book made me wonder what I’m missing out on. Thank you so much to NetGalley and Entangled Teen, an imprint of Entangled Publishing, LLC, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

A sound awakens her. There’s darkness all around. And then she’s falling …

She has no idea who or where she is. Or why she’s dead. The only clue to her identity hangs around her neck: a single rusted key. This is how she and the others receive their names – from whatever belongings they had when they fell out of their graves. Under is a place of dirt and secrets, and Key is determined to discover the truth of her past in order to escape it.

She needs help, but who can she trust? Ribbon seems content in Under, uninterested in finding answers. Doll’s silence hints at deep sorrow, which could be why she doesn’t utter a word. There’s Smoke, the boy with a fierceness that rivals even the living. And Journal, who stays apart from everyone else. Key’s instincts tell her there is something remarkable about each of them, even if she can’t remember why.

Then the murders start. Bodies that are burned to a crisp. And after being burned, the dead stay dead. Key is running out of time to discover who she was – and what secret someone is willing to kill to keep hidden – before she loses her life for good …

Dating Dilemmas #2: 99% Faking It – Chris Cannon

Miss Overachiever: Let me get this straight. You want to fake date me.

Man Candy Matt: Uh huh.

Miss Overachiever: But you know that I have a crush on you. [Damn it! He won’t notice that Freudian slip, will he?]

Man Candy Matt: Have?

Miss Overachiever: [Damn it!] Had! I had a crush on you.

Man Candy Matt: So, fake date me? Then the girl I have a crush on who’s perfectly happy with her perfect boyfriend will get jealous and decide she wants me instead.

Miss Overachiever: What’s in it for me?

Man Candy Matt: Well, you like Mr Cool Hair. Maybe he’ll pay attention to you if you’re with me, the boy with hair that’s not as cool.

Miss Overachiever: Hmm … You make an interesting argument. I’ve already tried to get him to notice me by wearing more makeup, even though when he originally noticed me I was hardly wearing any at all, but —

Man Candy Matt: See? So is it a deal? I mean, what could possibly go wrong?!

Book Buddy Nina (who already did her own whole boy drama thing in The Dating Debate): So … Books?

Miss Overachiever: Books!

Book Buddy Nina and Miss Overachiever wander off to go find some new book boyfriends.

Man Candy Matt: Um, hello?

We first tagged along with Miss Overachiever and Book Buddy Nina to Friday night Nerd-Girl Festivities in The Dating Debate. That was my 💔 Achy Breaky Heart 💔 read last year and here I am again, likely torturing poor Chris Cannon (sorry, Chris!) by choosing another one of her books for this year’s foray into the smoochie side of life. Oops, it appears that I’m accidentally following a romance novel series! 😯

Before I go any further, let me just say … CANNON CONSPIRACY CONFIRMED!!!

Whatever am I talking about? Allow me to take you on a journey to a time when I first became suspicious that Chris was plotting a sinister scheme to convert me, a 100% committed romantiphobe, to … wait for it … a romance novel reader! I submit to you:

I had so many food cravings while reading 99% Faking It but the ones that specifically support my conspiracy theory are:

🍕 Sausage and pepperoni thick crust with extra cheese
🍕 Meatball
🍕 More pepperoni
🍕 More meatball
🍕 More meatball
🍕 Sausage and mushroom
🍕 More sausage and mushroom
🍕 More meatball
🍕 Bacon and pepperoni
🍕 Cheese

🤤 Vegetarian

🍫 Brownie sundae with whipped cream and chocolate sauce
🍫 Chocolate frogs (mentioned but not eaten)
🍫 More brownies
🍫 Hot cocoa with marshmallows (yes, that counts!)
🍫 Do Oreos count? What am I saying?! Of course they do. Countless Oreos graced the pages!

And let’s not forget this brilliance:

“Our family motto is, Chocolate might not fix everything but it’s a good start.”

My verdict? Conspiracy confirmed! Case closed! Well played, Chris, well played. 🏆

I really enjoyed this book. I smiled my way through the banter and fandom talk and the only thing I craved as much as the yummy delectables was an invitation to Friday night Nerd-Girl Festivities. I wanted to be friends with Book Buddy Nina and Miss Overachiever. I loved that Miss Overachiever is a jeans and t-shirt kind of girl who doesn’t waste time in front of a mirror when she could be reading instead. She’s smart and fluent in sarcasm and while she loves Harry Potter (who doesn’t?!), she’s a multi-fandom girl. There were times I wanted to tell her to wake up to herself when she got snappy at Man Candy Matt but she endeared herself to me so much that I could overlook most of them.

While I liked Man Candy Matt I didn’t feel I got to know him as well as I did Miss Overachiever. The standout minor character for me was Matt’s father and naturally I adored the dogs. I consider it borderline cheating for any author to include dogs in their book since I’m such a sucker for fur babies.

I can’t believe how invested I became in this couple. I got frustrated whenever Man Candy Matt and Miss Overachiever’s romantic stars didn’t align. Either I’m getting used to the way these things called ‘romance novels’ work or there was less that irritated me this time. Unlike previous romantic reads, I’m pretty sure the feeling of hitting my head against a brick wall each time I told the characters to “COM! MU! NI! CATE!” has only resulted in a mild concussion this time around.

Once Upon a Nitpick: This pet peeve isn’t specific to this book but it did show up a few times; boys/men declaring they will punch a boy/man who is upsetting a girl/woman. I used to think this was charming when I was a teenager but now a neon sign lights up in my brain screaming, “Toxic masculinity!” at me whenever I come across it.

Favourite sentence:

“I love the smell of freshly baked carbs and coffee.”

Mmm, me too!

Favourite sentence (it’s a tie; I couldn’t choose):

“Best friends don’t let best friends date anti-Potter people.”

So, am I a romance novel enthusiast now? Hell, no! After three novels I’m definitely a converted Chris Cannon reader though, and if she just so happens to write romance novels then I guess I’m going to have to keep reading them. Sorry, Chris, but you’re stuck with me. 😊

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Teen Crush, an imprint of Entangled Publishing, LLC, for the opportunity to read this book.

P.S. If you can’t wait until the release date to start this book you can read the first chapter here.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Lisa is a card-carrying, book-loving Gryffindor. Solid. And that’s why everyone knows she’s awesome. Well, except for her crush, Matt. He only ever sees her as a friend. Plus, he’s got his eye on another girl. Oh well, plenty of fish and all that. 

Good thing Lisa just read a book on the “wedding ring phenomenon” – you get more attention when you’re already taken. What if Lisa pretends to be Matt’s plus one? Maybe it’ll help Matt get his girl and Lisa can hook her own fish. 

After the plan works, Matt suddenly claims he doesn’t like the view from the friend-zone and wants her instead … But she isn’t interested in being anyone’s second choice. If this guy wants to earn her attention, he’ll need more than some silly “phenomenon.” 

He’ll need to go all out …

Black Bird of the Gallows #2: Keeper of the Bees – Meg Kassel

I need all of the stars for this one but it feels more appropriate to say it like this: 💛🐝🖤🐝💛

I was initially denied early access to this book and I completely understood why. This is the type of book I’m supposed to want to avoid. The love between this girl and (sort of) boy is insta and as sweet as honey (sorry, I had to go there) so it makes perfect sense that a romantiphobe should steer clear. So why did I beg for it? Because I should have wanted to stay far, far away from its companion, Black Bird of the Gallows and I really enjoyed that, so I just knew this would be the book for me, despite everything that screamed otherwise.

What attracted me to Black Bird of the Gallows was intense insta cover love and I was quite shocked when I also loved the story. This time around, while another gorgeous cover drew me to it, my memory of being drawn into Angie and Reece’s story (and love) gave me the confidence that Keeper of the Bees was for me. However, I didn’t expect to love this one more!

Our main characters, Essie and Dresden, are both damaged, victims of cursed lives. People either don’t even notice them at all or steer clear of them. They’re desperately lonely outcasts. Essie experiences a reality that ‘normal’ people don’t and her hallucinations cause people to fear her. Dresden is a beekeeper, feeding off peoples’ fear and condemned to wear the features of the victims of his curse. Their instalove appears doomed from the get go and although this goes against my very being to say this, I was hoping their love would find a way from their introduction.

There’s something about the agony of the person they once were fighting against what their curses have transformed them into that I really connected to. Essie’s struggle to distinguish the boundaries between the reality she sees and the reality others see was heart-wrenching. The struggle of a beekeeper, being bound to an existence where over the course of centuries you’re witnessing the worst humanity has to offer with no hope in sight, no known end to your pain or isolation, broke me.

While the curses of the harbingers, beekeepers and their mythology are explored in both books, the focus is different in each book. In Black Bird of the Gallows one of the main characters is a harbinger of death, whereas in this book it’s a beekeeper. I always love learning the mythology in characters’ worlds and adore the mythology of this series. Once again Meg Kassel’s writing is gorgeous and intoxicating. While the world of Black Bird mesmerised me, Keeper of the Bees made me a believer and I need more!

I was delighted by Dresden’s unorthodox friendship with Michael, one of the harbingers, and I loved Stitches. Now I definitely need a companion book where a Strawman is the focus as I have to know more about these mysterious beings.

Essie’s aunt was my favourite entirely human character; her ability to see beneath the curse to the girl Essie truly was made me love her and want her in my life. I know what it’s like for people to see a label or what’s on the surface and to fear or resist getting to know what lies beneath so the insights into the complexities of people, the light and the dark, captivated me.

While this book could be characterised as a romance it’s so much more and it’s the so much more that had me hooked. There’s the exploration of mental illness, the murder mystery, the growing unease of an impending catastrophe, the impact of our past on our present and the underlying hope of overcoming that which seems impossible.

As this is a companion, not a sequel, you could read this book first but I’d highly recommend you read both because they’re just so good! Also, if you read Black Bird of the Gallows first you’ll be rewarded with a ‘where are they now?’ segment, a fleshing out of the mythology and an appreciation of just how remarkable Essie and Dresden’s love is, along with Dresden and Michael’s friendship, in this book.

I am going to provide content warnings for child abuse and neglect, paedophilia, attempted sexual assault, alcoholism, suicide, family violence and inappropriate treatment of people affected by suspected mental illness. I personally felt these issues were all dealt with well and in context with the overall storyline but don’t want to presume that because I wasn’t affected by any potential triggers that others won’t be.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Entangled Teen, an imprint of Entangled Publishing, LLC, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Keeper of the Bees is a tale of two teens who are both beautiful and beastly, and whose pasts are entangled in surprising and heartbreaking ways.

Dresden is cursed. His chest houses a hive of bees that he can’t stop from stinging people with psychosis-inducing venom. His face is a shifting montage of all the people who have died because of those stings. And he has been this way for centuries – since he was eighteen and magic flowed through his homeland, corrupting its people.

He follows harbingers of death, so at least his curse only affects those about to die anyway. But when he arrives in a Midwest town marked for death, he encounters Essie, a seventeen-year-old girl who suffers from debilitating delusions and hallucinations. His bees want to sting her on sight. But Essie doesn’t see a monster when she looks at Dresden.

Essie is fascinated and delighted by his changing features. Risking his own life, he holds back his bees and spares her. What starts out as a simple act of mercy ends up unraveling Dresden’s solitary life and Essie’s tormented one. Their impossible romance might even be powerful enough to unravel a centuries-old curse.