Mini Reviews (and a Reading Woe): The Shadows by Alex North & Red Heir by Lisa Henry

How does one…read a book?

If anyone has suggestions, please feel free to mail out a note to my brain detailing step-by-step instructions, as the poor thing has clearly forgotten. Which, turns out, is a bit of an inconvenience when you’re trying to run a book blog.

It’s not that I don’t have the time – quite the opposite, really. It’s not that I don’t have a good selection of books to read, or that I’m not excited to get to them – because I have and I do. It’s just that I open a book, read the first couple of chapters, and then think, “Oh look, squirrel!” and proceed to chase the squirrel instead. And in this case the squirrel is a text message or a cute YouTube video or a dark blotch on my ceiling that I swear is a spider. I feel like, at this point, if I were stuck in a 10 ft x 10 ft room with nothing but the clothes on my back, some water, and a Kindle on my lap, I would still manage to find an excuse to NOT read.

Sigh. It’s a maddening puzzle, my friends. But one I’m determined to crack this month. There are so many incredible-sounding books coming out in the next couple of months, and I do not want to miss them.

In the meantime, here are a few mini reviews that I’ve been procrastinating on!

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Title:
The Shadows
Author:
Alex North
Publisher:
Celadon Books

Genre(s): Mystery, Thriller
Subject(s)/Themes(s): Childhood, Dreams
Representation: N/A

Release Date: July 7th, 2020
Page Count: 326 (hardback)

Rating: 7.0/10

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You knew a teenager like Charlie Crabtree. A dark imagination, a sinister smile–always on the outside of the group. Some part of you suspected he might be capable of doing something awful. Twenty-five years ago, Crabtree did just that, committing a murder so shocking that it’s attracted that strange kind of infamy that only exists on the darkest corners of the internet–and inspired more than one copycat.

Paul Adams remembers the case all too well: Crabtree–and his victim–were Paul’s friends. Paul has slowly put his life back together. But now his mother, old and suffering from dementia, has taken a turn for the worse. Though every inch of him resists, it is time to come home.

It’s not long before things start to go wrong. Paul learns that Detective Amanda Beck is investigating another copycat that has struck in the nearby town of Featherbank. His mother is distressed, insistent that there’s something in the house. And someone is following him. Which reminds him of the most unsettling thing about that awful day twenty-five years ago.

It wasn’t just the murder.

It was the fact that afterward, Charlie Crabtree was never seen again…

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The Shadows is less of a thriller-horror than what the blurb suggests, and a more reflective story of a man who returns home to reconcile with a traumatic past. It’s got the tone of rifling through a box of old photographs, with all the tension and melancholia that accompanies it, which I absolutely vibe with – sad trips into the fictional past are my jam – but it wasn’t quite the skin-crawling experience I was hoping for.

It is, however, still a solid atmosphere-driven tale and, in a weird way, there’s this magical lustre to it. Maybe it’s just that my brain has a tendency to categorize all stories involving dreams as fantasy-adjacent, but this feels like it exists in that grey narrative space between reality and not-quite. It’s in the way that the characters long for things they know they can’t have, and long for them hard enough to stitch their own world, their own stories, into existence. And I love it when stories do that – grounded in the real world but still dangling a thread of “But what if?”

Aside from the main character, the rest of the cast kind of fade into the background. I understand why the author chose to alternate Paul’s chapters with Amanda’s. His narration is so entrenched in old memories and biases, and the detective offers a more outside-in look into everything with better objectivity (the thriller/mystery aspect definitely becomes sharper with her chapters). But I couldn’t help but feel that she’s mostly there to serve as a mirror for all the strangeness that’s going on, and not so much as a fleshed-out character. A narrative device, really, albeit an effective one.

Creepy handprints on the cover notwithstanding, I wouldn’t recommend the book to anyone looking for a high-octane horror story. It’s the quiet exploration of childhood traumas and our compartmentalization of them that truly shines throughout.

Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review


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Title:
Red Heir
Author:
Lisa Henry and Sarah Honey
Publisher:
Self-published

Genre(s): Fantasy, Romance
Subject(s)/Themes(s): Fake royal, Road trip
Representation: Gay MC and side characters

Release Date: July 28th, 2020
Page Count: 234 (ebook)

Rating: 5.0/10

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Imprisoned pickpocket Loth isn’t sure why a bunch of idiots just broke into his cell claiming they’re here to rescue the lost prince of Aguillon, and he doesn’t really care. They’re looking for a redheaded prince, and he’s more than happy to play along if it means freedom. Then his cranky cellmate Grub complicates things by claiming to be the prince as well.

Now they’re fleeing across the country and Loth’s stuck sharing a horse and a bedroll with Grub while imitating royalty, eating eel porridge, and dodging swamp monsters and bandits.

Along the way, Loth discovers that there’s more to Grub than meets the eye. Under the dirt and bad attitude, Grub’s not completely awful. He might even be attractive. In fact, Loth has a terrible suspicion that he’s developing feelings, and he’s not sure what to do about that. He’d probably have more luck figuring it out if people would just stop trying to kill them.

Still, at least they’ve got a dragon, right?

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A dwarf, an elf, a human, and an orc crash into a prison where two redheads await. One of them is the lost prince, you see, and these unlikely band of rescuers are determined to snatch him away to safety and earn all the glory. A case of mistaken identity, however, lands the wrong guy as the prince and his cellmate as his grumpy tagalong. Cue adventure.

This was….okay, in every sense of the word. It’s a simple story; it doesn’t do anything particularly new or exciting with the imposter royal trope, the worldbuilding is sparse, and the side characters are cute and provide some extra banter. In terms of queer fantasy adventures, it’s nowhere near the kind of funny that Lightning Struck Heart is, but it definitely has its witty moments.

I was just rather bored with it. I mean, the book knows what it’s about – it’s not meant to be a sprawling fantasy epic – but everything from the characters to the relationship to the plot felt surface-level and derivative compared to other stories that tackle this premise in a more interesting way. It plays safe and doesn’t attempt to be anything it’s not, but damn, I sure wish it’d at least tried.

But if you’re looking for quick and light-hearted fantasy that you want to squeeze inbetween heavier reads, or you just really love red-haired protagonists, then this might be one for you.

Thank you to Gay Romance Reviews and the authors for providing the review copy

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Review: Missing, Presumed Dead – A Gritty Queer Paranormal Mystery that I’m Side-Eyeing

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Title: Missing, Presumed Dead
Author: Emma Berquist
Publisher: Greenwillow Books
Release Date: May 21st, 2019
Genre(s): YA Paranormal, Mystery
Subjects and Themes: Mental Health, LGBTQIAP+ (f/f)
Page Count: 384 (hardback)

Rating: ???

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With a touch, Lexi can sense how and when someone will die. Some say it’s a gift. But to Lexi it’s a curse—one that keeps her friendless and alone. All that changes when Lexi foresees the violent death of a young woman, Jane, outside a club.

Jane doesn’t go to the afterlife quietly. Her ghost remains behind, determined to hunt down her murderer, and she needs Lexi’s help. In life, Jane was everything Lexi is not—outgoing, happy, popular. But in death, all Jane wants is revenge.

Lexi will do anything to help Jane, to make up for the fact that she didn’t—couldn’t—save Jane’s life, and to keep this beautiful ghost of a girl by her side for as long as possible.

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Here’s a fun dilemma:

What rating do you give a book that contains literally everything you love–a complex bisexual female protagonist, a gritty paranormal mystery, exploration of mental health, ghost girls, f/f romance–and executes most of them very well, but then you come across three or four lines that make you go, “I’m sorry, what??” and put a damper on the whole thing?

Asking for a friend. (Hashtag-I-am-that-friend)

Okay, let’s backtrack for a bit. Missing, Presumed Dead is like the queer YA version of Chuck Wendig’s Miriam Black series, starring a girl who can tell the how’s and when’s of someone’s death by touching them skin-to-skin. Except I’m not sure ‘YA’ is even the right label because many of the characters either feel older than their teenage years or are actually older; personally, I think it’d sit more comfortably as a New Adult.

As far as paranormal mysteries go, it’s fairly typical of what you’d find in a lot of adult books: a club that doubles as a sanctuary for people with magical abilities (witches, psychics, etc), a sudden surge of missing and/or dead kids, and a ghost girl with no recollection of how she died. Thing is, though, we don’t really find these kinds of stories in YA–especially ones tinted with shades of horror and noir–so this was a much-needed breath of fresh air for me. The mystery is engaging, the pacing is quick, the worldbuilding just vivid enough to hold your interest, and the protagonist is….well. The protagonist is messy and sharp all over and I was such a huge fan in the beginning.

Lexi is, to be blunt, miserable, and understandably so, considering how her abilities don’t allow her to engage in physical affection and intimacy of any kind. Through Lexi’s lens the story becomes a portrait of loneliness and depression, and I can’t emphasize enough how much I adore stories that dive deep into the psychological baggage that comes with having supernatural powers.

Really, the only major issue I had was with the love interest Jane, who just isn’t as interesting or well-developed as Lexi.

And then I ran up against The Problem, which starts with this little passage:

“My Jane has never looked this carefree, this innocent. My Jane is angry and wild and a little cruel. I know which one I prefer.”

and this one:

“I’d rather have her furious and bitter, I’d rather have her sad, anything but this scornful, spiteful ghost sneering at me across the seat.”

It’s perfectly normal to desire a connection with someone who understands first-hand the pain you’re going through. I get it. I’ve been there. And that’s what initially drives Lexi and Jane together. But you can’t build a relationship on a foundation of mutual suffering. “I can fix your pain and you can fix mine” may sound sweet and romantic, but what it often ends up becoming is an echo chamber of hurt coupled with codependency.

And wanting someone to remain miserable and fucked-up, because that’s how you feel most of the time, is selfish and unhealthy. I’m all for YA stories exploring unhealthy relationships or unhealthy mindsets regarding relationships, but I need them to address the fact that yes, this is, in fact, unhealthy and here’s how we can move forward from that, which this book never does, and that sits so wrong with me.

And the crazy thing is that the core this issue can be fixed by just taking out those four lines.

So yeah. I’m conflicted. And frustrated. And I spent more time trying to figure out what rating to give the book than writing the actual review.

Which is why I’m giving it a big fat ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ in the end.

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Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Review: Magic for Liars – Ivy Gamble is Not Magic and She Wants Everyone to Know

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Title: Magic for Liars
Author: Sarah Gailey
Publisher: Tor Books
Release Date: June 4th, 2019
Genre(s): Fantasy, Mystery
Subjects and Themes: Siblings, Mental Health, LGBTQIAP+ (Secondary)
Page Count: 336 (hardback)

Rating: 5.0/10

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Ivy Gamble was born without magic and never wanted it.

Ivy Gamble is perfectly happy with her life – or at least, she’s perfectly fine.

She doesn’t in any way wish she was like Tabitha, her estranged, gifted twin sister.

Ivy Gamble is a liar.

When a gruesome murder is discovered at The Osthorne Academy of Young Mages, where her estranged twin sister teaches Theoretical Magic, reluctant detective Ivy Gamble is pulled into the world of untold power and dangerous secrets. She will have to find a murderer and reclaim her sister―without losing herself.

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I think this book would save people a lot of disappointment if it came with a disclaimer. Something like “NOTE: The magical boarding school featured in this story is actually pretty ordinary and the characters spend more time talking about the theories of magic than actually doing magic.” Though personally, I wasn’t too bummed out by the lack of magic. In the first half I was still interested in the mystery and the MC, so I didn’t mind that there weren’t moving staircases and people lighting things on fire. And in the second half I was too caught up in other–bigger–issues to really care.

Yeah. Safe to say this was a disappointment for me.

It starts out very strong (I mean, a book that opens up with a scene straight out of Hannibal has my full attention) and it ends on a…strange and depressing note that I still don’t know how I feel about (though I have a feeling I’ll eventually land at “I didn’t like it”). But it’s mostly the middle bits that I had a problem with. And a lot of those problems link back to the protagonist.

Ivy Gamble was a trying narrator for me. Think Jessica Jones with all her psychological baggage minus the snark. And I was sympathetic in the beginning. I can imagine how bitterly disappointing it would be to watch your sibling discover their magical abilities and get accepted to an elite magic academy while you’re sitting on the sidelines reconciling with the fact that you’re not magical and this incredible new world is off-limits to you. I understand how that can shape the rest of your life.

But I don’t need to be reminded of it every other page.

Ivy goes out of her way to let the readers know that, hey, she’s not magic. Did you know she’s not magic? Bet you forgot she’s not magic since the last time she told you she wasn’t magic.

*taps on mic* An important announcement: IVY GAMBLE IS NOT MAGIC.

If you haven’t noticed, I love–for the lack of a better adjective–tortured characters in stories. Characters carrying scars that they can’t bear to look at but can’t help but prod. But when all that mental turmoil overpowers the rest of the narrative–plot, side characters, setting–the result feels less like a story and more like a one-sided therapy session. And that was more or less my experience with Magic for Liars. The mystery would start to get interesting but then Ivy would start comparing Nonmagic Ivy (her current self) to magic Ivy (a theoretical version of herself) and musing about how the latter would do so much better in this and such situation, and that would pull me right out of the story.

And this is more of a general complaint that I’m throwing out into the fictional ether, but I’m a little tired of private eye stories where the protagonist is an emotional mess and drinking constantly. I understand that that’s part of the noir aesthetic–cigarettes and gin and staring out the window in contemplation of the fatality of life– and, yes, there’s often a romantic allure to it, but for once I would like to see a well-adjusted PI who chooses to abstain from heavy drinking because it interferes with their work. A happy (or happier) noir, you know?

This book is not a happy noir, though, so if you’re looking for a twisty mystery with magical school shenanigans, you’re better off looking elsewhere. If you want a simple narrator-driven mystery with a lot of diversity and a LOT of heavy introspection, then well, it doesn’t hurt to try!

 

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Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Monday Chatter: Urban Gods and the Hard (and Creepy) Life of an A.I.

Happy Monday, all! We’re back to summer weather here, which has been great for hiking and kayaking but doesn’t bode well for the actual summer months. And to the joy of all you tennis enthusiasts (*crickets chirping*), Roland Garros has started! Now, half the fun of watching grand slams is making fun of the outfits that sports brands design for their players, and I just want to highlight the ones for Nike, which includes skeletons playing tennis and a goth roses-and-tulips pattern. For both the shirt and the shorts. I just…

 

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Anywho, onto the books!

Last Week – Books

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Gather the Fortunes (A Crescent City Novel 2) by Bryan Camp:
An urban fantasy set in New Orleans starring Renaissance Raines who collects and escorts souls to the Underworld. I compared Camp’s style to Neil Gaiman’s and I don’t regret it one bit; his interpretation of afterlife and all the different mythologies is just so intelligent. [Review here]

 

The City of Lost Fortunes (A Crescent City Novel 1) by Bryan Camp:
I liked this better than the second book and I’m chalking that up to the pacing, which was a lot tighter, but it also might have something to do with the fact that I read this after Book 2, so I was more familiar with the characters.

 

Hazel and Holly by Sara C. Snider (DNF):
I loved the premise (and the cover) for this–a New Adult book featuring two sisters in a fairy tale setting is a dream come true–but everything about the execution was a disaster. The plot is chaotic nonsense (things happened and I had no idea why they were happening) and the main characters are unbearably immature. I don’t know about you, but there’s just something not right about using “mewled/mewling” to describe a 17 year-old girl.

 

This Week – Books

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Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey:
Twin sisters. A magical boarding school. A noir-esque murder investigation. I’m SOOOO excited!

Walking to Aldebaran by Adrian Tchaikovsky:
A novella about an astronaut stranded out on an alien rock! I’ve had trouble connecting with Tchaikovksy’s characters in the past, so maybe a story with first-person PoV would help.

The Chain by Adrian McKinty:
I’ve never heard of this author before and I mostly picked it up because Don Winslow and Stephen King blurbed it. And also this synopsis:

YOUR PHONE RINGS.

A STRANGER HAS KIDNAPPED YOUR CHILD.

TO FREE THEM YOU MUST ABDUCT SOMEONE ELSE’S CHILD.

YOUR CHILD WILL BE RELEASED WHEN YOUR VICTIM’S PARENTS KIDNAP ANOTHER CHILD.

IF ANY OF THESE THINGS DON’T HAPPEN:
YOUR CHILD WILL BE KILLED.

YOU ARE NOW PART OF THE CHAIN

I’m 20% into it and it’s uh…quite the thing.

 

 

Last Week – Games

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Observation (developed by No Code) is a sci-fi thriller/mystery that has you playing as S.A.M, the artificial intelligence of a space station. Your job is to assist Dr. Emma Fisher in figuring out what the hell has happened to the ship, where the rest of the crew is, and where they go from here.

Two things I learned from playing this:

1) Being an A.I. is HARD. Constant busywork and humans complaining when you don’t complete something on time.

2) There should be more scifi games that are set from the PoV of an A.I. It adds the extra dilemma of “Am I the villain in this story?” that I find really compelling.

There are some wonderfully tense, hair-raising moments in the story and I loved mostly everything about it until the ending which was…open-ended, to say the least. I’m crossing my fingers for a sequel.

And mad kudos to Emma’s voice actor who conveys everything from “Fire! Fire! There’s fire!” panic to weary resignation to absolute perfection.

(Available on Epic Games (PC) & PS4)

Monday Chatter: Why You Should Watch Elite (Oh and Uh, Books)

So last week I was searching for reference photos of leather jackets and came across an article that talked about how a Netflix show called Elite was a queer sleeper hit. So I was like, “Sure. Why not” and put the jacket-searching on hold to binge through the entire season. And now I’m utterly obsessed.

So here’s a tiny impromptu review!

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The show is a thriller/highschool soap opera set in a prestigious private school in Spain. Think of it as Pretty Little Liars and Riverdale but with a lot more sex. Now, I’ve watched neither of those shows so I have no idea if the comparisons are valid, but the internet says so and therefore it must be true.

Elite starts out, as these things all do, with a dead body. Or rather, it ends with a dead body and the rest of the show is a very long flashback showing us how that dead body came to be. There’s scheming, lying, blackmailing, clandestine hookups, exploration of kink and the harms of parental expectations, and tropey characters turning into something more real and complex.

It’s also very, very, somewhat sneakily, diverse. There are Muslim characters, gay and bi characters (one with lesbian mothers), and narratives–both romantic and otherwise–that fully explore their diversities. It’s great stuff.

 

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It’s not award-winning TV by any stretch, but it’s fun and sexy and addictive and unexpectedly heartfelt. So go watch it! I need more people to rant about it with.

Now onto books!

 

Last Week – Books

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The Binding by Bridget Collins:
This was a weird one. I liked it, but I’m also frustrated with it because it could have been so much more. I’d call it a historical version of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind minus the punchy narrative.

 

This Week – Books

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Jade War by Fonda Lee & Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg:
It’s take two for both of these!

 

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Westside by W.M. Akers:
A fantasy mystery set in the roaring 20’s starring a young female detective. I’m still not sure what to expect with this one because the synopsis is a handful, but I’m pretty excited.

 

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What adventures have you been on in this past week? And what are your plans for this week?

Review: The Mortal Sleep – Stripped Me Open and Healed Me Anew (Why I’m BEGGING You to Read this Series)

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Title: The Mortal Sleep (Hollow Folk 4)
Author: Gregory Ashe
Publisher: Independent
Release Date: April 5th, 2019
Genre(s): Paranormal, Mystery, Romance
Subjects and Themes: Mental Health, Abuse, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 491

Rating: ∞/10

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Brief overview of Books 1-3: A gay psychic teenager named Vie Elliot moves into a small rural town in Wyoming and gets himself involved in a series of murders, kidnappings, and paranormal activities. This is a story of found families, love, complicated relationships, and facing demons within and without.

(You can read my reviews of Book 1-3 HERE)

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 “Maybe it’s all of us, I thought in a flash. Maybe we all believe, deep down, that we don’t deserve love. Or— maybe not all of us, maybe not some lucky assholes— but most of us. Maybe most of us are just as uncertain, just as frightened, just as desperately hoping that we’re worth loving and that the person we love loves us back.”

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I’ve been writing reviews for over a year now. And within that period I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing a whole range of emotions–from hair-pulling anguish frustration to joy and nervousness and anxiety.

This is my first time being scared of writing a review.

Like, really fucking scared. Like, shaking in my chair scared. Because I could string together every language that has ever existed in this world, scrawl them into a 1000-page epic, recite it from dawn to dusk until my throat is torn, and still come up with nothing that could describe what this book means to me. And that kills me.

My brain tells me I need to spend several weeks on this review at the very least. But my heart tells me no, I need to do this right now. Because all those immediate emotions that I’m feeling? They’re the ones I need to seize. And because fears need to faced when they’re at their freshest.

So, okay.

This is a book that feels entirely too big to fit in this universe let alone my heart. One that I want to clutch so hard to myself that I become it, or it becomes me. And I would happily give up half of my consciousness, half of my soul, for it to live and grow inside me. But then I realize there’s no need because it’s already claimed it from Book 1.

And when I walk, it walks with me, anchoring my steps. When I look out into the morning light, it looks out with me, radiating hope. When I’m crumpled on the ground it’s there, pulling me up.

Which all sounds a little crazy. It sounds like the ramblings of a soon-to-be maybe-killer (“Well, that Kathy. I mean, she was pleasant. Polite. Never caused any trouble. Although…she did say all those things about that book that one time. Guess that should have been a warning bell, huh?”) But “crazy” just about defines this book. Because perfection doesn’t exist. Shouldn’t exist. And yet it’s sitting right here in my hand.

So what can I tell you about The Mortal Sleep?

I can tell you how heartstoppingly beautiful Ashe’s writing is. I can tell you how his characters aren’t characters; they’re people existing in some other reality, other dimension, projecting their lives into his brain, and now they live in these books like it’s where they always belonged–across ink and paper, instead of flesh and blood–and their relationships are so exquisitely developed that they become your relationships.

I can talk about how the buildup of tension, with regards to both plot and character development, is off-the-walls phenomenal. I can talk about how he’s raised the bar for storytelling from book to book and how he has surpassed it yet again. I can talk about how series finales are so, so incredibly hard to nail, and yet he does it (because of course).

But what makes this book a veritable masterpiece (and I don’t use that term lightly), what makes it stand shoulders every other book I’ve read in the past two years, is that it peers into every dark crevice of the characters’ pain and suffering–into the heart of what makes us us–and it Does. Not. Flinch.

The line between honesty and gratuitousness is a thin one when it comes to stories that try to tackle depression and suicidal behaviour. Gregory Ashe walks it while balancing four different genres and reciting poetry that would make the angels weep. Without condoning it, the book doesn’t shy away from the ugliness and the violence that comes with mental illness.

And it’s not pretty. It’s not sugar-coated.

But it’s true. It’s so, so fucking true.

Like, there’s a scene where Vie goes out his way to deliberately hurt his boyfriend (using words), and at first he tells himself that he’s doing it as a favour–he’s doing it to push him away, to save his life. But then it morphs into something uglier. Because sometimes you turn other’s words and actions (even the innocuous ones) into ammunition against yourself–reasons for why you’re unlovable and discardable. Because sometimes you’re hurting so much and you don’t know how to deal with it, so it overflows onto the people you love. Because sometimes you’re hurting so much that you want them to feel just an ounce of it, and you derive a kind of awful, aching almost-pleasure from that. And on the heels of that comes blackness and self-loathing.

All of that. And all the reasons why we might hurt ourselves (and, in turn, the ones we love). And hate ourselves. And try to end ourselves.

Just…How.

How do you put that mess of emotions into words that I can recognize?

This book gets so many things so right, so real, that it felt like I was experiencing them again for the first time. And I was shaking and crying so hard that I had to go take multiple walks to calm myself down (and this was past 12 AM).

And I honestly don’t know how he does it. Maybe it’s magic. Or pure talent. Or power sourced from earth’s core. I don’t know how he does it but he does it, and I’m thankful to the point of tears because I can look at Vie’s scars and look to my own and nod and say “Okay.” And that’s enough.

This book (and series) is a bulwark against the voices urging me in the middle of the night, whispering that surely this time I can get the dosage right. And I know it can be so much for so many of you too. For all of you who have been broken and ground down. Because in spite of how dark it gets, this is a series about hope. And love–so, so much love. Finding it. Losing it. And slowly, oh so slowly learning that maybe, just maybe, you’re worthy of it and every other goddamn thing that life has to offer.

The Mortal Sleep has taken the top of my Best of 2019 list (and my heart and my sleep and my every waking thought) and it won’t be moving for the rest of the year.

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Complimentary copy provided by the author. All opinions are my own.

Mini Review: The Wolf and the Watchman – The Literary Equivalent of Repeatedly Punching a Wall (AKA Not fun)

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Title: The Wolf and the Watchman
Author: Niklas Natt och Dag
Publisher: Atria Books
Release Date: March 5th, 2019
Genre(s): Historical Fiction, Mystery, Thriller
Subjects and Themes: Crime
Page Count: 384 (paperback)

Rating: 5.0/10

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It is 1793. Four years after the storming of the Bastille in France and more than a year after the death of King Gustav III of Sweden, paranoia and whispered conspiracies are Stockholm’s daily bread. A promise of violence crackles in the air as ordinary citizens feel increasingly vulnerable to the whims of those in power.

When Mickel Cardell, a crippled ex-solider and former night watchman, finds a mutilated body floating in the city’s malodorous lake, he feels compelled to give the unidentifiable man a proper burial. For Cecil Winge, a brilliant lawyer turned consulting detective to the Stockholm police, a body with no arms, legs, or eyes is a formidable puzzle and one last chance to set things right before he loses his battle to consumption. Together, Winge and Cardell scour Stockholm to discover the body’s identity, encountering the sordid underbelly of the city’s elite.

Meanwhile, Kristofer Blix—the handsome son of a farmer—leaves rural life for the alluring charms of the capital and ambitions of becoming a doctor. His letters to his sister chronicle his wild good times and terrible misfortunes, which lead him down a treacherous path.

In another corner of the city, a young woman—Anna-Stina—is consigned to the workhouse after she upsets her parish priest. Her unlikely escape plan takes on new urgency when a sadistic guard marks her as his next victim.

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This was definitely a case of “it’s not you, it’s me,” because if you break down the book’s individual elements–setting, character, plot–what you get isn’t anything bad. Far from it, really. Eighteenth century Stockholm was fascinating to read about, the characters were peripherally interesting, and while the mystery took some time to get going (part two especially makes things confusing) it kept my interest for the most part.

My problem lies with just how utterly grey, dour, and joyless the whole experience was. The two main characters are a well-written but unlikable bunch: Winge is the genius not-quite-detective who suffers from a case of consumption and a cold, manipulative personality, and Cardell is the embittered war-vet-turned-watchman who suffers from anger management issues. It’s reminiscent of True Detective S1–all the dour grimness and a slew of underlying thematic messages, but minus the chemistry between the lead characters which would have made the story more bearable.

If you’re craving a gritty and gruesome historical murder mystery and can stomach stark depictions of human depravity, then I’d recommend it. Not to be for me, sadly.

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Review copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

Top 5 Wednesday – Independent Ladies

“Top 5 Wednesday” is a weekly meme currently hosted on Goodreads by Sam of Thoughts on Tomes in which you list your top 5 for the week’s chosen topic. This week’s topic is: independent ladies!

Favorite leading ladies who aren’t distracted from getting shit done by their love interest (they can still have a romance subplot – this is going to be subjective based on what you think would be ~too much~)

Yup, this is a day late! But it’s been a bit of a busy week, and my brain insisted on complicating the prompt by asking questions like:

“What’s the difference between ‘independent female characters’ and ‘strong female characters’ and ‘well-written female characters’?”

And “If a female character is involved in a romantic subplot and still gets shit done, isn’t that also a testament to how supportive the love interest is?”

Anywho, on to the show! (I tried to go for a variety of genres/subgenres for this one)

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Vanessa Ives | Penny Dreadful

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“I am nothing. I am no more than a blade of grass. But I am. You think you know evil? Here it stands.”

AKA my favourite female character in all media (despite the “ending” they gave her). You see, Vanessa Ives doesn’t walk around seeking romantic subplots. The romantic subplots seek her out, begging for a crumb of attention, because she’s a planet of her own goddamn making and her law of gravity is the only one worth obeying. For 3 seasons she does her own thing–a mesmeric combination of fearlessness and vulnerability, of kindness and unbridled anger–and the would-be suitors trail behind her with flowers, crying, “Please notice me!”

Vanessa has forever redefined the idea of a strong female character and I will live and die on her altar ’till the end of my days.

 

Anne de Vernase | The Soul Mirror (Collegia Magica 2)

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Anne is given what has to be the worst hand of cards that could be dealt to a female protagonist in fantasy: her father has been accused of treason and kidnapping and is now on the run; her younger brother has been thrown in prison; her mother has succumbed to insanity; and now she’s received news that her younger sister has died in an “accident.” Oh, and on top of it all, she’s about to lose her family estate.

Yet she remains on her feet, head held high. With logic, empathy, and sheer determination at her disposal, she carves out a place at the royal court, uncovers a dark conspiracy, and saves the world. Brava, Damoselle. Brava.

 

Julie (“Queenie”) | Code Name Verity

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“I am a coward”

It’s kind of impossible to explain why she’s such an incredible character and why she belongs on this list without going into spoilers, so this is gonna be vague.

Julie is a WW2 British spy who gets captured by the Germans and is forced to write up a comprehensive confession detailing everything to do with the British war effort. Gorgeous, clever, and sophisticated, she’s always had the attention of boys. But it’s her best friend Maddie who’s had her heart. And it’s Maddie that she keeps in mind as she’s tortured and interrogated to a breaking point.

Julie’s choice isn’t an easy one, but it’s one she stands by…and there’s a lot to be said for that.

And “Kiss me, Hardy” remains three of the most devastating words I’ve ever read.

 

Flavia de Luce|Flavia de Luce Series

“I am often thought of as being remarkably bright, and yet my brains, more often than not, are busily devising new and interesting ways of bringing my enemies to sudden, gagging, writhing, agonizing death.”

Flavia de Luce–chemist extraordinaire, amateur sleuth, and precocious tween–has no time for your romance nonsense. Not when there are delicious murders to be solved and chemical experiments to conduct. I mean, she’s also 11 for most of the series (because the author seems to want to keep her as a preteen for the rest of her life) so romance isn’t really on the menu for her right now, but still. She has little patience for the foolishness of adults and since no adult in her life can seem to rub two brain cells together to solve a murder, it’s up to her to figure things out. Again.

 

Felicity Montague | Montague Siblings Series

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You deserve to be here. You deserve to exist. You deserve to take up space in this world of men.”

Felicity is one of the best female characters I’ve come across in the past couple of years and I absolutely adore the development she goes through in Lady’s Guide. This is a girl who knows she can go toe-to-toe with the men when it comes to medicine and science, and she will do what it takes to prove that–to herself and to others.

Review: Once Upon A River – A Non-Magical Magical Delight

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Title: Once Upon a River
Author: Diane Setterfield
Publisher: Atria Books
Release Date: December 4th, 2018
Genre(s): Mystery, Historical
Subjects and Themes: Stories about stories
Page Count: 421 (hardback)

Rating: 8.5/10

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On a dark, misty night in the small English village of Radcot, locals gather at the Swan Inn to cap their day with drinks and lore. The 600-year-old pub is a famed hub for storytellers, but the patrons cannot know that their evening will be stranger than any tale they could weave. Into the inn bursts a mysterious man, sopping and bloodied and carrying an unconscious four-year-old girl. But before he can explain who he and the child are, and how they came to be injured, he collapses.

Upriver, two families are searching desperately for their missing daughters. Alice Armstrong has been missing for twenty-four hours, ever since her mother’s suicide. And Amelia Vaughan vanished without a trace two years prior. When the families learn of the lost little girl at the Swan Inn, each wonders if their child has at last been found. But identifying the child may not be as easy as it seems.

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So, I’d staunchly avoided Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale when it first came out. The NYT bestseller stamp and the heaps of praise it was getting made me think it was one of those bland mainstream hits.

In other news, I’m a shallow idiot. Because if Once Upon A River is any indication of Setterfield’s talents, I have been missing out on some incredible storytelling.

Once Upon a River is an absolutely delightful, charming, whimsical tale. Take every word in every language that describes the experience of sitting around an open fire swaddled in blankets and listening to a veteran storyteller work their magic, dump them into a pot, stir for a minute or two, and you’ll have Once Upon a River.

And it’s a book I recommend to everyone whether you’re a fan of historical mystery or not, and for several reasons.

1) It’s one of those stories that straddle multiple genres and flirts with the possibility of speculative. So there’s kind of something for everyone.

2) For all you fantasy readers, this is a fantasy that’s not actually a fantasy.

No no no, hear me out. While there are no actual fantastical happenings, the fantasy is in the atmosphere it creates, in its exploration of the unknown and the unexplained. The way that the river seems to be its own character with its own whims. The utter embrace of the magic and the power of stories. It’s got the heart and the soul of what makes a good fantasy a good fantasy.

3) This book is an absolutely unabashed love letter to stories and I don’t know how anyone can say “no” to that.

As we flit through the lives of the colourful characters that inhabit this book, we explore the beauty of the human mind to be able create different stories out of the same event. And how those stories can be controlled but only to a certain extent, after which they take a life of their own and speed off in wild directions.

The book also does a wonderful job exploring the kinds of stories that we tell ourselves for darker purposes. Stories that we create to mask our guilt and pain and sorrow. Lies, if you will. But not really. More like…picking worlds that we can bear living in.

Basically, if you like books, you should read this. And if you don’t like books, then let this be my attempt to convert you to the dark side, because Once Upon a River is a perfect winter read that will make you fall in love with stories–for the first time or for the billionth.

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Review copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

Mini Review: Sadie (Audiobook) – Invisible Girls, Gone Girls, Dead Girls

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Title: Sadie
Author: Courtney Summers
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Release Date: September 4th, 2018
Genre(s): Mystery, Thriller
Subjects and Themes: Abuse
Page Count: 320 (hardback)

Rating: 7/10

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Sadie hasn’t had an easy life. Growing up on her own, she’s been raising her sister Mattie in an isolated small town, trying her best to provide a normal life and keep their heads above water.

But when Mattie is found dead, Sadie’s entire world crumbles. After a somewhat botched police investigation, Sadie is determined to bring her sister’s killer to justice and hits the road following a few meager clues to find him.

When West McCray―a radio personality working on a segment about small, forgotten towns in America―overhears Sadie’s story at a local gas station, he becomes obsessed with finding the missing girl. He starts his own podcast as he tracks Sadie’s journey, trying to figure out what happened, hoping to find her before it’s too late.

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Giving a rating for this book feels…strange.

It’s like listening to someone sing a heartfelt ballad at a funeral and afterwards turning to your neighbour and saying, “Oof, it got a bit sharp at the end there, eh? What a shame.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t exactly want the infamy of being the person who went all Simon Cowell on a group of mourners–however novel it may be.

But here we are.

First of all, massive, massive kudos to all the voice actors who worked on the audiobook. Their performances made me forget I was listening to a book and not a fiction podcast. Sadie’s VA, especially, was phenomenal. I mean, I would have loved the character regardless; she’s an incredible mix of affection and awkwardness and rage (so much rage–I will never stop waxing poetic about authors who give their young female characters leeway to be angry and vengeful, and not in a pretty, Hollywood-approved way) and it’s impossible to not fall for her, but the performance lends her an extra layer of complexity. There are scenes near the end that are dizzingly raw and had me breathless in turn.

As much I loved Sadie’s narrative voice, I did find her chapters inconsistently paced and that had my attention drifting in places. I actually enjoyed West’s podcast chapters more. They’re more tightly structured and they give us an outside perspective of Sadie, through the side characters’ interpretation of her, and her relationship with her family.

In terms of the plot, one might also complain that it turned out to be a straightforward revenge story rather than a thriller with twists and turns.

But….child abuse is straightforward. Missing girls are straightforward. They are painfully straightforward things that occur every day in real life.

Doesn’t make them any less important.

Sadie is a harrowing account of a young woman who will grab you by the heart and twist it into knots. I may not have loved it as much as I thought I would, but there’s no doubt that this is an important piece of work worthy of all the attention and future awards.

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If you’re looking for stories of similar subject matter (but in a different media), I highly recommend Netflix’s docuseries The Keepers. Just keep some pillows nearby because it’ll make you want to scream into something.