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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Reviews: Contagion & Immunity by Erin Bowman – Biological Space Horror and Maple Walnut Ice Cream

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Title: Contagion (Contagion 1)
Author: Erin Bowman
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release Date: July 24th, 2018
Genre(s): YA Sci-Fi, Thriller, Horror
Subjects and Themes: Microbiology, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 432 (hardback)

Rating: 7.5/10

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After receiving a distress call from a drill team on a distant planet, a skeleton crew is sent into deep space to perform a standard search-and-rescue mission.

When they arrive, they find the planet littered with the remains of the project—including its members’ dead bodies. As they try to piece together what could have possibly decimated an entire project, they discover that some things are best left buried—and some monsters are only too ready to awaken.

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This is one of those “I liked it! The end!” books, so the review is going to be obscenely short.

Contagion offers something I desperately want to see more of in sci-fi: biological space horror. Bowman combines the fear of outer space with that of alien biological entities–all the more scary because they’re microscopic–and creates a entertaining, claustrophobic tale with breakneck pacing and moments that are genuinely creepy.

It also boasts a fairly large cast and multiple PoVs, with an intern named Thea being the central character. I loved the fact that Thea’s not a leader–not your typical confident SFF hero with a smart tongue. She’s introverted yet resourceful and, being the youngest of the crew, feels she has something to prove. Some of the other characters aren’t as developed as she is, but Bowman gives you just enough information to keep you interested in their well-being (or demise).

I do wish the effect of the contagion was less…mundane than what it turned out to be. Something a little more visceral and insidious. Because after the reveal of the “monsters” (space zombies, essentially) a lot of the initial horror was lost. But I enjoyed the atmosphere and tension leading up to that moment so much that I’m mostly willing to forgive it.

And…that’s all you need to know, really. Go read it. You’ll have fun.

And, hey, Netflix? Get on it. I needed a movie adaptation yesterday.

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Title:
Immunity (Contagion 2)
Author: Erin Bowman
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release Date: July 2nd, 2019
Genre(s): YA Sci-Fi
Subjects and Themes: Microbiology, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 448 (hardback)

Rating: 7.0/10

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Thea, Coen, and Nova have escaped from Achlys, only to find themselves imprisoned on a ship they thought was their ticket to safety. Now the nightmare they thought they’d left behind is about to be unleashed as an act of political warfare, putting the entire galaxy at risk.

To prevent an interstellar catastrophe, they’ll have to harness the evil of the deadly Achlys contagion and deploy the only weapons they have left: themselves.

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Immunity is a completely different beast to Contagion in terms of genre and plot focus. So much that I got mental whiplash reading them back-to-back.

Here, the biological horror slips away into space politics and human-on-human horror. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I was hoping we’d get to explore more of the contagion, and instead it’s relegated to the role of a side charactera chess piece in the conflict between the Radicals and the Union–and in the process some of what made Contagion interesting.

I don’t want to rag on an author for choosing to take a story in a completely different direction from what I was expecting because it’s ultimately their creative vision, but I can’t say I’m not nursing a spot of disappointment. It’s like going to an ice cream shop and asking for Strawberry Cheesecake but getting Maple Walnut instead. I have nothing against Maple Walnut; it’s still a great flavour and life is too short to be prejudiced against any flavour of ice cream (except Bubblegum which is a devil’s concoction and not in a sinfully good way). But it’s no Strawberry Cheesecake, is it?

That being said, I still had fun with it. The characters are bigger focus in this sequel and we get to learn more about the three characters and see their relationship develop into something more solid. A new member also joins the cast: a medic-in-training named Amber who surprised me in the best way. Give me all the soft characters who seem meek at first glance but reveal themselves to have nerves of steel. And there’s no denying Bowman is a great storyteller. She knows how to balance action with intrigue and quiet character moments, and the ending wraps everything up neatly.

Overall, this is a fun, addictive duology that I recommend to anyone with an interest in microbiology and space thriller/horror, and doesn’t mind a bit of genre-swapping.

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Thank you to Wunderkind PR for providing the review copies. All opinions are my own.

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)

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

Add to goodreads

 

 

 

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.

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

Add to goodreads

 

 

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.

Review: Someone Like Me – Genre-Bending Thriller Feat. Anthropomorphic Fox in Armour

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Title: Someone Like Me
Author: M.R. Carey
Publisher: Orbit
Release Date: November 6th, 2018
Genre(s): Thriller
Subjects and Themes: Mental Health, Abuse
Page Count: 512 (hardback)

Rating: 7/10

Add to goodreads

 

 

Liz Kendall wouldn’t hurt a fly. Even when times get tough, she’s devoted to bringing up her two kids in a loving home.

But there’s another side to Liz—one that’s dark and malicious. She will do anything to get her way, no matter how extreme.

And when this other side of her takes control, the consequences are devastating.

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I feel like most of this review will boil down to “A lot of cool things happen in this book but I can’t really discuss them because spoilers. But I swear the cool things do happen!” So I won’t go into details about the plot, but I will wink and nudge and say that this is no ordinary psychological thriller.

I can most definitely talk about the characters, though!

The story swaps back and forth between Liz, a mother of two children and the ex-wife of an abusive husband, and Fran, a teenage girl who had been kidnapped as a child and is still dealing with the aftereffects of the incident. With Liz’s storyline we explore the horrors of domestic abuse and the lasting scars it leaves on a person, all of which Carey portrays with poise and care.

Both characters are dealing with mental health issues–or, at least, what they believe to be mental health issues. Liz has discovered that there’s an angrier, more volatile side of her that surfaces during stressful moments. And Fran has been dealing with the fact that physical properties of the world randomly changes for her and only her (the colour of a bedroom wall, for example).

Fran was my favourite of the two, however, and a large part of that is because of Lady Jinx, her “imaginary” anthropomorphic fox companion who wields a sword called Oathkeeper. That sentence alone should have you reaching for this book. Jinx is an awesome, awesome character–hands-down my favourite of the story. I also quite loved Fran’s interaction with her father, who is just the most supportive, protective, goofy parent you could ask for (can I get an “Amen” for positive parent-child relationships in speculative stories?) and Zac, Liz’s empathetic teenage son, who becomes Fran’s partner-in-crime as she tries to unravel the mystery surrounding her kidnapping.

While I found the two main characters (and the orbiting side characters) interesting, I did find the main villain a bit too campy, especially towards the end. I also feel like the book could have been shorter. Carey’s writing is meaty and introspective and there are scenes that have you completely engaged, but there are also scenes that feel overly dense and not all too necessary. As a result, my interest rose and waned in waves.

Overall, though, Someone Like Me is an entertaining genre-bender that successfully juggles many heavy topics and has you exclaiming “Oh!” as it slowly reveals its many fantastical secrets.

 

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

Review: The Hollow Folk – Why You NEED To Read This Brilliant Series

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Series: Hollow Folk
Author: Gregory Ashe
Publisher: Self-published
Genre(s): Paranormal, Mystery
Themes: Mental Health, LGBTQIAP+
Goodreads | Amazon
Rating: 10/10

Before we begin, I’d just like to point out that this is a long review. So to prevent the post from being a giant wall of text, I’ve peppered it with pretty pictures. And not random pictures–ones actually relevant to the story and the characters!

So I’m BEGGING you to stick through it to the end, if not for my sappy writing, then for the aesthetics, because these books deserve it.

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The Hollow Folk books are about a queer psychic teenager investigating serial murders and criminal activities in a small rural town. There’s drugs, corruption, grisly corpses, and–

No no no, wait. That’s not right. I mean, all of that’s true, but it sounds…I don’t know, too flippant.

Let me try again:

The Hollow Folk books are about about a queer psychic teenager named Vie Elliot. Vie has been taken away from his abusive mother and sent to Wyoming to live with his father. His father who is marginally better than his mother–which is kind of like saying that tickling a grizzly bear is slightly less dangerous than pulling its tail. He’s juggling a lot of demons–like anger issues and mental health struggles–and his powers only add to his misery because whenever he touches or makes eye-contact with someone for the first time, he gets funneled into their worst memory. But he finds himself having to to rely on his ability to solve a series of murders in his new town.

Eh…Kind of. But still missing something.

C’mon brain, third time’s the charm:

The Hollow Folk books are about the monsters that we fight–both within and without. About going toe-to-toe with your darkness and emerging shaking and triumphant. About the pain and hardship that seep into our bones and shape us in ways that we can’t predict. A story about how power comes in all different forms and vulnerability is sometimes the greatest–hardest–form of courage. A story about finding love and acceptance even when you can’t find the will to love and accept yourself.

Yeah. That’s more like it.

Last month I wrote a post on the five topics I’d like to see explored more in fantasy, and mental health was one of them. These books show exactly how it should be done. The Hollow Folk series weaves paranormal, mystery, and romance alongside issues of self-harm, depression, and suicide to create a story that is as exciting and thrilling as it is heartwrenching and so, so important.

Let’s get to the plot first, shall we?

The series opens up with the disappearance of a high school girl and the realization that Vie isn’t the only “gifted” person in this town. Each sequel follows a new mystery that links back to the previous book and each are fresh and different and wholly engaging. This small town isn’t as innocent as it appears, and seeing our characters peel back layer by layer, all its strange, sordid, extraordinary secrets is such a treat to experience. And with each book, the paranormal stuff ramps up to exciting heights. Among other things we get telekinetics, pyros, ghosts, a Native American woman with the ability to create psychic pocket dimensions (at least, I think that’s what they are), and in Book 3, we get an all-out X-Men style battle with a bunch of superpowered people going to town on each other. It’s exhilarating, badass as hell, and the series is worth reading just to experience that scene.

Now for the characters.

Gregory Ashe writes his characters with an astounding degree of patience and poise. And Vie is without a doubt the most complex character I’ve encountered this year. I was this close to making a diagram to explain what makes him so phenomenal, but I figured that would make this already-too-long review into a 20-page essay.

Here’s the short version: every part of his character–from his past actions, his current actions, his physical appearance and so forth–says one thing about him, but it also says the opposite. Take his appearance: Vie’s built himself up to this big, tough, strong physique. Everything about it says, “Nothing can touch me. I’m invincible. I’m fearless.” But he’s not invincible. And he has fears. A lot of them. He’s given himself this tough outer shell because he is afraid–because of all the abused that’s been heaped on him over the years. And that’s what people do. We try to make ourselves into something more than what our brains tell us we are–weak, ugly, small, whatever–and the author portrays this so goddamn beautifully.

Ashe adds layers to Vie, and then layers to the layers. It’s just so absolutely masterful and my heart aches at the complexity of it.

Vie Collage

I think suicide and self-harm are minefield subjects to tackle in fiction. They’re very easy to romanticize and books sometimes have them just for the sake of adding an extra dollop of angst and conflict. But these books nail them. Like, really nail them. There are small details that knocked my breath flat with how real they are and I was a teary mess by the end of many chapters. These scenes aren’t easy to read through (understatement of the year); they’re heartbreaking and painful and they dredge up a lot of emotions that I’ve tried to bury in some dusty corner of my mind.

But I still couldn’t take my eyes away.

And a lot of that has to do with Vie’s narrative voice, which is sometimes funny, other times sad, and all-around gorgeous and stunningly raw. Reading it is like seeing the rest of the world drop away until there’s just you and him and this journey that you’re taking together, because make no mistake, you are experiencing the story with him– through every danger, every heartbreak, every faltered step, you will be right there feeling everything alongside Vie. It is utterly impossible to not love this character.

It was music like rain falling on lake water, like storms that had closed in and made sunshine a thing that was always just a little farther to the west. It was shaking free all the razored thoughts I kept packed away.

But guess what? There’s more to this story’s brilliance. Because Vie isn’t the only character with layers.

We also get Emmett, the rich kid with the razor-sharp attitude. The kid who has everything that Vie never had–money, designer clothes, food, a future, and a mostly-intact family. The kid who cloaks himself in arrogance to hide the fact that he’s actually a kid who’s drowning in self-hatred but cannot fathom saying the words, “Save me.”

There was a relentless drive in Emmett towards self-harm, and it masqueraded as self-protection. That a was nightmare combination.

Emmett Collage2.png

There’s Austin. Your typical jock with the blonde All-American Boy vibes. Your typical jock who’s really not a typical jock at all but just a boy whose anger and discontent masks a kind, insecure heart.

He was the boy next door, and seeing him made me think of those dumb horses River and Jimpson, and the way he held the steering wheel, and how he stood sometimes with his back straight, so cocky but not realizing it, and I thought of sunset and how the Wyoming sky became vertical instead of horizontal, a sheet of gold that ran straight up to the stars, and all of that was Austin.

Austin collage

There’s Becca, the computer whiz who just wants to help her friends. There’s Sara, who brims with so much love and compassion and becomes a maternal figure that Vie sorely needs. And on and on.

None of these characters are perfect. They hurt one another–sometimes by accident, other times on purpose. All of them carry scars that they try to etch onto others because bearing them alone is sometimes too impossible. Seeing them weave in and out of each other’s lives throughout the course of these three books is one of the most breathtaking things I’ve experienced this year.

I think what I love most of all, though, is how Ashe plays the long game with his characters. Personal problems don’t get neatly resolved in Book 1, or Book 2, or even Book 3. Or if they do get resolved, another quickly takes its place. Nothing is easy for these guys and these books portray, so exquisitely, the sheer messiness of relationships, being a teenager, and living in a world that seems hell bent on breaking you down.

Don’t think it’s all doom, gloom, and sadness, though; there’s also a lot of hope. The greatest message that the Hollow Folk books give you is that bruised, cracked, and battered doesn’t mean ruined, unsalvagable, unwanted. For every person who beats you down, there’s another to haul you up. Because while humans can be terrible, they can also be so incredibly beautiful, and human connections can be as potent as any superpower. So even though scars may not fully fade, you’re still here–alive, maybe a bit worse for wear, but still moving. And you’re gonna be okay.

And if you can kick some villain asses in the process? Well, that’s just the cherry on top.

Vie Elliot and his friends remind me why I read and write. There’s no feeling in the world like having a character stare into your heart and say, “I see you. I am you. Those wounds and fractures you have? They map my entire body. The darkness that presses into your every pore? We’re close acquaintances. So yeah, I’m with you. All the way.”

And you know what else? The books currently cost $2.90 (USD) each on Kindle.

That’s insane. That’s less than the cost of a morning coffee. That makes me want to buy 10 more copies just to even things out because surely some cosmic scale has become unbalanced. It makes me want to grab every passerby on the street and shake them while blubbering “You–book–3 bucks–” and get clapped in handcuffs for public harassment because these books are worth a night in a cell.

So what I’m saying is, go buy these damn books. Right now.

And if you find that they’re somehow less than amazing, then you’re to free direct all your angry complaints to me.

Most Anticipated Mystery, Thriller & Horror: Feb-April 2018

Most-Anticipated-mystery-thriller-banner

Here’s the second batch of the “Most Anticipated Feb-April” series! I’ve banished the “alternate book covers left and right” scheme into a deep, lightless pit because it was an absolute pain to format the last time (free wordpress has a terrible html editor, who knew?). Please note: some of theses straddle the line between Mystery/Thriler/Horror and other genres.

Before we start, I just want to call conspiracy. It seems like literally every author of every damn genre has a book being published this April. Publishers, I love you, but you and your authors are all going to get me bankrupt. Because I will buy every one of these books (more or less) and softly weep my way to file the official papers. And still–still–I will be utterly unrepentant.

There’s a quote from The Gentleman by Forrest Leo that sums up my near-future nicely:

‘Do you mean to tell me, Simmons, that we haven’t any money left?’
‘I’m afraid not, sir.’
‘Where on earth has it gone?’
‘I don’t mean to be critical, sir, but you tend toward profligacy.’
‘Nonsense, Simmons. I don’t buy anything except books. You cannot possibly tell me I’ve squandered my fortune upon books.’
‘Squander is not the word I would have used, sir. But it was the books that did it, I believe.’

*casts a pointed look*

FEBRUARY

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

The Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
At a gala party thrown by her parents, Evelyn Hardcastle will be killed–again. She’s been murdered hundreds of times, and each day, Aiden Bishop is too late to save her. Doomed to repeat the same day over and over, Aiden’s only escape is to solve Evelyn Hardcastle’s murder and conquer the shadows of an enemy he struggles to even comprehend–but nothing and no one are quite what they seem.

~

For reasons beyond me, the North American edition of this is called The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. That edition will also be releasing on September 1st, but I’m too eager to wait until then. It’s got one of the most original premises I’ve seen amidst all 2018 releases and it’s been described as Agatha Christie meets Groundhog Day. If that doesn’t make you excited, I don’t know what will.

Releases February 8th (UK), September 1st (NA)
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MARCH

The Hollow Tree by James Brodgen

The Hollow Tree


After her hand is amputated following a tragic accident, Rachel Cooper suffers vivid nightmares of a woman imprisoned in the trunk of a hollow tree, screaming for help. When she begins to experience phantom sensations of leaves and earth with her missing limb, Rachel is terrified she is going mad… but then another hand takes hers, and the trapped woman is pulled into our world.

This woman has no idea who she is, but Rachel can’t help but think of the mystery of Oak Mary, a female corpse found in a hollow tree, and who was never identified. Three urban legends have grown up around the case; was Mary a Nazi spy, a prostitute or a gypsy witch? Rachel is desperate to learn the truth, but darker forces are at work. For a rule has been broken, and Mary is in a world where she doesn’t belong…

~
I wasn’t sure whether to put the book on this list or the Fantasy one, but there’s just something about the cover–I can’t quite put my finger on it– that suggests a lot of lean towards horror. The premise sounds brilliant; I have a soft spot for stories that feature trees, or tree-like creatures, as main characters, and this looks to be a compelling blend of fantasy, horror, and mystery.

Releases March 13th
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The Broken Girls by Simone St. James

The Broken Girls


Vermont, 1950.
There’s a place for the girls whom no one wants–the troublemakers, the illegitimate, the too smart for their own good. It’s called Idlewild Hall. And in the small town where it’s located, there are rumors that the boarding school is haunted. Four roommates bond over their whispered fears, their budding friendship blossoming–until one of them mysteriously disappears. . . .

Vermont, 2014. As much as she’s tried, journalist Fiona Sheridan cannot stop revisiting the events surrounding her older sister’s death. Twenty years ago, her body was found lying in the overgrown fields near the ruins of Idlewild Hall. And though her sister’s boyfriend was tried and convicted of murder, Fiona can’t shake the suspicion that something was never right about the case.

When Fiona discovers that Idlewild Hall is being restored by an anonymous benefactor, she decides to write a story about it. But a shocking discovery during the renovations will link the loss of her sister to secrets that were meant to stay hidden in the past–and a voice that won’t be silenced. . . .

~
Mysterious goings-on in an all-girls boarding school? A body of suspicious origin? Possible paranormal activities? And an intrepid female journalist on the case? Sign. Me. Up.

Releases March 20th
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APRIL

The Window by Amelia Brunskill 

The Window


Anna is everything her identical twin is not. Outgoing and athletic, she is the opposite of quiet introvert Jess. The same on the outside, yet so completely different inside–it’s hard to believe the girls are sisters, let alone twins. But they are. And they tell each other everything.

Or so Jess thought.

After Anna falls to her death while sneaking out her bedroom window, Jess’s life begins to unravel. Everyone says it was an accident, but to Jess, that doesn’t add up. Where was Anna going? Who was she meeting? And how long had Anna been lying to her?

~
This book first caught my eye on Twitter. A lovely minimalist cover sandwiching a story that offers an exploration of sibling relationships, and you have a recipe for something I would inhale in a heartbeat.

Releases April 3rd
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Unbury Carol by Josh Malerman

UnBury Carol
Carol Evers is a woman with a dark secret. She has died many times . . . but her many deaths are not final: They are comas, a waking slumber indistinguishable from death, each lasting days.

Only two people know of Carol’s eerie condition. One is her husband, Dwight, who married Carol for her fortune, and—when she lapses into another coma—plots to seize it by proclaiming her dead and quickly burying her . . . alive. The other is her lost love, the infamous outlaw James Moxie. When word of Carol’s dreadful fate reaches him, Moxie rides the Trail again to save his beloved from an early, unnatural grave.

And all the while, awake and aware, Carol fights to free herself from the crippling darkness that binds her—summoning her own fierce will to survive. As the players in this drama of life and death fight to decide her fate, Carol must in the end battle to save herself.

~
In 2014, Josh Malerman stormed his way into literary horror with his ridiculously impressive debut, Bird Box, and took no prisoners. It was the first horror book I read that made me stop to peer nervously around the dark corners of my apartment at night. His latest seems like a fascinating meld of Western and gothic horror, and I cannot wait.

Releases April 10th
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The Atrocities by Jeremy C. Shipp

Jeremy Shipp


When Isabella died, her parents were determined to ensure her education wouldn’t suffer.

But Isabella’s parents had not informed her new governess of Isabella’s… condition, and when Ms Valdez arrives at the estate, having forced herself through a surreal nightmare maze of twisted human-like statues, she discovers that there is no girl to tutor.

Or is there…?

~
This is the one novella of the bunch and, once more, a ghost girl seems to be the star of the story. The cover looks wonderfully gothic, and that maze is very, very intriguing.

Releases April 17th
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White Rabbit by Caleb Roehrig

White Rabbit


Rufus Holt is having the worst night of his life. It begins with the reappearance of his ex-boyfriend, Sebastian―the guy who stomped his heart out like a spent cigarette. Just as Rufus is getting ready to move on, Sebastian turns up out of the blue, saying they need to “talk.” Things couldn’t get worse, right?

Then Rufus gets a call from his sister April, begging for help. He and Sebastian find her, drenched in blood and holding a knife beside the dead body of her boyfriend, Fox Whitney.

April swears she didn’t kill Fox. Rufus knows her too well to believe she’s telling him the whole truth, but April has something he needs. Her price is his help. Now, with no one to trust but the boy he wants to hate yet can’t stop loving, Rufus has one night to clear his sister’s name . . . or die trying.

~
White Rabbit
is just the fourth (*stares*) April novel in this genre category, and Caleb Roehrig’s second YA mystery, his first being Last Seen Leaving. It promises to be very queer and more macabre than the last one, if the blood spatters on the cover are any indication. What fun! You can sample the first three chapters on Amazon now.

Releases April 24th
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Review: Obscura – Space Murders and the Persistence of Memory

Obscura

Title: Obscura
Author: Joe Hart
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
Release Date: May 8th, 2018
Genre(s): Thriller, Mystery, Science Fiction
Page Count: TBA
Goodreads

Rating: 6.0/10

 

 

 

A claustrophobic story of paranoia and murder in space that didn’t meet my expectations.

Obscura is set in the near future that’s more or less identical to our own, excepting a few advancements in technology and the appearance of a new neurological disorder called “Losians.” It is a severe form of dementia, and the affected not only experience memory loss, but also trance-states and outbursts of uncharacteristic anger. 

Dr. Gillian Ryan has lost her husband to it and her daughter is beginning to exhibit some of the more severe symptoms. So now she dedicates all her hours into researching a cure. Then, one day, she’s offered an interesting proposition from NASA. It turns out NASA has been developing teleportation devices in secret and their human testers have started exhibiting symptoms that eerily echo Losian’s. So Gillian is asked to join their space station as the lead researcher and get to the bottom of this mystery. As an incentive, they will provide funding for her research. But things don’t go at all like Gillian thought it would and, before she knows it, she’s embroiled in a murder investigation in which she is the main suspect.

This is the second thriller I’ve read this month that feature narrators with addiction problems. Obscura shares other similarities with Woman in the Window. The prose is simple and digestible. It’s feels very claustrophobic, there’s lots of isolation for the main character, and the narration is introspective. With Obscura, the spaceship sets the stage for paranoia and tension; reality begins to blur, and Gillian begins to question her sanity. I quite enjoyed these bits and found them genuinely creepy.

The science is, however, rather sparse. This is definitely more of a thriller/mystery set in a sciency environment with a scientist protagonist. I would have liked better details on how the teleporters worked, beyond “Meh, quantum computers.” A deeper exploration of Losian’s would also have been welcome.

The setting feels incredibly hazy and mundane. They’re in a glorified metal can for most of the book, sure, but it’s still a space ship/station from the (albeit, very near) future! And they get to go down to Mars! That’s pretty cool stuff, and I wanted to see some excitement and wonder seep into the narration. Instead, what I got was more or less along the lines of:

It was red, but not the bleeding color she’d seen from space. Up close it was muted, an orange-and-tan composite dotted with rocks. Past a house-size boulder twenty yards away was another biosphere half the dimensions of the one they stood in now, its rounded skin alabaster against the Martian landscape.

I mean, that’s not terribly awe-inspiring. This is her first close look at Mars but they may as well be in a bunker out in a random stretch of desert on Earth for all the lukewarm descriptions Gillian gives.

The big revelation at the end isn’t as revelatory as I wanted it to be, though the events that lead from it are pretty intense and crazy. The ending also feels abrupt, like the tension fizzled out just as it was building up to something big. Things get wrapped up too neatly and quickly, and the whole story feels…incomplete.

I also found it hard to connect with any of the characters apart from Gillian.

All in all, the story did not meet the expectations that I had from reading the summary. There were good moments and interesting ideas, interspersed with an uninspired setting, bland characters, and a disappointing finish.

Thank you to NetGalley and Thomas & Mercer for providing an ARC.