Kate’s Review: “A History of Fear”

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Book: “A History of Fear” by Luke Dumas

Publishing Info: Atria Books, December 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: Grayson Hale, the most infamous murderer in Scotland, is better known by a different name: the Devil’s Advocate. The twenty-five-year-old American grad student rose to instant notoriety when he confessed to the slaughter of his classmate Liam Stewart, claiming the Devil made him do it.

When Hale is found hanged in his prison cell, officers uncover a handwritten manuscript that promises to answer the question that’s haunted the nation for years: was Hale a lunatic, or had he been telling the truth all along?

Unnervingly, Hale doesn’t fit the bill of a killer. The first-person narrative that centers this novel reveals an acerbic young atheist, newly enrolled at the University of Edinburgh to carry on the legacy of his recently deceased father. In need of cash, he takes a job ghostwriting a mysterious book for a dark stranger, but has misgivings when the project begins to reawaken his satanophobia, a rare condition that causes him to live in terror that the Devil is after him. As he struggles to disentangle fact from fear, Grayson’s world is turned upside-down after events force him to confront his growing suspicion that he’s working for the one he has feared all this time—and that the book is only the beginning of their partnership.​​

A History of Fear is a propulsive foray into the darkness of the human psyche, marrying dread-inducing atmosphere and heart-palpitating storytelling.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this novel!

In the wide wide swaths of horror sub genres, many of which I tread in and out of as I go on my reading adventures, there are two that I don’t really prioritize based on my own personal preferences. The first is literary horror. It’s not that I don’t like literary horror, it’s more a visceral response that I have that is similar to cinema that uses the phrase ‘elevated’ horror; specifically that I feel like when something is bragged to be literary horror, it implies that genre horror is ‘less than’. That’s a chip on my shoulder, one hundred percent. The other is any horror that involves The Devil, and THAT is based on the fact that I have rage triggers involving Satanic Panic, and that I also just don’t believe in The Devil as The Adversary. So perhaps it was weird that I wanted to read “A History of Fear” by Luke Dumas, which is billed as literary horror about a man who claims the Devil made him murder a friend. But I guess I was feeling daring, because I requested this book and therefore committed to it. And honestly, I’m glad I took the chance, because even as two sub genres that don’t work well for me, this one did work!

There is always an undercurrent of ambiguity in this novel that adds to the disorientation and unease, due to a few different factors. The first is that the majority of the POV is through the eyes of Grayson Hale, a man who was convicted of murdering a fellow student and blaming it on the devil. As the reader reads the pages, there is already a sense of unreliability, as it is unclear as to whether Hale actually did run afoul the Devil through D.B., the man who wants him to write a book about the Devil in Scotland, or if he is a very disturbed individual who was in actuality battling against more metaphorical demons. The second is that there are snippets of interviews and commentaries from an outside party of a reporter named Daniela, who so intrigued with the tale and Hale’s memoir that she sets out to try and figure out just what DID happen. I liked how we would get Hale’s perspective, and then have it picked at and added to by Daniela’s notes. Is he really being tormented by a mysterious ‘D.B.’ who was employer turned villain? Is he really seeing flying demons? Or is it all a part of a childhood fear of the devil that has come to fruition because of untreated mental illness? It makes for a very well rounded and multi faceted tale, and makes it so the reader is both put off by Hale, but for many, many reasons finds reasons to pity him. I really loved how it allowed for bit revelations to be sprinkled in without feeling overreached in the main narrative. And on the flip side, it also means that the reader can have the rug yanked out from under their expectations.

As for horror elements, Dumas approaches it from a few different ways. As Hale’s paranoia grows, the dread really builds, and we have descriptions of shadowy beings lurking in Hale’s periphery, as well as winged beasts that he is certain are stalking him and attacking him. There are, of course, devil themes and demon themes as well, but as someone who isn’t particularly scared by the idea of The Devil it wasn’t really this main horror trope that put me off and set my teeth on edge. It was more the question of whether or not Hale is actually perhaps losing his grip on reality, and how his life experience and childhood memories of trauma and isolation and self loathing can wreak so much havoc. I would say that “A History of Fear” is very much a ‘literary’ horror novel in the sense that Dumas experiments with narrative structure and various subversions of elements, but it’s also because at its heart a meditation on what ‘evil’ is, and how it manifests in very real ways.

“A History of Fear” is a chilling read for a dark winter night. It will leave the reader with questions and doubt, and will get under one’s skin because of it.

Rating 8: A haunting, ambiguous, and ultimately tragic literary horror novel that oozes malice and unease.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A History of Fear” is included on the Goodreads list “Bring on the Creepy!”.

Highlights: December 2022

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It’s that time of year where everything speeds up as we barrel towards holiday plans and the end of the year. The snow has fallen and the temperatures have dropped, and holiday lights have gone up around our neighborhoods and temptations of Christmas cookies and promises of Hanukkah latkes are ever present. And there are, of course, new books we are looking forward to!

Serena’s Picks

Book: “A Fire Endless” by Rebecca Ross

Publication Date: December 6, 2022

Why I’m Interested: I really enjoyed “A River Enchanted” when I read it last December. And then, of course, it ended on a pretty big cliffhanger, with our recently married couple separated and each now dealing with huge revelations regarding their own parents and family history. The story also set up a looming conflict in the magical realm, where a powerful Fae lord has his eyes firmly on our young musician and his burgeoning abilities. I’m also excited to see how the book deals with these two divided and warring lands. There’s a lot to pack into this second book, but I have high hopes!

Book: “The Poison Season” by Mara Rutherford

Publication Date: December 6, 2022

Why I’m Interested: I’m always thrilled to find original fairytale fantasies. And this one is checking a lot of boxes! Leelo lives on a island with her entire family and community, surrounded on one side by a poisonous lake and on the other by a bloodthirsty forest. But what seems like horrors to others are seen as protection by these people who fear the outsiders on the other side. But when Leelo meets one of these outsiders, a young man who accidentally made his way to this strange island, she begins to question all that she knows of her people’s history. Color me intrigued!

Book: “Anastasia”

Publication Date: December 6, 2022

Why I’m Interested: I mean, I think the title says it all for this one! I have a special place in my heart for the animated “Antastasia” movie, it was definitely one of the most re-watched movies my sister and I agreed on. This story is blurbed as not only being the happily-ever-after story of this tragic character, but also a classic enemies-to-lovers romance. It’s also chocking in at a whopping 850 pages….what?? I honestly had to double check that number when I first saw it, but it seems right! So, this could either be one of those situations where you get more of a good thing or…filler city? I’m excited to find out!

Kate’s Picks

Book: “A History of Fear” by Luke Dumas

Publication Date: December 6, 2022

Why I’m Interested: We all know that when it comes to horror sub-genres, demonic possession of religious horror aren’t super high on my ‘must read’ lists. But I was definitely intrigued by the description of “A History of Fear” by Luke Dumas, if only because I do love a moody unreliable story that has a lot of ambiguity attached to it. And this book is clearly going to fit all those bills, given that it’s a fictional ‘memoir’ of a man who murdered a classmate while he was studying in Edinburgh and insisted that the Devil made him do it. The premise alone is enough to catch my attention, but you throw in Scotland and a lot of potential personal angst and I am caught hook, line, and sinker.

Book: “Witcha Gonna Do?” by Avery Flynn

Publication Date: December 6, 2022

Why I’m Interested: Yeah, okay, so romances aren’t usually the genre I cover here (though that hasn’t stopped me before and it won’t stop me going forward!), but this one just sounds cute as heck! I do love a fun witch story, and I do love a bantery and sexual tension filled enemies to lovers romance, and “Witcha Gonna Do?” sounds like it hits both of those themes, and how! A magic-powerless witch has to team up with a maddening but hot rival to try and save her family from a curse, and as they butt heads a certain attraction also starts to bloom. It just sounds like fun escapist romance, and I am hoping to check it out!

Book: “The Ingenue” by Rachel Kapelke-Dale

Publication Date: December 6, 2022

Why I’m Interested: While I’m not totally sure that my heart can take it right now given the implied thematics at hand, this was a book that caught my eye through promotions at ALA back in June. After Saskia, a child piano prodigy, returns to her childhood home as an adult after her mother’s death, she finds out that her mother left the house to a man from her past that had a dark impact on her life. As she tries to parse through what happened to her and the path it set her on, she has to keep from falling apart or letting her long kept secrets out. Again, it sounds like one I may need to wait on until I’m in a certain headspace, but the comparisons to both “My Dark Vanessa” and “The Queen’s Gambit” are admittedly very fascinating.

What books are you looking forward to this month? Let us know in the comments!

Serena’s Review: “The Luminaries”

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Book: “The Luminaries” by Susan Dennard

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, November 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: ALA, Edelweiss+

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: Hemlock Falls isn’t like other towns. You won’t find it on a map, your phone won’t work here, and the forest outside town might just kill you.

Winnie Wednesday wants nothing more than to join the Luminaries, the ancient order that protects Winnie’s town—and the rest of humanity—from the monsters and nightmares that rise in the forest of Hemlock Falls every night.

Ever since her father was exposed as a witch and a traitor, Winnie and her family have been shunned. But on her sixteenth birthday, she can take the deadly Luminary hunter trials and prove herself true and loyal—and restore her family’s good name. Or die trying.

But in order to survive, Winnie enlists the help of the one person who can help her train: Jay Friday, resident bad boy and Winnie’s ex-best friend. While Jay might be the most promising new hunter in Hemlock Falls, he also seems to know more about the nightmares of the forest than he should. Together, he and Winnie will discover a danger lurking in the forest no one in Hemlock Falls is prepared for.

Not all monsters can be slain, and not all nightmares are confined to the dark.

Review: I’ve been a bit hit and miss with Susan Dennard’s work in the past. I was first introduced to her several years ago at a panel at ALA, and I really liked what she had to say about writing young adult fantasy fiction. But I’ve never quite connected to her actual work. But it had been a few years since I’ve given her a shot, and I thought this new book sounded interesting. Plus, it had the kind of dark fantasy, spooky cover that I’ve been into lately.

When Winnie’s father was exposed as a spy and a traitor, her life went off the rails. Now, she sees only one way to restore hers and her family’s reputation: she must enter the Luminary trials and reclaim her place as a hunter of monsters. But the trials themselves are deadly, even without the fraught internal politics of the hunter families. And this year, something even darker is lurking in the woods. An unknown evil that no one has faced before.

So, I’ll just get it out of the way right away: this book wasn’t a hit for me. But there were also several factors involved that skewed my opinion, so I’m definitely not saying that it was a bad book in and of itself. For one thing, when I picked this book up, I somehow missed the reference to phones in the book summary and was completely taken aback to discover it was a contemporary/urban fantasy story. So maybe it was just a mood thing or my general preference for non-contemporary fantasy stories, but right of the bat I did struggle to immerse myself in this mash up of a world with an evil forest but also kids riding around on 4-wheelers.

Secondly, the book is written in third person present tense. This has to be one of my least favorite styles of writing. It ends up with the story reading in this bizarre tone where you have sentences like “Winnie tells Mom that she’s heading to school.” That’s…just weird sounding, not least because of the strangeness of the “Mom” thing. If you’re going to do third person, then do third person! Only a first person narrator would refer to the mother as “Mom” in the general telling of the story. So, yes, as you can see, I had a hard time getting past that.

But, of course, that wasn’t really the book’s fault, and readers who enjoy contemporary/urban young adult fantasy and don’t mind this style of writing will likely not struggle in the same way I did. I will say, the summary does an effective job here. You really know about all you need to know about the book from what you see above, and the story neatly checks off plot points as it goes along. I didn’t find much in the way of shocks or real twists to the story. I thought most of the reveals were fairly telegraphed early in the book.

If I did get caught up with questions, they had more to do with some of the mechanics of the world-building. For example, it is emphasized that maintaining the population of hunters who can fight these monsters is paramount, so everyone understands they are expected to marry and have kids early. But then, on the other hand, you have teenagers participating in these deadly trials. Which…just logically makes no sense. Teenagers aren’t fully grown physically, and they also, naturally, have less experience under their belts. If there are concerns about keeping up a dwindling population, it seems counter-intuitive to choose this age for a deadly trial system, an age that sets your own kids up for a higher mortality rate.

Anyways…yes, this book wasn’t for me. But I know there are a lot of fans of this author out there, so I’m also not saying this book won’t appeal to a lot of general YA fantasy fans. The story is action-packed, and I did like the commitment to the body horror of these monsters. There’s also the rather typical YA romance at its heart, which may also appeal to many readers. If you’re a fan of YA urban fantasy and like stories focused on trials and competitions, this might be for you! If so, don’t forget to enter our giveaway to win an ARC copy!

Enter to win!

Rating 6: Perhaps if it hadn’t been written in third person present tense, I would have liked it more. But I just found myself getting caught up on too many things to enjoy this one.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Luminaries” can be found on these Goodreads lists: SFF books with a forest setting

Kate’s Review: “Number One Fan”

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Book: “Number One Fan” by Meg Elison

Publishing Info: MIRA, August 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: She created a beautiful world. Now he wants it all.

On her way to a speaking engagement, bestselling novelist Eli Grey gets into a cab and accepts a drink from the driver, trusting that everything is fine. She wakes up chained in the stranger’s basement. With no close family or friends expecting her to check in, Eli knows she needs to save herself. She soon realizes that her abduction wasn’t random, and though she thinks she might recognize her captor, she can’t figure out what he wants. Her only clues are that he’s very familiar with her books and deeply invested in the fantastical world she creates. What follows is a test of wills as Eli pits herself against a man who believes she owes him everything—and is determined to take it from her.

Terrifying and timely, set against the backdrop of convention culture and the MeToo reckoning, Number One Fan unflinchingly examines the tension between creator and work, fandom and source material, and the rage of fans who feel they own fiction.

Review: Back during my Stephen King Binge of 8th Grade, I read his stalker fan horror story “Misery” and was absolutely unglued by it. I found a copy on a family trip to California, purchasing it at Bookshop Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz, and have vivid memories of reading it on the airplane home and feeling abject dread as Annie Wilkes tortured author Paul Sheldon as she held him hostage in her isolated farm house. It’s still Top 5 King for me. This year I kept hearing buzz for the book “Number One Fan” by Meg Elison, which was being touted as a gender swapped reimagining of “Misery”, but through a more modern and feminist lens. Sign me up regardless, honestly, and I was expecting it to be a critique of fandom culture and the debate of ownership of a work between creators and fans. And it’s that, to be sure. But throw some Sad and Rabid Puppies in for good measure, and that is what makes “Number One Fan” so utterly disturbing.

If you know, you know. (source)

“Number One Fan” has a pretty straight forward, multi third person perspective narrative. Our main focus is on Eli, an author whose adult fantasy series has made waves across fandom and has thrust her into the spotlight, whether she is really able to cope with it or not. While traveling for a convention, she hops into an Uber, but then passes out and finds herself trapped in an unknown basement. Her captor is somewhat familiar to her, though she can’t figure out why, but he is hellbent on usurping her fantasy world and turning her into her main character for his own obsessions. We jump from perspective to perspective, either seeing Eli’s present or her backstory that builds up to her present, or Leonard, her captor, as he plots and schemes and hopes to possess her story and his image of her. As we slowly get to know both Eli and Leonard, we get a twisted commentary on fandom, the writing world, nerds and convention culture, and the toxic brew that can come with all of it. It’s a very suspenseful story as Leonard becomes more deranged and Eli becomes more desperate, and as a few players on the outside, namely Eli’s assistant and an FBI agent he contacts when Eli goes off the grid, try to figure out what all is happening. I loved watching all of the pieces fall into place as captive and captor entangle.

But it’s the abject realism of the horrific circumstances Eli is in that really hit home “Number One Fan” for me. I’ll start with the most obvious: the fact that she is a woman who has been kidnapped and is being held against her will. Elison doesn’t hold back on the horror elements of this that make it feel all the more real and effective as a woman reader; be it the one moment she lets her guard down getting into a ride share, or the way she is gaslit by Leonard in an effort to mold her to his twisted sexual fantasy, or even just the gross realities of how disgusting and unsanitary surroundings would wreak havoc on a woman’s body (UTIs, yeast infections, what have you), the kidnapping itself is scary as hell. But there are also other elements that are scary and super real, like the way that Eli has been harassed and picked apart by others because of her existence as a woman in nerd culture, or the way that even when it is clear that something terrible has happened, that it’s dismissed by some. Or the fact that numerous other women have been targets and victims of Leonard is other ways, and it has always gone under the radar. “Misery” is scary to be sure, but its focus is more on an author whose work has been fixated on by one unhinged fan because of the work itself. In “Number One Fan”, you get the sense that the fixation is based on gender, entitlement, and misogyny. And given that things like GamerGate and, yes, the Hugo Awards Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies Slates are still causing ripples in recent so called ‘culture wars’, it makes this feel all the more timely, and all the more unnerving. Also, content warnings are probably needed for this one. With violent misogyny comes sexual violence, and while it isn’t super explicit, the spectre of it is on the pages.

“Number One Fan” is a disturbing and well done horror novel with a feminist battle cry bent. I will be on the look out for more horror from Meg Elison.

Rating 8: A modern and deeply disturbing reimagining of “Misery” that hits misogyny and fan culture themes, “Number One Fan” is scary and timely.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Number One Fan” is included on the Goodreads list “Horror to Look Forward To in 2022”.

Giveaway: “The Luminaries”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “The Luminaries” by Susan Dennard

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, November 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: ALA, Edelweiss+

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: Hemlock Falls isn’t like other towns. You won’t find it on a map, your phone won’t work here, and the forest outside town might just kill you.

Winnie Wednesday wants nothing more than to join the Luminaries, the ancient order that protects Winnie’s town—and the rest of humanity—from the monsters and nightmares that rise in the forest of Hemlock Falls every night.

Ever since her father was exposed as a witch and a traitor, Winnie and her family have been shunned. But on her sixteenth birthday, she can take the deadly Luminary hunter trials and prove herself true and loyal—and restore her family’s good name. Or die trying.

But in order to survive, Winnie enlists the help of the one person who can help her train: Jay Friday, resident bad boy and Winnie’s ex-best friend. While Jay might be the most promising new hunter in Hemlock Falls, he also seems to know more about the nightmares of the forest than he should. Together, he and Winnie will discover a danger lurking in the forest no one in Hemlock Falls is prepared for.

Not all monsters can be slain, and not all nightmares are confined to the dark.

Giveaway Details: Susan Dennard is back with a contemporary fantasy with a super creepy cover. I’ll admit, the cover itself was one of the main reasons I’ve had my eyes on this one. For all that Kate is the horror expert, I do find myself leaning towards the darker stories here and there. And this type of monster-hunting fantasy story looks like just the sort to tickle that particular itch. Plus, who can say no to a bad-boy love interest?

Per the usual, this giveaway is open to U.S. residents only. The giveaway ends on December 7.

Enter now!

Kate’s Review: “Five Survive”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Five Survive” by Holly Jackson

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, November 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: Eight hours. Six friends. Five survive. A road trip turns deadly in this addictive YA thriller from the bestselling author of the worldwide phenomenon A GOOD GIRL’S GUIDE TO MURDER.

Red Kenny is on a road trip for spring break with five friends: Her best friend – the older brother – his perfect girlfriend – a secret crush – a classmate – and a killer.

When their RV breaks down in the middle of nowhere with no cell service, they soon realize this is no accident. They have been trapped by someone out there in the dark, someone who clearly wants one of them dead.

With eight hours until dawn, the six friends must escape, or figure out which of them is the target. But is there a liar among them? Buried secrets will be forced to light and tensions inside the RV will reach deadly levels. Not all of them will survive the night. . . . 

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

With how much I loved the “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” Trilogy by Holly Jackson, I was waiting on pins and needles to see what she would come up with next. And lo and behold, I saw “Five Survive”, her newest YA thriller, up on NetGalley, and rejoiced. And the description was so, so intriguing: six friends on an RV trip are deliberately stranded by a dangerous stranger, who wants one of them dead and gone, with secrets coming to light and perhaps friends turning on each other. I mean come on. That’s all just catnip to me! And my high hopes were fairly well met, as “Five Survive” snagged me in and kept me going until I’d finished the book over two days time.

The breakneck pacing really works in this books favor, as the building tension that starts almost from the jump is really what kept me reading. We have our group of friends, the protagonist being Red, on a trip with her childhood friends and a couple new faces in the mix. Jackson wastes no time in cutting this trip short, as the RV is waylaid and it is clear very quickly that it is NO accident. And when they realize that a sniper is outside, demanding a secret, the people in this stranded RV go from stunned, to disbelieving, to frustrated, to horrified realization, and as the severity of their situation starts making all of them start making desperate decisions. Friends turn on friends in hopes of saving their own skins, and a fun road trip becomes nightmarish. I liked the time chunks and the way that the hours tick by and the desperation builds, and how they all start showing their true colors as secrets are revealed and the back stabbing begins. But I did like that a lot of the characters were easy to like, which made the stakes all the higher. Sure, there is one guy who is a complete asshole that is fairly two dimensional, but everyone else is explored well enough that the suspense about who was the secret holder and who wouldn’t make it out alive was palpable. After all, the title is “Five Survive”, and there are six people in the RV. And I do think that a lot of the surprises were well done and well earned. Jackson has really perfected the right formula for this kind of teen thriller, and it was neat seeing her tackle this kind of thriller as opposed to one like “Good Girls Guide” that feels more detective-y and step by step investigation.

In terms of our narrator, Red, she was a little more of a mixed bag for me for a lot of the book. A lot of her train of thought felt repetitive, and there were a lot of moments that felt need to remind us that she has a harder time than everyone in the RV and that she has had a lot of tragedy in her life. I’m not saying that there isn’t reason for this tragic backstory, or even that there isn’t reason for dwelling on it a bit, but when it does all come together it still felt a bit like it was hammered over the head perhaps a few too many times. I think that if we had more time with her in the story, and by that I mean a longer timeline than overnight, she may have been able to breathe a bit more with her angst and pathos, but crammed into one night, even if the book itself isn’t outside the average of a typical novel, it just gets a bit tedious. But there is still enough to like with her, and the supporting characters, from privileged asshat Oliver to sweet but condescending Maddy to awkward Arthur, all have satisfying moments and bring variety to a solid cast of characters.

Overall, “Five Survive” is a quick and engaging thriller, another fun read from Holly Jackson. I’m so glad that her streak is continuing, and once again I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.

Rating 8: Suspenseful and tense with breakneck twists and turns, “Five Survive” is another well done YA thriller by Holly Jackson!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Five Survive” is included on the Goodreads list “2022 YA Mysteries and Thrillers”.

Not Just Books: November 2022

While we do love us some books, believe it not, we do have a life outside of reading. So to highlight our other pop culture interests, on the last Monday of each month, we each will highlight three other “happenings” from the last month. Big events on favorite TV shows, new movies we’ve watched, old movies we’ve “discovered,” etc. Pretty much whatever we found of particular interest outside of the book world during the last month. Share your own favorite things in the comments!

Serena’s Picks

Amazon Prime Show: “The Rings of Power”

It took me a bit to get around to this show (I won’t lie, I was a bit concerned about the ambition of this project and also the fact that nothing can live up to Peter Jackson’s original three movies), but I’m really glad I finally did! Sure, I can nitpick on changes (one, in particular, kind of made me chuckle), but overall, I think it was a very enjoyable show. I thought it did very well capturing the same general tone as the original trilogy, especially with the emphasis on beautiful locations and an excellent score. The acting was all solid as well. There were a few storylines that I definitely cared less about than others, but nothing I actively disliked, and a lot that I really enjoyed!

Movie: “Don’t Worry Darling”

My husband almost talked me out of this one on movie night, listing all of the drama that went on on set and with the changes to casting. But I’ve also really loved Florence Pugh in everything I’ve seen her in, so I persevered. And I’m glad I did! I did think a few aspects of the plot were pretty familiar, but, like I said, Florence Pugh really carried it with her excellent portrayal of a young woman who begins to question her world and fear she is losing her mind. The music in this one was also very strange, which added to the building sense of unease and creepiness of the entire situation. While it’s covering a lot of familiar ground, there were a few notable deviations from previous stories of this kind. Overall, I really liked it!

Sports: Fifa World Cup 2022

Both Kate’s and my husband are very, very into soccer. We’re talking season tickets, front row seats for our local club sorts of “into” soccer. So, needless to say, soccer has been on my TV practically nonstop for the last week. Luckily, I enjoy most sports well enough, so I’ve not minded. Yes, I do find it harder to get invested in the outcome of, say, Japan vs. Costa Rica. But I also watched the abysmal performance of the US men’s team when they failed to qualify four years ago, so it’s been great watching them finally play on the world stage! And the big one is tomorrow! I have to admit, I am a bit stressed about it!

Kate’s Pick

TV Show: “Welcome to Chippendales”

This was one of my most anticipated shows of the Fall, which is probably not surprising to anyone who knows me. I mean, come on: true crime! Salacious scandal! 80s tackiness! SEEDINESS GALORE! I wasn’t familiar with a lot of the dark history of male dancer organization Chippendales, and this show is making it intriguing and trashy and you KNOW I was watching it while making food for Thanksgiving. Kumail Nanjiani plays Somen “Steve” Banerjee, an immigrant to America with dreams of making it big. He opens up the Chippendales club, a strip joint with male dancers, and thanks to his drive and the dance numbers choreographed by the flamboyant Nick de Noia it is a HUGE success. But with success comes greed and vice, and as Banerjee and de Noia butt heads, violence follows. I think Nanjiani is fantastic as Banerjee, Murray Bartlett is a stupendous de Noia, and I LOVE Juliette Lewis as brassy costume designer Denise. Also, look out for Dan Stevens, whose name in the credits made me go ‘oh!’ with anticipation… and then ‘oh no’ when I saw he was playing Paul Snider. If you know, you know.

TV Show: “Criminal Minds: Evolution”

A couple years ago I very belatedly got into “Criminal Minds” when it was available for streaming on Netflix. I didn’t do the whole run as the cast turnover started to get aggravating, but I liked it for what it was. When I saw that they had a reboot in the works, I was VERY interested, as a lot of the original cast was game to come back, and during some downtime during the holiday weekend I sat down and started it. It did not disappoint. The BAU is back, and continues to look into violent crimes and cases by serial killers or those who are budding to become serial killers. But when they find a strange connection between seemingly unrelated cases across the country, they start to realize that, due to isolation during the pandemic’s early days, a network of killers found each other online to swap tips. And now they have to try and bring down the ringleader. I’m very happy to see the likes of Prentiss and Garcia on my screen again, and I am very interested to see how this all unfolds.

Film: “The Menu”

Flashback: March 2020. I went to see “Emma” starring Anya Taylor-Joy at the local Alamo Drafthouse. Little did I know it would be the last movie I’d see in theaters for almost three years. But Thanksgiving weekend my husband said ‘I know you’re still nervous, but there’s this weird movie I’ve been hearing about that I think we should go see if you are comfortable’. And I decided that, mask and full vaccination record in tow, it was time. So I returned to the movie theater, seeing “The Menu” starring Anya Taylor-Joy at the local Alamo Drafthouse. It follows a young couple who are partaking in an exclusive foodie experience on a remote island with one of the world’s most touted chefs running the dinner. And as the courses keep coming, it becomes more and more clear that this isn’t any old dinner service, but the premise for something far darker. I REALLY enjoyed this horror-black comedy, as it’s a great send up of snooty foodie elitism combined with a slow burn dread. Taylor-Joy is great, of course, but Ralph Fiennes really stands out as the prodigious, albeit unhinged, chef.

Serena’s Review: “Tread of Angels”

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Book: “Tread of Angels” by Rebecca Roanhorse

Publishing Info: Saga Press, November 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: High in the remote mountains, the town of Goetia is booming as prospectors from near and far come to mine the powerful new element Divinity. Divinity is the remains of the body of the rebel Abaddon, who fell to earth during Heaven’s War, and it powers the world’s most inventive and innovative technologies, ushering in a new age of progress. However, only the descendants of those that rebelled, called Fallen, possess the ability to see the rich lodes of the precious element. That makes them a necessary evil among the good and righteous people called the Elect, and Goetia a town segregated by ancestry and class.

Celeste and Mariel are two Fallen sisters, bound by blood but raised in separate worlds. Celeste grew up with her father, passing in privileged Elect society, while Mariel stayed with their mother in the Fallen slums of Goetia. Upon her father’s death, Celeste returns to Goetia and reunites with Mariel. Mariel is a great beauty with an angelic voice, and Celeste, wracked by guilt for leaving her sister behind, becomes her fiercest protector.

When Mariel is accused of murdering a Virtue, the powerful Order of the Archangels that rule Goetia, Celeste must take on the role of Advocatus Diaboli (Devil’s Advocate) and defend her sister in the secretive courts of the Virtue. Celeste, aided by her ex-lover, Abraxas, who was once one of the rebels great generals, sets out to prove Mariel innocent. But powerful forces among the Virtues and the Elect mining barons don’t want Celeste prying into their business, and Mariel has secrets of her own. As Celeste is drawn deeper into the dark side of Goetia, she unravel a layer of lies and manipulation that may doom Mariel and puts her own immortal soul at risk, in this dark fantasy noir from the bestselling mastermind Rebecca Roanhorse.

Review: I’ve loved everything I’ve ever read by Rebecca Roanhorse. She’s one of those fantasy authors who seems to have a boundless imagination and the writing skills to properly bring those many ideas to the page in exciting, new ways. But, like many fantasy authors, she also writes a decent number of long books that require a good amount of time to get through. So, in the midst of a very busy fall full of tons of books that I wanted to get to I was relieved to see a novella heading my way.

In a society split into two sides after Heaven’s War, two sisters have tried to patch a life together for themselves. But while both are Fallen, those descended from the demons who lost the war, Celeste and Mariel grew up in very different circumstances. Celeste, largely able to pass as one of the priveleged Elect, grew up with her father in the city. Mariel was left behind, living in poverty with their mother. But now, as adults and together, they have worked to create a life for themselves, with Celeste determined to stand by the sister she feels she abandoned as a child. So when Mariel stands accused of a terrible crime, Celeste will do anything to prove her sister is innocent.

There was a lot to this novella. And that’s both a compliment and also my main complaint. On one hands, this felt like a very well-developed world, with a clear history and society. We only have glimpses here and there, but the concept of a war in heaven and the fallout that’s left behind with angels and demons is familiar enough to many readers that even without tons of details, it’s easy to understand what is going on and the dynamics at play. On the other hand, while I think the story itself works well, I did end the book feeling as if I still wanted more. More of that history. More of how this society works. More of the characters’ stories, especially their pasts that were only quickly skimmed over.

But what we do get is excellent. Celeste and Mariel were very interesting characters. Due to the nature of the story, Celeste’s is the story and character that we get more of, but through Celeste’s journey Mariel’s character becomes more and more intriguing as well, even if we don’t see her on page as much. There were a lot of excellent twists and turns to be found here. When I started the book, I quickly felt that I had a handle on what this story was going to be about, where the characters were headed and what the overall commentary and theme of the book would be. Obviously, I won’t spoil anything here, but this story turned out to be much more layered and complicated than I had initially imagined.

And while I loved these twists and turns, especially the way the story ended, this also contributed to my feeling of wanting more by the end. However, even typing that out now, I’m questioning myself. Was that feeling of wanting more due to the book or story actually lacking anything? Or was it in and of itself a commentary on storytelling, characters, and readers’ expectations? I’m not quite sure. It’s one of those cases where I think many readers will come to their own conclusions. One thing I can say with certainty is that, for as short as this book it, it really stuck with me, and I found myself thinking about it for several days after the fact. I definitely recommend it to general fantasy fans. It’s a nice short story that packs a punch with the limited page length it has.

Rating 8: Unexpected and interesting, I found myself both wishing for more but also, somehow, satisfied with this very same lack of satisfaction.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Tread of Angels” can be found on this Goodreads list:[ATY 2023] Western

Kate’s Review: “White Horse”

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Book: “White Horse” by Erika T. Wurth

Publishing Info: Flatiron Books, November 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: Heavy metal, ripped jeans, Stephen King novels, and the occasional beer at the White Horse have defined urban Indian Kari James’s life so far. But when her cousin Debby finds an old family bracelet that once belonged to Kari’s mother, it inadvertently calls up both her mother’s ghost and a monstrous entity, and her willful ignorance about her past is no longer sustainable

Haunted by visions of her mother and hunted by this mysterious creature, Kari must search for what happened to her mother all those years ago. Her father, permanently disabled from a car crash, can’t help her. Her Auntie Squeaker seems to know something but isn’t eager to give it all up at once. Debby’s anxious to help, but her controlling husband keeps getting in the way. Kari’s journey toward a truth long denied by both her family and law enforcement forces her to confront her dysfunctional relationships, thoughts about a friend she lost in childhood, and her desire for the one thing she’s always wanted but could never have.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book!

It is such a good time to be a horror fan right now. I’m sure I’ve said that before, but it remains true. We are getting so many varied stories with so many different perspectives and voices right now, and it makes for such rewarding and interesting reading. I saw “White Horse” by Erika T. Wurth on a few different platforms, and it took me a few times to really look into it. Once I did, however, I knew that I needed to read it. The buzz was promising and the premise really caught my eye. And once I started reading I slowly began to realize that this was going to be an awesome reading experience. “White Horse” is a fantastic horror novel from a new Indigenous voice in horror literature.

The horror elements in this book are some of the most unique moments and beats that I have read in recent memory. Wurth takes a concept that sounded pretty straightforward (a haunted bracelet that brings protagonist Kari visions of her dead mother as well as some kind of monster), but it never feels hokey and it feels fresh and original with the way she approaches it. The visions she has are unsettling bordering on scary, with the imagery of her mother Cecilia being both eerie but also filled with a deep sadness that permeates the pages. Kari, who is of of Apache and Chickasaw descent and lives in urban Denver, is realizing that her missing mother Cecilia didn’t leave, but is actually a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman, and that Kari’s visions are going to haunt her and drive her into despair if she doesn’t find out what really happened. It is clear that Wurth has a very clear idea of how she wants to construct these supernatural and real life horrors, and it works very, very well, especially since so much Indigenous culture and spiritual aspects drive the story themes. Whether it’s visions or the story of the Lofa, Wurth uses these mythologies and beliefs and fits them into the story at hand perfectly. We also get a love letter to a more familiar horror icon, as Kari’s love for Stephen King connects to her journey as she finds herself at the Stanley Hotel, where King was inspired to write “The Shining”, and this part of the book was so jovial AND creepy that it was one of the horror highlights I’d experienced in my reading this year. Wurth really captured the Stanley, from the descriptions to the history to the way that it can make a Stephen King fan feel just be stepping foot inside (as someone who visited a few years ago, it was like going back and experiencing it all over again). I loved all of these elements so much.

And Kari herself is a very compelling protagonist, for so many reasons. She is wry and funny, for one, and I loved the way she gives no fucks about how other people think of her. I love her complicated relationship with her cousin Debby, how she clings to her and loves her fiercely, and I ached over her relationship with her father, whom she cares for after he was in an accident that left him with some pretty significant brain damage. Kari is rough and tumble, but she has endured a lot of trauma and loss in her life, which also enters into the horror themes of this book. So much of the foundation for this horror story is rooted in generational and communal trauma, specifically towards Indigenous women living in modern American society. From the MMIW aspect to microaggressions Kari endures here and there to the way that addiction can strain a person and make them do monstrous things, to even aspects of the magical and supernatural systems at hand, this story is from an Indigenous lens and perspective, and it make the book stand out all the more.

“White Horse” is a must read horror novel. I urge horror fans to pick it up, because it’s phenomenal.

Rating 10: Dark and soulful, “White Horse” is an effective horror story that also examines modern Indigenous life and the trauma that can come with it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“White Horse” is included on the Goodreads lists “Magical Realism”, and “Colorado”.

Serena’s Review: “Son of the Salt Chaser”

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Book: “Son of the Salt Chaser” by A.S. Thornton

Publishing Info: CamCat Books, November 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: After her desert-transforming wish, Emel follows Saalim to Madinat Almulihi to reclaim all she has lost. But the seaside city is not what she expected. When she is tasked with assisting the palace healer, she is faced daily with the reminder that Saalim—focused only on seeking the revenge of those who killed his family—does not remember her at all.

Cursing the magic that destroyed her love and brought her to an unwelcoming city, Emel regrets her decision to leave her settlement. That is, until she meets Kas. Though inscrutable, he is the first person to help her forget her past, and the pull of finding happiness with him tempts her from the life she wished for with Saalim.

But darkness waits in the desert, and not all people in Madinat Almulihi are what they seem. When Emel understands she is entangled in the fate of the city—and of Saalim—she is faced with the realization that magic may be the most powerful card in her hand. It might be the only way to save all that she loves, but if she plays her hand wrong, it could destroy everything.

Previously Reviewed: “Daughter of the Salt King”

Review: This was a highly anticipated read for me this fall. “Daughter of the Salt King” was a great surprise last year, blowing past all of my expectations of it. It also ended on a fairly massive cliffhanger, with one of our main character’s left with no memories of recent events and the other adjusting to a completely new world of choice and freedom. So it’s no surprise that I dove right into this book as soon as I could!

Emel always knew that playing with magic was quite literally tempting fate, leaving her wish to the interpretation of a mercurial god. But even knowing this, she never anticipated ending up where she is now: leaving the only home she’s know to follow the love of her life, a man who doesn’t even know her anymore. And once she reaches his city, she realizes that with freedom comes many scary choices and responsibilities. How can she make a life for her and her sister in this strange land and amount these strange people? For his part, while Saalim can’t deny the strange pull he feels towards Emel, he also has other challenges facing him and his city. A powerful threat is looming, can Emel and Saalim find their way back to each to other in time to face it together?

I hate writing this sort of review most of all. It’s always disappointing to finish a book and realize that I can’t give it a good review. But it’s all the worse when the book is the second part in a duology that I had been loving up to that point. Given how much I enjoyed the first book, I had extremely high hopes for this book. And man, did those hopes crash and burn.

To start with a few positives: the writing itself is still quite strong. The same general tone and feel of the story remained consistent with the first book, and when I first started this book, I was greatly enjoying this general feel in the same way I did before. It also starts out in an interesting way, picking up immediately after the events of the first book, following Emel and Saalim as they make their way across the desert to Saalim’s home city. Here, the story felt familiar and enjoyably, with action, the beginnings of a mystery, and Saalim and Emel awkwardly stumbling around each other, with Emel trying to get Saalim to remember who she is. But then we reach the city, and it’s like the story slams head first into a wall.

I really can’t emphasize enough how abrupt of a negative shift this book takes within the first quarter of the story. All of a sudden, the pace of the story dies. Emel and Saalim are separated. And nothing happens for long spells of time, with only the barest crumbs given to keep readers invested. It immediately began to feel as if the author had no clue what to do with this second book. The story felt floundering, with no real stakes and random subplots being thrown around here and there. Emel and Saalim are also reduced to shadows of their former selves. I honestly had a hard time recognizing these characters as the ones I enjoyed so much before.

The nature of their relationship was always going to prove difficult (this is exactly why I’m always extra nervous of “amnesia” storylines), but it’s handled extremely poorly here. Emel’s behavior never makes much sense. Saalim keeps seeking her out and giving obvious hints that he is struggling to understand his connection to her. But instead of trying to draw this feeling out, encouraging Saalim to remember, Emel is standoffish and cold. It makes zero sense for her character to behave this way. Even when we’re in her head, we get no explanation for her strange decision making here. It may seem like a small thing, but these are the sorts of strange character arcs and decisions that had me struggling to enjoy this book much at all.

Towards the final 10% or so of the book, the story finally comes together. But this was way too little and way too late to save my reading experience. I was incredibly disappointed by this book. And, looking back, I have no idea why this wasn’t left as a simple stand-alone story. The first book, with a few minor changes towards the end, could have been neatly wrapped up into one perfectly enjoyable package. Such a shame that that’s not what happened, and now we have a duology that, as a whole, I’d struggle to recommend to other readers.

Rating 6: Incredibly disappointing almost to the point of being unrecognizable from the lovely book that came before it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Son of the Salt Chaser” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should be on Desert Fantasy.

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