NerdCon Stories 2016!

Hey readers! Kate here! We’re shaking things up with the Monday blog post, as I was
presented with a rather unique opportunity this past weekend. Serena and I are based in Minnesota, as you all know, and the Second Annual NerdCon: Stories, occurred on Friday and Saturday in Minneapolis. Though Serena was unable to attend with me, as she was out of town, I went wi20161014_152656_hdrth our dear friend Alicia, a fellow librarian and former classmate of ours. So I thought that I would write about this convention and what Alicia and I did while we were there.

 

So what is NerdCon: Stories you may ask. John and Hank Green, two brothers (one of whom is an author, known for “Looking for Alaska” and “The Fault In Our Stars”, and both of whom run a podcast together) founded a convention based on the idea of storytelling. It gathers for two days and brings in authors, musicians, poets, and many other people from many walks of life to talk about the importance of storytelling. It was held in the Minneapolis Convention center, spread out across many rooms and event spaces. I will be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect. Alicia sent me her schedule asking if I’d put mine together, and I responded with ‘Uhhhh….?’ Content to just follow Alicia around, I let her take the wheel and let myself just float from place to place, taking it all in.

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“Storytelling in Tabletop Gaming” panel.

 

One of the most prominent events of this convention was a large amount of panels. Many of them were about storytelling, though there were also panels where authors took the wheel, or panels about librarianship, or panels about different kinds of storytelling. I attended a few, and the ones that stood out for me were “Storytelling in Table Top Gaming”, and the two randomly generated panels “Lightning” and “Wild Cards”, where the audience came up with topics for various authors to speak on. As someone who just likes hearing authors talk about many different random things, I enjoyed hearing the likes of Paolo Bacigalupi, Patrick Rothfuss, Wesley Chu, and Mikki Kendall talk about foods they like, Halloween costumes, and childhood stories. But then in “Storytelling in Table Top Gaming” we had various gamers and storytellers (including John Darnielle, author of one of my fave books of last year “Wolf in White Van”) talking about how D&D and other role playing games can also tell stories, which is something that some may not think about. I’m a huge tabletop game fan, so this was my favorite panel of the convention.

 

20161015_110155_hdr-1There were also various opportunities to have social and networking moments. Alicia and I attended a library and librarian meet up group, where we ended up talking about different aspects of librarianship and what we do in our libraries. At the end of this group meet we were exchanging contact info with other librarians, connections that we may use in the future, or maybe not. But even if we don’t it was a rewarding little meet up group. Along with networking, we did have opportunities to meet different authors who attended the convention, and get them to sign their books. As an avid book lover and someone who has been collecting autographs since ALA 2014, this opportunity was an exciting one! I asked Cindy Pon to sign a book for me (“Silver Phoenix”, a YA fantasy novel with a BEAUTIFUL cover), and I asked John Scalzi to sign a copy of “Redshirts” for my husband (he gave him a very funny personal message too, which was very cool). The signings were well coordinated and I didn’t have to wait long at either signing, and both Pon and Scalzi were very kind and talkative when talking with the convention-goers.

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We do rock, Cindy! Thank you!

By and large, however, my favorite events were the Variety Shows that happened twice a day. Presenters could present on whatever they wanted to, so you could either get authors reading from their works (such as Daniel José Older, John Scalzi, and Cindy Pon), or giving presentations on topics of their choice (like Joe DeGeorge talking about “Mrs. Pac Man” or John Green talking about Mental Illness and Creativity), or having an author conversation

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Patrick Rothfuss and Wesley Chu.

on stage (like Patrick Rothfuss and Wesley Chu talking about video games). Or participating in a lip sync battle. Yeah. That did happen. These moments were fun and relaxing, and while it never felt totally cohesive it did showcase a lot of different and mostly interesting pieces that I enjoyed. One of the more powerful moments was a presentation on undocumented immigration and how undocumented immigrants are trying to tell their own stories now, and how important their stories are. I didn’t expect this kind of presentation, but I was really happy to see it.

 

 

And finally, one of the most important things of a convention, in my opinion, is the SWAG you can get! I love going to the expo and dealer rooms of conventions I go to so I can 1) get good information, 2) make connections with interesting people, and 3) get cool stuff to bring home and treasure! I’d be lying if I said that that I didn’t value point three higher than the rest. 20161015_152004_hdrNot only did we get signed books, we randomly met up with audiobook narrator Kate Rudd and she gave us signed copies of a few mp3 CDs of books she’s done, all because we did her a solid! The expo area at NerdCon was smaller than other conventions I’ve been to, but boy were there a lot of books for sale, sometimes by the authors themselves. There were also tables being manned by local book related organizations, from Ramsey County Library to the St. Catherine MLIS Program. I got myself a cute necklace that has a tiny little version of the book “Emma” on it, as Emma (well fine, Cher Horowitz) is my personal hero. Lots of really cute trinkets, though probably not as much to see as you might at other conventions.

So is NerdCon Stories coming back next year? That isn’t totally clear at the moment. Attendance was down and it seems that it wasn’t the success that the organizers really wanted it to be. I think that a few factors kind of conspired against it this year. One is that the Twin Cities Book Festival was going on this past weekend as well, which also has lots of books and really neat authors to meet. Plus, NerdCon did have a pretty pricey attendance fee, about one hundred dollars for two days (one of which is Friday, typically a work day). True, it’s two days of lots of cool things and opportunities, but one of the big local cons here is four days at about the same price, and quite a bit cheaper if you register at the early bird rate. I think that locals just may not be as willing to pay that much when there are other, cheaper opportunities.

All that said, I did enjoy myself greatly at this convention. I think that if you like stories and you want an experience that is a bit more interactive and in depth, NerdCon Stories is a fun way to spend part of a weekend. If it comes back next year, I say give it a chance! So thank you, NerdCon Stories! It was a nice way to spend a weekend with a good friend!

Serena’s Rev-Up Review: “Dreamer’s Pool”

17305016Book: “Dreamer’s Pool” by Juliet Marillier

Publication Info: Roc, November 2014

Where Did I Get this Book: I bought it!

Book Description: In exchange for help escaping her long and wrongful imprisonment, embittered magical healer Blackthorn has vowed to set aside her bid for vengeance against the man who destroyed all that she once held dear. Followed by a former prison mate, a silent hulk of a man named Grim, she travels north to Dalriada. There she’ll live on the fringe of a mysterious forest, duty bound for seven years to assist anyone who asks for her help.

Oran, crown prince of Dalriada, has waited anxiously for the arrival of his future bride, Lady Flidais. He knows her only from a portrait and sweetly poetic correspondence that have convinced him Flidais is his destined true love. But Oran discovers letters can lie. For although his intended exactly resembles her portrait, her brutality upon arrival proves she is nothing like the sensitive woman of the letters.

With the strategic marriage imminent, Oran sees no way out of his dilemma. Word has spread that Blackthorn possesses a remarkable gift for solving knotty problems, so the prince asks her for help. To save Oran from his treacherous nuptials, Blackthorn and Grim will need all their resources: courage, ingenuity, leaps of deduction, and more than a little magic.

Review: The third book in this series is coming out in November, so I wanted to get a head start and officially review the first two!

Juliet Marillier is hands down one of my all-time favorite authors, so I was thrilled when I heard that she was starting a new series, and I wasn’t disappointed! Told with her trademark lyrical language and set in a Fey-inhabited land with strong ties to Celtic folklore, Marillier introduces two completely unique main characters who instantly grabbed my attention and devotion.

Blackthorn is essentially the character that Marillier’s former leading ladies would have become if things hadn’t worked out as well for them. As an author, she’s known for writing young, competent, strong-willed women who often have a background as healers and storytellers. And typically, through their won drive and strength of character, they overcome the odds that are set against them and go on to live fulfilling, happy lives (though sometimes in bizarre circumstances). Blackthorn could have been one of these women, but her story ends tragically, leaving her angry, bitter, and, in many ways, hopeless with regards to humanity.

Grim, too, has a tragic, if as of now still unknown, backstory. His response to life’s blows has been to retreat to stoicism and a crippling lack of self-worth. But in Blackthorn he finds new purpose, and together, these two begin to re-discover what it takes to live outside of the prison they had been buried in together for so long.

These two characters, very much outside of Marillier’s usual type, are so tragically beautiful and real. They are both flawed individuals who must confront their own personal demons, and yet, somehow, form a deep and meaningful connection to each other. At this point, their relationship is completely platonic, and I enjoyed it all the more for this fact. It’s a lovely depiction of adult friendship and an example of familial bonds outside of traditional roles.

The story alternates between Blackthorn, Grim, and then Oran, a young prince who is thrown into a mystery with the arrival of his to-be-bride Flidais. I have to say, Oran was by far my least favorite character. His “love at first sight” relationship with Flidais pushed the bounds of believability , and in general, I found his arc less engaging than that of Blackthorn and Grim. Judging from this book, it seems that Marillier is almost writing a fantasy mystery series where Blackthorn and Grim aide another one-shot character through some magical plight. I really like this set-up; however, I’m less sure that including chapters from the perspective of these one-shot characters is the best approach. I feel that I would have enjoyed the story as a whole more had it only been told from the perspective of Blackthorn and Grim.

The set-up of the story, with Blackthorn’s agreement to help anyone who asks for aide for seven years, seems to be a clear indication that Marillier hopes to make this a long-running series. Based on the strengths of this book (the always-fantastic storytelling, and most especially, the incredible characters of Blackthorn and Grim), I truly hope that this is the case!

Rating 8: Blackthorn and Grim shine as atypical characters not often seen in a fantasy novel!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Dreamer’s Pool” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Best Adult Fairytale Fantasy”, and “Great Celtic Fiction.”

Find “Dreamer’s Pool” at your library using WorldCat.

Kate’s Review: “And the Trees Crept In”

28449150Book: “And the Trees Crept In” by Dawn Kurtagich

Publishing Info: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, September 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: A stunning, terrifying novel about a house the color of blood and the two sisters who are trapped there, by The Dead Houseauthor Dawn Kurtagich

When Silla and Nori arrive at their aunt’s home, it’s immediately clear that the “blood manor” is cursed. The creaking of the house and the stillness of the woods surrounding them would be enough of a sign, but there are secrets too–the questions that Silla can’t ignore: Who is the beautiful boy that’s appeared from the woods? Who is the man that her little sister sees, but no one else? And why does it seem that, ever since they arrived, the trees have been creeping closer?

Filled with just as many twists and turns as The Dead House, and with achingly beautiful, chilling language that delivers haunting scenes, AND THE TREES CREPT IN is the perfect follow-up novel for master horror writer Dawn Kurtagich.

Review: What makes a good gothic horror story? There are many things that need to come together to really make a horror story a gothic one. You usually need a protagonist who is female, though really this isn’t a hard and fast rule anymore. It was just a very common protagonist type back in the Victorian era when these stories were super popular and remain classics. You also need a house or place of action that is isolated and generally creepy in ambiance, like a manor house or a hospital. And there usually has to be a question of what or who is actually causing the conflict of the story: is it something otherworldly, or is it just our poor isolated protagonist losing a grip on reality. “And the Trees Crept In” by Dawn Kurtagich is a pretty good representation of the gothic horror genre, and since it’s written for teens who may be more interested in something that’s more in your face than filled with nuance, I think that it’s a breath of fresh air, YA literary world wise. You have Silla and Nori, two sisters who have fled their abusive home life to live with their Aunt Cath, whose large blood red manor house is in the middle of a forest. From the get go things are strange for the sisters. There’s no technology in the house to be seen, Aunt Cath is both very happy to have them but filled with anxiety, and house seems to be in all kinds of disrepair. Soon Aunt Cath has locked herself in the attic and the trees in the woods seem to get closer and closer to the house. “I am ON BOARD!” I crowed to myself as I started this book, and given that there was talk of a Slenderman-like creepy thing in the woods (super tall, no eyes, huuuuge grin), I was even more elated to devour this book.

But then…. It became really weird, really fast.

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…..Huh. (source)

While the Gothic genre is certainly supposed to be about isolation and questions of sanity, “And the Trees Crept In” kind of took it a little too far and into a realm that was beyond cohesive and more muddled. The story is told mostly from Silla’s point of view, though sometimes Nori’s random scribbles and notes do get some play as well. But mostly it’s a first person narrative from Silla, and diary entries from Silla, which lends perfectly to an unreliable narrator device. However, as Silla’s diary entries go on, they become more and more unclear as to what exactly is going on, just as her narration starts to fall to pieces as well. Normally this is fine in this genre, but I feel that Kurtagich almost took it too far, as by the time we got to the end of the book I was just lost and more frustrated than not. Writing a well done and believable descent into madness is hard to do, to be sure, and while a valiant effort was made here, it didn’t totally work. That being said, everything does eventually get explained in a narrative moment given by Silla’s love interest Gowan. While I appreciated that explanation was given, and while it did TOTALLY make sense, I think that it shouldn’t take a literal monologue of rundown and explanation to achieve that. And on TOP of that, there is a HUGE random twist at the end that just came completely out of left field! That was strange and I didn’t know how to feel about it. There wasn’t really any reason for it to go on top of the other twist that was revealed.

And let’s talk about Gowan and Silla a little bit. Silla’s characterization of a girl who is possibly losing her mind made it very hard for me to be like ‘oh yes, Silla and Gowan FOREVER’. While Gowan does serve a purpose in terms of wrapping things up for us readers in a tight little bow, I don’t quite buy into the romance that these two are supposed to have. I mean, after all is said and done I GET it, but I still don’t quite buy it. There wasn’t enough there before the end to make me really feel all that invested in it. I was far more interested in Silla’s relationship with her little sister Nori. The dynamic was not only interesting because of the age difference (Silla was ten when Nori was born and has always felt like a second mother to her), but because of the fact that Nori is mute. They can communicate with each other, and they have a strong love and bond through their clandestine communication, which gave a more desperate dynamic to both of them. In one sense it makes Silla more desperate to protect her since she seems to have that added layer of vulnerability, but it also makes a tension bubble up because Silla has a harder and harder time having her only company (outside of Gowan’s intermittent visits) be someone who has no voice and is different from her. And Nori’s fascination with the strange being in the woods adds even more tension still. I am admittedly pretty ignorant when it comes to what it is like to be a mute person, but I feel that Nori was portrayed in a sensitive manner.

At the end of the day, I did enjoy this confusing gothic tale of terror. I think that it definitely could have been a bit less convoluted while still maintaining it’s gothic aura. I would tell readers that it does all make sense. You just have to be willing to wait for it.

Rating 7: A pretty confusing and odd tale with a plot that needed explanation, but once it was clear what was going on I was pretty okay with it. There were some unsettling and creepy moments and the Slenderman-esque imagery was spooky.

Reader’s Advisory:

“And the Trees Crept In” is included on the following Goodreads lists: “Diverse Horror”,  and “New Speculative Fiction Stars”.

Find “And the Trees Crept In” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Ghost Talkers”

26114291Book: “Ghost Talkers” by Mary Robinette Kowal

Publishing Info: Tor Books, August 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Ginger Stuyvesant, an American heiress living in London during World War I, is engaged to Captain Benjamin Harford, an intelligence officer. Ginger is a medium for the Spirit Corps, a special Spiritualist force.

Each soldier heading for the front is conditioned to report to the mediums of the Spirit Corps when they die so the Corps can pass instant information about troop movements to military intelligence.

Ginger and her fellow mediums contribute a great deal to the war efforts, so long as they pass the information through appropriate channels. While Ben is away at the front, Ginger discovers the presence of a traitor. Without the presence of her fiance to validate her findings, the top brass thinks she’s just imagining things. Even worse, it is clear that the Spirit Corps is now being directly targeted by the German war effort. Left to her own devices, Ginger has to find out how the Germans are targeting the Spirit Corps and stop them. This is a difficult and dangerous task for a woman of that era, but this time both the spirit and the flesh are willing…

Review: This book description was right up my alley: historical fiction PLUS fantasy PLUS romance. And, while there were a few surprised here and there, I mostly enjoyed this book, perhaps especially because it is *shocker!* a standalone novel!

The book description for this is surprisingly accurate, so I won’t bore you with another recap of events, but jump right in. The biggest question was this book was whether not it would manage combing fantastical elements into a historical setting in a seamless manner. It would have been all too easy for the fantasy to overwhelm the setting or to throw questions on historical events. However, this is pulled off with aplomb. I particularly enjoyed the backstory with Houdini and Sir Conan Doyle being used by the military itself to discredit spiritualism in an effort to protect their mediums and discourage Germany from adopting similar tactics. It was a clever way of tying in reality while providing a clever explanation for events.

The story also doesn’t shy away from the prejudices that were alive and well in this time period and would impact our female protagonist and her fellow mediums. The systematic sexism and racism of the time are handled neatly, if a bit too easily. The conflicts were a bit too mild and the resolutions, a bit too easy. For a shorter novel, however, that’s main focus is narrating a spy story with a fantastical twist, I can’t fault it too much for not devoting more time to fleshing these bits out more thoroughly. Not every book needs to accomplish everything, and I was satisfied with the approach taken here.

The beginning does start with what could amount to a spoiler-y twist. For some, it’s probably pretty obvious, but I’ll refrain from going into details for those (like me!) who weren’t really looking for it (though now I do feel a bit “duh” about the whole thing…). I really enjoyed the mystery/spy/traitor storyline that was the central focus of this book, and thought that the use of mediums and ghosts was incorporated in clever, if not completely unique, ways. I also very much enjoyed Ginger as our leading lady.

This is a shorter, stand-alone novel, so if you’re in the mood for a quick read and are interested in WWI but not too finicky about the addition of things like ghosts, mediums, and seances, then this book might be just the thing!

Rating 7: I enjoyed it, but it’s also a very tried-and-true story with nothing particularly challenging or unique to offer. Still a fun read though!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Ghost Talkers” is a new title and isn’t on many Goodreads lists. But I would include it in this list “Gaslamp Fantasy”  and, even though it has obviously has fantasy elements, this list “WWI Historic Fiction.”

Find “Ghost Talkers” at your library using WorldCat.

Kate’s Review: “The Prisoner of Hell Gate”

26114305Book: “The Prisoner of Hell Gate” by Dana I. Wolff

Publishing Info: Picador, July 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: FOUR DECADES AFTER TYPHOID MARY WENT TO HER GRAVE, FIVE CURIOUS GRADUATE STUDENTS STRUGGLE TO ESCAPE ALIVE FROM THE ABANDONED ISLAND THAT ONCE IMPRISONED HER. CONTAGION DOESN’T DIE. IT JUST WAITS.

In the Hell Gate section of New York’s East River lie the sad islands where, for centuries, people locked away what they most feared: the contagious, the disfigured, the addicted, the criminally insane.

Here infection slowly consumed the stricken. Here a desperate captain ran his doomed steamship aground and watched flames devour 1500 souls. Here George A. Soper imprisoned the infamous Typhoid Mary after she spread sickness and death in Manhattan’s most privileged quarters.

George’s great-granddaughter, Karalee, and her fellow graduate students in public health know that story. But as they poke in and out of the macabre hospital rooms of abandoned North Brother Island—bantering, taking pictures, recalling history—they are missing something: Hidden evil watches over them—and plots against them.

Death doesn’t only visit Hell Gate. It comes to stay.

As darkness falls, the students find themselves marooned—their casual trespass having unleashed a chain of horrific events beyond anyone’s imagination.

Disease lurks among the eerie ruins where Typhoid Mary once lived and breathed. Ravenous flies swarm puddles of blood. Rot and decay cling to human skin. And spiteful ghosts haunt the living and undead.

Soon five students of history will learn more than they ever wanted to know about New York’s foul underbelly: the meaning of spine-tingling cries down the corridor, of mysterious fires, of disfiguring murder, and of an avenging presence so sinister they’d rather risk their lives than face the terror of one more night.

Review: Here is a brief history lesson for those who may not be as privy to the genuinely tragic story of Typhoid Mary. Mary Mallon was an Irish immigrant who came to America in 1883, and eventually took a position as a cook for upper class families. For immigrant women during this time period, choices were limited, as servitude or prostitution were two very common end games for them. Mary was lucky enough to find work as a cook, but unfortunately she was an asymptomatic carrier of Typhoid Fever. She was quarantined twice in her life, and when she was released the first time she was explicitly told that she couldn’t be a cook anymore. So she worked as a laundress for awhile, but unsatisfied with the pay she changed her name and started cooking again…. and more typhoid infections broke out. Eventually she was found, and spent the rest of her life in quarantine (source). “Prisoner of Hell Gate” kind of takes liberties with the history of Typhoid Mary, and twists it a bit to suit the story and the message that Wolff wants to convey. While I don’t necessarily disagree with the message (mistreatment of lower class women during the turn of the 20th century was wrong, oppressive, and had high consequences), I do think that “Prisoner at Hell Gate” was a bit too focused on this message and sacrificed scares for a soap box.

Also, to really talk about the issues I had with this book, I’m going to have to delve into spoilers. So if you want to read this book, you may want to avoid this review.

The core group of protagonists (known as the Sewer Rats for their Public Health focus in grad school) are mostly flat caricatures. The main character, Karalee, is the great grand-daughter of George Soper, the man who hunted Typhoid Mary down and ultimately confined her in isolation for the rest of her life. Karalee has mixed feelings about her legacy and feels a need to defend Typhoid Mary, not really necessarily because of Mary herself, but because of the toxic pride that her father took in the Soper legacy that negatively affected her and because of the cruddy situation women had during that time period in general. She is the most complex character in this group, and is leaps and bounds more fleshed out than her companions. Chick is her boyfriend and he’s the epitome of misogynistic jerk that we are supposed to want dead. He’s a creep, he’s racist, he’s potentially anti-Semitic, and he’s sleeping with Karalee who is his student, but he was so moustache twirly in his evilness that it just felt lazy. Root for him to die because HE’S TERRIBLE was how it felt. I’m never into easy outs like that. There’s Josh, who embodied the neurotic Jew stereotype to the point that I was feeling uncomfortable. There’s Gerard, who is pretty boring and forgettable. And then there’s Elena, who I thought could have had some serious potential, but who didn’t get to be much more than the sassy Latina. I liked that we did have some diversity in this group (Josh, Gerard, and Elena), but it was very unfortunate that none of them were terribly complex.

And then there’s Mary. In this story, Typhoid Mary isn’t necessarily a carrier of Typhoid, but some kind of superhuman being that has evolved beyond being sick and even aging itself. We aren’t really told why, it’s just given as the reality to fit the narrative so that Mary can still be alive and antagonistic forty years after her supposed death. When our group of Sewer Rats stupidly maroon themselves on the supposedly abandoned island where she was left to rot, Mary decides that they all deserve to die, especially Karalee, the descendent of the man who sent her there. And this is where I just can’t totally buy in to this story. I myself do have sympathy for Mary Maron, because yeah, wow, what a shitty hand to be dealt. You are a carrier of a deadly disease without known treatment, and because of this your life has been changed and you cannot exercise the same, LIMITED rights that lower class women have in society. But, that said, I am just not totally willing to say because of this, these dumbasses who crash land on her island deserve to contract typhoid and die. If I’m feeling SUPER generous, maybe I’ll give you Chick. Maybe. But Elena, Josh, Gerard, and Karalee? Nope. Not at all. If it was an attempt to empower Mary, it didn’t work for me. If there had been some actual retribution towards George Soper as he was written in this book, I could have probably been on board! But analogs for him through his descendent and a chauvinist, plus three to round out the body count, just didn’t have the same empowering effect.

In terms of scary moments, this book did have a few of them. At first I was really intrigued by the atmosphere of the Sewer Rats tromping through an abandoned island with remnants of humanity. Abandoned buildings, shadows in the dark, scary noises in the night, all of these things made for some tense moments that genuinely set me on edge during parts of this story. It felt very “Blair Witch” meets “Abandoned By Disney” , which is the kind of story that freaks me out. What we don’t see is far scarier than what we do, in my opinion. But once they met up with Mary the story started to suffer. Hell, once it was made clear that Mary had her own perspective chapters, I was immediately put off. Had we not had the Mary perspective at all, and had the Sewer Rats been stalked by an unknown person or thing in the woods around them, I think it would have been far more interesting as a horror novel. As it was, the seeming need to justify the aggression that Mary felt and exercised towards the Sewer Rats really hindered what could have been a creepy and genuinely scary narrative.

It’s too bad that “Prisoner of Hell Gate” wasn’t what I wanted it to be. It had promise, but fell flat.

Rating 5: Unlikable characters, an unsympathetic antagonist who is meant to be sympathetic, and a frustrating focus made this a frustrating book to read. There are decent scares and moments in it, but overall didn’t live up to what I’d hoped it would be.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Prisoner of Hell Gate” is not on any Goodreads lists yet, but if you’re interested in books on illness look at “Public Health”. And while I wouldn’t consider this book a ‘best of’, the list “Best Wilderness Horror Stories” could be something you want to look at.

Find “The Prisoner at Hell Gate” at your library using WorldCat!

“We Are The Walking Dead”: Readalikes for “The Walking Dead”

Hey readers! Given that it’s October, we thought that it would be fun to tackle something strange and spooky, and since “The Walking Dead” television show is coming back after a pretty obnoxious cliffhanger, we thought it could be fun to give you some readalikes. That way, if you’re so tormented and angry with the reveal of who Negan killed, and if you need to get your fix some other way for awhile you can look here (swear to God, if Daryl dies we’ll hate it as much as he hates salad). “The Walking Dead” isn’t just about zombies, though. It covers themes of power, the human condition, and just what lengths humans will go to in order to survive… sometimes with brutal results. So if you like that grab bag of existential crises, do we have some books for you! (Note: We aren’t including the comics on here just because that’s obvious. That said, they’re pretty good too, and you should check them out if you’re into crying deeply into the void because everything is hopeless!)

149267Book: “The Stand” by Stephen King

Publishing Info: Doubleday, 1978

Though there aren’t any zombies in this one, “The Stand” is definitely about the end of the world. When a man made biological weapon called Captain Tripps is accidentally released from a government facility, most of the world’s population dies. The one percent of the population left, immune to the disease, has to survive in a world after a man made apocalypse. But it isn’t just violent nomads, the elements, and decay that threatens these survivors. In Las Vegas, King’s greatest villain, Randall Flagg, is conspiring to end humanity once and for all. “The Stand” examines how humans cope with the world after it ends, and tells a chilling tale where a charismatic demon isn’t the scariest part. The scariest part about “The Stand” is that the whole ‘man made plague’ thing? It’s incredibly plausible.

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Book: “World War Z” by Max Brooks

Publishing Info: Crown, September 2006

Max Brooks followed up his tongue in cheek “The Zombie Survival Guide” with a gritty and in depth oral history of the Zombie Wars. True, the Zombie Wars haven’t really happened, but “World War Z” is so complex and intriguing that you would think that they had. Compiling interviews, documents, and primary sources, Brooks creates a story that shows not only how society crumbled during a zombie apocalypse, but also postulates just how humanity would react to it, document it, and sort of come back from it. At times very dark and at other times very funny, “World War Z” is a must read for any zombie fan out there.

20170404Book: “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel

Publishing Info: Knopf, September 2014

The same night that famed but troubled actor Arthur Leander dies on stage playing King Lear, a flu virus takes hold and begins to wipe out the world’s population. Twenty years later, a band of survivors travels the Great Lakes region, putting on Shakespearean shows for colonies and settlements in hopes of holding on to the arts and cultures of the past. But when they stumble into a strange commune with a charismatic and violence leader, they are reminded all too well of the darkness that still plagues humanity after it has ended. Haunting, wondrous, and written with a literary flourish, “Station Eleven” connects all of it’s characters while telling a beautifully tragic tale of how we as a species cope and move on in the face of a catastrophe of global proportions.

Book: “The Passage” by Justin Cronin66907981

Publishing Info: Ballantine Books, June 2010

The U.S. Government has been experimenting on death row prisoners hoping that they can create a drug to greatly extend human life. They got their base ingredient from a bat virus in South America. When it turns the prisoners into blood thirsty monsters they try it on Amy, a little girl abandoned by her parents. But then the original twelve prisoners escape, and a plague is released upon the world. Nearly 100 years later a colony of survivors is trying to survive against the ‘flyers’, who are out for blood. And Amy is still a young girl, mostly unchanged. The end of the world is not zombies but vampires in this horror novel, and Cronin’s epic is nightmarish and incredibly original in many ways. It’s also the first in a trilogy, so if you want more after you’re done, you can certainly find it.

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Book: “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy

Publishing Info: Knopf, September 2006

Another book not featuring zombies, but most definitely highlighting the brutality of human nature when pushed to its extremes. A father and son traverse a destroyed and grim landscape, making their way for the coast, their last hope for creating a future in this dark, post-apocalyptic world. This book gave me chills. The subject matter is challenging to get through, and yet, through what seems to be a hopeless existence, McCarthy’s narrative is almost poetic in its lyrical depictions. This is the opposite of a beach read, but also a “must” if you’re looking for a story of humanity surviving in an inhumane world.

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Book: “The Forest of Hands and Teeth” by Carrie Ryan

Publishing Info: Gollancz, July 2009

We have to end with a zombie book, and since the rest of this list has been made up of “adult” literature, I thought I’d feature a young adult zombie tale. This story follows Mary, a teen girl living in a fenced in compound surrounded by a forest full of the “unconsecrated” (read: zombies). But as she learns more about her own society, she begins to question everything she thought she knew and dream of venturing out into the strange and dangerous outer world. This book is a young adult mash-up of “The Walking Dead” and “The Village.”

What about you guys? Do you have any books that you think would make good readalikes for “The Walking Dead”? Let us know in the comments!

Serena’s Review: “Deeds of the Disturber”

32139Book: “Deeds of the Disturber” by Elizabeth Peters

Publishing Info: Atheneum Press, 1988

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Can fear kill? There are those who believe so but Amelia Peabody is skeptical. A respected Egyptologist and amateur sleuth, Amelia has foiled felonious schemes from Victoria’s England to the Middle East. And she doubts that it was a Nineteenth-Dynasty mummy’s curse that caused the death of a night watchman in the British Museum. The corpse was found sprawled in the mummy’s shadow, a look of terror frozen on the guard’s face. What or who killed the unfortunate man is a mystery that seems too intriguingly delicious for Amelia to pass up, especially now that she, her dashing archaeologist husband, Emerson, and their precocious son, Ramses, are back on Britain’s shores. But a contemporary curse can be as lethal as one centuries old and the foggy London thoroughfares can be as treacherous as the narrow, twisting alleyways of Cairo after dark when a perpetrator of evil deeds sets his murderous sights on his relentless pursuer… Amelia Peabody!

Review: In this, the fifth book in the series, we step away from our tried and true formula and experience a few completely new settings and approaches, to varying levels of success. Obviously, there’s no way for any book in this series to get a failing grade when you have Amelia Peabody as your narrator, but there were also a few storylines that weren’t favorites of mine.

First off, it’s clear that this is going to be a completely different type of mystery when the book opens with Amelia, Emerson, and Ramses returning to London after their most recent adventure. I was both excited to have a change-up in setting, but also a bit worried about how well some aspects of the series would hold up under the stifling conventionalities of British society. I guess I shouldn’t have worried too much as Amelia has never been one to let trifling little things like “propriety” or “niceties” hold her back from doing what she wants!

So, of course, we start off with a murder, a mystery, and a general unwillingness by Emerson and eagerness by Amelia to become involved. I feel like there is a bit of a pattern to one of the challenges of this series. Of course, to be a mystery, you must have a good number of suspects, which means introducing a whole new cast of character into each book. And, for some reason, this is now the second book in the series where I just couldn’t keep some of the suspects straight. It was just a lot of British noblemen with different relationships to each other, to the museum, and to the Amelia/Emerson family. I actually had to flip back and forth a few times to try and remind myself. There’s a failing somewhere in here, but I’m not sure if it’s just on me or whether more could have been done to really fix each character in the minds of readers and serve as reminders when they show up the next time. All in all, however, I did really enjoy the primary mystery in this novel, and by the end (once I had the cast mostly figured out) the story came together in a very unexpected, but fun/wacky way that is typical to the series as a whole. I also very much enjoyed Amelia’s exploits in dress-up in this book and her ventures out and about in London sans Emerson.

However, there were a few plot lines that I wasn’t a huge fan of. First off, Ramses needed something to do for large portions of this book, and sadly, that something came in the form of two cousins. While there were humorous bits with these two (particularly the girl and her obsession with sweets and theatrics), I wasn’t enthralled overall. I’ve bought in on the one child character, but these two were clearly just foils for Ramses, and I wasn’t very interested in the resolution of his conflict with them (or surprised by the real story behind their antics).

The second plot line…I have really mixed feelings about. I do appreciate the fact that Peters decided to throw a bit of a wrench into Emerson’s and Amelia’s relationship, as it can come of as too perfect at times, especially in this, the fifth book. However, it was hard to read about it when the reader knows that there has to be misunderstandings and some explanation behind everything and things could just be resolved in characters would just sit down and talk about it. So, while I guess it is realistic that they might behave the way they did, it was frustrating to read about, particularly with regards to Emerson. There were a few points where I feel like he was even a bit out of character with how mum he was on his involvement in the situation. He’s been presented as a very frank character, and I wasn’t completely sold on the way he chose to handle things. Or, maybe, I just bought in too fully to Amelia’s perspective on the whole thing!

Those two qualms aside, I did very much enjoy this next book in the series. Turns out that you can still have a fun Egypt-related mystery taking place in the heart of London! I wouldn’t want this to be too much of a trend, however, since I do miss the culture class and history that comes with the usual setting. But as the next book is titled “The Last Camel Died at Noon,” I feel fairly confident that we’ll be back on track soon!

Rating 7: Still highly enjoyable, though featuring two plot points that weren’t my favorite.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Deeds of the Disturber” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Regency and Victorian Mysteries”, and “Mysterious London.”

Find “Deeds of the Disturber” at your library using WorldCat.

Previously Reviewed: “The Crocodile on the Sandbank” and “The Curse of the Pharaohs” and “The Mummy Case” and “Lion in the Valley”

Kate’s Review: “Labyrinth Lost”

27969081Book: “Labyrinth Lost” by Zoraida Córdova

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Fire, September 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Nothing says Happy Birthday like summoning the spirits of your dead relatives.

I fall to my knees. Shattered glass, melted candles and the outline of scorched feathers are all that surround me. Every single person who was in my house – my entire family — is gone.

Alex is a bruja, the most powerful witch in a generation…and she hates magic. At her Deathday celebration, Alex performs a spell to rid herself of her power. But it backfires. Her whole family vanishes into thin air, leaving her alone with Nova, a brujo boy she can’t trust. A boy whose intentions are as dark as the strange markings on his skin.

The only way to get her family back is to travel with Nova to Los Lagos, a land in-between, as dark as Limbo and as strange as Wonderland…

“Beautiful Creatures” meets “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” with an infusion of Latin American tradition in this highly original fantasy adventure.

Review: So I am kind of switching it up for my second Horrorpalooza review! While I know that Serena is usually the user to do fantasy novels, when I got “Labyrinth Lost” by Zoraida Córdova, I thought that it was going to be more horror based. I mean, the main character is a bruja, which is a kind of witch for this story and it’s purposes, and I did say that witches are going to count in this Horrorpalooza. So while this is less horror and more a remix of “Alice in Wonderland”, I am going to count it as a win because this is the kind of Witch-esque Mythology that I really enjoy: powerful, matriarchal bonds that sustain a family with just as much love as magic. Also, scary demons. Plus, it’s always a plus to see YA books with a POC protagonist, as books for kids and teens (and really all people) should be telling the stories of many different experiences.

So we will start with the good. “Labyrinth’s Lost” takes a concept we’ve seen before (teenage witches) and makes it it’s own unique tale. Alex is a bruja, the most powerful bruja of her generation, and the magical systems that Córdova created for this story are always interesting and taking from Latin American traditions. There are some pretty good source notes at the end of this book where Córdova explains what parts come from tradition, and what parts were invented for the story, and I think that it is valuable to learn about this background. Too often to do you see people using Latin American imagery of spirits and the dead, especially around Halloween, and this book shows the importance of some of this imagery and why it isn’t just spooky makeup. I also loved the magical world of Los Lagos, as it does harken to Wonderland but still maintains its own character and ambiance. The magical system of cantos as opposed to spells also gives a new spin on traditionally Western ideas of witchcraft, and I liked that every chapter started out with a passage from the family Book of Cantos. These Bruja communities are portrayed as incredibly tight knit, and the camaraderie and love was very apparent. I also like that the distinction is made that all brujas are witches, but not all witches are brujas. They are not necessarily interchangeable and one cannot make assumptions about brujas just because they are a kind of witch.

Alex is a fairly realistic protagonist, and while she does teeter towards the trope of ‘chosen one who rejects her power’, I think that there is enough reason given that she may not want to have this power in the first place so as not to be twee or stereotypical. To be an Ecantrix means to have a dangerous power that is hard to control, and given that Alex partially blames herself for the loss of her father, her petulance is excusable. I also greatly appreciated that not only is our main character a Latina girl, she is also bisexual, and her love interest is her best friend Rishi. Rishi gets to come along on this adventure with Alex and the mysterious brujo Nova, and I was pleasantly surprised to see how natural Alex and Rishi got on. Her bisexuality was always treated as just a fact of her being, not as a novelty that needed to be pointed out and doted on.

But with these positives do come a few negatives. One of those is really just out of my own personal preferences: I have a really hard time with fantasy fiction. Sometimes it really grabs me, and other times it’s harder to keep me interested. While I liked a lot about “Labyrinth Lost”, I did find the stuff inside Los Lagos to be far less interesting to me than her life in the real world. I think that had the magic stayed in an urban or real world setting it would have held my interest. but once new lands come into play, I’m really not all that invested unless that world is called Middle Earth or Fantastica. So when we got to Los Lagos, I found it easier to put down. I did like the villain, The Devourer, as she was menacing and seductive all at once, a being that has started to take over Los Lagos and in doing so has made it start to crumble under her oppressive force. She was good, but I wanted more of her.

And then….. the dreaded love triangle.

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Will this madness never cease? (source)

“Labyrinth Lost” is book one in a series (what is it with YA Fantasy books seemingly always packaged as a series?), and even though Alex is very much devoted to Rishi, by the end of this book you just get the feeling that Nova is going to be a threat to this relationship in the near future. After all, even though he does things in this book that should be pretty hard to forgive, he’s being set up as the tragic antihero that is hopelessly devoted to Alex. I really don’t like love triangles, and I had hoped that we were getting away from that, but apparently not. Plus, this book ends on a blatant cliffhanger, making it totally unable to stand alone, and I hate it when books end like that. It just galls me.

All of those complaints aside, I really do think that “Labyrinth Lost” is a really fun read about magic and brujas. I will probably keep going in the series, though I don’t know how long the wait is going to be. I’m not really in any hurry, which is both good, and bad.

Rating 7: A very unique twist on witches and Wonderland with diverse characters, though some of the plot progression left me colder than I would have wanted.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Labyrinth Lost” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Great YA Novels About Latinas!”, and “LGBT Sci-Fi/Fantasy YA”.

Find “Labyrinth Lost” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Poisoned Blade”

31226229Book: “Poisoned Blade” by Kate Elliott

Publishing Info: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, August 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Now a Challenger, Jessamy is moving up the ranks of the Fives–the complex athletic contest favored by the lowliest Commoners and the loftiest Patrons alike. Pitted against far more formidable adversaries, success is Jes’s only option, as her prize money is essential to keeping her hidden family alive. She leaps at the chance to tour the countryside and face more competitors, but then a fatal attack on her traveling party puts Jes at the center of the war that Lord Kalliarkos–the prince she still loves–is fighting against their country’s enemies. With a sinister overlord watching her every move and Kal’s life on the line, Jes must now become more than a Fives champion…. She must become a warrior.

Review: After finishing, and loving, “Court of Fives,” I immediately requested “Poisoned Blade” from the library, and last week it arrived! Full disclosure, I may have set aside other reading projects for the sole purpose of bringing this book with me on a trip to the cabin last weekend. It seemed like the perfect “mini break” read, and it didn’t let me down!

“Poisoned Blade” picks up immediately after “Court of Fives.” And when I say “immediately,” I mean that it starts the very night after the final scene in the previous book with Jes sneaking into the royal grounds to find and apologize to Kal. Needless to say, he doesn’t take this well. Luckily, both characters are written in a very relatable and believable manner. Jes feels bad for her decision, but doesn’t regret it and wouldn’t do things differently. Yes, it costs her her relationship with Kal, but she saved her family in the process. It’s refreshing to see a character in a young adult series who is so realistically portrayed with regards to the relationships in her life. Obviously, as saddening as it would be for her to lose the trust of a boy she was beginning to love but had only know for a few weeks, her priorities would remain with her beloved mother and sisters.

While “Court of Fives” wasn’t primarily focused on the romance between Jes and Kal, with their immediate falling out at the beginning of this book, Elliott opened up a lot of space for herself to dive more fully into the political intrigue and action of the world she has created. We are more fully exposed to characters who only existed on the periphery of things in the other book, like Menoe (the sister of Kal and new wife of Jes’s father), the royal couple, and their ailing son, Prince Temnos. I thoroughly enjoyed the expansion of the cast and the deeper currents that were exposed through Jes’s interactions with these groups. In every way, the choices that she is faced with both expand and narrow at the same time as she is made aware of the complicated web (Ha! Get it? “Web” because her nickname is “Spider?” I’m super clever…) of relationships, schemes, and history that exist.

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You don’t need to fake it, guys, I know I’m hilarious…(source)

The world-building is also expanded when Jes takes part in a traveling party that tours the outer reaches beyond the city. This opened up a lot of doors for further action and new challenges for our main character. Really, the action was upped big time in this sequel, and I thoroughly enjoyed all of it. Particularly, the spider scouts and their magical/mechanical spiders were more fully explored in this book, which I really liked, as they made such a brief appearance in the first story and left a lot of questions unanswered. Jes also spends a lot more time fully realizing the role she has to play and is much more deliberate with her choices, many of which are not easy and force her to behave in a way that she would have thought impossible in the previous book. I love it when the main character must slide into moral shades of grey!

This book embraced the strengths that were set up in the first, and then went wild with the world-building and the addition of multiple plot layers. I very much enjoyed the whole thing and strongly recommend it for fans of young adult fantasy series. This has been one of the more enjoyable ones of the last few years so far, and I’m excited to see how Elliott wraps the whole thing up! Sadly, I have to wait until NEXT JULY!

Rating 9: A strong sequel, probably even better than the first!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Poisoned Blade” is a new title and thus not on many Goodreads lists. However, it should be on this one “Non-Caucasian Protagonists in Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Paranormal Romance.”

Find “Poisoned Blade” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed: “Court of Fives”

Kate’s Review: “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Vol.1): The Crucible”

23308488Book: “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Vol.1): The Crucible” by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, and Robert Hack (Ill.).

Publishing Info: Archie Comics, August 2016

Where Did I Get This Book?: The library!

Book Description: On the eve of her sixteenth birthday, the young sorceress Sabrina Spellman finds herself at a crossroads, having to choose between an unearthly destiny and her mortal boyfriend, Harvey. But a foe from her family’s past has arrived in Greendale, Madame Satan, and she has her own deadly agenda. Archie Comics’ latest horror sensation starts here! For TEEN+ readers.

Compiles the first six issues of the ongoing comic book series Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.

Review: Okay readers, listen up! It is my first post in the month of October, and I have a certain thing I do every year during my favorite month: It’s called Horrorpalooza and I will be reading all horror, all the time. Well, at least things that have to do with horror, be it the genre itself or stories about ghosts, ghouls, witches, zombies, and other things that go bump in the night. So we are starting this horror festival off right with “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Vol.1): The Crucible”. I had a couple of associations for Archie Comics’ magical heroine Sabrina “The Teenage Witch” Spellman from my youth. When I was in elementary school it was the plucky spin off character from Archie Comics. When I was a tween and early teen it was Melissa Joan Hart’s TV character who showed up on my TV every Friday night (until she went to college and the cast went through a huge overhaul. Forget that!). So when I heard about the newest version from Archie comics, and heard that it was supposed to be scary and horror based, I didn’t have big expectations. I figured it would be marginally creepy, maybe like “Scream Queens” level creepy, and that it would be kind of fun.

Oh my God. I was so, so very wrong. Because in the very first scene, Diana Spellman is running through the woods with her baby daughter Sabrina, hoping to save her from the family of witches she had unwittingly married into…. Only to have Edward, her husband, stick her in a mental institution after wiping her sanity from her.

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This is not the Sabrina of my youth. (source)

Friends, in this story arc, Sabrina is a teenage witch living in the 1960s and her aunts are brides of Satan. As she is approaching her sixteenth birthday she has to choose between devoting her life to Satan and witchcraft, or to pick a mortal life to live with her high school sweetheart Harvey Kinkle. But there is also the threat of Madam Satan, a powerful witch from the Spellman family’s past who is hell bent on revenge. This is some Anne Rice “Witching Hour” stuff here, guys, and let me tell you, it is done VERY well. It also caught me completely off guard, as I did not expect this dark, twisted story to come from ARCHIE COMICS of all places! Between Aunts Hilda and Zelda partaking in cannibalism and Sabrina herself casting spells that take away people’s free will, and Madam FREAKING Satan peeling people’s faces off (off page, thankfully) to place across her own mutilated face, I felt like I was reading an old school folk tale about witches in all their evil, nasty glory, and I was LIVING FOR EVERY MOMENT OF IT. Because “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” is a damn good horror comic, and I would even go so far as to say that it’s the best horror comic out there right now.

The twisting of the old Sabrina story is incredible, really. I love the new fun and funky witch stories that have cropped up in the 20th and 21st centuries, like “Bewitched” and the original “Sabrina” stories, but there is something to be said for some of the scary portrayals like “The Blair Witch Project” (and its recent sequel) and “The Witch.” By taking Sabrina Spellman, one of the tamest of witch stories, and making it into a Puritanical nightmare, Aguirre-Sacasa has made a new horror narrative that also, somehow, has its tongue planted firmly in cheek. There is something both upsetting and hilarious about seeing Sabrina Spellman ride a big black goat through the air as part of her “christening,” just as it’s unsettling seeing Betty and Veronica in Riverdale trying to raise a succubus to finally settle their feud over Archie once and for all. I was laughing and also freaking out about how royally screwed up this all was. We are following incredibly wicked characters, characters who commit heinous acts and commit themselves to what we are to believe is the worst kind of evil in this world, and yet they are so familiar and kind of devilishly fun in how they’ve gotten so twisted up. The only two characters that seem to have their original, fairly benign and caring hearts, are Sabrina herself, and her dutiful cat Salem. And my God was it just nostagia-filled loveliness to see that Salem is still there for his witch.

The artwork, too, is a sight to see. It was what really tipped me off right as I opened it that this was going to be something far greater than I anticipated. It looks like watercolor sketches, which gives the book an eerie and dreamy feel. Robert Hack has also been known for his other comic work, such as “Afterlife with Archie” and a few runs at “Doctor Who”, and his style really adds to the aesthetic of the story.

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(source)

I love the faded quality to it, with the splashes of realism when it comes to a book that Sabrina may be reading, or a very important moment or character. I find it gorgeous and I hope that Hack stays with the series in its entirety. I can’t imagine it with any other style.

So if you are looking for some serious hardcore witch stories this lovely October, “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Vol.1): The Crucible” needs to be put on your list. The tribute to old time witch mythos combined with a familiar, if not very inverted, cast of characters is an act of genius. Sabrina Spellman, I am so happy that this is what you’ve become.

Rating 10: A fun and incredibly disturbing horror comic for fans of old school witch and witchcraft mythology. The best horror comic being written right now, hands down.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” is fairly new and has not found its way on many lists yet. But check out “Best Horror Comics/Graphic Novels”, and “Witches and Other Sundry Spirits”.

Find “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Vol.1): The Crucible” at your library using WorldCat!