Serena’s Review: “The Witch of Willow Hall”

37007910Book: “The Witch of Willow Hall” by Hester Fox

Publishing Info: Graydon House, October 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: New Oldbury, 1821

In the wake of a scandal, the Montrose family and their three daughters—Catherine, Lydia, and Emeline—flee Boston for their new country home, Willow Hall. The estate seems sleepy and idyllic. But a subtle menace creeps into the atmosphere, remnants of a dark history that call to Lydia, and to the youngest, Emeline.

All three daughters will be irrevocably changed by what follows, but none more than Lydia, who must draw on a power she never knew she possessed if she wants to protect those she loves. For Willow Hall’s secrets will rise, in the end…

Review: I picked up this book from NetGalley based on a promotional line comparing it to a spooky Jane Austen novel set in the U.S. Well, as we know, about 95% of the time, any comparison to Jane Austen will both A.) lead to me reading the book and B.) leave me massively disappointed. While I’ve definitely read books that fared worse (for one, for all I can tell the only reason this comparison was made was because of the time period and the “manners romance” aspect of it…which, just stop it. It’s a historical romance. There are plenty of those, and they don’t all need to be compared to Austen), this book was a disappointment to me. Maybe not a massive disappointment, but a disappointment all the same.

Lydia, the middle daughter, has always known there is something strange about herself, ever since she mildly blacked out as a child when fighting with a local bully and re-awakened to find him beaten on the street. But at this point, any concerns about scandal she may bring to the family pale in comparison to the mess that her sister, Catherine, has gotten them into. Fleeing to the country, the family now find themselves closed up in a mysterious house with many strange rumors surrounding it. But on the positive side, they have quite a charming neighbor, a gentleman named John.

There were a few strong points of this book that I want to start by highlighting. For one, I’m always going to love a good historical setting. While there were a few anachronisms here and there, nothing was too extreme to really throw me out of the book in any meaningful way. Instead, I still enjoyed the general rhythm of language, emphasis on social callings, and historical setting that were employed. As long as an author doesn’t greatly mess these basic features up, they’re always going to come away with at least a partial win under their belt as far as I’m concerned.

Secondly, as readers of this blog know, Kate is the horror fan. While I’ll read the heck out of dark fantasy novel any day of the week, I tend to steer clear of straight-up horror. And this is probably one of the closest reads to that genre that I’ve wandered into for a while. Don’t get me wrong, horror fans will likely be underwhelmed by this book, since, let’s be real, this is definitely a historical romance at its heart. But I will say that there were elements of the story that legitimately creeped me out. It didn’t help that I was reading this book the one night my husband was out of town. But I think either way, there would have been some shivers.

The other positive note is that, alongside with these legitimately creepy scenes, the book didn’t shy away from going to some pretty grim places with the story. It starts out with a pretty rough scene dealing with animal cruelty and then continues in a story that insists that even main characters aren’t safe from harsh consequences. There was one scene in particular that was lead up to and the entire time I was partially rolling my eyes, expecting the author to pull back at the last minute. Instead, she went full throttle into it and I was honestly surprised and (in a very grim sort of way) pleased that she committed to this particularly story thread.

But, even with these positives in its favor, I still greatly struggled with the story. For one thing, there were a few twists that I found entirely predictable and the story took way too long to finally come out with the “mysterious” truth. And then when this secret does land, it didn’t really seem to have much of an impact. Not only did I already suspects this particular twist, but the revelation doesn’t greatly change the situation. The family is still disgraced; the mystery behind why doesn’t have much impact on the reality of that situation.

I also didn’t particularly enjoy Catherine as a character. As the focal point of said “twisty” family rumor, there was a lot of room to do something interesting with her arc. Instead, she is written as pretty much an awful person with no redeeming qualities. There are a few moments where I thought we would see some growth or some expanded depth of character revealed, but then in only a few short pages, she goes right back to just being plain terrible with very little else in the way of character development to support her. And with this being a fact of her character, many of Lydia’s own struggles are automatically undercut. I couldn’t sympathize with her indecision or naivete when everything that the reader has seen (and we’re only exposed to Catherine for a period of a few short months, when presumably Lydia has a lifetime of experience) would point to a relationship that has been not worth fighting for for quite a while. There were a few moments towards the last third, in particular, where Lydia’s choices are so incredibly stupid that I had to actually put the book down and take a deep breath before continuing.

This same problem, Lydia’s bizarre choices and fixations, lead to my not particularly enjoying the romance at the center of this story. And this is where the Austen comparisons are coming into play, as there is a lot of miscommunication and confusion at the heart of this romance to draw out the moment of happiness until the end. But the thing is, Austen created legitimate stumbling blocks and points of misdirection in her romances. We get why Elizabeth misunderstood Darcy. We understand why Emma didn’t recognize her feelings for Knightly. But here, we have a hero who is actually spelling it out for our heroine and she, instead, is choosing to believe the terrible sister who has mislead her and betrayed her at every turn. Or she simply gives in to crippling indecision and insecurity for no real reason whatsoever.

I have very little patience for these types of heroines or these types of plot points that aren’t based in anything other than an author’s need to follow a typical romance plot storyboard where the main characters can’t get together until the final scene. If you don’t have a legitimate, plot- or story-based reason for keeping your romance in suspense, you might just need to re-think the entire thing. Either flesh out your plot/characters, or just accept that your romance needs to follow a non-traditional path. This type of forced suspense not only kills any real suspense there might be, but also damages the characters at its heart.

In the end, I was ultimately let down by this book. I’m glad I got in at least one sort-of spooky book before Halloween, but it’s too bad that other than the creepiness and general historical setting, this book didn’t have a lot going for it. If you really love historical romances with a dash of creepiness, than you might enjoy this. But if you’re wanting any depth of character from your heroine, hero, and villain, you probably need to look elsewhere.

Rating 5: Some legitimate spooky scenes were let down by a plot and set of characters that were simply too weak to carry the story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Witch of Willow Hall” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Historical Ghost Fiction” and “Autumn Seasonal Reads.”

Find “The Witch of Willow Hall” at your library using WorldCat!

 

 

Kate’s Review: “You May Now Kill The Bride”

35603814Book: “You May Now Kill The Bride” (Return to Fear Street #1) by R.L. Stine

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, July 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Two sisters, divided by time. Each with a terrible resentment she can barely contain.

Two Fear family weddings, decades apart… Each bride will find that the ancient curse that haunts the Fears LIVES ON. It feeds off the evil that courses through their blood. It takes its toll in unexpected ways, and allows dark history to repeat itself.

In this all-new Fear Street story, family ties bind sisters together—till DEATH do they part.

Review: In time for Halloween, this week I am doing something a little different. Instead of reviewing a classic “Fear Street” book, I’m taking on the first book in R.L. Stine’s newest “Fear Street” series, “Return to Fear Street”! Just to make a note right off the bat: I am not going to treat “You May Now Kill The Bride”, or any other future “Return to Fear Street” books, like I’m treating my retro “Fear Street” re-read. Stine is approaching these books differently than he did back in the day, and therefore I am going to approach them like I would any other non-“Fear Street” novel.

“Fear Street” is back, guys, and for the most part it is not the “Fear Street” you remember from your youth. This is something of a second comeback for “Fear Street”, as before HarperTeen picked it up St. Martin’s Press did with books like “Party Games” and “The Lost Girl”. I’m not completely certain why a second reboot with a new publisher happened, but “You May Now Kill The Bride” is the inaugural novel. Now that publishers and authors know that teens are able/willing to read books that are more than one hundred and twenty pages long, and that have complex characters, “Fear Street” has to up it’s game. And “You May Now Kill The Bride” accepts that challenge, repackaging “Fear Street” for a modern teen audience.

There are two narratives in this book: the first is the story of Ruth-Ann and Rebecca Fear, two sisters in the 1920s who are part of the illustrious and wealthy Fear Family. Ruth-Ann is jealous of her beautiful and popular older sister, who is about to get married to the man that Ruth-Ann loves. As you can imagine, the wedding has disastrous results, all because of a family curse that the Fears have upon them. The second narrative is about Harmony and Marissa Fear, two sisters in modern times who are having similar problems. Marissa is about to get married to her high school sweetheart Doug, and while Harmony isn’t in love with Doug, she and Marissa have been at odds ever since Harmony messed up Marissa’s relationship with a different guy named Aiden. In a really horrific way, I should mention. The similarities don’t end there, however: not only is Harmony a witch, like Ruth-Ann was (seems that all Fears have the ability to be), but Marissa’s wedding is going to be at the same lodge that Rebecca’s wedding was. While this does sound like a pretty standard “Fear Street” tale (and in a lot of ways, it is, but more on that later), Stine has reworked the old set ups and tropes, and has improved upon the long trotted out formulas of the past.

The pacing is far more drawn out in “You May Now Kill The Bride”. Stine isn’t in any hurry to get to the action points, and he lets the characters slowly explore the scenes they are in just as he lets the exposition flow at it’s leisure. “You May Now Kill The Bride” isn’t rushing to get to action moments or cliffhangers, so when these moments do arrive they have more oomph. There is also more complexity to the plot, and the threads that exist between the 1920s story and the modern story take a lot more time to come together, with the hints and puzzle pieces being dropped throughout both timelines. Stine trusts his audience a bit more to be able to parse out the nuance and the implications, and because he trusts his readers, the book rarely feels like it’s being spoon fed. He also has a pretty good grasp on the fact that people like me, former “Fear Street” junkies turned horror aficionados, are probably going to pick this up, so little nods, winks, and references are dropped throughout the book. The one that actually made me shriek out was a character who was staying at the lodge, and what room was he in? Room 237.

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I love feeling in on the joke, sir. (source)

That isn’t to say that it doesn’t fall into familiar “Fear Street” traps. While I think that the characters are definitely more rounded in this book than previous characters have been, and while I did enjoy how Harmony was complex and sometimes morally ambiguous, there are still obvious and beaten down tropes in others. There’s the loutish uncle character we’ve seen before, the familiar sparring sister relationship, the clueless parents. And there are a number of huge plot holes, and confusing moments that I still haven’t quite wrapped my head around. There are even still some kind of dumb cliffhangers at the end of various chapters (though he has definitely toned it down from the past). But these weaknesses are kind of just what you have to expect to come with the territory when it comes to “Fear Street”, and in some, odd ways it vaguely adds to the charm of this reboot, if only because it feels familiar and comforting that some things never change.

I didn’t really go in expecting much from “You May Now Kill The Bride”, and I ended up enjoying it. If this is what “Fear Street” is going to be for this new generation of teenagers, I am very excited for the kind of horror fans it is going to nurture.

And with that, Horrorpalooza has come to an end! From me to you, I am hoping that you all have a FABULOUS Halloween tomorrow!

Rating 7: Solid for a new “Fear Street” novel, “You May Now Kill The Bride” is a new return to an old favorite series that exceeded many of my expectations. It’s fun, it’s creative, and it’s giving a new feel to an old favorite.

Reader’s Advisory:

“You May Now Kill The Bride” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should quite obviously be on “Best Fear Street Books”, and, for funsies, “Books With a Wedding Theme”.

Find “You May Now Kill The Bride” at your library using WorldCat!

Not Just Books: October 2018

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

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Video Game: Dragon Age: Inquisition

I love Skyrim. It’s probably my favorite video game up to this point. But, sadly, I’m starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel as far as how much is left of that game (I’ve been drawing it out foreeevver at this point). So, I started looking around to find something similar, and this game popped up. I haven’t played either of the two to come before it, but I thought, why the heck not, and jumped in on this, the third. For one the word “dragon” was in the title. And for two, the graphics and general fantasy setting seemed very similar to Skyrim. But, of course, they are very different games. This is the first game of this sort that I’ve played where part of the game is learning the tactical and strategic management of a party of characters other than your main story character. It’s taken some getting used to and patience, but I think I’m finally getting there. There’s also an overwhelming amount of quests and things to do, but that’s probably for the best. I need something to tide me over for the likely YEARS remaining before the next Elder Scrolls releases anyways.

mv5bmjaynzkxotu5mf5bml5banbnxkftztgwmtk1otyznjm-_v1_sy1000_sx800_al_TV Show: “Supernatural”

What would fall be without a return to the world of “Supernatural?” Honestly, with the start of season 14, I really don’t know! I’ve been watching this show since college and that’s way longer ago than I would like to think about. But, of course, we’re back and with Dean now possessed by the archangel Michael, the question remains: will this last for 2 episodes or will they stretch it out to a full 3?? After 14 seasons, fans of the show know one solid truth: the heart of this series is Dean and Sam together. Any fiddling with that recipe has lead to disaster, so it’s not a matter of if Dean will be rescued; it’s not even a question of when. Instead, it’s just how quickly will the show manage to resolve this current hiccup before returning us to our usual, brotherly love programming?

mv5bmje2mdiwmdu5ml5bml5banbnxkftztgwmtkxntgznjm-_v1_Movie: “Free Solo”

A few years ago, my husband and I struck on a bizarre movie fixation that we shared: fascinating/horrifying documentaries about mountaineering/climbing. There’s some hard-to-pin down thrill about the combination of wonder at the gorgeous cinematography, terror of heights, and shared judgement over the sanity of the individuals involved that makes for a great movie-going experience. So for our anniversary this year (yes, this is how much we enjoy these types of films), we decided to check out “Free Solo,” the documentary following the build-up to and experience of Alex Honnold becoming the first man to climb the El Capitan Wall without ropes. It’s terrifying, people! During several portions of the movie you could look around the theater and literally see the entire crowd squirming in their seats (and this was a sold out theater, so that should also speak to the quality of the film.) Knowing the end result does practically nothing to diminish this discomfort. Honnold was also a surprisingly charming and witty individual. Though, yes, we still left the theater questioning his sanity.

Kate’s Picks

mv5bmtu4nza4mdewnf5bml5banbnxkftztgwmtqxodyznjm-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_Netflix Show: “The Haunting of Hill House”

As a big fan of Shirley Jackson’s original novel, and the fabulous 1963 film adaptation (we are NOT going to talk about the 1999 abomination), I was a little skeptical when I saw the trailer for “The Haunting of Hill House”. Who were all these people, and what did ANY of them have to do with a paranormal investigation into an old haunted mansion? And while “The Haunting of Hill House” on Netflix is a very loose adaptation of the book it comes from, I really, REALLY enjoyed what was done with it. Instead of trying to recreate the entire story from the book, the show creates a new set of characters who take traits from the original ones. This time it’s a family that has been haunted by a traumatic living experience in this house, and how they have all fallen apart because of it. It’s not only pretty dang scary, it’s also one of the most emotional shows that I’ve seen in a long time.

220px-halloween_28201829_posterFilm: “Halloween” (2018)

I first saw the original John Carpenter “Halloween” during my freshman year in high school. While the people I was watching with weren’t as affected as I was, I was completely taken in by the tension and dread surrounding the story. Michael Myers was sufficiently terrifying and Jamie Lee Curtis was the perfect heroine as Laurie Strode. The rest of the series (outside of “Halloween H20”) didn’t really do much for me. So when I found out that the new film “Halloween” was going to retcon everything after the first one, I was excited. Instead of being the long stalked sister, in “Halloween” (2018) she is a tough, traumatized mother and grandmother who is waiting for Michael to come for her. Because she’s ready for him this time. This movie not only got back to the nitty gritty of the terror and suspense of the original, it showcases Curtis as the powerhouse she always as been, as well as introducing other lady characters who are here to take care of business. It is the sequel that “Halloween” has always deserved.

chilling-adventures-sabrina-netflixNetflix Show: “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”

I had been waiting for this to come out for a long time, and now it’s here. Given how much I loved the comics, I was pretty excited to see what Netflix did with “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”. And while it didn’t go AS dark as the comics did, I think that there are a lot of things to like about this show. The cast is pretty great, with Kiernan Shipka playing the titular teen witch, but I thought that the real MVPs were Miranda Otto and Lucy Davis, who play Aunts Zelda and Hilda. While both of them could be two dimensional caricatures (Zelda as the stern true believer and Hilda as the bubbly optimist), they each give the aunts depth and nuance. While there are some moments that come off a little cringey (some of the optics weren’t totally well thought out), overall I think that “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” is an entertaining and fun tale about witches and the mortals they care about.

 

Serena’s Review: “Dry”

38355098Book: “Dry” by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman

Publishing Info: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, October 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss Plus

Book Description: The drought—or the Tap-Out, as everyone calls it—has been going on for a while now. Everyone’s lives have become an endless list of don’ts: don’t water the lawn, don’t fill up your pool, don’t take long showers.

Until the taps run dry.

Suddenly, Alyssa’s quiet suburban street spirals into a warzone of desperation; neighbours and families turned against each other on the hunt for water. And when her parents don’t return and her life—and the life of her brother—is threatened, Alyssa has to make impossible choices if she’s going to survive.

Review: Important first note: I literally just now, starting to write this review, figured out what that cover design was. It’s a water drop being eaten up by flames from below. For the life of me I couldn’t figure it out the entire time I was reading the book, only seeing the blue portion and being like “…is it…a feather?? What does that have to do with this topic?”

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(source)

Living in southern California, Alyssa and her family have been hearing about the water shortage for a while now. But like any other news that is told too often, they have quietly gone about their lives not expecting any big changes. Sure, they’d water the lawn less and swimming pools have been banned, but life goes on. Until one day the water turns off. Completely. And in a very short period of time Alyssa comes to realize just how fragile her life and community has been. With the lack of this one crucial resource, chaos and danger quickly descend and she finds herself fighting for her life alongside her brother and a random assortment of other teenagers: the son of the prepper family next door, a teenage girl who has been living by her own laws for years, and a teenage boy with a gift for gab and his own shading dealings. Who can she trust and more importantly, where can they go if they want to survive?

Teaming up with his son, Shusterman once again proves why he is a master of dystopia fiction. What makes this book special is how very real it feels. While “Scythe” looks at a completely foreign society, there are still enough aspects of humanity to imagine this as a very true future. “Dry,” instead, feels as if it could happen tomorrow and that makes it all the more terrifying. Not only is the threat one that we can understand, but it is one that already feels like it is on our door, at least to some extent. But both “Scythe” and “Dry” rely on the very honest and true portrayals of how humanity operates in crisis. In this book, we see how very quickly “society” can devolve and makes the world we live in feel as if it is simply balancing on a very thin knife’s edge. Reacting on spectrums, we see all the extremes in reactions to how a crisis like this might play out. But what makes it all the more disturbing is the transformation of regular people into survivors who will quickly cross moral boundaries to horrific results.

I particularly the way this novel was lain out, with points of view from not only Alyssa but the other teenagers in her group. And between these sections we also saw glimpses into small moments throughout the city as people respond to this crisis. One woman’s time trapped on a freeway. A reporter who finds a way to twist the situation to her benefit. A factory manager who quickly find himself at the center of a mob. Each serves as harsh reminders of the plethora of dangers that immediately show up in a situation like this and how crucial every decision has to the one’s own survival.

Beyond these glimpses, each of the teenage characters were interesting to follow. And what made them all the better as narrators was that there was no assumption that they were all “heroic” as readers often expect from our point of view characters. Instead, they each have their own strengths and weaknesses, and, more importantly, their own priorities that can often run in conflict with other members of the group. While Alyssa does feel like the “main” character, I found myself much more invested in the story of her neighbor who is the son of a family of preppers. His arc felt the most fully-realized of the group. Alyssa, on the other hand, was probably one of least favorite. While she presents an important point-of-view, being the most optimistic and moral of the group, she also had an early tendency to make very bone-headed decisions when all the evidence was already against her. She had already seen the depths to which humanity had sunk and was still taking dumb risks with the idea that these same people would somehow react differently. It made her read as naive and a bit silly at times.

But the strength of this story really lies with its plotting and descriptions of the horrors brought about by an event like this. Unlike many other disaster/post-apocalyptic stories, there is no major BOOM that sets things off. Instead, it is something much more insidious and quiet. We also see how this lack of “boom” surrounding a situation like this would play against it, with too many people not treating it with the seriousness it deserves. There is a clear commentary on global warning that can be drawn from this, but both Shustermans are careful to not beat readers over the head with it too much. Instead, the discomforting “realness” of the situation does all the work for them on this point.

This story was gripping and impossible to put down. I was frantically turning pages with a feeling of growing dread. And by the last page, while this story was completed (it’s a standalone work), I was left thinking about it and, let’s be honest, mentally prepping for days. I highly recommend this for fans of post-apocalyptic stories and Shusterman’s writing in particular.

Rating 9: A horrifyingly real-feeling story about the collapse of humanity in crisis situations.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Dry” is a newer title so it isn’t on any relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Natural Disaster Fiction.”

Find “The Dead Zone” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Behind You: One-Shot Horror Stories”

34550918Book: “Behind You: One-Shot Horror Stories” by Brian Coldrick

Publishing Info: IDW Publishing, October 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: A twisted figure crawling out of a tunnel. A giggling crowd of masked watchers. A reassembling corpse. What could be behind you, just waiting for you to turn around? Behind You is an illustration series, a comic with no panels, where each piece is essentially a separate story. Each tale is one image and one piece of text; an unsuspecting victim with someone, or something, behind them. Entries range from the amusingly weird to the genuinely unsettling. Inspired by spooky films, books, myths, and internet tall tales, Behind You is full of scary set-ups but leaves lots of blanks for the reader to fill in with their own narrative. Includes an Introduction by New York Times Best-Seller Joe Hill.

Review: Halloween is next week, readers, and that means that this year’s Horrorpalooza will be coming to an end after the next “Fear Street” post. While you’ll still be getting an influx of horror stories in the coming weeks, given that I have plenty of reading I haven’t even addressed yet, I wanted to save one of the most unique and fun horror reads for the week before the highest of high holidays in my mind. And “Behind You: One-Shot Horror Stories” is absolutely unique, and one of the most creative horror reads I’ve read in a long while. Brian Coldrick’s stories got their start on Tumblr, and though I left that platform long ago I will say that you can find some really awesome blogs and websites on there that showcase some really great art and creativity, and “Behind You” is a great example of that.

Coldrick’s stories are minimalist in some ways, and yet very detailed in others. They are one frame and one image (they move on Tumblr, and alas they do not on the pages of this book), and that image tells a story that can range from simply unnerving to full blown nightmare fuel. The image also gives the reader a lot of leeway to create their own context and background. Is this person waiting in an alley meeting a friend? A lover? Family? Who used to live in this house and why is it that there are all these twisted silhouettes on the walls? I like the freedom that this gave me, and it also made it so I would linger on the page a bit longer than I might have were I just reading a single panel that had all the answers. It reminds me of a visual version of the classic Hemingway minimal story “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”, as in such little space you get such vibrant and clear cut stories.

The design of the panels in this book also really elevated the stories, and I liked the wide range of stories that these single panels told. There are numerous protagonists and antagonists, and they all seem pretty original and unique in their designs. The style reminds me of a mix between Edward Gorey and a New Yorker cartoon, and that lends both a creep factor and kind of a cute quirkiness as well. Given that this book is a collection of various narratives, all separate from each other (except for a running panel of a figure being followed by a ghost that pops up occasionally throughout), there isn’t much to say in terms of content. So instead, I will include a few of the panels so they can speak for themselves.

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(source)
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This is my personal favorite (source)

I do think that there is something lost when the images don’t move, like a number of them do on the Tumblr blog. There are a few that could work either way, but some really are more effective with slight and uncanny movements. That said, I do think that there is something to be said for just being able to sit down and page through a bound copy of these panels and stories. I think there’s something a little more tactile in that, especially if you are wanting to sit down on a creepy autumn night and give yourself a case of the willies.

“Behind You” was an enjoyable read for an autumn night, and I think that the best way to experience it would be with a cup of cocoa, bundled up in a blanket, and trying not to notice the shadows outside or on the walls of your home.

Rating 8: A quick and creepy read with stories told in a unique way, “Behind You” is a great book to pick up this Halloween!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Behind You” isn’t featured on any Goodreads lists (perhaps due to it’s uniqueness?), but I think that it would fit in on “Best Horror Comics/Graphic Novels”, and “Most Terrifying Short Stories”.

Find “Behind You” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review and Giveaway: “Muse of Nightmares”

25446343Book: “Muse of Nightmares” by Laini Taylor

Publishing Info: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, October 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher

Book Description: In the wake of tragedy, neither Lazlo nor Sarai are who they were before. One a god, the other a ghost, they struggle to grasp the new boundaries of their selves as dark-minded Minya holds them hostage, intent on vengeance against Weep.

Lazlo faces an unthinkable choice—save the woman he loves, or everyone else?—while Sarai feels more helpless than ever. But is she? Sometimes, only the direst need can teach us our own depths, and Sarai, the muse of nightmares, has not yet discovered what she’s capable of.

As humans and godspawn reel in the aftermath of the citadel’s near fall, a new foe shatters their fragile hopes, and the mysteries of the Mesarthim are resurrected: Where did the gods come from, and why? What was done with thousands of children born in the citadel nursery? And most important of all, as forgotten doors are opened and new worlds revealed: Must heroes always slay monsters, or is it possible to save them instead?

Previously Reviewed: “Strange the Dreamer”

Review: While I loved “Strange the Dreamer” with its unique world, beautiful prose, and well-drawn characters, it did commit one of the biggest sins in the book: ending on a horrible cliff-hanger! Why?! Why would you do this?! But, unlike certain other books that Kate and I reviewed recently, cough”Career of Evil”cough, there was only a short, year-long wait before the follow up story was released. I guess that makes it ok. Doesn’t hurt that the sequel was a blast to read on its own, even after tackling the immediate issue left by the cliffhanger.

Lazlo has discovered that he is a God. And not only any ole God, but one of the most rare and powerful with the ability to manipulate the strange blue metal that makes up the godspawns’ home. But power isn’t everything, and Sarai is still dead, even if her being has mostly been saved in the form of one of Minya’s ghosts. And Minya has her own plans for life going forward, ones that distinctly feature revenge and the use of Lazlo’s abilities to achieve it. However, soon, thoughts of revenge begin to subside when all involved realize how small their scope of past events has really been and how much more is truly at stake.

One of the strongest points of all of Taylor’s books is her lyrical manner of writing. That talent is put to good use here and the beautiful imagery continues. However, the topic and storyline of this book is much more action-oriented and in many ways darker in theme. While the first book spent much of its time establishing Strange as a dreamer and exploring Sarai’s abilities, painting lush landscapes with words. Here, Taylor’s gorgeous prose instead speaks to the pain and heartache that is at the core of so many of our characters and how they approach the world they now find themselves in.

Lazlo and Sarai, our main characters from the first book, largely subside into the background in this one, which came as a complete surprise to me. I don’t want to misrepresent the book, as they still narrate a large portion of the story and their romance is still heavily focused upon. However, for me, I found other characters quickly rising to the forefront of my interest.

Minya, in particular, comes to mind. We briefly explored her experiences in the first book, but here we learn that we had only scraped the surface. Not only are past events expanded upon, but we learn more about her own motivations and the mysteries of her being. Why has she remained a child? What drives the seemingly bottomless well of darkness within her and how does her power truly work? There were several great reveals with this character and in many ways I think she has a greater depth of character built for her than Lazlo and Sarai who have a tendency to fall into the rather generic hero category. We know what to expect from them: they’re good people who want to do good things. Minya is much more complicated, and in that way, I found her much more interesting.

There are also two sisters whose stories are introduced. They live in a far away world, and it is only slowly revealed throughout the story how these disconnected bits make up the history of Lazlo and Sarai’s world. I, of course, love stories about sisterhood, so I was all over this arc of a deep bond that drives two sisters to achieve the impossible. And even here, nothing is made simple, easy, or predictable. There is tragedy, confusion, anger, and, of course, a boundless love and loyalty.

This takes me to a few of my criticisms for the book. As I said, other characters (Minya, the sisters, Thyon Fane, etc.) largely took over my interest in this book and while I still enjoyed Lazlo and Sarai, I was much less intrigued by their romance in this go-around. So much of the first book was devoted to establishing their connection that I guess I would have just been fine mostly leaving it at that. I’m guessing this will be an unpopular opinion, as I know many fans of Taylor’s work read her for the beautiful romances. And I still enjoyed it. But given the depth and scope of the larger topics at hand (topics such as revenge, forgiveness, self-identity and discovery), reading more scenes of their ongoing romance taking place in mystical dream-scapes just seemed to interrupt the flow and left me anxious to return to the more serious subjects at hand.

From there, I also continued to struggle to connect to the other godspawn. There were a few whiffs of dialogue here and there that rang a bit too “twee” or “pixy dream girl” esque from these areas. As a fan of Taylor’s writing, I could recognize some of these beats from characters who filled similar roles in her other books, but that recognition just made them fall all the more flat here, as I was never able to fully understand Ruby, Sparrow or Feral as unique characters in their own right.

But, to end on a positive note, for fans of Taylor’s “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” series, there are some really incredible tie-ins to be found in this book that took my completely by surprise. Readers by no means need to be familiar with that series, but it’s a great connection for those of us who have read those books.

I was lucky enough to snag an ARC of this book, and now I want to give it away to you! The giveaway ends on October 31 and is open to US residents only.

Click here to enter the giveaway!

Rating 8: “Muse of Nightmares” expands upon its predecessor by leaps and bounds, exploring complicated and deep topics of revenge, loyalty, and self-created identity.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Muse of Nightmares” is included on the Goodreads lists: “Quality YA Paranormal Romance Novels” and “Consider it NA.”

Find “Muse of Nightmares” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Hunger”

30285766Book: “The Hunger” by Alma Katsu

Publishing Info: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, March 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Evil is invisible, and it is everywhere.

Tamsen Donner must be a witch. That is the only way to explain the series of misfortunes that have plagued the wagon train known as the Donner Party. Depleted rations, bitter quarrels, and the mysterious death of a little boy have driven the pioneers to the brink of madness. They cannot escape the feeling that someone–or something–is stalking them. Whether it was a curse from the beautiful Tamsen, the choice to follow a disastrous experimental route West, or just plain bad luck–the 90 men, women, and children of the Donner Party are at the brink of one of the deadliest and most disastrous western adventures in American history.

While the ill-fated group struggles to survive in the treacherous mountain conditions–searing heat that turns the sand into bubbling stew; snows that freeze the oxen where they stand–evil begins to grow around them, and within them. As members of the party begin to disappear, they must ask themselves “What if there is something waiting in the mountains? Something disturbing and diseased…and very hungry?”

Review: Back in college I took a super awesome Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature course called Monsters, Robots, and Cyborgs. In this class we would read horror and science fiction books and texts and then put them in the context of the time period and place that they were written. When we were focusing on stories about zombies and “Night of the Living Dead”, or historical comparison was that of The Donner Party. Having had a fascination with The Donner Party since grade school. My first encounter with it was a particular Far Side comic that my mother had to explain to me….

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And it still makes me laugh. (source)

The next encounter was a TV movie called “One More Mountain”, which starred Meredith Baxter as Margaret Reed, one of the survivors of the whole ordeal. From then on I was hooked. So  back to college: I remember going to that class the day we were learning about it with a whole lot of food to share with my classmates (and trying to troll my professor, who was my very favorite and was very tolerant of my edgy, and no doubt obnoxious, sense of humor). Had that class been taught today, I think that Alma Katsu’s “The Hunger” would be the perfect text for the syllabus. Not only does it cover some very solid ground within what actually happened to that tragic wagon train, it adds a whole new element of horror and suspense by throwing in a supernatural twist.

It should be noted first and foremost that Katsu did some extensive research to write this book, even going so far as to retracing the route the Donner Party took as best she could (as the road by car doesn’t take the exact path). So she knows what she is talking about when it comes to the ultimate fates and broad stroked experiences of the people within the group. Because of this, even had there not been a supernatural element, “The Hunger” is gripping, visceral, and feels very, very real. While she may take some liberties here and there to make some of the players more vibrant (and she addresses some of this within her author’s notes), the characters are very relatable to the modern reader, many of them experiencing problems and hardships that many people still face today. Just goes to show that some things like abuse, misogyny, racism, and Othering are timeless, sadly. The details that Katsu put into this book, from the cast of players to the setting itself, were meticulous, and I was sucked into the story easily and felt like I could clearly see everyone and the settings that they found themselves as they moved west. I could picture the prairie, the mountains, and all the problems of the environment that they came to face, especially when the snow began to fall. Along with a traditional narrative, the story is also slowly unfolded through flashbacks at the end of each chapter (usually focusing on a certain character), and then letters that are written mostly by Edwin Bryant, who had gone off ahead of the Party and has possibly discovered some dark realities. The way all of these pieces come together is deeply satisfying, and Kutsu is skilled at making sure they weave together in precise ways.

The unique part of this book that really grabbed me was the horror element. We don’t really know WHAT it is that is plaguing the Donner Party as they make their way, as Katsu is sure to be vague outside of the reveal as to what the origin is (but that would be a spoiler, so I won’t go into details beyond that). But that is part of the horror in and of itself. I loved the descriptions of figures moving in the woods, and the descriptions of the body horror that some of the members start to experience. Katsu derives the supernatural element from many different sources, from folklores from around the world, to superstitions, to implications about illness and madness. What we do know is that something is following The Donner Party as it goes up into the mountains, and that it’s wreaking havoc, sometimes unknowingly. And Katsu does play with some unreliable elements to the story: is this force doing the most damage, or are the people doing far more damage to themselves because of madness, greed, and desperation? What if the absolute and worst horrors in this book are the violent and merciless people, especially once they are driven into a corner.

But there is a whole other kind of horror in this book, and that horror is the truth of what happened to The Donner Party. It isn’t just the fact that the wilderness is dangerous, especially in high stakes situations, but the actual fate of this wagon train is frightening even without the supernatural element. This group took a bad trail based on bad information, hubris, and the entitlement of Manifest Destiny, and therein ended up stranded in the mountain wilderness during winter. Then, when they started to succumb to exposure, cannibalism became the only option for some to survive. That is unsettling without the help of outside forces. I remember being unsettled during that class back in college as I realized that I no longer had the appetite for the food I so gleefully brought with me. And Katsu captures it perfectly, because even though you know what is going to happen, you still dread it.

“The Hunger” is a superb horror novel that will stay with the reader long after the last page is turned. If you are feeling extra daring, save it for a cold winter night, perhaps when it is snowing outside and you might be able to see strange shadows in the trees…

Rating 9: A tense and detailed historical fiction/horror novel, “The Hunger” brings a creepy twist to the already creepy true story of the Donner Party.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Hunger” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Wilderness Horror Stories”, and “Horror Novels Set (Largely) in Winter/Snow”.

Find “The Hunger” at your library using WorldCat!