Kate’s Review: “Trace of Evil”

43263388Book: “Trace of Evil” (Natalie Lockhart #1) by Alice Blanchard

Publishing Info: Minotaur Books, December 2019

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

Book Description: A riveting mystery that introduces a bold and audacious rookie detective assigned to hunt for a killer who is haunted by the past in this gripping murder case…

Natalie Lockhart always knew she was going to be a cop. A rookie detective on the Burning Lake police force, she was raised on the wisdom of her chief-of-police father. These cases will haunt you if you let them. Grief doesn’t come with instructions.

But the one thing her father couldn’t teach her was how to handle loss. Natalie’s beloved sister was viciously murdered as a teenager, and she carries the scars deep in her heart. Although the killer was locked up, the trace evidence never added up, and Natalie can’t help wondering―is the past really behind her?

As the newest member on the force, Natalie is tasked with finding nine missing persons who’ve vanished off the face of the earth, dubbed “the Missing Nine.” One night, while following up on a new lead, she comes across a savage crime that will change everything.

Daisy Buckner―a popular schoolteacher, wife to a cop, and newly pregnant―lies dead on her kitchen floor. As Natalie hunts for Daisy’s killer in the wake of the town’s shock, her search leads to a string of strange clues―about the Missing Nine, about Daisy’s secret life, and reviving fresh doubts about her sister’s murder.

As the investigation deepens, Natalie’s every move risks far-reaching consequences―for the victims, for the town of Burning Lake, and for herself.

Spellbinding and gripping, Trace of Evil is a novel of twisting suspense that will leave you breathless.

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

Awhile back one of the librarians I follow on Twitter was speaking highly of a book by an author I hadn’t heard of. He had an ARC of “Trace of Evil” by Alice Blanchard, and when I clicked on the description it sounded like it would be up my alley. Small town police detective, missing people, a victim with secrets, all matters that will pull me into a story on any given day. I got it from NetGalley, and opened it up, expecting all of those things but maybe not much more. And what else did I get?

Witchcraft, covens, and teenagers with secret ties to black magic rituals.

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Oh HELL YES. (source)

“Trace of Evil” has three main mysteries that make up the guts of the plot. The first is the most obvious, that of the murder of Daisy Buckner. Natalie Lockhart, our plucky but haunted protagonist, has her own personal connections to Daisy. Not only is she colleagues with Daisy’s husband, Natalie’s older sister Grace wa very close with Daisy, so Natalie’s personal investment is high. I enjoyed seeing Natalie slowly piece together various components to the murder, and how Blanchard was sure to show some of the downfalls of being a woman detective in a small town where everyone knows everything about your past. The second mystery involves a number of missing women, or the Missing Nine, that Natalie has been trying to solve since she joined the force. But along with that obsession, Natalie has her own personal mystery to try and solve; when she was a kid, a masked boy attacked her in the woods. Natalie has spent the rest of her life trying to find out who that boy was. Throw in the fact that her oldest sister Willow was the victim of a horrific murder, and you have a lady cop with a lot of emotional baggage on top of the usual caseload that she has to take on every day. But these various bits of backstory never bog Natalie down, nor does Blanchard make it an excuse to make Natalie overly prickly, overly reckless, or overly damaged. Her traumas absolutely have shaped her, but instead of taking the obvious route of ‘broken but brilliant cop’, Natalie is instead multifaceted and achingly human. I really, really like her as a protagonist (and yes, I’m already rooting for her and her colleague Luke to hook up. She’s had a thing for him since childhood, y’all, it’s great!). Blanchard also is able to take all three mysteries and to show how they are connected, even in the most superficial of ways, and really make the reader buy into the connections. This was one of those instances where I didn’t guess any of the solutions to any of the mysteries, and that left me tickled.

And yes, there is a witchcraft element that I thoroughly enjoyed, if only because I totally saw my own dabbling in Wicca within this plot point. Burning Lake, the town Natalie lives in, has a history of witchcraft and witch trials, and it has permeated a lot of the culture and turned it into a Salem-esque community. Not only did Natalie and her sisters dip their toes into it, but now Natalie’s niece and her friends have started to dabble. But, as is the case in other tales, cliques and infighting tends to lead to a misuse of the ‘magic’, and I loved seeing Blanchard bring that into this story and finding ways to not only connect it to the mystery at hand, but to also show how teen girls who feel powerless can be drawn in to the idea of magic and ritual.

I really, really loved “Trace of Evil”. My hope is that Natalie Lockhart comes back soon, because I now have a new mystery series that I fully intend to keep up with. I highly recommend this thriller to all fans of the genre, and hope that you love it as much as I did.

Rating 10: Suspenseful, detailed, engaging, and filled with great characters, “Trace of Evil” is a promising start to a new series that I thoroughly loved.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Trace of Evil” is new and not included on many Goodreads lists. But I think that it would fit in on “Small Towns with Secrets”, and “Spellbinding Fiction”.

Find “Trace of Evil” at your library using WorldCat!

Giveaway: “Realm of Ash”

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Book: “Realm of Ash” by Tasha Suri

Publication Info: Orbit, November 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher!

Book Description: The Ambhan Empire is crumbling. A terrible war of succession hovers on the horizon. The only hope for peace lies in the mysterious realm of ash, where mortals can find what they seek in the echoes of their ancestors’ dreams. But to walk there requires a steep price.

Arwa is determined to make the journey. Widowed by a brutal massacre, she’s pledged service to the royal family and will see that pledge through to the end. She never expected to be joined by Zahir, the disgraced, illegitimate prince who has turned to forbidden magic in a desperate bid to save those he loves.

Together, they’ll walk the bloody path of their shared past. And it will call into question everything they’ve ever believed…including whether the Empire is worth saving at all.

Previously Reviewed: “Empire of Sand”

Giveaway Details: While “Empire of Sand” didn’t work for me completely, I was still interested enough in this world to be excited when Orbit sent me an ARC of the next book. What makes this one all the more intriguing is that this isn’t a direct sequel, but instead picks up years later following a now grown Arwa as she finds her life taking a sudden, dark turn towards tragedy, estrangement, and isolation. But in these dark places, she begins to also learn of a truth, not only about herself, but of her long-lost sister and the people they both owe half their bloodline to.

As now typical for many of giveaway, I will be posting a full review for this book this coming Friday so I don’t want to spoil my opinions of it too much here. But I will say that I enjoyed this book much more than the first. There are a couple of similarities with regards to pacing that threw me a bit for a loop, but overall I greatly enjoyed the themes of self-acceptance and scholarship, as well as the deep dive into grief and its effects on love and family.

The world itself continued to deliver giving readers an even closer look into this inspired original creation of Suri’s that reads as just familiar enough as to be recognizably drawing from Indian and Middle Eastern influences but also offers enough elements to remain completely fresh and intriguing. Here, the work that was done in the first book, some of which contributed to my pacing concerns there, pays off more fully.

As I said, my review of “Realm of Ash” will go up this Friday, and in anticipation, I’m offering a giveaway for the ARC version of the book starting today. The giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and ends December 18.

Enter to win!

Kate’s Review: “The Dead Girls Club”

45701350Book: “The Dead Girls Club” by Damien Angelica Waters

Publishing Info: Crooked Lane Books, December 2019

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

Book Description: A supernatural thriller in the vein of A Head Full of Ghosts about two young girls, a scary story that becomes far too real, and the tragic–and terrifying–consequences that follow one of them into adulthood.

Red Lady, Red Lady, show us your face…

In 1991, Heather Cole and her friends were members of the Dead Girls Club. Obsessed with the macabre, the girls exchanged stories about serial killers and imaginary monsters, like the Red Lady, the spirit of a vengeful witch killed centuries before. Heather knew the stories were just that, until her best friend Becca began insisting the Red Lady was real–and she could prove it.

That belief got Becca killed.

It’s been nearly thirty years, but Heather has never told anyone what really happened that night–that Becca was right and the Red Lady was real. She’s done her best to put that fateful summer, Becca, and the Red Lady, behind her. Until a familiar necklace arrives in the mail, a necklace Heather hasn’t seen since the night Becca died.

The night Heather killed her.

Now, someone else knows what she did…and they’re determined to make Heather pay.

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

I’ve spoken before about how my childhood was distinctly lacking in spooky urban legends about my community and neighborhood. I don’t know if that’s just larger city living or if I was surrounded by people who didn’t have time for such nonsense, but I do feel a little sad that we had a serious lack in fun, innocent creepy stories (and instead contended with actual creepy stories, like the flasher who’d jump out at joggers on the path by our house). I think that because of this I am especially drawn to stories with scary local folklore themes, and that was the main draw of “The Dead Girls Club” by Damien Angelica Walters. Well, that and the description of a group of teen girls who liked to talk serial killers for funsies. I wish I had that kind of friendship as a teenager. I went into “The Dead Girls Club” with high hopes and expectations that it would meld teenage girl angst with the supernatural, and for awhile I thought it had succeeded. Until it didn’t.

But before we talk about my frustrations, I want to emphasize that “The Dead Girls Club” was a pretty fun ride for the majority of the story. It hops between timelines, that of the present day, and that of the early 1990s. Our focus is mostly on Heather, a woman whose childhood best friend, Becca, was killed one fateful summer, after telling tales of a supposed witch called The Red Lady. Becca, Heather, and their friends were part of a secret club that liked the creepy things in life, but Becca’s obsession with the Red Lady urban legend starts to take over all of their lives. Especially when it seems that this made up story may have some truth to it. In the present we see Heather have to confront this summer when she starts getting secret messages from an anonymous someone (or perhaps something) that hints to knowing the truth about what actually happened to Becca, and what role Heather played in it. We see her try to discern who is stalking her, and see how her lingering fear of The Red Lady starts to take it’s toll on her life and psyche. This is interspersed with flashbacks to when Becca first started telling the stories, and we get to see the slow burn and build up of a deteriorating friendship and what exactly happened between the two girls, which left Becca dead.

I thought that the biggest strengths in this book laid in two factors: the first was the mythology and ambiguity of The Red Lady. Walters gives us enough evidence on both sides of the coin to make the argument that The Red Lady is real, or that The Red Lady is a combination of a lonely child’s imagination run amok and the hysteria shared between friends that are looking to freak themselves out. I do think that the narrative falls on one solution eventually, but I did like that a lot of left up to interpretation for a majority of the story. The other strength was in how Walters portrayed the complicated nature that some teenage friendships can have, specifically between two girls. I know this complexity and complication pretty well from my own experience, and seeing how Becca and Heather both start to grow apart and yet still cling desperately to each other was well written and completely believable. Hell, the Red Lady story itself was a fun and scary one, with smatterings of feminist revenge and all the best ghost stories that come with it. Walters also peels back the motivations for both Heather AND Becca, and once you get to the cores of both of them the spectre of tragedy is just as heavy as the spectre of the Red Lady. They are both sympathetic and frustrating characters, and I think that is the only way they could be written.

But the reason this gets bumped down a few ratings is because, unfortunately, Walters decided to throw in one big and out of left field twist that, for me, derailed the entire story. I won’t spoil it, as I think this is still worth the read, but by the time one of the big reveals came to be I rolled my eyes and muttered a frustrated but not terribly surprised ‘seriously?’ Again, I am not a hater of well done twists. If you can set it up effectively enough that in the moment you have a ‘but of COURSE’ epiphany based on small clues that came before it, I’m going to sing it’s praises forever. But in this case it just felt like a twist for the sake of a twist, and not one that was earned. You gotta earn those twists, people. That’s the only way to stick that landing.

“The Dead Girls Club” is a creepy and unsettling story that didn’t live up to its potential. It’s still worth taking a look, and I am definitely putting Damien Angelica Walters on my radar. But it could have been stronger.

Rating 6: A creepy thriller with a fantastic urban legend at its heart, but it gets derailed by a frustrating twist ending.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Dead Girls Club” is new and not included on many relevant Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Mysteries Featuring Urban Myths/Folklore”.

Find “The Dead Girls Club” at your library using WorldCat!

Fa La La La Films: Our Favorite Christmas Movies!

We’re in December now, and both of us are looking forward to cozying up on the couch with some yummy cookies, some holiday beverages of various kinds, and some great books. But it wouldn’t be the Christmas season without some Christmas movies! So we thought we’d take a break from books and share with you our favorite Christmas films.

Serena’s Picks

mv5bnjrkogewytuty2e5yy00odg4ltk2zwity2iymzuxogvhmtm1xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyndk0mdg4ndk40._v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_“Miracle on 34th St.”

I think I’ve highlighted this movie before around Christmas, probably in our “Not Just Books” posts. But it’s impossible to list three of my top Christmas films without including it. It’s so perfectly imperfect with almost all of the characters being believably flawed, but still Kris Kringle is the only true Santa Claus ever, as far as I’m concerned. It’s a yearly tradition for me to watch this movie while I wrap presents. This often results in the present wrapping itself taking way longer than necessary as I’m so often distracted. But what do I care! Anyone who isn’t moved by the part where Santa sings with the Dutch girl is hard-hearted. There, I said. it.

mv5bmty4njq5ndc0nl5bml5banbnxkftztywnjk5ndm3._v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_“Love Actually”

Yes, yes, sappy, overly sentimental “Love Actually” makes the list. But sometimes, you just want to have a good cry around Christmas when all the stress (normal stress, but also now somehow extra stress to STOP BEING STRESSED AND BE MERRY!) really starts to build up. And this movie is the perfect, saccharine flick to hit the spot. Plus, there’s no arguing with the stellar cast. Colin Firth is, obviously, always a favorite even though his story here is arguably one of the less compelling. And watching Alan Rickman be a sleaze who cheats on the wonderful Emma Thompson (who does that!?!) is delightfully hateful. And Liam Neeson is again the most wonderful father ever. So yeah, yeah, cheesy it may be, but I love it.

mv5bztcxnzgzzjmtyzzizc00mme1ltg3mzqtzdaxmtyyzwe4mdnhl2ltywdlxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtqxnzmzndi40._v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_“You’ve Got Mail”

This is a seasonal film, obviously, taking place over an entire year and feeling appropriately festive for each and every one of those seasons. But some of the major changes happen during the winter months, and Meg Ryan has some lovely monologues about Christmas and how hard the holiday season can be when we’re also missing those we love who can’t celebrate with us. For me, this makes it a great Christmas movie. Plus, to counteract all of the crying from “Love Actually,” this film has a lot of laughs and is my favorite Ryan/Hanks film. Yes, more than “Sleepless in Seattle” due to the simple fact that the two have much more screen time together in this movie.

Kate’s Picks

mv5bm2nlmdqzmdktntmyzs00mjbjlwi0mmetmzgzzdm2ztvknze1xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyntuymze4mzg40._v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_“Scrooged”

I’ve talked about this movie before on this blog, but it remains my be all end all Christmas movie. This is the one Christmas movie I watch at least twice during the season, and the one that on Christmas Day my husband and I watch with mimosas and Christmas cookies. It’s an update of the “Christmas Carol” story, starring Bill Murray as Frank Cross, a cynical and bitter TV executive who has no love for Christmas and all the love for power. As you can imagine, he is visited by a number of ghosts to teach him the true meaning of Christmas. And let me tell you, everything about this movie is delightful. Murray is fantastic (naturally), but the supporting cast is also awesome, including Alfre Woodward as his assistant Grace (Bob Cratchit), Karen Allen as Claire (Belle), and Carol Kane as the Ghost of Christmas Present. It’s witty and dark and weird, and it still has one of the most emotional and touching endings of any Christmas movie, bar none.

mv5bnwe4otnim2itmjy4ni00ztvilwfizmetzgeyngy2zmnlmziyxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymdu5ndcxnw4040._v1_“The Nightmare Before Christmas”

I’m solidly on the ‘this is a Christmas movie’ side of the argument. I mean, sure, it stars a skeleton and has other ghosts, ghouls, and creepy things, but they are CELEBRATING CHRISTMAS. “The Nightmare Before Christmas” has had a special place in my heart since my childhood, with catch songs, spooky imagery, and a sweet romance weaved into a heartfelt Christmas tale. For the unfamiliar, Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King and King of Halloween, has been feeling ennui about his role in the October holiday. So when he stumbles upon Christmas Town and finds out about Christmas, he decides that he wants to be in charge of the Yuletide Cheer. As one can imagine, his interpretations are a little, shall we say, off, and Christmas may be wrecked thanks to his good, misguided intentions. The music is catchy, the claymation is still stunning, and the real hero of the story Sally Ragdoll (played by goddess Catherine O’Hara) really solidifies the story for me. A true must watch in our household.

mv5bowmynje0mzetmzvjny00njixltg0zjmtmwjhngi1ymvjytczl2ltywdlxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynzc5mja3oa4040._v1_“A Christmas Story”

Obvious? I prefer ‘classic’. Before the cable channels started showing “A Christmas Story” on a loop every Christmas, it was a cult hit and one that my childhood home was quite familiar with. We had the VHS when I was a child, and it was a movie that my parents always enjoyed because their childhoods (though a couple decades past the time period of the film) had a lot of similarities to Ralphie’s. Ralphie is a kid growing up in pre-WW2 Indiana, and all he wants for Christmas is a Red Rider BB Gun. That particular Christmas season for him involves tongues stuck to lamp posts, bullies, foul mouthed fathers, and a saucy lamp, and the anecdotes all come together to tell a very funny, and also very charming, story of youth. While there are many scenes that stand out as fantastic, my favorite (perhaps bolstered by my Mom’s love for it) involves a crabby department store Santa who literally kicks a child down a slide. Mean? Maybe. But hilarious. And the fact that generations of people can relate to Ralphie’s stories shows just how timeless some of the themes are.

What are some of your favorite Christmas movies? Let us know in the comments!

Serena’s Review: “Dangerous Alliance: An Austentacious Romance”

44244324Book: “Dangerous Alliance: An Austentacious Romance” by Jennieke Cohen

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, December 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Lady Victoria Aston has everything she could want: an older sister happily wed, the future of her family estate secure, and ample opportunity to while her time away in the fields around her home.

But now Vicky must marry—or find herself and her family destitute. Armed only with the wisdom she has gained from her beloved novels by Jane Austen, she enters society’s treacherous season.

Sadly, Miss Austen has little to say about Vicky’s exact circumstances: whether the roguish Mr. Carmichael is indeed a scoundrel, if her former best friend, Tom Sherborne, is out for her dowry or for her heart, or even how to fend off the attentions of the foppish Mr. Silby, he of the unfortunate fashion sensibility.

Most unfortunately of all, Vicky’s books are silent on the topic of the mysterious accidents cropping up around her…ones that could prevent her from surviving until her wedding day.

Review: “…An Austentacious Romance.” Need I say more? I’ve been debating doing a re-read of all of Jane Austen’s novels for the blog, so as a middle ground in the mean time, this was an obvious book to request. I often don’t enjoy straight re-tellings of Austen’s stories (often they are made into contemporary romances, and I just don’t care for those myself), but this one seemed to have struck on something new: a historical piece that both pulls from the themes found in Austen’s books and straight up references those books as reading material that the heroine herself is fond of. Part of this equation work, however, on the whole, this was less than I had wanted it to be.

Lady Victoria Aston has always tried to model her life around her favorite heroines, those found in Jane Austen’s works. So, when difficulties suddenly strike her family and she finds herself suddenly needing to marry well to secure their futures, she looks to these wise and witty ladies once again for guidance. But be it rogues who are much more dangerous than those found in the pages of a book or a childhood friend who has secrets of his own, Lady Vicky quickly finds that life is much more complicated than she had thought. And it’s not only the typical challenges of the marriage market that plague her, but somehow dangerous accidents seem to be cropping up everywhere as well. Is it all connected and, more importantly, what would Jane Austen do in this situation?

Obviously, for me, this is a fantastic premise for a book. Austen re-tellings are found all over the place, some successful, others…less so. But what a fun idea, to pull from common aspects found within Austen’s novels all while referencing those very books in the story itself with a main character whose story takes place in our own world and the time of Austen’s publications. It’s a fun idea, but unfortunately, it ends up being a bit too much.

The elements of the story that are not direct references to Austen’s work do end up coming across better. We have characters who definitely fall into familiar categories from Austen’s works: the rogues, the fools, the loving sisters. There are also familiar plot points, especially with regards to the romantic confusions and the family relationships. For herself, Vicky is a capable heroine. And, given the necessity of this book being read by modern readers, she’s much more proactive and involved in the action of the plot than some of Austen’s own leading ladies. If this does lend a bit of a anachronistic feeling to the story, it’s at least a familiar flaw for books in the historical romance genre.

That said, while some of the humor and romance do line up well with Austen’s own books, these lighter topics sit awkwardly next to some much darker themes. This is where the first of my complaints really came to play. I’m not saying that books in this genre can’t touch on darker themes, but handling them is a delicate thing. The book is tripping along happily and then BANG! A super dark scene is thrown at the reader. It was jarring and unexpected in a bad way. For a book that has the words “Austentacious romance” in the title,  there are some expectations laid down from the start. And while many of those were fulfilled, some of these darker bits did not lay comfortably with the rest. And after the second such instance, I was thrown out of the book enough to continue reading only warily, which resulted in my inability to fully immerse myself again in the fluffy fun of it all.

My second problem came with the Jane Austen references themselves, bizarrely enough. I’m not quite sure if ultimately I was just less enthralled with this concept as a whole once I actually started reading it, or whether this book just over-played its hand. There were simply too many of them! Almost every situation had Vicky comparing herself to one or another of Austen’s heroines.

And many of these references weren’t to well-known aspects of Austen’s works. This part, to some extent, I did enjoy as it proved that the author wasn’t just cherry picking the popular, well-known, and commonly referenced bits of Austen’s work. No, readers actually need to be familiar with many of Austen’s lesser read books, specifically “Mansfield Park” which received a lot of attention here and whose heroine, Fanny Price, often falls last on many people’s lists of favorites. But, all of that said, this does leave the book in the awkward position of only being truly appreciated by hard and fast Austen lovers, the very people who are likely to be the most critical of other books, such as this one, that are trying to emulate those beloved titles.

All told, however, there were just too many of these references for my taste. There were several moments where the comparisons did nothing to further enlighten the scene or character being contrasted in this book and only served to break up the action and distract the reader. I can’t say for certain that it would have been better without the references at all, but thinking back on it, I’m not sure it would be any worse for losing them either.

Overall, this was kind of a disappointing book for me. Don’t get me wrong, I think for the most part it delivers on what it promises. But I think the story does throw in some darker scenes that don’t mesh well with the light-hearted nature of the rest of the book and the Austen references ended up being more a distraction than anything. Reader who enjoy historical romance will still likely enjoy this book. But know that you’ll need to be familiar with more than just “Pride and Prejudice” and “Emma” to fully appreciate this story!

Rating 7: A neat little book that didn’t feel quite settled with itself: tonal inconsistency and an imbalance between original work and Austen references made up most of my complaints.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Dangerous Alliance: An Austentacious Romance” is on these Goodreads lists: Young Adult Regency and Jane Austen variations published in 2019.

Find “Dangerous Alliance: An Austentacious Romance” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “American Fire”

32191677Book: “American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land” by Monica Hesse

Publishing Info: Liveright, July 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: Audible

Book Description: Shocked by a five-month arson spree that left rural Virginia reeling, Washington Post reporter Monica Hesse drove down to Accomack County to cover the trial of Charlie Smith, who pled guilty to sixty-seven counts of arson. But Charlie wasn’t lighting fires alone: he had an accomplice, his girlfriend Tonya Bundick. Through her depiction of the dangerous shift that happened in their passionate relationship, Hesse brilliantly brings to life the once-thriving coastal community and its distressed inhabitants, who had already been decimated by a punishing economy before they were terrified by a string of fires they could not explain. Incorporating this drama into the long-overlooked history of arson in the United States, American Fire re-creates the anguished nights that this quiet county spent lit up in flames, mesmerizingly evoking a microcosm of rural America – a land half gutted before the fires even began.

Review: True crime is a genre that is known for a focus on the more horrific crimes that can be committed. You will usually find stories of murder, kidnapping, and missing people, and I’ll admit that those are the kinds of stories that float my boat the most. But there is a very large swath of topics that can be covered in the genre, and for the people who are interested in the recent true crime boom but not interested in the blood and gore, I have good news for you. “American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land” by Monica Hesse may be the perfect true crime book to check out. Because not only does it address relevant social issues, and focus on a crazy and obsessive romance, it has a shit ton of fires and arson that are incredibly nuts in their origins and motives.

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Buckle up, buttercups, it’s about to get weird. (source)

Hesse doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to revealing the perpetrators of the 60+ arsons that were set in Accomack County, Virginia in 2012. Given that she initially wrote articles for the Washington Post about these fires, the identities of Charles Smith and Tonya Bundick were already out there for all to see if you had followed Hesse’s writings. But that doesn’t make “American Fire” any less compelling. On the contrary, it’s almost more fascinating to be told the backgrounds of Smith and Bundick, the ways that the investigation unfolded for those who had to fight and solve the arsons, and to explore the economic and social circumstances that Accomack County was in when the arsons occurred. What you end up taking away is a smorgasbord of both maddening and upsetting circumstances that came together to create a vortex where these fires terrified and fascinated a community already on its knees. We get to see the relationship between Smith and Bundick come to fruition, and by learning about their backgrounds (from the menial and petty crimes that Smith had already committed to Bundick’s past relationships, be they romantic of familial) we see the context of how these two people found each other, clung to each other, and did completely outlandish acts (like ARSON) together. Hesse compares and contrasts them with other criminal romances, and tries to figure out how their codependence and passion could take such a strange and destructive turn. I thought that she gave them a pretty fair shake, in that she never excuses their actions, but paints a picture that leaves it so the reader can get inside their heads and potentially empathize, at least a little bit. And let me tell you, it’s one crazy ride that reads like something out of a Coen Brothers film, which is only buoyed by Hesse’s writing style and how gifted she is a narrative non-fiction.

But what’s even more interesting is how Hesse peels back the layers of Accomack County itself, and gives us an idea of what it was like in 2012. The arsons were all committed in buildings that were long abandoned, and given that it was 60+ buildings it goes to show that, like other rural parts of America during this time, the economic downturn really hit this area hard. With corporate agriculture and big box stores moving in and pushing independent businesses and their owners out, and with the general nosedive the economy took during the Recession, Accomack County was already going through something bleak, and its residents were in dire straights even before the fires began. The fires became a literal hell scape in a lot of ways, though they also piqued the interests of those in the communities as to who could be doing it. It’s an interesting prelude to what has become such a hot topic as of late, because of the cultural shift that seems to have happened with the 2016 election and how these communities and their grievances have been connected to it. Accomack County feels like a ghost of itself in this book, a place that has been left behind in some ways, and I couldn’t help but think of present day and how it feels like everything is burning to the ground and the inevitable tie our political climate now has to the idea of the forgotten rural areas. It just struck a lot of nerves for me as I read it. And I think that was part of the point that Hesse was trying to make.

“American Fire” might be the perfect true crime book for those who want to give the genre a try, but are reluctant to read something that has too much violence or nihilism. It’s a bizarre tale to be sure, but it has a lot of resonance that I didn’t expect from a book about two lovers who burn shit to the ground. But then one should expect the unexpected when it comes to this book.

Rating 8: A fascinating and a little bonkers tale of romance, fires, and a shifting American culture that reads stranger than fiction.

Reader’s Advisory:

“American Fire” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books About Middle America – NonFiction”, and “Murderino Reading List”.

Find “American Fire” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “To the Waters and the Wild”

45440239._sy475_Book: “To the Waters and the Wild” by S.C. McGrath

Publishing Info: Seanchie Press, May 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: BookishFirst

Book Description: Shrouded in mystery, ancient Eire nurtured a people both eloquent and fierce. Scholars and warriors were honored with like reverence and women were recognized as equals to men. Within this isolated world of poetry and warfare, Keelin, a fearless chieftain’s daughter, struggles to understand her fate. Gifted by the gods in the arts of healing and telepathy, and destined to become a priestess, she nonetheless rails against such a solitary and self-sacrificing life. She chafes under the strict tutelage of the austere priestess, Nuala, who demands unerring scholarship and dedication. Torn by conflicting emotions, Keelin imagines a life possible only in her dreams.

Keelin’s troubles are soon overshadowed by a dire threat to her island home: the most powerful civilization in the ancient world has turned a covetous eye toward Eire and an invasion is imminent. Rife with clan rivalries and blood feuds, Eire and its defiantly independent people seem doomed, forcing Keelin to resolve her internal strife and quickly hone her extrasensory powers to help defeat the invader. So, too, Eire’s clans must unite their warriors to battle the forces of the Roman Empire. Among these warriors is Brian, who Keelin has alternately hated and loved for as long as she can remember. The approaching battle will irrevocably seal their fate.

Review: I was excited when I snagged a copy of this title from BookishFirst. The description and short synopsis that I had early access to made it seem like just the kind of book that would be up my alley being in a similar vein as many of Juliet Marillier’s works (which we all know are my favorite). When I received my copy I dove right in, but sadly it didn’t live up to these, perhaps too high, expectations.

Set in an alternative ancient Ireland, Keelin has her future before her. Destined to be one of the wise women, valued for their gifted abilities, Keelin brings to the table her own abilities as a healer and a variation of telepathy. But any fears she has about the restriction placed on her in this role are suddenly done away by the very real threat of war on her people’s doorstep. Now she, and a warrior who has always inspired strong feelings, both good and bad, find themselves with the fate of their people in their hands.

As I mentioned above, this was a pretty easy book request for me to place. On paper it had everything I liked: a historical setting mixed with a dash of fantasy, romance, and a lyrical style of writing ala one of my favorite authors. But also as I mentioned, it ended up not being for me. For most of the book, this boiled down to my feeling rather “meh” about the entire thing. And then we got to end and while a stronger feeling was drawn forth, it was definitely not a positive one.

The biggest thing that stood out to me throughout the story was the fact that I simply didn’t feel connected to the main character. Either through the presentation or the fact that she was simply not that compelling, I never truly cared about Keelin’s arc. And she was still the best drawn character of the batch. Part of my struggle to connect to her could have had to do with the numerous time jumps in the story. They seemingly struck out of nowhere and left the story feeling disjointed and choppy. Because I was always off-balance due to this, I struggled even more to connect to Keelin herself and the events taking place around her.

I also found the romance to be much less of a factor than I had expected. Obviously this wasn’t presented as a romance novel, and I didn’t want it to be one, but my own personal preference would have been for this aspect of the story to have been given a bit more attention. There was also only a scattering use of the fantasy elements, which read as kind of strange given Keelin’s own abilities.

With both of these elements taking a back seat, the story was left mostly focusing on the war itself. Again, it’s not that I don’t enjoy stories that focus on warfare and action; I very much do! But combined with the weaker characterization and the lack of balance between the other story elements, the focus on the war itself and the larger battle scenes left little effect. Because I wasn’t wholly invested in Keelin herself or those around her, I didn’t care as much about the outcome.

And then the ending was not something I enjoyed. I don’t want to spoil it, but I feel like it’s the kind of ending that will frustrate many readers, coming out of nowhere and effectively undercutting its own story. My own personal preferences also played a part in my frustrations here, so some readers may have less of a problem with this. But I do want to put out a general warning that the ending is noteworthy, at the least. Overall, this book was a disappointing read for me. At best I wasn’t as invested as I would have liked, and when I did become invested, it was in regards to a strongly negative reaction to the choices made in the end.

Rating 5: A lackluster character and weaker fantasy elements leaves a story with a war at its heart that I didn’t particularly care about.

Reader’s Advisory:

“To the Waters and the Wild” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should be one “Popular Celtic Fantasy Novels.”