Kate’s Review: “The Family Plot”

Book: “The Family Plot” by Cherie Priest

Publishing Info: Tor Books, September 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: I own the audiobook.

Book Description: Music City Salvage is a family operation, owned and operated by Chuck Dutton: master stripper of doomed historic properties, and expert seller of all things old and crusty. But business is lean and times are tight, so he’s thrilled when the aged and esteemed Augusta Withrow appears in his office, bearing an offer he really ought to refuse. She has a massive family estate to unload – lock, stock, and barrel. For a check and a handshake, it’s all his. It’s a big check. It’s a firm handshake. And it’s enough of a gold mine that he assigns his daughter Dahlia to personally oversee the project.

Dahlia preps a couple of trucks, takes a small crew, and they caravan down to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where the ancient Withrow house is waiting – and so is a barn, a carriage house, and a small, overgrown cemetery that Augusta Withrow left out of the paperwork.

Augusta Withrow left out a lot of things.

The property is in unusually great shape for a condemned building. It’s empty, but it isn’t abandoned. Something in the Withrow mansion is angry and lost. This is its last chance to raise hell before the house is gone forever, and there’s still plenty of room in the strange little family plot.

Review: I’m always on the hunt for a haunted house read, as Gothic horror almost always sends shivers up my spine. If the story involves a ghost or two, all the better! I was perusing a book list of such things, and I saw “The Family Plot” by Cherie Priest was one of the selections. I had never heard of this book, and decided that I would add it to my audiobook list to have going while walking around the neighborhood or running weekend errands. And almost immediately I knew that I was in for a fun ride. A Southern Gothic haunted house story that takes full aim at the secrets that the wealthy keep? Hell yes.

“The Family Plot” is a ghost story that hits a lot of the things I love about the sub-genre. The first is that the setting just felt so real and well explored. Withrow Mansion was incredibly well described and detailed, and as I listened to the book I felt like I could see the rooms, the remnants of the life it had within, every aspect of the grounds and the house that was built there. It was also a really cool concept to have the people being haunted NOT being a new owner, or a descendant, or someone who has come to the mansion to live there, but a salvage crew that is there to gut it and make a buck. As Dahlia and her crew interact in the house, and as things get more and more dire, the reason they stay is very believable: if this job doesn’t work out, they will almost certainly be out of business. It makes the stakes a bit higher, and feels like a more tangible reason to not turn tail and run (though to be fair, homeowners almost always have sunk everything into a new house and leaving may not be much of an option for them either). Dahlia also has a well explained backstory, and as we slowly find out the backstory to the house and the spirits that are within in, we can draw parallels between her and the aggrieved spirits that I thought made it feel even scarier as the story went on.

And yes, this is a well done ghost story to boot. The dread builds and the scares are done in varying ways, from subtle shifts in scenery to full on jump scares as written on the page. But Priest also manages to avoid a few overdone tropes. Instead of Dahlia and her crew being stubborn nonbelievers, for the most part they all accept the fact that there are, in fact, ghosts in the house they are working on. One of the most frustrating themes in stories like this is that the person who knows that something is seriously wrong is usually pooh-poohed by those around them, and frankly, it’s usually a woman being told she’s being hysterical by the man in her life. But in “The Family Plot”, Dahlia is never seen as crazy, and is never treated as such by her colleagues. That said, there is tension between her and her cousin Bobby, which just adds a whole other level of intensity to the story, especially as the situation worsens. On top of all of this, our narrator did a great job with all of the characters, and her reading of it set the mood just perfectly.

But then, the goodwill that I had toward this story soured a bit at the end. I’m going to try not to spoil anything, as ultimately I think that this is worth the read if you’re looking for a solid haunted house story. But we get a final twist right at the end, like the VERY end, that just felt a bit like a cheat. As someone who LOVES horror, like loves loves loves it, I’m a bit of an outlier perhaps in that I’m not a fan of a last moment about face in regards to the resolution of the plot. Like, say that your protagonist escapes the pit of the psycho killer, only to stumble upon one of the psycho killer’s henchmen they didn’t know was a henchman while they’re escaping, then they get thrown back into the pit and we get a smash cut to the credits. That kind of sudden turn around doesn’t work for me on screen or on page, and any whiff of such just turns me off. And unfortunately, we get one of those twists here, and I’m just never going to like that kind of thing, and it tainted my overall enjoyment.

Frustrating end moment aside, I genuinely had a good time listening to “The Family Plot”. Halloween season isn’t so far away, so add this one to your pile of creepy reads you may be saving for that time of year!

Rating 7: A genuinely spooky haunted house story that is a bit derailed in the last couple of paragraphs, “The Family Plot” was a bit frustrating at the end, but was overall a fun horror experience.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Family Plot” is included on the Goodreads lists “Haunted Houses”, and “Eerie Fictions Written by Women”.

Find “The Family Plot” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Joint Review: “Velvet Was the Night”

Book: “Velvet Was the Night” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Publishing Info: Del Rey, August 2021

Where Did We Get This Book: Received an eARC from NetGalley, received an eARC from Edelweiss+.

Book Description: From the New York Times bestselling author of Mexican Gothic comes a “delicious, twisted treat for lovers of noir” about a daydreaming secretary, a lonesome enforcer, and the mystery of a missing woman they’re both desperate to find.

1970s, Mexico City. Maite is a secretary who lives for one thing: the latest issue of Secret Romance. While student protests and political unrest consume the city, Maite escapes into stories of passion and danger.

Her next-door neighbor, Leonora, a beautiful art student, seems to live a life of intrigue and romance that Maite envies. When Leonora disappears under suspicious circumstances, Maite finds herself searching for the missing woman—and journeying deeper into Leonora’s secret life of student radicals and dissidents.

Meanwhile, someone else is also looking for Leonora at the behest of his boss, a shadowy figure who commands goon squads dedicated to squashing political activists. Elvis is an eccentric criminal who longs to escape his own life: He loathes violence and loves old movies and rock ’n’ roll. But as Elvis searches for the missing woman, he comes to observe Maite from a distance—and grows more and more obsessed with this woman who shares his love of music and the unspoken loneliness of his heart.

Now as Maite and Elvis come closer to discovering the truth behind Leonora’s disappearance, they can no longer escape the danger that threatens to consume their lives, with hitmen, government agents, and Russian spies all aiming to protect Leonora’s secrets—at gunpoint.

Velvet Was the Night is an edgy, simmering historical novel for lovers of smoky noirs and anti-heroes.

Serena’s Thoughts

I remember noting in one of my early Moreno-Garcia reads that she’s a unique author in that she seems to jump from genre to genre with ease. It’s truly something rare, I believe, as most authors have a defined genre within they operate comfortably. Sherry Thomas is another favorite author of mine who comes to mind with this shared ability. But Moreno-Garcia takes it to a new level. I’ve read a Gothic horror, a Regency romance, a Mexican folktale fantasy, and now here I am reviewing a noir! At the very least, she’s single-handedly expanding my horizons in my genre reading!

One thing that does remain consistent between her books is her love of featuring duel/multiple POVs in her books. Here we experience the story from both an inside and outside perspective. On one hand, we have Maite, an introverted young woman who leads a quiet life reading her beloved romance novels before getting drawn into the mysterious disappearance of her neighbor Leonora. And on the other, we have Elvis, a gang member who works with the Hawks, an organization that works to quell political dissenters. He is interested in Leonora’s disappearance for very different reasons.

There was much to love about this book, from its exploration of the deep loneliness found in two characters leading very different lives, to the vivid painting of life in Mexico during this period of history. I knew only a little about what was going on during this time, so I was particularly interested in seeing Moreno-Garcia’s take on that situation. Elvis’s storyline, in particular, presented a unique take on these events, coming from the inside of the Hawk organization itself.

But her strengths have always been her characters and the strong, atmospheric worlds she sets them loose in. Here, both Maite and Elvis, while very, very different characters, were equally compelling. Their stories weave together slowly and with attention given to the inner workings of each character and the arcs they are covering. I don’t read a lot of noirs, but I believe this slower-paced storytelling is a specific aspect of the genre, and it blends perfectly with Moreno-Garcia’s love of careful character building.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I think I ultimately still prefer her other books that had supernatural/fantasy elements involved, but that’s also just very inline with my own reading tendencies. Fans of noirs and historical fiction, I’m sure, will gobble this up, but I recommend it to readers of all genres,

Kate’s Thoughts

Boy oh boy, I am consistently blown away by how good Silvia Moreno-Garcia is at seamlessly slipping into a new genre with every book I read, and while I always hope that she will come back for more horror and thriller elements as time goes on, I do like a good mystery. I’m not as in tune with the Noir subgenre as I am other mystery subgenres, but I do enjoy a good Noir film every now and again. Because of this, I was eager to read her new Noir novel, “Velvet Was the Night”

Serena touches on a lot of the same things I liked about this book in her review, so I’ll try not to repeat her too much. I also enjoyed both of our protagonists Maite and Elvis, and their very different backgrounds and motivations for finding Leonora. Maite gets pulled into it because 1) she was watching the woman’s cat, and 2) the mystery is exciting, and her life is decidedly not. Elvis, on the other hand, works for a secret group that crushes political dissenters, and Leonora is involved in student activism. The elements of an intricate mystery are there as they both go on the search and find out a lot about her life and how it fits into the landscape of 1970s Mexico City. I liked both Maite for her somewhat naïveté laced personality and the dark and dangerous journey she takes, and I liked Elvis and how, even though he works for a group of suppressive fascists, he has his own bits of rebellion as he, too, goes on a journey on self discovery. They both feel confined to their existences, and start to realize that there could be more.

And it’s really the time and place that worked the best for me in this story. I have no little knowledge of Mexican history, so a lot of this felt like I was learning a bit about an area I knew little about as we went on the journey. I found myself looking up information about Luis Echeverría Álvarez and El Halconazo as I was reading the book just to educate myself some more, and it made the political dissent angle all the more interesting to me. I love how Moreno-Garcia pulled a Noir story out of a setting that you don’t see within the subgenre all that often, at least in my experience. Some of the details and allusions to that theme were very unsettling, and wove in an entire lower level of dread that the Hawks were going to catch up with Maite, Rubén, and Leonora and then all hell would break loose.

“Velvet Was the Night” is a well done new Noir mystery that is sure to entertain mystery fans. Hats off to Moreno-Garcia for once again doing a great job with a new genre!

Serena’s Rating:

Kate’s Rating 8: A taut mystery, fun characters, and a unique setting made “Velvet Was the Night” a fun noir mystery that I enjoyed quite a bit.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Velvet Was the Night” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Noir of the 21st Century”, and “Books by Latinx Releasing in 2021”.

Find “Velvet Was the Night” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

The Great Animorphs Re-Read: “Animorphs Graphix #1”

Animorphs Graphix #1: “The Invasion” by K.A. Applegate & Michael Grant, Adapted by Chris Grine

Publishing Info: Graphix, October 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Sometimes weird things happen to people. Ask Jake. He could tell you about the night he and his friends saw a strange light in the sky that seemed to be heading right for them. That was the night five normal kids learned that humanity is under a silent attack — and were given the power to fight back.Now Jake, Rachel, Cassie, Tobias, and Marco can transform into some of the most dangerous creatures on Earth. And they must use that power to outsmart an evil greater than anything the world has ever seen. . . .

I’m know I’m super late at getting around to reading this, but as the second graphic novel is coming out here shortly in October, I knew I had to get on top of things now. I read graphics novels only on and off, so I had mixed feelings about this series being released in this format. On one hand, any new version of the series is amazing (how incredible is it that a cult favorite kids’ series from the 90s’ is getting re-worked in 2021??). But on the other hand, I had seen some previewed pages of the artwork and didn’t really like it. However, my unwavering love of the series won out and here we are!

Said no one ever reading these books. But hey, I’ll take it.

Best Change: I really liked the use of color-coded dialogue bubbles for thought speak. That was always going to be one of the big struggles of adapting this series. This style also allows the thought bubbles to float anywhere in the pane, not needing to be drawn directly next to the character speaking. This gives the artist a lot more flexibility with action scenes and such. I also liked that the colors were largely coordinated to their main morphs, Jake has orange, Marco has black, Visser Three has red. I found the pink for Rachel to be the the worst though. Not only is that not connected to her grey elephant or brown grizzly later, but the pink color itself often clashed with the other color schemes of the panel in a way that the more earthy tones didn’t. I also don’t like the general, tired, “pretty girls like pink” motif that it was playing towards.

Worst Change: I’m more curious to see how this will play out in future books than it being any sort of real “worst,” but this book had some strange pacing with regards to it being “Jake’s” book. The first half of the book is so entirely told through dialogue bubbles, that I was honestly thrown for a loop when Jake began an internal narration when he morphed the lizard (somewhere around page 120). It was jarring to suddenly be in his head in that way given the way the rest of the story had played out. I wish the book had stuck more closely to a consistent internal narration running from Jake throughout, clearing marking him as the character at the heart of this particular installment. I’m really curious to see what happens with Rachel’s story in the next book. That story does involve her alone in her cat morph more often (unlike Jake who was with the group through most of this book), so there’s a better opportunity there to have the pacing be more consistent with her internal narration.

Pretty, Pretty Pictures: Like I said, one of the reasons I held out on initially reading this was my immediate dislike of the general style. I get that the characters are kids and that the story is also for a younger audience. But it’s also gruesome and tackles some serious issues, ideal for teenage readers, as well. As it is, the style reads very “kiddy” to the point that I think teenagers might be reluctant to read it (not only is this a good age group for this story, but YA is a market behemoth in the publishing industry, making tons of money for most publishers, so it’s foolish to cut off chances at cornering that reading group). As with any comic/graphic novel, the art changes slightly over time, so perhaps the style can try and lean a bit more closely to the realistic version used for the animals and aliens. On another point there, I think the mixture of very cartoon-y human kids vs the more realistic, sharp-edged drawings of the animals and aliens was a bit distracting.

I also did not at all like the red noses. I’m not sure what the point of that even was. It just reads as very old-fashioned and weird. There are a few panels where the characters almost look like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” from that super old stop-motion animation. It definitely isn’t adding anything to the book, and I hope it changes.

With some more variation to noses, the art would also be helped in making the characters more distinguishable from each other. Rachel and Tobias are the obvious problem characters. Tobias will be a hawk for the majority, so that gets around it. But it’s never good when two of your characters look so similar in the very beginning of the story as you’re trying to set the stage. It also does nothing for the “Rachel is amazingly beautiful” idea if she’s nearly identical to a teenage boy character. Adjusting all of the faces slightly would also give them more room to express more complicated emotions.

Tobias? Rachel? Who knows?!

Our Fearless Leader: Overall, I liked the version of Jake we saw here. I think his character looked very “boy next door” but also like the kind of kid that would be the one looked to as a leader, could be popular but is kind of just doing his own thing most of the time. As it’s “his book,” we had a number of panels that spoke to his inner thoughts without the use of dialogue, and I think they worked very well. Most of them had to do with Tom and Jake’s slow understanding that something’s wrong with Tom. We see his look of hurt when he finds out that not only does Tom not care that Jake didn’t make the basketball team, but Tom himself has quit and couldn’t care less. And, perhaps most movingly, we see the horror and sadness when Jake sees Tom break through the Yeerk’s control for a brief moment and Jake must finally admit that Tom is a Controller.

I think, overall, these moments worked very well and the art was able to convey a good deal of emotion without resorting to dialogue, either out loud or inner thought. I’ll be most curious to see how this moves forward in other books, as I feel like it was only used sparingly here and is perhaps one of the areas that could grow the most as the artist becomes more comfortable drawing these characters.

Xena, Warrior Princess: There wasn’t a whole lot of characterization given for Rachel. They never mentioned her being Jake’s cousin, so that was strange. And the contrast between her looks and ferocious fighting style wasn’t really highlighted at all. She’s lucky to have the second book as it will hopefully flesh her out more. I really hope they include the cousin bit; that’s so fundamental in the growing tension between Jake and Rachel in the back half of the series.

A Hawk’s Life:  There were a few things to like about Tobias’s character here. First, his connection to Elfangor is really highlighted, as well as his immediate connection to the mission as important and something that he will pursue with or without the others.

I also like the way his eventual end, stuck in hawk form, is built up over the story. Once he acquires that morph, we rarely see him in human form, even when he’s not yet stuck. There were also a good number of lines, both from him and the others, that hinted at why he had such a connection to this form. The freedom, the escape from a world that has largely ignored, neglected and rejected him. And, of course, the back panel featuring him as a hawk is one of the more beautiful pieces of art in the entire book.

Peace, Love, and Animals: Overall, I liked what we go from Cassie here. We got to see both the barn and The Gardens, and how her connections to animals are crucial to the Animorphs’ success going forward. But, like Rachel, I felt that she, too, had very little actual characterization. Compared to all three boy characters who I think had solid defining traits early on (Jake’s reluctant leadership, Marco’s cynicism and smarts, and Tobias’s heart and discomfort with his place in humanity), both girls felt pretty weak and undefined. There’s plenty of time to change that, but it was a bit disappointing from a series that really stood out for how balanced it was in its characters.

I was also disappointed not to see any reference to Cassie’s particular skill with morphing. There was one line thrown out there about Cassie being good at it, but we didn’t get to actually see much of it. Though I guess she morphs mostly off page or behind the other characters at the farm, so there wasn’t a lot of opportunity. Hopefully we’ll see it in the second book when she demorphs and has the angel wings that Rachel specifically points out.

The Comic Relief: I really liked Marco here. I think he was actually perhaps the most well done (close tie with Tobias, perhaps). Grine nailed the combination of smarts and reluctance that was so integral to Marco’s early characterization. There’s also plenty of room given to explaining early on why he’s so reluctant. But we also see him clearly step forward when needed by his friends. And the important role he plays in balancing out Jake’s more impulsive, less thought-out moments. It’s really cool to see that, especially. Particularly how he was the most unwilling to think/talk about what had happened in the construction site, but then immediately picks up on the weirdness of Tom, proving that his mind is always working with the reality of this information, even more so than the others who, on the surface, seem to have accepted it more.

E.T./Ax Phone Home: Obviously, not featured. The artwork for the Andalites though is interesting. It’s not exactly how I pictured it. There were a lot of references to the Andalites being similar in shape to deer, very slim and light on their feet. Their bodies, especially their hands, were also often referenced as being rather thin and weak. All of this was used to draw attention to the true strength of their tail blades and how important that feature was to them, thus its use in so much of their culture (shape of their ships, religious rituals, etc.) The Andalites here look much more hefty, more workhorse-like than anything. I mean, it’s fine, but still a bit weird. I wonder if Grine will slim them down a bit for Ax to demonstrate that he’s still young?

Best (?) Body Horror Moment: One of the things that really sold me on this adaptation was the fact that Grine didn’t hesitate to go there with the story. The artwork itself can make the story look very juvenile and kiddy (obviously it’s about kids and marketed to kids, but the story is much more dark than I think most would expect for what is considered a kids’ book). Right off the bat, obviously, you see what happens to Elfangor. But the real punch came with the disaster that was the Yeerk pool run, particularly their chaotic escape while being chased by Visser Three’s fire monster. There are several, several, panels that show people burning alive from his flames. It’s tough stuff, but fully necessary to really set the tone for what this story is and where it’s headed. People die. A lot.

Couples Watch!: I’m not sure if it was on purpose or what, but there’s next to no reference to Jake’s crush on Cassie. She makes her usual line early on about appreciating the boys’ walking her and Rachel home, but that’s about it. However, bless his heart, Grine definitely left in the Rachel/Tobias connection. There are several moments here and there throughout, most notably Rachel commenting that she’d care if something were to happen to Tobias when he claims his aunt and uncle wouldn’t even notice if he disappeared.

If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl: I do think the more stocky body type worked for Visser Three’s Andalite form. Kind of wish they had made Elfangor more slim the way he was described in the book and left Visser Three as the only Andalite built in this more combative mode. I really liked the way both the alien morphs were depicted. They were appropriately huge and terrifying, really highlighting, through sheer size alone, what these young kids are up against. It was a great way of using the visual format of this version to highlight the challenges ahead.

I also want to highlight this panel:

Giving me big time “Balrog in Moria” vibes, what with the fire demon alien thing and the narrow bridges breaking and crumbling.


Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: Right off the bat, with Elfangor’s death. It always got me in the book, too, of course, but there’s something incredibly hard about actually seeing it happen. The fact that he’s not just killed but actually eaten alive by Visser Three. All the worse when you already know the history between these two from “The Andalite Chronicles.” What kind of messed up being must Visser Three be to actually choose to eat (instead of killing/executing in a more normal, not psychotic way) an enemy like Elfangor was to him??

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: Little moments that kind of go by unnoticed in the book really popped in this version. In this instance, I think of the sheer idiocy of the “just stand in front of her guys!” moment when Cassie is almost caught demorphing from a horse by the Controller!police officer. I really liked this interpretation of a moment that exemplifies how many near misses the Animorphs get away with through sheer dumb luck. The group standing there with arms around each other: “This is how we like to stand!” Great stuff.

Favorite Page/Panel: 

I had a really hard time with this pick because there are so many iconic images that were so neat to see come to life on the page. A close runner up was a three-panel page of elephant!Rachel, gorilla!Marco, and tiger!Jake fighting Hork Bajir in the Yeerk Pool. It was just such a perfect image of these three in battle form for the first time (though Rachel’s grizzly is her much more iconic battle morph later on).

But I finally settled on this one:

This was the moment that started it all. It’s both powerful and incredibly sad, as it’s clear that Elfangor is near his end in the picture. The use of the bright lights coming from the box and the dark shadows surrounding them all in the construction site is a lovely metaphor for the Animorphs ongoing battle against the oppressive Yeerk regime trying to creep across the world and universe. “Do not be afraid.”

I also have to throw this one in here as it seems like a nod and a wink to die-hard fans who know the Marco/trash can relationship is something special:

“Do you hate trash cans? Is that your problem? Do you just HATE TRASH CANS?!!”

Final Thoughts:  I liked this book way more than I was expecting. I guess I really shouldn’t be surprised given how much I loved the original series, but I also figured that the fact that I loved the original so much was the very reason I’d struggle here. The fact that it was so faithful to the original story is probably what really did it for me.

I think there’s definite room for improvement with some of the art choices, but I also think that Grine set up the story and characters very well (with some exceptions for Cassie and Rachel, but even they were ok, all things considered). There were some really smart decisions with the colored bubbles for thought speak and the choice not to shy away from the more gruesome, dark aspects of the story.

My biggest concern is what is going to happen going forward. While I loved that the first book was given an entire graphic novel all to itself, that’s not a sustainable pace to get through all 50+ books, not to mention Chronicles and Megamorphs. This was a long book, as far as graphic novels go. And obviously one book a year would leave this series being published continuously for half a century. A more likely route would be to combine books into one graphic novel or skip unessential stories (there are a number, especially towards the second third.)

From the preview of the next one, it seems like we’re diving straight into an adaptation of just the second book, which is worrying as far as this all goes. Maybe the idea is to get through the first 5-6 and then start combining? Either way, one book a year is a hard sell for such a slow-moving series as this is. On their own, each adventure does very little to move the bigger plot forward. That works when they’re coming out once a month, but once a year? Seems like it might be hard to keep a loyal fan base invested at that pace. I guess we’ll see what the plans are going forward after the second one releases.

Note: I’m not going to rate these books since I can’t be objective at all!

A Revisit To Fear Street: “Fear Street Part One: 1994”

Given that I did a re-read of R.L. Stine’s original “Fear Street” series, as well as a few “Super Chillers” and a couple special Trilogies within the Universe, when I saw that Netflix was going to make some “Fear Street” movies I knew I was game. And because that re-read series was chronicled on this blog, I figured that I ought to give my thoughts on these new movies as well, as nostalgia bombs and a new way for people to connect with a classic series in YA horror literature! So let’s see what the Netflix “Fear Street” Trilogy does for the series when introducing it to a new generation!

Film: “Fear Street Part One: 1994”

I sat down to watch “Fear Street Part One: 1994” at the end of the July 4th long weekend. The kid was asleep, the husband was out for the night, I had some mac and cheese and the TV all to myself. And almost immediately it was clear that this was not going to be the “Fear Street” of my youth, given that right in the first few minutes we had some pretty heavy swears and a blow up sex doll. But after I got over the fact that this movie, based on a series that had mostly off page violence and very LIGHT implications of teenage sexuality, was going to be balls to the wall slasher gore, I bought in but fast!

A quick description: In the town of Shadyside in 1994, a massacre at the local mall has upended the town, once again making people talk about how it feels cursed. It seems that ever couple of decades or so, something terrible happens and a slasher killer of some sort commits some kind of terrible murder spree. When a group of teens from Shadyside and the neighboring (and rival) town Sunnyvale unexpectedly awaken an ancient evil that has been pulling the strings, they have to figure out how to stop it, before it takes them all out.

The first thing that struck me about “Fear Street Part One: 1994” is the oozing nostalgia that it presents right off the bat. Our first scene takes place at a B. Daltons book store (RIP, B. Daltons), in which someone is buying “The Wrong Number”, one of the earlier “Fear Street” books. The soundtrack throughout the movie transported me back to my grade school years, ranging from the obvious like “Creep” by Radiohead to the more salacious “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails (I may have nearly spit out my beverage at this moment). It’s a nod to the time that these books were being written and were popular, but it also means that our characters can be put in perilous situations like in the books where a cell phone can’t come in handy to help save the day. Oh, and the fashions! I loved seeing the fashions! These kinds of nostalgia moments were highlighted in each of my “Fear Street” recaps, so seeing the movie makers really lean in was a lot of fun.

I also really liked the characters, as while they are definitely a bit more foul mouthed and prone to more sex and gory endings (all of this is fine by me), they all feel like “Fear Street” teens. Our main character Deena (that’s gotta be another nod to “The Wrong Number”, right? Deena Martinson?) is a bit of a loner with a geeky younger sibling named Josh. She runs with a couple of rebels, Simon and Kate, who peddle drugs on the side, Simon to support his family and Kate to make enough money to get out of Shadyside as fast as she can. And Deena is also pining for her ex, Sam, but unlike in the books of the past, Sam is a girl. LOVE the sapphic romance in this movie, just as I loved how diverse the cast is in many other ways. In the original books it was a lot of heteronormative white kids, but this “Fear Street” has had some much needed updating and it is for the better to be sure. They all have great chemistry with each other, and unlike in the books when you probably don’t have much attachment because of how cardboard they are, I really loved all of them, which made a few of the outcomes more weighted, even if they were splattery fun at the same time.

And how about the “Fear Street” connections and feel? Honestly, it does a good job of both paying homage and lifting from the source material, as well as creating new mythos and backgrounds for Shadyside and the people who live there. In terms of nods to the classic tales, we have characters who are named after those from the books, as well as references to Sarah Fear, and the Goode family as well. And next movie mostly takes place at Camp Nightwing, the summer camp in the original series! There is also the origins of the curse that Shadyside has upon it, with a teenage girl being executed for Witchcraft, though it’s changed a bit as of now. But that said, there are hints that the third movie in this trilogy, with the year 1666 as the time period, will probably take a lot of origin from the “Fear Street Saga”. After all, the Goode Family is popping up here and there. But a lot of the new stuff works really well, and makes the Shadyside lore (albeit original to the movie) come to life and all converge into a really fun horror movie. I’m thinking that we are going to see more backstories for the various baddies that pop up in this movie, as well as why Shadyside and Sunnyvale have a deep seated rivalry, as the series goes on, and I am absolutely stoked to see how this all came to be.

All in all, “Fear Street Part One: 1994” is a really fun slasher movie with a lot of love for the source material. Given that the “Fear Street” series was one of my personal horror building blocks, it was wonderful seeing it get an R-rated slasher treatment!

In two weeks I will review the next film in the series, “Fear Street Part Two: 1978”.

Serena’s Review: “These Hollow Vows”

Book: “These Hollow Vows” by Lexi Ryan

Publishing Info: HMH, July 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Brie hates the Fae and refuses to have anything to do with them, even if that means starving on the street. But when her sister is sold to the sadistic king of the Unseelie court to pay a debt, she’ll do whatever it takes to get her back—including making a deal with the king himself to steal three magical relics from the Seelie court.

Gaining unfettered access to the Seelie court is easier said than done. Brie’s only choice is to pose as a potential bride for Prince Ronan, and she soon finds herself falling for him. Unwilling to let her heart distract her, she accepts help from a band of Unseelie misfits with their own secret agenda. As Brie spends time with their mysterious leader, Finn, she struggles to resist his seductive charm.

Caught between two dangerous courts, Brie must decide who to trust with her loyalty. And with her heart.

Review: Yeah, yeah. What was I thinking? There’s an obvious love triangle right there on the cover! But what can I saw, I was lured in by good-looking heroine and the summary describing Fae courts. “But Serena, doesn’t that sound like ‘Court of Thorns and Roses?’ A book you hated??” Why yes, it does. But it also sounded slightly like “An Enchantment of Ravens,” another book with fairy courts that I happened to love. Alas, my wiser side was correct and this was a huge mistake of a read for me.

Brie is a thief. A good one, yes, but she and her sister still live on the very edge of survival, barely making ends meet from month to month. Those who can’t pay their debts often find themselves sold to the powerful and dangerous Fae, a fate that Brie hates more than anything. So when her sister is sold to pay off a late debt, Brie knows she must do anything she can to spare her sister from a terrible fate. With a dangerous mission to steal three priceless artifacts and a nebulous disguise as a potential bride for prince of the Seelie court, Brie’s task is a steep one. It’s made all the more difficult when she begins to find herself torn between two Fae men, each more handsome (and untrustworthy) than the other.

Man, even writing that description reinforced what a mistake picking this book up was. I don’t love writing negative reviews, so I often try to just avoid books that I know will be obvious misses for me. But I have recently found a few stories here and there that have managed to pull off a love triangle in surprising ways, so I didn’t want that to forever be an instant “pass” from me. But, unfortunately, this one did nothing to further that cause and instead only reinforced how much I hate that trope.

Not only do I always struggle with the very concept of two love interests actually holding equal interest at once, but it was particularly hard here. I found neither of her love interests compelling in any way. There was the roguish, “bad boy” and then the super-good, upright one. Neither had anything truly unique or layered to their characterization. There were a few reveals towards the very end that maybe, maaaayybbbeee, helped a bit. But not enough for me to change my mind from my original assessment: that this book is just “Court of Thorns and Roses” all over again, love interest arc and all.

Brie also wasn’t particularly interesting. I do love sisters books, and her strong connection to her sister was one of the better parts of the book. Unfortunately, there is very little of their relationship, as the sister quickly disappears to become plot fuel. Brie is also supposedly an excellent thief, but in the very first scene we meet her in, she makes several fairly foolish and inept choices. It’s a hard sell when the author is telling me one thing (Brie is a great thief) but showing me something very different (Brie is a hot mess).

There also wasn’t a whole lot added to the fairly typical Seelie/Unseelie dueling fairy courts theme. The Fae didn’t really read like Fae much at all, seeming more human than anything, without many of the characteristics that one usually finds with depictions of these beings (cold, capricious, etc.) And, of course, Brie is “not like other girls [Fae]” which makes her oh, so attractive to both love interests.

Towards the end, there are a very few pages that sparked my interest once again. Brie seems to finally come into her own and come alive. But pacing and plot-wise, it’s all very abrupt and then the book just…ends. I wish we’d had more of that tone throughout the entire story. As it is, it was not only too little, too late, but it felt like a very abbreviated and strange way to end the book. Almost like the author just wrote the entire duology in one go, then was told to split it into two books, and literally just chopped it in half, no other attempts at a true ending needed.

So, yes, this book wasn’t for me at all. I won’t be continuing with the duology, I don’t think, even though the last few pages were the strongest bit of the lot. I’m sure Brie will go back to being her nonsense self, and it’s too obvious what’s going to happen in the romance department anyways to spark any remaining interest. Fans of “Court of Thorns and Rose” may like this, especially if you’re wanting to read a very, very similar story. But if you’re looking for much beyond two hot guys and a love triangle, this probably isn’t for you.

Rating 5: The love triangle strikes again, this time with two bland love interests and a heroine bland enough herself to deserve them.

Reader’s Advisory:

“These Hollow Vows” is on these Goodreads lists: Epic High Fantasy/Romance/Mythology in 2021 and YA Releases of July, 2021.

Find “These Hollow Vows” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “We Were Never Here”

Book: “We Were Never Here” by Andrea Bartz

Publishing Info: Ballantine Books, August 2021

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

Book Description: An annual backpacking trip has deadly consequences in a chilling new novel from the bestselling author of The Lost Night and The Herd.

Emily is having the time of her life–she’s in the mountains of Chile with her best friend, Kristen, on their annual reunion trip, and the women are feeling closer than ever. But on the last night of their trip, Emily enters their hotel suite to find blood and broken glass on the floor. Kristen says the cute backpacker she’d been flirting with attacked her, and she had no choice but to kill him in self-defense. Even more shocking: The scene is horrifyingly similar to last year’s trip, when another backpacker wound up dead. Emily can’t believe it’s happened again–can lightning really strike twice?

Back home in Wisconsin, Emily struggles to bury her trauma, diving head-first into a new relationship and throwing herself into work. But when Kristen shows up for a surprise visit, Emily is forced to to confront their violent past. The more Kristen tries to keep Emily close, the more Emily questions her friend’s motives. As Emily feels the walls closing in on their coverups, she must reckon with the truth about her closest friend. Can she outrun the secrets she shares with Kristen, or will they destroy her relationship, her freedom–even her life?

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

I enjoyed Andrea Bartz’s previous novel “The Herd” particularly because of how she tackled the fraught, complicated, and sometimes deadly relationships between women characters in high stress, high ambition situations. It was kind of a no brainer that I would be interested in her new book “We Were Never Here”, about two friends who find themselves once again with a dead body in a foreign country. Talk about your high stress situations! I had high hopes, but unfortunately, the hopes weren’t really met.

But like I always do, I will start with what I did like about this book, and that is how well Bartz captured the ins and outs of a codependent and toxic friendship. I have found myself in a couple of bad and toxic friendships, that have either healed through time and distance, or fell by the wayside and good riddance to them, and Bartz really clocked the ways that people can hurt each other, manipulate each other, and bend over backwards to make excuses for each other’s behavior. I found myself cringing as I read it as it hit very close to home, and was definitely impressed by all the little details she had that weren’t even necessarily connected to the main conflict. Both Kristen and Emily were realistic in the parts that they played, and the unreliability of Emily was interesting not because she necessarily had something to hide from the reader, but because she had to convince herself that her friendship with Kristen was normal and not steeped in toxicity that may have led to murder. I enjoyed that angle a lot, and thought it had a lot of potential because of it.

But the execution of “We Were Never Here” was pretty standard and run of mill with a lot of predictability and not many big surprises (except for one but we’ll get to that). I really liked the beginning of the book, where Emily and Kristen are in Chile, and the ensuing killing of a fellow traveler and disposal of his body. I thought that was genuinely suspenseful and interesting. But then it turns into Emily slowly realizing that maybe Kristen isn’t the great and true blue friend she always thought she was, and it kind of goes on a road well travelled from there. It’s no surprise as things are alluded to early and then revealed as huge red flags. It’s not shocking when Emily learns more and more and Kristen gets seemingly more and more obsessed with being near Emily. As more parts of Kristen’s history come out, beats that should be surprising aren’t, and by the time we get to the big climactic moment it feels rushed, and yet drawn out as we follow some MORE exposition after the fact, and then have some will there or won’t there be fallout from this that also fizzles out. And THEN, as if for good measure, Bartz tries to flip the script one last time in the last few pages for one more twist that really feels out of place and just hackneyed. It’s super disappointing that this story never quite got off the ground, as at first I was really digging it.

“We Were Never Here” was a bit of a disappointment for me, but it may work for other people! I haven’t given up on Bartz as a whole, she does portray relationship strife really well. I’m hoping her next one will hit a little better.

Rating 5: A promising premise, but a lot of predictability and a bit of an anti-climactic (and then out of nowhere) end made “We Were Never Here” fall a bit flat.

Reader’s Advisory:

“We Were Never Here” is included on the Goodreads list “Mystery and Thriller 2021”.

Find “We Were Never Here” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Book Club Review: “The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Award Winners”, in which we each picked a book that has won an award of some kind.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein” by Kiersten White

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, September 2018

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Award: Bram Stoker Award for a Young Adult Novel

Book Description: Elizabeth Lavenza hasn’t had a proper meal in weeks. Her thin arms are covered with bruises from her “caregiver,” and she is on the verge of being thrown into the streets . . . until she is brought to the home of Victor Frankenstein, an unsmiling, solitary boy who has everything–except a friend.

Victor is her escape from misery. Elizabeth does everything she can to make herself indispensable–and it works. She is taken in by the Frankenstein family and rewarded with a warm bed, delicious food, and dresses of the finest silk. Soon she and Victor are inseparable.

But her new life comes at a price. As the years pass, Elizabeth’s survival depends on managing Victor’s dangerous temper and entertaining his every whim, no matter how depraved. Behind her blue eyes and sweet smile lies the calculating heart of a girl determined to stay alive no matter the cost . . . as the world she knows is consumed by darkness. 

Kate’s Thoughts

This isn’t the first time that I’ve read “The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein” by Kiersten White, as I read and reviewed it when it first came out a couple years ago. But I knew that for an Award Winner book I wanted to pick something that was a Bram Stoker Winner, but also wasn’t super terrifying since I know a lot of my book club friends aren’t as into horror as I am. This book seemed to be a good meet in the middle kind of compromise, as it isn’t terribly scary, but also won the Young Adult award the year it came out. So reading it again was perfectly acceptable, as I enjoyed it so much the first time!

And I enjoyed it again this time too. I don’t think that my opinion has really changed too much since the last time I read it (here is the original review if you want context). I was once again struck by how White made comment on gender in English society and culture at the time, and how Elizabeth has sacrificed a lot, including a good deal of her morals, to keep herself safe and secure lest she fall through the cracks. I also liked seeing White compare and contrast three different women characters in this story, as Elizabeth, Justine the governess, and Mary the book seller/amateur scientist all, to me, are three different facets of female protagonist tropes that all have a little bit of exploration and deconstruction. And of course it’s always interesting to look at the character of Victor Frankenstein and to ponder upon who is truly ‘the monster’ within the original story, and let me tell you, White does a really good job of making the case for a VERY clear choice (even if it does still come off a bit two dimensional at times). I think that the only change I had from my initial read was, upon re-reading, I didn’t think that enough was done with The Monster in this retelling. I still like what White did with The Monster in terms of making it feel like a unique take, but I found myself wanting more this time around.

Overall, I still really like “The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein”! Nice to give women a voice in a book by a pioneering woman in the horror and Sci-Fi genres!

Serena’s Thoughts

I was super excited when Kate selected this book for her choice for book club. Not only am I a fan of Kiersten White in general, but I really like the original “Frankenstein.” Really like, as in I’ve read it probably three or four times. Kind of a strange choice, I know, for someone who doesn’t count horror as one of her favorite genres! But I’m a sucker for exactly that sort of use of supernatural aspects to delve into the ugliness (and beauty) at the heart of humanity. I also just love the style of writing in that time period with the long, drawn out sentences and extensive vocabulary.

And man did White excel or what! I really liked what she did with this retelling. It was great reading this book as a fan of the original, to see all of the little nods and winks she gives to readers who are familiar with that story. Her use of the classic characters was also on point, reading as familiar enough to their original versions, but also clearly uniquely reimagined for her own take on the story. Elizabeth, of course, is the biggest chance as this is now her story (rather than her fairly unfortunate experience in the original story…).

Not only did White use Elizabeth to expound on the impossible choices faced by women in this time, unable to create their own futures without tying themselves to men, but she also used the character to further explore the same themes of the original “Frankenstein.” Elizabeth is by no means a “good” character. She’s not “bad” either, but her choices are definitely walking a pretty stark moral line. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the story knows that it is meant to highlight the true villainous nature of Victor as the monster rather than his creation. So it was an interesting take to not simply focus on that tired ground (Victor is pretty obviously evil here) but to instead use Elizabeth as the character to exist in shades of grey.

Like Kate said, I do wish there had been a bit more of the Monster here. I liked what we had from him, but that was clearly not the focus of White’s story. I also had a bit of a struggle with the end of the story. A few things felt rather sudden, and, strangely for my own usual preference, I almost wish the very last chapter hadn’t existed and the initial ending at stuck. But that’s just me! Overall, I thought this was a clever, imaginative re-imaging of a beloved classic.

Kate’s Rating 9: Still a fun and feminist retelling of a horror classic!

Serena’s Rating 9: Definitely worthy of the award it received and an excellent read for fans of horror and supernatural books alike!

Book Club Questions

  1. How familiar are you with the original “Frankenstein” story? Do you think that this retelling complements that story? Why or why not?
  2. Elizabeth’s characterization has gone from passive side player to Victor’s protector and enabler. What did you think of this change?
  3. Why do you think Elizabeth was so attached to Justine? What did you think of their friendship?
  4. What do you think White was trying to say about gender expectations and society in this book? How did Elizabeth, Justine, and Mary represent different angles of ‘womanhood’?
  5. Does Elizabeth bear any responsibility on how Victor turned out? How much? What about others around him? Or is Victor solely to blame?
  6. Do you think the Monster played a big enough role in this story? Why or why not?
  7. What did you make of the ending?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Gothic Retellings”, and “Homages to Mary Shelley and Frankenstein”.

Find “The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!!

Next Book Club Book: “Black Sun” by Rebecca Roanhorse

Monthly Marillier: “Cybele’s Secret”

“Monthly Marillier” is a review series that is, essentially, an excuse for me to go back and re-read one of my favorite author’s back catalog. Ever since I first discovered her work over fifteen years ago, Juliet Marillier has been one of my favorite authors. Her stories are the perfect mixture of so many things I love: strong heroines, beautiful romances, fairytale-like magic, and whimsical writing. Even better, Marillier is a prolific author and has regularly put out new books almost once a year since I began following her. I own almost all of them, and most of those I’ve read several times. Tor began re-releasing her original Sevenwaters trilogy, so that’s all the excuse I needed to begin a new series in which I indulge myself in a massive re-read of her books. I’ll be posting a new entry in this series on the first Friday of every month.

Book: “Cybele’s Secret” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, September 2008

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: For Paula, accompanying her merchant father on a trading voyage to Istanbul is a dream come true. They have come to this city of trade on a special mission to purchase a most rare artifact—a gift from the ancient goddess, Cybele, to her followers. It’s the only remnant of a lost, pagan cult.

But no sooner have they arrived when it becomes clear they may be playing at a dangerous game. A colleague and friend of Paula’s father is found murdered. There are rumors of Cybele’s cult reviving within the very walls of Istanbul. And most telling of all, signs have begun to appear to Paula, urging her to unlock Cybele’s secret.

Meanwhile, Paula doesn’t know who she can trust in Istanbul, and finds herself drawn to two very different men. As time begins to run out, Paula realizes they may all be tied up in the destiny of Cybele’s Gift, and she must solve the puzzle before unknown but deadly enemies catch up to her. . . .

Review: “Wild wood Dancing” definitely reads as a stand-alone, so I remember being surprised when I saw a second book coming out in this series. But given that it’s a story of five sisters, the continuing stories are easy to see. I wasn’t surprised, however, to see that this book focused on Paula. She was the other “sensible” sister of the five and seemed like the natural choice for Marillier, an author who tends towards rather similar heroines in the first place. I can’t lie, I might have been more intrigued with one of the other sisters, more outside her usual realm, but alas. And sadly, this is another of my lesser favorite works by this author.

Everyone had always assumed Jena would be the one to accompany their father in his travels and help with his trade business. But after she marries, the role falls on bookish Paula who journeys with her father to Istanbul, a city full of culture and learning. What began as a simple business trip, however, quickly becomes something more, with powerful cults being rumored to be active once again and a rare artifact at the center of it all. Confident in her own reasoning and logic, Paula begins to unravel the puzzle before her. But things only become more and more complicated, with strange signs and symbols and two men vying for her attention. Can Paula solve this mystery before her time is up?

Anyone who knows me can probably guess what one of my problems was with this book right from the description, both mine and the official summary above. Yep, love triangle. From my memory, this is really the only Marillier book that has a love triangle at its heart, and that’s probably one of the reasons she’s a favorite author of mine. Instead of wasting time between two love interests (time split between two often plays to the detriment of both), Marillier often sets up her end-game couple early on and spends the rest of the book slowly developing it. I remember my friend, Emily, read “Daughter of the Forest” and was unhappy that Sorcha didn’t end up with Simon. But from my read, that idea had never even entered my head, so strong of a love interest was Red once he arrived.

So, yes, here we see a true love triangle, with Paula drawn to both of these men in different ways. While it still felt fairly obvious which one she was going to choose, that fact just made it more of a challenge to read Paula’s ongoing struggles in the love department. On top of that, neither love interest was particularly compelling on his own. It’s bad enough when one romantic interest isn’t that great. But when you have two and a large part of your heroine’s arc is debating between the two and neither seem very great? Not good.

I also didn’t love Paula as a character. In a bit of backward thinking, the fact that she felt more “perfect” than Jena before her almost made her, too, less interesting. It can be argued that the challenges that Paula faces here are much more dangerous and difficult than what Jena had to deal with in her story. But Paula rarely faltered, other than perhaps a bit of over-reliance on her own smarts. What has become a bit of a routine complaint with these books, Paula is almost too perfect.

I did like the magical elements involved in the story. The last third, in particular, really dives into some interesting aspects of fantasy. There are also a few cameo appearances of characters from the first book, but sadly, not Jena. I also really enjoyed the setting of Istanbul. Marillier’s books are almost exclusively set in Ireland or Scandinavia, so Istanbul is a far cry from those settings. Her lyrical, detailed language really played well to describing the colorful, vibrant life of this ancient city.

So, this is one of my less favorite books in the series. It seems like every trilogy/duology of her comes with one book that is a huge favorite and another that is more of a let-down. While I’ve re-read “Wildwood Dancing” many, many times, this was the first re-read I’ve ever done of this book and I’m kind of reminded why. Fans of Paula from the first book would probably like this, and, in general, it’s still a strong book on its own in the subgenre of fairytale fantasy. Just not one of Marillier’s best works.

Rating 7: A love triangle and overly-perfect heroine brought down a book that did excel in the world-building arena, at least.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Cybele’s Secret” is on these Goodreads lists: Hidden Gems of the Young Adult Genre and Aussie YA Paranormal and Fantasy.

Find “Cybele’s Secret” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “When the Reckoning Comes”

Book: “When the Reckoning Comes” by LaTanya McQueen

Publishing Info: Harper Perennial, August 2021

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

Book Description: A haunting novel about a black woman who returns to her hometown for a plantation wedding and the horror that ensues as she reconnects with the blood-soaked history of the land and the best friends she left behind.

More than a decade ago, Mira fled her small, segregated hometown in the south to forget. With every mile she traveled, she distanced herself from her past: from her best friend Celine, mocked by their town as the only white girl with black friends; from her old neighborhood; from the eerie Woodsman plantation rumored to be haunted by the spirits of slaves; from the terrifying memory of a ghost she saw that terrible day when a dare-gone-wrong almost got Jesse—the boy she secretly loved—arrested for murder.

But now Mira is back in Kipsen to attend Celine’s wedding at the plantation, which has been transformed into a lush vacation resort. Mira hopes to reconnect with her friends, and especially, Jesse, to finally tell him the truth about her feelings and the events of that devastating long-ago day.

But for all its fancy renovations, the Woodsman remains a monument to its oppressive racist history. The bar serves antebellum drinks, entertainments include horrifying reenactments, and the service staff is nearly all black. Yet the darkest elements of the plantation’s past have been carefully erased—rumors that slaves were tortured mercilessly and that ghosts roam the lands, seeking vengeance on the descendants of those who tormented them, which includes most of the wedding guests. As the weekend unfolds, Mira, Jesse, and Celine are forced to acknowledge their history together, and to save themselves from what is to come.

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

One of my favorite places to visit on a semi-regular basis (at least in the beforetimes) is Savannah, Georgia. It’s such a funky historic town, and I really enjoy staying in the historic area, walking around the squares, and doing haunted pub crawls and ghost tours. I also try to go on historic house tours, as there is a lot of interesting history there, but I almost always found it hard to really enjoy because so many of the tours would completely white wash the slavery aspect of said history. That isn’t to say that doesn’t happen in Northern historical institutions: as someone who has worked at historic sites before, one of which had a significant tie to Dred Scott, it happens up North too (admittedly, the sites I worked at did try to start the conversations, they just also didn’t give us tools to handle the visitors who would meet those conversations with either derision or flat out hostility. THE STORIES I HAVE.). Horrors of some of our historic sites can get lost, and a lot of the time it’s because of the fact America hasn’t really faced those horrors yet. “When the Reckoning Comes” by LaTanya McQueen takes this idea, and makes it into a full blown vengeful ghost story, and boy does it work.

In terms of ghostly plots, we have a little bit of everything. Childhood friends Mira and Celine have grown apart, but Mira returns home for Celine’s wedding at a rural plantation house that may or may not be haunted. We see this story unfold in a few ways. The first is the present, as Mira attends the wedding celebrations in spite of her very understandable discomfort. But that discomfort isn’t just because of the terrible things that happened to Black people on that land (and Celine deciding to have a lavish party there in spite of that), but also because of another timeline we see: when they were kids, Mira and hers and Celine’s friend Jesse went onto the land when it was run down and abandoned, as the rumors of ghosts were intriguing. But what they both saw and experienced on that visit changed their lives. For Mira, she saw things that she couldn’t explain, but for Jesse, the mysterious death of a white local on the property led to him being suspected of murder due to his proximity, but mostly his race. All of these things come to a head during Celine’s wedding celebrations, but there is also the aspect of the vengeful ghosts that want to take out any descendants of those who brutalized them in life… who happen to be a lot of the wedding guests and wedding party members. The ghost aspects of this book hit all the marks I wanted them to hit: they have VERY legitimate reasons for being angry, there are a lot of creepy moments with imagery and pacing, and we have Mira who just can’t quite believe that she is seeing something supernatural, even as it becomes more and more clear that something strange is happening. McQueen knows the beats to hit for an effective ghost story, and she hits them pretty well.

But this ghost story, while absolutely having creepy ghost moments, is also about the way that history and trauma can haunt for generations. The metaphors are rich in this book, the ghosts of America’s sins being a huge theme, and characters like Mira and Jesse who have to reckon with them, while characters like Celine don’t feel like they have to. Mira and Jesse bear the brunt of American racism in different ways, be it Jesse being accused of a crime he didn’t commit because of his race, or Mira internalizing that racism and trying to be an ‘ideal’ Black woman in a society that is fueled by white ideals and supremacy. For them to be invited by white childhood friend Celine to her LITERAL plantation wedding, and for her to not see what the problem is with it and to dismiss how fucked up it is, is truly a perfect set up for this kind of story. Celine is a bit more than the caricature that she could have been, in that you do see her complex friendship with Mira for both the bad and the good. You do see how she, too, had a hard time growing up in their community as someone who was poor. But you also see that she always, ALWAYS, falls on the side of her whiteness, even when it is on the side of those who mistreated her for other things, and how insidious whiteness can be because of that. It’s heavy stuff, and McQueen lays it all out expertly. And really, the true horror story moments are moments of interlude that are from the generalized POV of the ghosts of the slaves, who tell their experiences in all of their devastating truths. It is so hard to read, but it is very important to do so. We have so much reckoning to do still.

“When the Reckoning Comes” is certainly a horror story, but it’s the horror story of the disgusting legacy of chattel slavery in America. And it’s long past time we face that horror head on.

Rating 9: Lots of suspense and scares, as well as on point commentary, “When the Reckoning Comes” is a seething and scary horror story!

Reader’s Advisory:

“When the Reckoning Comes” is new and not on many Goodreads lists, but I think it would fit in on “Diverse Horror”.

Find “When the Reckoning Comes” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Forestborn”

Book: “Forestborn” by Elayne Audrey Becker

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, August 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Rora is a shifter, as magical as all those born in the wilderness–and as feared. She uses her abilities to spy for the king, traveling under different guises and listening for signs of trouble.

When a magical illness surfaces across the kingdom, Rora uncovers a devastating truth: Finley, the young prince and her best friend, has caught it, too. His only hope is stardust, the rarest of magical elements, found deep in the wilderness where Rora grew up–and to which she swore never to return.

But for her only friend, Rora will face her past and brave the dark, magical wood, journeying with her brother and the obstinate, older prince who insists on coming. Together, they must survive sentient forests and creatures unknown, battling an ever-changing landscape while escaping human pursuers who want them dead. With illness gripping the kingdom and war on the horizon, Finley’s is not the only life that hangs in the balance.

Review: Everything about this book promo worked to lure me in. The cover is gorgeous and speaks to the fairytale-like fantasy novels that I’m always on the search for. And the book description just cemented it for me. A young woman with magical abilities setting off on a dangerous quest? Yep! Siblings relationships? Yep! Friendship and potential romance? Yep! But even with all of these high expectations, I wasn’t prepared for just how much I was going to enjoy this book.

Though the last several years have seen Rora and her brother taken under the wing of the royal family, there life before this was very different. As shifters, they have been hated and feared almost their entire life and grew up struggling to remain alive in a land riddled with dangerous magic. Nothing could compel Rora to return to that frightful land. Or so she thinks. When her best friend, the young prince Finley comes down with a deadly illness that is sweeping the country, Rora knows there is only one hope of saving him. Now, she, her brother, and Finley’s older, serious brother must set out on a quest to retrieve the cure. But along the way, they discover that more is going wrong in the land than just this illness. And soon, the choices before them will become more and more impossible as they fight for all they love.

I really, really enjoyed this book. From the very beginning, I could tell the writing style was exactly of the sort that I prefer: descriptive, lyrical, and confident in its readers to pick up on small lines here and there to build a picture of the world around them. It’s always so nice when authors trust their readers. It allows the story to play out slowly and in a more natural way, with reveals about past events perhaps being referenced early but not made clear until a more organic moment later in the book. It’s quite a ways into the book before we fully understand Rora’s past and how (and why) it affects her views of herself in the present. But not only do we piece together these past revelations, but there are number of twists and turns within the story as well. I could predict one or two, but there were a number that were genuinely surprising, especially how they interwove with each other and our characters.

I also really enjoyed the fantasy and magical elements of the story. While we’ve all read “humans are afraid of those with magic and thus persecution” stories, this one played this out in a rather unique way. The magic itself was also appropriately wild and dangerous. While there are wonderous aspects of it, it’s also seen to be dark and terrifying. Like the tag line on the cover, magic is neither good or bad, but instead is a force of nature unto itself. Even those with magical abilities, like Rora and her brother, both fear and respect the forces of magic around them. There were some magical encounters that were truly creepy, and the fantasy creatures were also very unique and interesting.

Overall, the story was darker than I had expected going in. There is violence, death, and loss. Especially towards the end of the book, things became much more grim than I was expecting. But all of this darkness is nicely woven into Rora’s personal arch of self-acceptance and her struggles with abandonment, loyalty, and trust. She was an excellent character all around, and I really enjoyed her narration of the story. Not only does she go through a lot of self-reflection, but we see her readjust her opinions of those few individuals who have gotten close to her through her life. She learns that not everyone is who she believed them to be, for better and for worse. This translates best into her relationship with her brother, one that goes through the natural ups and downs of two siblings transitioning from the simply relationship they had as children to the more complicated one they share as adults. But we also see these themes play out in the lovely slow-burn romance.

There were a lot of big events towards the end of this story. Much of what feels like the main arch is somewhat resolved halfway through, and then we see the story shift into an entire new gear. I don’t see a sequel currently planned on Goodreads, but I think it must be a duology given the end of this book. It’s not a straight-up cliffhanger, but there is definitely a strong set-up for a continuing story. I’ll be keeping my eyes out for sure. And in the meantime, I strongly recommend this book for fantasy fans of all sorts!

Rating 9: So, so good! Strong, confident writing mixed with excellent characters and dark fantasy elements result in a near-perfect debut book!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Forestborn” is a new title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists. But it is on 2021 Debut MG/YA Novels.

Find “Forestborn” at your library using WorldCat!

%d bloggers like this: