Serena’s Review: “Vespertine”

Book: “Vespertine” by Margaret Rogerson

Publishing Info: Margaret K. McElderry Books, October 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: The dead of Loraille do not rest.

Artemisia is training to be a Gray Sister, a nun who cleanses the bodies of the deceased so that their souls can pass on; otherwise, they will rise as spirits with a ravenous hunger for the living. She would rather deal with the dead than the living, who trade whispers about her scarred hands and troubled past.

When her convent is attacked by possessed soldiers, Artemisia defends it by awakening an ancient spirit bound to a saint’s relic. It is a revenant, a malevolent being that threatens to possess her the moment she drops her guard. Wielding its extraordinary power almost consumes her—but death has come to Loraille, and only a vespertine, a priestess trained to wield a high relic, has any chance of stopping it. With all knowledge of vespertines lost to time, Artemisia turns to the last remaining expert for help: the revenant itself.

As she unravels a sinister mystery of saints, secrets, and dark magic, her bond with the revenant grows. And when a hidden evil begins to surface, she discovers that facing this enemy might require her to betray everything she has been taught to believe—if the revenant doesn’t betray her first.

Review: I have been Goodreads stalking Margaret Rogerson for years now. Awhile ago she mentioned she was working on a new project, but it hadn’t yet been picked by a publisher. So imagine my glee when I finally saw an ARC pop up on Edelweiss+? This has probably been one of my most anticipated reads this year, so you know I dove in immediately (regardless of the timing of this review…)

Tending to the dead, freeing their spirits to depart in peace, lingering in the shadows. This is all that Artemisia wants for her life. And with hundreds of years passing in relative peace, her path seems clear before her. But now the dead are on the move once more, gathering in groups and attacking in a coordinated effort. Some greater force must be at work. And when her home is attacked, Artemisia is forced to take up a greater spirit herself, wielding its power to save her home. But with this new power comes a new test: who can she trust? The revenant inside her, whispering of dark things in the past? Or he Clerisy itself, with priests who are tasked to protect this world seeming to now work against it?

So the question was never would I like this book or not. Instead, it was just how much would I love it! I was a bit concerned about reports that there was no romance included in the story. Not only do I like my fantasy paired with a nice romance, but Rogerson’s two previous books each featured an excellent romance, part of what made me like them so much to begin with! But I’m happy to report that Rogerson cleverly out-maneuvered me here. Yes, there isn’t a romance at its heart. But there still is a deep relationship at its heart, the one that slowly forms between the revenant and Artemisia. It’s not a romance, but it’s also hard to frame within the general confines of typical relationships.

For one thing, the revenant is so clearly not human. The witty banter and sharp criticism of “silly humans” not only kept this fact clear in the reader’s mind the entire time, but was also highly effective at creating a character who’s only real presence is that of a disembodied voice. There were also a number of mysteries surrounding this world’s past, the great war that saw the destruction of this and other revenants, and of this particular revenant itself. These details slowly came out bit by bit, and I was anxiously speed-reading the entire time trying to get to the next revelation.

Artemisia was also an excellent character. While human herself, her entire life was made up of “otherness” in some form or another. In this way, her growing closeness with a being considered by the rest of the world to be supremely evil is fairly natural. We see her struggles to participate in interactions with other people in ways that they understand, not knowing what to say and not reacting in the ways they expect. Given her troubled past, she also struggles with crowds and is quickly overwhelmed by people around her. These anxieties felt very real and I think were very relatable.

I also really liked the magic system and world that Rogerson created. All three of the books I’ve read from her now were very original in this way. But throughout them all, there was a level of detail and creativity that made it appear that she was equally comfortable in all three, never hindered by any specifics found in fantasy subgenres. Instead, its her strong character work and witty dialogue that is the true through-line of her work. As a character reader myself, that left this book with no where to go but straight into the “10 rating” column for me.

Rating: I absolutely adored it. Action-packed, fantasy-forward, and with a delightful odd-couple at its heart.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Vespertine” is on these Goodreads lists: Awesome Fantasy Heroines and YA Second World Fantasy.

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

Kate’s Review: “The Queen of the Cicadas”

Book: “The Queen of the Cicadas” by V. Castro

Publishing Info: Flame Tree Press, June 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: 2018: Belinda Alvarez has returned to Texas for the wedding of her best friend Veronica. The farm is the site of the urban legend, La Reina de Las Chicharras – The Queen of The Cicadas.

In 1950s south Texas a farmworker—Milagros from San Luis Potosi, Mexico—is murdered. Her death is ignored by the town, but not the Aztec goddess of death, Mictecacíhuatl. The goddess hears the dying cries of Milagros and creates a plan for both to be physically reborn by feeding on vengeance and worship.

Belinda and the new owner of the farmhouse, Hector, find themselves immersed in the legend and realize it is part of their fate as well.

Review: I don’t remember when I first heard about “The Queen of the Cicadas (La Reina de las Chicharras)” by V. Castro, but I know that it was definitely early in 2021. I made sure to put myself on the request list at the library, hoping that I would be getting it in my hands around the time it came out this summer. So I waited. And waited. And by the time it was autumn and it was still ‘on order’ (supply chain issue? COVID backlog?), I decided that I didn’t want to wait anymore and just bought it. After all, Horrorpalooza was coming up, and I really wanted to have this one on hand for it. It’s an urban legend horror story, guys! You know I’m all about that! And after reading it, I can say that a lot of “The Queen of the Cicadas” worked for me. And then other things didn’t.

But I will start with the good, and there is definitely more good than meh. The first is that Castro has created an effective and believable folklore/urban legend with La Reina de las Cicharras. The doomed story of Milagros, murdered by racist white women for the crime of being a brown girl who caught the unwanted advances of one of their husbands, captures a well done ghost revenge story that has origins in horrific violence steeped in hate. And adding in some Mexican mythology and folk lore elements with the role of Mictecacíhuatl, the Aztec Goddess of Death, brings in a unique twist as well as a way to address the violence of colonialism that continues to oppress people centuries after the Conquistadors came and committed crimes against humanity. And as a someone who has been obsessed with both the Bloody Mary game/legend AND La Llorona since I was in grade school, I liked the elements that kind of paid homage to both, while still being original and deep into its own world building. And man, the horror elements are great. The descriptions of La Reina de las Chicharras are absolutely horrific, and you feel genuine dread reading how she takes her revenge on those who deserve it just as you would were you hearing the story around a camp fire.

But I do think that “The Queen of Cicadas” gets a little lost in the weeds as the story progresses, which I would say is probably due to the length of it vs the breadth it tries to cover. If we had been following a story that was solely looking into the fate of Milagros and the fates of those who murdered her (as well as anyone else that was complicit in any way shape or form), I think that would have been a decent amount to cover in the 220some pages we had to work with. As it is, though, “Queen of the Cicadas” also hopes to dive into Mexican folklore, a look at worship and faith, and a story of a woman lost who finds herself through a urban legend turned folk deity. Along with a look into the past of Milagros, as well as her ancestors and how they all fit into this as well. Like I said, it’s a LOT to cover, and when you try to cover it all in only 220some pages it feels like none of it gets enough attention, and ends up unfolding through straight narrative telling vs action and plot progression on the page. This kind of narrative telling works SUPER well for the parts that have to do with the urban legend of La Reina, as well as some of the folklore involving Mictecacíhuatl. After all, folk tales, legends, and myths have been passed down in a structure like that through telling others by word of mouth. But as the book went on and things really started expanding outward, the sparse and matter of fact style worked less and less for me.

But overall, “The Queen of the Cicadas” was a creepy urban legend spin filled with body horror, social justice sensibilities, and a strong sense of self. I’m glad that I finally grabbed it instead of waiting, and it feels like a good book to end this year’s Horrorpalooza! I hope that everyone has a safe and Happy Halloween!

Rating 7: Creepy, emotional, and expansive, but it gets a little bogged down by everything it wants to do.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Queen of the Cicadas” is included on the Goodreads lists “Latinx Horror/Fantasy”, and “Feminist Horror”.

Find “The Queen of the Cicadas” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Murder on Black Swan Lane”

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Book: “Murder on Black Swan Lane” by Andrea Penrose

Publishing Info: Kensington Books, June 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

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

Book Description: In Regency London, an unconventional scientist and a fearless female artist form an unlikely alliance to expose unspeakable evil . . .

The Earl of Wrexford possesses a brilliant scientific mind, but boredom and pride lead him to reckless behavior. He does not suffer fools gladly. So when pompous, pious Reverend Josiah Holworthy publicly condemns him for debauchery, Wrexford unsheathes his rapier-sharp wit and strikes back. As their war of words escalates, London’s most popular satirical cartoonist, A.J. Quill, skewers them both. But then the clergyman is found slain in a church—his face burned by chemicals, his throat slashed ear to ear—and Wrexford finds himself the chief suspect.

Review: I’m not quite sure how I missed this series when it started up a few years ago. It’s quite obviously up my alley: historical mysteries featuring a man and woman duo. It’s to the point where I almost feel guilty about how specific my reading tastes are for both historical fiction and mysteries. But I finally tracked it down and received my audiobook from the library. Bonus points for being narrated by one of my faves!

The Earl of Wrexford and A.J. Quill operate in very different circles. Their paths only seem to intersect when Wrexford becomes the unwilling star of Quill’s satirical cartoons. But when the feud between Wrexford and a priest that Quill had so delightfully been illustrating goes south with the priest dead and Wrexford suspected, their paths cross in real life. Both are not what the other had thought, with Wrexford hiding a true scientific mind behind his rakish outward persona and Quill turning out to be not a man, but a widow who has her fingertips on the pulse of the city. As they begin investigating the priest’s death, more mysteries begin to appear and the perpetrator may be closer than either had suspected.

Recently, most of the historical mystery pair-ups I’ve read have a distinct “comfort mystery” vibe to them. Both the Amelia Peabody series as well as the Veronica Speedwell are very light-hearted, with equal attention given to the romance and comedy of the story as the mystery itself. So I was excited to see that this was a more serious mystery series. The murder itself is violent, the motives for the various players are appropriately dastardly, and the story doesn’t shy away from the very real challenges of life in this time period.

Mrs. Sloane, of course, most represents this aspect of the story. A widow making a living for herself as a satirical cartoonist, you can feel the way her livelihood balances on the edge of the knife. But her two young wards, a pair of brothers who have grown up on the streets, paint an even more stark picture. At every turn, we see Mrs. Sloane’s desperate attempts to carve out a place for herself and these two boys, both representing groups that society neglects and forgets. She is an excellent character, and I love the fact that there were a number of mysteries about her past and character that were not fully resolved even here. We have enough to paint a general picture and become attached to the character, but enough teases are left to have me eager to pick up the next entry.

For his part, Wrexford is the more typical rich, snarky, seemingly care-free aristocrat. But as the story progressed, he, too, began to reveal new layers. There are fewer mysteries to be found here, but I’m equally intrigued by his ability to put together the pieces behind Mrs. Sloane’s secrets as I am about their ultimate reveals. I also liked the fact that Wrexford was a nice balance between the cluelessness that would be natural to a man in his position dealing with a woman like Mrs. Sloane, while also being progressive enough to be heroic. The balance struck between these two aspects felt believable and compelling.

I also really liked the mystery itself. There were a good number of red herrings and a lot of historical scientific elements that were all particularly interesting. The author also included a great note at the end that went into how she used these elements and which are based in fact and which had been adjusted somewhat to meet the needs of the story. The writing was also very strong and drew me immediately into the story, deftly painting scenes and grounding the world in Regency London. Fans of historical mysteries should definitely check this out, especially if you’re looking for a more serious tone than some of the cozy historical mystery series running right now.

Rating 9: A super solid start to a new historical mystery series with two compelling protagonists at its heart. Of course, I already want them to just kiss.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Murder on Black Swan Lane” is on these Goodreads lists: Regency and Victorian Mysteries and Art & Artists in Fiction.

Kate’s Review: “Where They Wait”

Book: “Where They Wait” by Scott Carson

Publishing Info: Atria/Emily Bestler Books, October 2021

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

Book Description: Recently laid-off from his newspaper and desperate for work, war correspondent Nick Bishop takes a humbling job: writing a profile of a new mindfulness app called Clarity. It’s easy money, and a chance to return to his hometown for his first visit in years. The app itself seems like a retread of old ideas—relaxing white noise and guided meditations. But then there are the “Sleep Songs.” A woman’s hauntingly beautiful voice sings a ballad that is anything but soothing—it’s disturbing, really, more of a warning than a relaxation—but it works. Deep, refreshing sleep follows.

So do nightmares. Vivid and chilling, they feature a dead woman who calls Nick by name and whispers guidance—or are they threats? And soon her voice follows him long after the song is done. As the effects of the nightmares begin to permeate his waking life, Nick makes a terrifying discovery: no one involved with Clarity has any interest in his article. Their interest is in him. Because while he might not have any memory of it, he’s one of twenty people who have heard this sinister song before and the only one who is still alive.

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

At one point I requested the Scott Carson horror novel “The Chill” from the library, and when it came I waffled about starting it, and then only got a couple chapters in before giving up. I wasn’t sure if it was the book itself or something that was gelling with my reading needs at the time, but I returned it and went on to the next. When I saw he had a new book coming out called “Where They Wait”, and that it involved a mindfulness app that could have deadly influence, I decided to bite. After all, as an anxious person who has barely been getting by during a full on global pandemic, I’ve done my time with meditation apps on my phone. So why not scare the piss out of myself in regards to some of the things that actually calm me down during an anxiety spiral?! That’s a joke. Kind of. Anyway, I was fully in, expecting full on tech horror. But “Where They Wait” took me by surprise.

“Where They Wait” is a slowly building horror novel that makes you think it’s going to go in one way, but it takes you in a completely different way instead. The mystery surrounding the Clarity app and Nick’s connection to it are slowly revealed as the book goes on, and it builds at a good pace and ratchets the tension up accordingly. As Nick dives deeper and deeper into the various sleep and relaxation programs on the mindfulness app Clarity, strange things start to happen, from bad dreams (dreaming being something he was never able to remember until now) to shady and cagey interactions with the makers and associates of the app. One of whom is his teenage years friend Renee. But what I thought was going to be fully tech and corporate conspiracy horror was a bit more complicated than that. In that realm, the book hits a lot of beats we’d expect it to. Nick clearly has an unknown connection to Clarity, specifically the strange song that he keeps hearing, and the song that, he finds out, has done some serious damage to other people just by listening to it. I loved following Nick as he started to piece together the origins of the song, and how they connected to him, and where those origins eventually took us in terms of setting and horror type. Again, I thought that we were going to be going into science fiction tech horror, but Carson surprised me by taking us down a different path. Well, at least in terms of the origins of the song. Those behind Clarity have the obvious motivations to harness a song that has a violent fall out, and it definitely references recent ‘in the news’ themes of things like Havana Syndrome, and how something like that could be unleashed on a tech hungry populace.

The first thing that came to mind outside Havana Syndrome. God I miss “The Venture Bros” (source: HBOMax).

So yes, there are definite tech horror aspects to this book, but there are also more primal horrors about what happens when we dream, and how vulnerable we are when it comes to our subconscious. When Nick is in what is possibly a dream (or is it?), there is a sense of ethereal dread that Carson just nails in tone and eeriness, be it the way that the song is written out or the descriptions of visions of a dead woman that is guiding Nick through his dreamscapes. But along with that are the fears of what we may do without realizing as our subconscious takes over, be it lost time, manipulated memories, or full on inability to control ones actions. Nick is the one bearing the brunt of this, though his experience is a bit of an exception to a rule that makes him a very sought after player for those who are pulling the strings. This whole aspect of the book was very unnerving in terms of the psychological manipulations, and I found these parts, especially in his dreams, to be very trippy and intense.

Overall I enjoyed “Where They Wait”. It makes me want to go back and give “The Chill” another try, as Carson taps into some basal fears and makes them very, very unsettling.

Rating 8: A creepy horror novel that goes places I didn’t expect, “Where They Wait” is eerie and unsettling and made me side eye my mindfulness apps.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Where They Wait” is included on the Goodreads list “Horror To Look Forward To In 2021”.

Find “Where They Wait” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Not Just Books: October 2021

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

Serena’s Picks

Broadway Show: “Frozen”

I’ve always had a really hard time coming up with suggestions for birthday/Christmas presents I’d like. Finally, a spark of inspiration came a few years ago and I thought to suggest tickets to live events that I’d typically have a hard time fitting in for myself. Then a pandemic hit. So I was gifted tickets to this show quite awhile ago, but finally, this last weekend, I finally got to see it! It was super exciting just to be out doing a seemingly normal thing again (as normal as it can be while wearing masks and having vaccine cards being checked at the door). But it was also a really fun show to watch. The music was great, and while the original-to-the-show songs weren’t quite as good as the originals from the movie, they still held their own. The actor who played Anna was particularly good, and of course, Elsa had a great closing song for the first act. It was also tons of fun just seeing all of the little girls in attendance wearing their princess dresses. The vibe, overall, was really fun.

HBO Show: “Mare of Easttown”

I really enjoyed limited series, dark, crime shows. But I’m also bizarrely picky about the ones that really stick with me. There’s a balance point in “likability” of the main character, I think. They’re often brooding characters with “a past” who “don’t play by the rules,” sure. But they still have to be someone I can like. For good example, David Tennant’s character in “Broadchurch.” For a bad example, Bosch in “Bosch” (man, I couldn’t stand that guy. There’s a reason type casting is a thing. That actor is a great bad/chaotic neutral type character. A hero, he isn’t.) All of that said, “Mare of Easttown” was a perfect find for me. Kate Winslet was brilliant as Mare, a troubled detective working to solve the murder of a young mother in her small town. The story was also very much about mothers and sons, a topic obviously near and dear to my heart. If you like murder mystery mini-series, this is definitely one to check out.

TV Show: “WandaVision”

My husband and I are slowly making our way through the Disney+ Marvel shows that have released over the last year or so. We started in order, so first up was “WandaVision.” I had no idea what to expect from this show (other than a healthy dose of dread and tragedy given the current state of things at the end of the last “Avengers” movie). Some wacky sit-com thing that jumps decades? Yes, yes that it was this is! But it’s also so much more. I can’t really talk much about it without spoiling some pretty big reveals, but I’ll say that I really liked this show. It was so, so weird, but all of that weirdness was grounded and held together by the outstanding performances by Elizabeth Olson and Paul Bettany. Besides these two, a few other familiar and surprising faces show up. Fans of the movies and fans of the comics will be pleased with these arrivals. Definitely check it out if you’re at all on the Marvel bandwagon.

Kate’s Picks

Netflix Show: “Squid Game”

I’m sure that just like a lot of other people, I hadn’t heard of “Squid Game” until it was seemingly everywhere AND on track to be Netflix’s biggest show ever. But it’s no surprise that as a person who loves dystopian hellscape stories, I really enjoyed “Squid Game”. People in crushing debt in South Korea are approached to play a game. If you survive six rounds of childhood playground games, you will earn billions of won. Our protagonist Gi-Hun is impoverished, out of work, and has a young daughter whose step father is going to take her and her mother to America. As he has no money, he has not footing to contest it. So of course he want to play…. Until it’s clear that if you don’t win a game or are eliminated, you die. I’ve seen a lot of people compare this show to “The Hunger Games” or “Battle Royale”, but I get a lot of “The Long Walk” vibes from it, as it looks at how the wealthy will exploit and abuse the poor for their own entertainment, and the lives the victims living before are so desperate they just keep playing. Chilling stuff. Addictive as hell too. My husband and I binged it over two nights.

Netflix Show: “Midnight Mass”

I really loved Mike Flanagan’s previous limited horror series “The Haunting of Hill House” and “The Haunting of Bly Manor”. I also loved his adaptation of “Doctor Sleep”. And his film “Hush”. Okay, I just love Mike Flanagan, so I definitely wanted to watch his newest limited horror series “Midnight Mass”. I didn’t know much going in, outside of it was based on a book he wanted to write but never quite did. But once I started, I realized that 1) it was going to be epic, and 2) I could only watch an episode a day, as the themes of religious zealotry and fanaticism were going to make me SUPER angry. A man named Riley returns to his home community of Crocket Island after serving a sentence for a drunk diving accident that left a woman dead. Just as he’s returning, a new priest named Father Paul arrives, saying that their previous Monsignor fell ill during his visit to the Holy Land. Paul begins to seemingly perform miracles, as a paralyzed girl walks, and a woman with dementia seems to heal and come back to life… But Father Paul is harboring a secret, a secret that he thinks is God’s instrument… But is anything but. This show is so tense, so emotional, and absolutely devastating as well as hopeful. Like other Flanagan works, have a box of tissues at the ready to go with the scares.

Netflix Show: “You”

It was a long wait to get to see Joe Goldberg again on my TV screen. Though not as long as the wait was on the page. Regardless, “You” Season 3 came out this month and you know I was all about it, texting my sister in law the night it dropped so we could dish dish dish! We follow our favorite obsessive serial killer Joe Goldberg to the suburbs, where he and his (psychopathic murderer) wife Love and he are trying to have a normal life for themselves and their son Henry. But fitting in in Madre Linda isn’t easy for Joe and Love given their predilections. And given that Joe just can’t seem to not obsess over another woman, that puts him in a situation of being not just the threat, but also threatened should his wife find out. I still love Penn Badgley as Joe, but it continues to be Victoria Pedretti’s Love who holds the keys to the part of my heart that loves a villain. Especially one as damaged as Love.

Serena’s Review: “The Duchess War”

Book: “The Duchess War” by Courtney Milan

Publishing Info: Createspace, December 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Miss Minerva Lane is a quiet, bespectacled wallflower, and she wants to keep it that way. After all, the last time she was the center of attention, it ended badly-so badly that she changed her name to escape her scandalous past. Wallflowers may not be the prettiest of blooms, but at least they don’t get trampled. So when a handsome duke comes to town, the last thing she wants is his attention. But that is precisely what she gets. Because Robert Blaisdell, the Duke of Clermont, is not fooled. When Minnie figures out what he’s up to, he realizes there is more to her than her spectacles and her quiet ways. And he’s determined to lay her every secret bare before she can discover his. But this time, one shy miss may prove to be more than his match…

Review: There have been a few articles circulating in readers’ circles noting the increased interest in romance as a genre throughout the pandemic. I think the reasons are probably fairly self-explanatory, so I won’t get into them myself. But I’ll definitely note that this point really hit home when fairly spontaneously at our last bookclub, we all seemed to realize we were all reading significantly more in the genre, so much so that we decided to make romance the theme of our entire next round! My reviews here on the blog don’t necessarily reflect this increase, but that’s largely due to the challenges of writing about book in a genre that by necessity are often fairly similar in structure. But I do want to throw reviews out there every once in a while when a particular one stands out. Hence, “The Duchess War.”

Minerva Lane understands the strategy of being a wallflower. Unnoticed, she can quietly observe everyone and make her subtle maneuvers with little attention drawn to herself. And, while her choices are very limited, at least they will be hers. But her carefully laid plans are upended when a Duke arrives on the scene. Minnie quickly realizes that Robert Blaisdell is more than he seems. Unfortunately, he, too, takes notice of her and before she can protest, begins pulling her inevitably out from her quiet corners and back into the center of attention. But will their own smarts be each of their own down falling? Or do they each desperately need the recognition that only the other can give.

When I logged on to Goodreads to mark this book as read, I realized that I must have read the second book in this series sometime in the past. And, judging by my low star rating, I didn’t like it much (honestly, I have zero memory of reading that book, even after looking at the description). Thank goodness I didn’t spot that before picking this one up, as I really enjoyed this historical romance!

There were several things that stood out to me as unique about this romance novel as compared other similar titles. For one thing, while most “historical romances” are set somewhere in the Regency or Victorian period, other than a few mentions of the current monarch or a particular style of dress (empire waste or bustles), there are often few historical markers to be found. It’s all very general, upper-class, social entertainments from end to end. This book, however, dove into some of the political and culture undercurrents moving at the time. In particular, there was a focus on the working conditions for the common man and the uneven wealth distribution at the heart of British society. Yes, it’s still a romance novel at heart so all of this is only lightly touched upon, but the fact that it all plays a rather key role to the story is fairly unique as a whole.

I also really liked our main two characters and their backstories. Their histories were slow to unfold, but once we fully understood the lives they had lead up to this point, it really help ground each character in the decisions they made going forward. I was particularly pleased to see strong aspects of their characters remain true even throughout the typical upheavals found near the end of romance novels. The conflicts that arose came through believable choices that each character would make, and, refreshingly, neither one of them completely loses their head. I was particularly pleased with Minnie, as in many ways she became the force of reason that held these two together in the end.

I really enjoyed this book. It was a perfect blend of wish-fulfillment on the romance side as well as an increased dedication to including interesting elements on the historical side. Fans of historical romances are sure to enjoy this and should definitely add it to their TBR lists!

Rating 8: Romantic and funny, everything I want from a feel-good story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Duchess War” is on this Goodreads list: 1st Book in Historical Romance Series.

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

Kate’s Review: “Silence in the Woods”

Book: “Silence in the Woods” by J.P. Choquette

Publishing Info: Self Published, April 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I received a paperback copy from the author.

Book Description: In 1917, four friends and photojournalists set out in the woods looking for answers. Why have so many hikers and hunters gone missing in the area of Shiny Creek Trail?

The two couples anticipate a great adventure, one they’ll tell their kids about someday. No one imagines the evil lurking in a remote cave. A horrifying discovery leaves one person dead and two others missing.

Two months later, Paul, one of the four, returns to the forest to find his wife. But will he find her before someone-or something-finds him?

Silence in the Woods is the long-awaited prequel to Shadow in the Woods, and delves into the frightening territory of the supernatural and the human mind.

Review: Thank you to J.P. Choquette for sending me a copy of this novel!

I remember there was one time that I was at my previous library job where I got a text from an old coworker from one of my previous museum jobs (libraries and museums, you know that’s right). One of the sites I used to work at was Fort Snelling, which had a state park nestled next to the old fort with lots of nature and trails. My old coworker told me that there were honest to God Bigfoot hunters in the park that day, and sent me a picture of their truck that boasted as such. While Minnesota isn’t exactly known for Bigfoot sightings (the closest we get to interesting cryptid beasts are Dog Men and a Monster in Lake Pepin), I was utterly charmed by the idea, as I love the idea of a gentle ape like creature like Bigfoot (and yes, I prefer GENTLE Bigfoot tales, as a rule). So when author J.P. Choquette reached out to me asking if I would be interested in reviewing any of her horror novels, when I saw that Bigfoot was a plot point, I was eager to read “Silence in the Woods”! I mean, you got Bigfoot, AND you have two couples going for a hike in the woods to investigate missing person reports… only to run afoul nature themselves. Sign me up! Especially since they also run into Bigfoot!

I want to believe. (source)

I’m focusing a lot on the Sasquatch elements of this story, but “Silence in the Woods” is also a survival horror tale that brings in other supernatural elements and threats, and I was super entertained the entire time I was reading it. It’s told though different third person perspectives, and jumps a bit through time to tell of two couples, Paul and Jane, and Deidre and Allan, who go hiking along the Shiny Creek Trail. From the get go we find out that this trip did not go well, and that Paul was the only one to leave the woods, but has found himself in an asylum because of what he says happened. Then we see him try to find his way back to look for Jane, as well as seeing how everything fell apart for the group of friends. The narrative structure is complex but not overly so, and we get a fair amount of time with each of the characters that we get a feel for who they are. I found myself easily invested in Paul’s search for his wife, as well as invested in Jane and the strange things she is seeing on their initial walk in the woods.

And in terms of plot and horror elements, “Silence in the Woods” implied that it was going in one direction, but ended up going in another, which worked pretty well. Now I know that this is a labeled as a ‘prequel’ to the next book in the series, “Shadow in the Woods”, and I wonder that had I read that one first that I may not have been as surprised by that, but as it was I liked being red herring’d in terms of what the horror elements are in this book. Mysterious human like creatures aside, there are other, more insidious things lurking in the woods. And even worse, we also have nature to contend with on top of all that! Choquette pulls a lot of scares and thrills from numerous places in this book, and I was kept on the edge of my seat as I read, wondering who would survive, and what would happen to those who didn’t. And yes, Bigfoot plays a role, and I don’t want to spoil anything for those who want to seek it out, but I really liked the moments that this cryptid was on the page, as well as the ways that our various characters interacted with it.

We’re still in the thick of Halloween season, y’all, and if you are looking for a quick and breezy creature feature to read “Silence in the Woods” may be a good match! I’m definitely going to look into reading more of Choquette’s “Monsters in the Green Mountains” stories, and this was a good place to start, chronological or not.

Rating 8: A quick read with survival horror, supernatural scares, and Bigfoot, “Silence in the Woods” is an entertaining page turner!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Silence in the Woods” isn’t included on any Goodreads lists, but it would fit in on “Cryptids”, and “Lost in the Woods”.

“Silence in the Woods” isn’t available at any libraries as of yet, but you can find a copy through various retailers at J.P. Choquette’s website.

Serena’s Review: “The Grimrose Girls”

Book: “The Grimrose Girls” by Laura Pohl

Publishing Info: Sourebooks Fire, October 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Four troubled friends, One murdered girl… and a dark fate that may leave them all doomed.

After the mysterious death of their best friend, Ella, Yuki, and Rory are the talk of their elite school, Grimrose Académie. The police ruled it a suicide, but the trio are determined to find out what really happened.

When Nani Eszes arrives as their newest roommate, it sets into motion a series of events they couldn’t have imagined. As the girls retrace their friend’s last steps, they uncover dark secrets about themselves and their destinies, discovering they’re all cursed to repeat the brutal and gruesome endings to their stories until they can break the cycle.

This contemporary take on classic fairytales reimagines heroines as friends attending the same school. While investigating the murder of their best friend, they uncover connections to their ancient fairytale curses and attempt to forge their own fate before it’s too late.

Review: This book had a few things going for it that bumped it up my “to be requested” list fairly quickly. First, boarding school books. Blame “Harry Potter” if you will or some weird American obsession with the British (often) boarding schools in general. I also love, love, love this cover! It quickly conveys many aspects of the books without the reader even needing to read the summary. Fairytale like artwork, girl squad, diversity (at least from what we can see of different body shapes being featured.) Plus, it has a hint of creepiness that points to the murder mystery at the heart of the story. So, with all of that together, I dove right in with high hopes.

As close as friends and roommates can be, Ella, Yuki, and Rory are determined that the police have it wrong: their roommate didn’t kill herself and something more nefarious is at work. When they get a new roommate, things are kicked into another gear altogether. Now, they realize it’s not simply a matter of solving a potential murder, but they must unravel the world of fairtyales and magic that they are all caught up within. Turns out, each is destined to re-live a classic tale and fall prey to the dark curses that seem to always exist at the heart of such tales.

I’ll put it right out there, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I wanted to. But it’s also one of those books that I do think will appeal to a bunch of different readers, so I fully expect opinions to vary quite a bit on this one. I will immediately give it props for tons of representation. But I will also side-eye that a bit with the fact that it did seem like the author was trying to cover literally every single base. And yes, I’m all for increasing diversity in books in every way. But I don’t think every book should be trying to cover every single angle itself. It not only is impossible, but it does a disservice to each individual character represented, as jamming a book too packed ultimately reduces page time for any one character, thus reducing that character to a few (often well-known and, if not harmful in anyway, still fairly stereotypical) key traits. Nothing raised my eyebrows at all, but while I give props to the author for the attempt, the sheer number of characters as a whole did significantly reduce my enjoyment of this book.

And this is part of the reason I think it will be a book with divided tastes. I’ve come to realize that I generally struggle with books that have more than two POVs. There are a few exceptions, like “Six of Crows,” but really, not many. Here I had the same problems I’ve always had. The story is so busy jumping from character to character that I never have the time to form any type of emotional investment in any one character. As a reader who enjoys books mostly due to characterization, this is a big problem for me. This many POVs also significantly hinders the pacing of a book. You have to spend so much time in the onset setting up each individual character, that the reader must get through a good number of pages before anything resembling a plot begins to unfold. Here, for example, we only had one chapter from each character really describing or even experience their grief over their lost friend. Because there are so many characters to get through, I could never feel the strength of that connection as just as quickly the story needed to move on with each of them.

I did enjoy the various fairytales and the ways they were threaded into the story. There were enough clues here and there that were fun to spot (they weren’t well-hidden or anything, but I enjoyed it all the same). The main mystery, however, again suffered from this over-abundance of plot and characters. There were so many things to get through that there were times when I felt like the death of their friend was almost forgotten. I’ll also say that by the end I didn’t feel as if I was given enough answers to any of the questions presented. All of the character kind of just took all of the magical elements in stride without batting an eyelash. And the revelations that did come were few and far between.

I’m starting to question my own selection process here. I think I need to start taking a second thought before diving into these large cast POV books. I’ll also say that my history with boarding school books is rather spotted, so maybe that too shouldn’t be as much of an “auto request.” Lastly, I don’t know what it is, but the publisher Sourcebooks Fire must have a great book description writer because they are always putting out books that I get super hyped about but then don’t end up enjoying that much. Which is too bad.

Rating 6: Too many things packed into one book reduced my enjoyment of all of them individually and as a whole.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Grimrose Girls” is on these Goodreads lists: 2021 Queer SFF and Boarding School Mysteries.

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

Kate’s Review: “Nothing But Blackened Teeth’

Book: “Nothing But Blackened Teeth” by Cassandra Khaw

Publishing Info: Tor Nightfire, October 2021

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

Book Description: Cassandra Khaw’s Nothing But Blackened Teeth is a gorgeously creepy haunted house tale, steeped in Japanese folklore and full of devastating twists.

A Heian-era mansion stands abandoned, its foundations resting on the bones of a bride and its walls packed with the remains of the girls sacrificed to keep her company. It’s the perfect wedding venue for a group of thrill-seeking friends.

But a night of food, drinks, and games quickly spirals into a nightmare. For lurking in the shadows is the ghost bride with a black smile and a hungry heart.

And she gets lonely down there in the dirt.

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

While I’ve seen and read a fair number of Japanese and Japanese inspired horror things, I know that there are many, MANY stories out there that I haven’t come across as of yet. I don’t have a very vast knowledge of Japanese folklore in general, and therefore I’m definitely game to read anything that would broaden my horizons in that manner. Enter “Nothing But Blackened Teeth” by Cassandra Khaw, a new horror novella that takes place in a rural Heian-Era mansion in Japan that is super, super haunted. I’m no stranger to various Japanese haunted house stories, from “Ju-On” to “Hausu”, but the cover alone of this book caught my attention. And hey, haunted house stories? Absolutely my jam. I held onto “Nothing But the Blackened Teeth” for what was supposed to be a stormy night, and though we didn’t get the rain we were promised I still found myself reading the book at night, which was, perhaps, a mistake. Because it’s SCARY.

“Nothing But Blackened Teeth” is a novella clocking in at around 120 pages, but Khaw has no trouble building a plot, pulling out everything they can from their characters, and leading them to a terrifying ending. It never feels rushed to get to that point, it never feels like we could have learned more about our cast or the house itself, and it is engaging and definitely terrifying. Khaw has a gift for description and atmosphere, as I could see the mansion as it goes from abandoned but docile home to an incredibly disturbing hellscape. While Cat is definitely the character we get to know the best, we still get to know enough about most of her friends and all of the tenuous relationship strings between them to fully buy into the choices they make, from the good to the bad. It feels like a slow burn at first, but the tension starts to build from the get go and when it finally releases it’s SO unnerving and scary.

And a lot of the scares come from the Japanese folklore that the horror elements derive themselves from, namely the Ohaguro-Bettari, a spirit that takes the form of a bride whose facial features are only a mouth filled with black teeth. I know a little bit about Japanese folklore and ghosts, specifically the Onryō, so seeing another yokai (spirit) at the forefront was refreshing and new to me. It made me do some independent reading on more Japanese folklore regarding ghosts and entities, which was really fun for me as a horror fan who likes lore of all kinds. And boy does Khaw really make this the stuff of nightmares. Cat is the first to start seeing this yokai, and given that she has a history of mental problems we get the usual ‘is this really happening or am I going crazy’ questioning that comes with such a history in stories like these. But what I liked is that for the most part Cat isn’t portrayed as hallucinating to the reader, and instead of an unreliable narrator we get a woman who is seeing something VERY wrong, and therein slowly sending shivers up our spines every time she sees something. Until, that is, it goes full gonzo bloodsoaked horror show. Khaw nails every part of the horror here, and the end was so incredibly disturbing that I had to flip back to re-read a few things to make sure that THAT was what had happened. I think that I would have liked even more suspense before we got to the gory ending, and maybe a little more easing into the wrap up, but overall it was enjoyable as hell and a sinister ghost story soaked in viscera and blood. And very easy to read in one sitting (though maybe not late at night, a tip from me to you)!

“Nothing But Blackened Teeth” is an enjoyable novella that set me on edge. Halloween is almost here, and if you haven’t read this one yet you should make it a part of your reading list before the holiday passes us by!

Rating 8: Disturbing, atmospheric, and brimming with Japanese folklore and yokai, “Nothing But Blackened Teeth” is the perfect short read for this Halloween season!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Nothing But Blackened Teeth” is included on the Goodreads lists “Celebrate Horror 2021”, and “Diverse Horror”.

Find “Nothing But Blackened Teeth” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Another Take: Fall 2021

Don’t just take it from us, other readers like these books, too! And we have decided that we would like to showcase other reviewers and bloggers that have their own thoughts and feelings about books that we have loved. Here are a few of the books we’ve enjoyed recently and what other bloggers have to say about them.

Book: “Daughter of the Salt King” by A.S. Thornton

Book Description: As a daughter of the Salt King, Emel ought to be among the most powerful women in the desert. Instead, she and her sisters have less freedom than even her father’s slaves … for the Salt King uses his own daughters to seduce visiting noblemen into becoming powerful allies by marriage.

Escape from her father’s court seems impossible, and Emel dreams of a life where she can choose her fate. When members of a secret rebellion attack, Emel stumbles upon an alluring escape route: her father’s best-kept secret—a wish-granting jinni, Saalim.

But in the land of the Salt King, wishes are never what they seem. Saalim’s magic is volatile. Emel could lose everything with a wish for her freedom as the rebellion intensifies around her. She soon finds herself playing a dangerous game that pits dreams against responsibility and love against the promise of freedom. As she finds herself drawn to the jinni for more than his magic, captivated by both him and the world he shows her outside her desert village, she has to decide if freedom is worth the loss of her family, her home and Saalim, the only man she’s ever loved.

Serena’s Review (Rating 9)

Babbling Books (4 stars)

Evelyn Reads (4 stars)

Literary Weaponry (3 stars)

Book: “Forestborn” by Elayne Audrey Becker

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.

Serena’s Review (Rating 9)

Mom with a Reading Problem (5 stars)

One Book More (4.5 stars)

Literati Lounge (4 stars)

Book: “For the Wolf” by Hannah Whitten

Book Description: As the only Second Daughter born in centuries, Red has one purpose-to be sacrificed to the Wolf in the Wood in the hope he’ll return the world’s captured gods.

Red is almost relieved to go. Plagued by a dangerous power she can’t control, at least she knows that in the Wilderwood, she can’t hurt those she loves. Again.

But the legends lie. The Wolf is a man, not a monster. Her magic is a calling, not a curse. And if she doesn’t learn how to use it, the monsters the gods have become will swallow the Wilderwood-and her world-whole.

Serena’s Review (Rating 9)

Reader Voracious

Jaye Rockett

ReadRantRock&Roll (4 stars)

Book: “Firekeeper’s Daughter” by Angeline Boulley

Book Description: As a biracial, unenrolled tribal member and the product of a scandal, eighteen-year-old Daunis Fontaine has never quite fit in, both in her hometown and on the nearby Ojibwe reservation. Daunis dreams of studying medicine, but when her family is struck by tragedy, she puts her future on hold to care for her fragile mother.

The only bright spot is meeting Jamie, the charming new recruit on her brother Levi’s hockey team. Yet even as Daunis falls for Jamie, certain details don’t add up and she senses the dashing hockey star is hiding something. Everything comes to light when Daunis witnesses a shocking murder, thrusting her into the heart of a criminal investigation.

Reluctantly, Daunis agrees to go undercover, but secretly pursues her own investigation, tracking down the criminals with her knowledge of chemistry and traditional medicine. But the deceptions—and deaths—keep piling up and soon the threat strikes too close to home.

Now, Daunis must learn what it means to be a strong Anishinaabe kwe (Ojibwe woman) and how far she’ll go to protect her community, even if it tears apart the only world she’s ever known.

Kate’s Review (Rating 10)

Library Looter (5 Stars)

Whispering Stories (4 Stars)

It Starts At Midnight (5 Clocks)

Book: “My Heart Is A Chainsaw” by Stephen Graham Jones

Book Description: In her quickly gentrifying rural lake town Jade sees recent events only her encyclopedic knowledge of horror films could have prepared her for

Jade Daniels is an angry, half-Indian outcast with an abusive father, an absent mother, and an entire town that wants nothing to do with her. She lives in her own world, a world in which protection comes from an unusual source: horror movies…especially the ones where a masked killer seeks revenge on a world that wronged them. And Jade narrates the quirky history of Proofrock as if it is one of those movies. But when blood actually starts to spill into the waters of Indian Lake, she pulls us into her dizzying, encyclopedic mind of blood and masked murderers, and predicts exactly how the plot will unfold.

Yet, even as Jade drags us into her dark fever dream, a surprising and intimate portrait emerges… a portrait of the scared and traumatized little girl beneath the Jason Voorhees mask: angry, yes, but also a girl who easily cries, fiercely loves, and desperately wants a home. A girl whose feelings are too big for her body.

Kate’s Review (Rating 10)

Run Along The Shelves

Horror Geek Life

Horror Obsessive

Book: “Slewfoot: A Tale of Bewitchery” by Brom

Book Description: A spirited young Englishwoman, Abitha, arrives at a Puritan colony betrothed to a stranger – only to become quickly widowed when her husband dies under mysterious circumstances. All alone in this pious and patriarchal society, Abitha fights for what little freedom she can grasp onto, while trying to stay true to herself and her past.

Enter Slewfoot, a powerful spirit of antiquity newly woken… and trying to find his own role in the world. Healer or destroyer? Protector or predator? But as the shadows walk and villagers start dying, a new rumor is whispered: Witch.

Both Abitha and Slewfoot must swiftly decide who they are, and what they must do to survive in a world intent on hanging any who meddle in the dark arts.

Kate’s Review (Rating 10)

Skelleycat (5 Stars)

Amanda M Lyons

The Writerly Reader

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